GUEST POST — AN OPEN LETTER TO NEW DOG GUIDE USERS

I’m so excited to have my dear friend and fellow disability blogger, Anneliese, once more grace my blog with her wonderful, wordly presence. Anneliese is many things–many wonderful, wonderful things–but today, she brings her experience and wisdom as a two-time guide dog handler to the blog, and I’m so happy to share her perspective with you!

This post is part of a blog swap. Anneliese and I are each writing a post about advice we’d give to new guide dog handlers and publishing it on the other’s blog as a way to build community and share different perspectives. You can read my post on her blog and guess what… it’s another list!

Now, onto the post!


Dear future leash holders,

I hope you’re giddy. I could hardly keep my feet on the ground when I got the call. I hope you’re starry-eyed, that you see potential magic in every imagined future. Whether this has been a childhood dream come true, or a joyful consolation for a midlife complication, you’re at a very important threshold over which you won’t step alone. Your two feet will be joined by four paws, and so the journey begins.

It was 2009 when I began this journey, and that’s why I’m writing to you now. I’ve been around a few blocks with a couple of different dogs, and I’d like to share with you some wisdom I’ve tripped over along the way.

I thought about trying to organize this letter into something trendy like “Three Life Hacks for Guide Dog Users.” But I kept coming back to a single foundational principle: knowledge is power.

Scientia est Potentia

You’re going to receive several weeks of formal education. You’ll learn about laws and guidelines, and hear lessons presented as rules and stories meant to teach morals. They’re all very valuable, but they are just the beginning of your canine education. And, to be frank, not much of a beginning. There’s so much more to learn!

Food, grooming, discipline, fears, toys, social skills…you’ll learn about them all, and more. But it will merely be a vocabulary with which to frame more and more nuanced questions as your experiences and needs dictate. You must not stop learning. Not ever.

Your instructors will most likely tell you, quite honestly, that they can’t prepare you for every situation. But I doubt they’ll encourage you to do your own research beyond finding a local vet. They’ve been training dogs and users for a long time, so they think they’re pretty good at what they do.

They are, of course. But what they do isn’t what you do. They train dogs, and train users. You LIVE.

Living is different than teaching.

And so you must learn. You must learn, and keep learning. With every new dog you’ll live differently, and so you must continue to learn. Learn from other users, from blogs and books and podcasts. Learn from instructors and YouTube experts. Learn from your own instincts, and learn from your dog.

Knowledge is power. It’s the power to say “no,” the power to decide for yourself, the power to recover from mistakes and turn them into triumphs.

It takes power to say “no.”

No, others may not interfere with how you work your dog.

No, others may not take up your time and energy simply because you dared to bring a dog out in public.

No, that activity isn’t suitable for a dog guide, even if it is legal.

No, you don’t need to feel guilty for saying “no.” You know why these “no’s” are important, what the cost of ignoring them are, and how to execute them properly.

It takes power to decide.

In a world of hyper-availability we are inundated with advice and choices from every possible channel. Your school may provide you with a set of recommendations for how to find a vet, what food to give your dog, how often to groom, but doggy bodies are as varied as human bodies. Their minds and experiences, your environment and finances, and a hundred other variables all add up to this: what you need might change.

I’ve gone through half a dozen types of food, three vets, and a revolving door of treats and training techniques trying to meet my dogs’ needs. Between allergies, injuries, career and house changes, and the natural progression of a dog’s life, I’ve had to make an endless series of decisions I didn’t expect when my instructors gave me their formula for dog guide success.

I learned from each decision, but each decision required the will to deviate from that formula. I needed to know I was making the right decision. SO I learned, and then I chose. You can, and will, do the same. Your decisions will rest on the foundation of what you know, so build it strong.

Power of the Expert

Power is a hot topic these days. It seems people are obsessed with how much power they have in their personal lives, social lives, professional lives, in politics and finance. They’re even more obsessed with how much power they don’t have, and how much more power other people might have.

Whether your disability has been a life-long companion or a new acquisition, you’re likely very aware of the fact that people who can see seem to wield a great deal more social, economic, political, and personal power than you. This can be frustrating, limiting, and even dangerous at times. It’s probably one of the reasons you decided to ditch your cane in favor of a dog guide. I certainly preferred being “The girl with the German shepherd” to “the skinny white chick with the flimsy cane” walking around my college campus.

Social psychologists who study power have categorized it into several types: reverent (sometimes called referent), assigned, legitimate power, expert power, and so forth. What the instructors and trainers at your dog’s school have is expert power. Those with expert power have specialized knowledge about a particular subject that allows them to solve problems important to others.

But here’s the thing: those instructors got into their field of work because they are passionately dedicated to empowering you. They want to give you power. That’s why they train dogs, and give you lectures and coach you and offer support. And any rule or guideline they provide that seems constricting or less applicable to your particular situation is only given because you have less expertise than them.

The true realization of their dream, empowering blind people, would be for you to take the expertise they poured into you and multiply it so that the problematic guideline can be adapted to your unique lifestyle. Take the vocabulary they give you, enter it into Google and Amazon and Spotify and YouTube and other learning sources. And build your own expert power. These experts you learn from are giving you more than a well-trained dog and some basic education; they’re giving you the tools to learn more.

Recognizing this earlier in my dog-working career would have changed a lot about my dogs’ lifestyle, healthcare, and maybe even longevity. It would have saved me money, given me more networking and career advancement and educational opportunities. But I meekly submitted to the expert power around me, failing to realize its inspirational intent or potential.

I gained expert power out of desperation, but I won’t wait to be desperate again to follow any line of curiosity that comes my way.

Dear doggy-destined friend, remember you are at the beginning. Like a high school or college graduation, graduating with your dog guide is when real education begins.

May tails wag and treats flow freely in your future. May you stride with purpose and pleasure down busy streets and through crowded conferences. May you never walk alone again.

Love from Anneliese and Greta

ANNOUNCING THE AUTHORS WITH DISABILITIES SHOWCASE!

When I mentioned to a friend that I was switching from posting on the blog twice a week to every other week to try and ease my mental stress, I was met with the exact validation I needed to hear: “Balance is the key.”

But balance is a very hard thing to do well.

And while I am trying to keep to a schedule, I’ve been sidelined by other blog-related projects that have me super distracted and super excited. And one of these is ready to be announced… today!

Please welcome to the blog … The Authors with Disabilities Showcase!

July is Disability Pride Month, and though I’ve kept quiet about this specific celebration on the blog, I’ve been celebrating hard. And this online bookstore is one of the ways I am choosing to celebrate this month and all year round.

The Authors with Disabilities Showcase [AWDS], came out of a desire to showcase the talent in the disability community. A place for only us to be center stage, a place where our stories are on top. I wanted to create a space where we can go to learn, discover and connect with someone else’s story of disability, because each story is as important and unique as the person who wrote it.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished on this blog. No matter how many subscribers I have or how many clicks I get, I’m proud, because I’m doing what I’m so passionate about and know deep-down that it’s what I need to do. But I’m just as proud of every other person with a disability out there who has told their story and is working to create a better world for us all.

That’s whose stories you can read here. And I sincerely hope that you do take some time to browse the bookstore and find something to read. You never know what difference it could make or what friend you could find in these pages.

Check it out here! And don’t forget to check back frequently as I’ll be continually adding to the collection.

Happy reading!

AN OPEN LETTER TO GOD AND MY GUIDE DOG

To God and my guide dog, Saint:

Both of you know something that I want to know. But neither of you can tell me.

Well, I know You can tell me God, but I also know You don’t often spell things out for us that easily, so I’m going to wager that You’ll be keeping pretty quiet on this one. But You really don’t have to. And as much as I wish more than anything for a Narnian reality in which animals can talk, I also know you, Saint, cannot tell me what I so desperately want to know either.

And what is this thing, you ask?

It’s purpose. Specifically, my purpose.

Saint, you’ve known your purpose since you were born. From conception, you’ve been destined for a life of great meaning: to learn to lead a blind person throughout a world that is not built to accommodate them. It is one of the greatest blessings I have received and I am eternally thankful that you, my sweet boy, have this purpose and live it out daily for me. Because of you, I feel safe, confident, independent and loved.

You know your purpose. When the harness goes on, you switch into guide dog mode. Your ears perk, your tail wags, and at a brief “Saint, forward,” you take off like a rocket, all while keeping me from tripping on the slightest bump in the road. Your purpose is clear. It amazes me that as a newborn puppy and now as a three-year-old, you know your life’s purpose beyond the shadow of a doubt.

And I don’t know mine.

Now, over to You for a minute, God. Feel free to chime in anytime.

I know You know what Your purpose is, and I know You know what mine is. But before I beg You to let me in on the secret, I have two thoughts.

Firstly, as a Christian, I know and believe that my purpose is to serve and bring glory to You. Okay, great! That’s… clear as mud. Wait a minute: glorifying God and serving Him sounds wonderful (and it is), but how in the world do I do that?

Do I have to do something specific? Is there a list of “God-glorifying” jobs You can email me to make it easier? Because I’m kind of drawing a blank here.

Now, this second one is just a thought, but I have a sneaking suspicion I’m on the right track. I wonder if my purpose has something to do with writing.

But what kind of writing? Am I meant to write books? Poetry? Radio dramas? Commercials? And what do I write about? Is my purpose to advocate for disability equality and accessibility? I’m already doing that, or trying to on this blog, so, well, I’m not sure. Do I need to write Christian books and work to tell people about You? Can I do both?

Maybe it doesn’t involve writing at all. Or maybe, writing is a way to bring glory to You. That could be possible, right? Or, maybe my purpose is something that I haven’t even thought about at all!

Seriously God, anytime now.

I just don’t understand it. How does a yellow lab know his life’s purpose and me, a woman with faith, a university degree, a blog, a family and boatloads of passion, don’t know my purpose? Will I ever know? Or will I have a moment like Saul on the road to Damascus when You appeared to him in a bright light and changed the course of his life forever? The only bright lights I have are in the light switches by the door, and I can’t even see those.

Can you help me out a little? I want to glorify You, I do. But how? Is this blog enough? Is it even worth it? Should I be doing something else?

I have too many questions, but they can all be rolled up like a tortilla into one, overarching question that I want to scream (but I can’t since the neighbours will hear):

What is my purpose?

I just hope I have one…

But until You show me something else, I guess I’ll continue along this path and hope that You’re doing something with it.

That’s all I got, God. Anything to add?

All right, then. Talk to you soon. And Saint, yes, I’ll give you a belly rub.

Love,
Rhianna

2021 REFLECTIONS

I have never been, and never will be, a party girl. In high school and college, while tolerating the celebrations echoing across the city, I sat outside on the porch swing, basking in the cool, fresh breeze of the new year and the glimpses of silence caught between fire crackers.

It’s my favourite moment of the year. Not because I’m a keen celebrator of New Year’s—in fact, the holiday is one I don’t much appreciate and could quite happily do without—but because for a moment, I can be quiet and reflect on the blessings and trials of another year.

The Island Calls

On a walk around the pond last December, while temporarily moved into my parents’ house, I announced to my dad that I wanted to move to a new city in the new year. I budgeted, I wrote lists, and one month later, with my parents’ love, support and packing expertise, I moved into my first above-ground suite and basked in the winter sunlight streaming in through the living room windows.

I learned my routes to the beach, the coffee shop and thoroughly enjoyed the abundance of thrift shops at my fingertips. My dream had come true, and it felt amazing, particularly when I breathed in the scent of salty ocean air. I was home.

cricket’s Chapter

But a few months after settling into my new environs, I came face-to-face with a reality I hoped wouldn’t come for many more years. I wrote the story in a post for my friend, Anneliese’s blog, and please feel free to read it to get the whole story. But on April 23, 2021, I made the decision to retire my first guide dog, Cricket. He was only three years old and many a trainer and fellow guide dog handler said he wasn’t ready to retire. But after several weeks of Cricket refusing his guidework commands and thus, placing me in dangerous situations (i.e. in the middle of crosswalks), I had no choice.

I reverted back to using a white cane, though not very successfully. Two years of working with a guide dog left me longing for the harness and the confidence that Cricket had provided when out and about in the community. So I applied to three guide dog schools and waited to be matched with my second guide dog.

Cricket stayed with me as a retired guide until August when I was able to travel to Michigan to deliver him home to his puppy raiser turned mom. It was bittersweet, watching him recognize the house, his doggy sister, Willow, and bond with his raiser. I felt sad for myself, but happy for him, and so I left Cricket in his new home with a floppy ear drenched in my tears and came home to Canada. Now, with the friendship I’ve developed with his mom, I couldn’t be happier or more thankful for the way God arranged everything.

Meeting The Mr., Soon To Be The Mrs.

On June 16, I met a man. On June 17, I kissed that man. And four months later, when that man asked me to marry him, I said yes!

Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be three things: a writer, a wife, and a mom. And I don’t think anyone, me least of all, saw that second one coming this year, or this quickly.

But I couldn’t be more excited or more thankful. My fiancé is a man of God, loves to hug, is devoutly loyal to his family and loves me unconditionally. We’ve set a wedding date for spring 2022 and are over the moon to begin a married life together. It’s a blessing beyond what I could have hoped for.

And don’t you worry—you’ll get wedding updates!

The Saint and I

With Cricket retiring in May, I didn’t know how long it would be until I would snuggle my new guide dog. But I tried to reconcile the very real fact that it could be close to a year.

But the call came sooner than I expected and I was overwhelmed in the absolute best way. I was chatting with the ladies at the jewelry counter about my wedding ring at the tail end of October when I got the call. They had a dog for me and wanted me in Oregon at Guide Dogs for the Blind to train in THREE WEEKS!

And when Saint came wiggling into my world, I was immediately in love. He was everything I wanted—a boy, a yellow lab and a whirlwind of energy. We trained for two weeks and then came home to begin our new life together. And I couldn’t be more happy, and I don’t think Saint could wag his tail any harder!

The Sad Stuff

As a self-proclaimed pessimist (or realist, if you prefer), I can’t go on without addressing the challenges that the year has brought.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought many challenges, and a very personal one I’ve experienced is the struggle of friends who disagree on the vaccine. In the summer, I ended a friendship with someone I was extremely close to because of our differing views; it was very clear that our priorities were pulling us in opposite directions.

And in the fall, another friendship that had been touch-and-go for almost two years, ended yet again. While I will not share details for her privacy and mine, I will say that neither of us are innocent, neither of us are to blame completely and both of us have more growing to do and I believe it’s healthier to do it separately. All I hope, in the silence that’s replaced our friendship, is that we can forgive each other and not hold onto the anger. That isn’t the person I want to be, and it isn’t the person I want her to remember, even though that may very well be the case.

Ending friendships hurts. That’s the hard and simple truth. And it’ll take a long time to be okay and look back on those relationships with fondness and not bitterness and anger. Because… I am angry. So angry. And I’ll only get there with the help of Jesus.

Blog Or Not, Here I Come!

But 2021 is also the year that I fulfilled one of my deepest dreams.

I became a blogger.

Not Your Blind Writer started out of a love of writing and a desire to use my voice to normalize disability by sharing my life as a blind woman and writer. Whether that has been accomplished is up to you, my readers, but all I know is that whether anyone continues to read my words or not, I will always continue to write. I feel the call to be a writer in my soul, and nothing will change that.


A fiancé, a guide dog and a blog… oh my!

It hasn’t been the easiest of years, and there will never be a year that is free of struggle. But in the midst of mine, I know I am incredibly blessed. My year began with a move to where my heart has wanted to be for a long time, and it’s ending with Saint guiding me, my fiancé holding my hand, my family and friends surrounding me, and my God clearing the path ahead. And that’s more than enough for me.

So if you’re celebrating with fire crackers, then HAPPY NEW YEAR and go crazy (but safely, please)! And if you’re like me and just like taking a quiet minute to think and reflect on the year that’s ending and the one that’s beginning, take one of those minutes to say thank you. Thank your people for being there for you and that you’ve lived to see another year of adventures.

Happy 2022!