In this post, I discussed why accessibility is an absolute necessity for people living with disabilities.
Today, as National Accessibility Week draws to a close, I want to highlight the personal impact accessibility has had on my life. In reading this, I hope you will take away a sense of what a lack of accessibility feels like, and resolve to join hands with your disabled friends and family to help change it.
In January of 2019, I attended class at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan, to receive my first guide dog, Cricket. Classes at LDB are three and a half weeks of intensive, on-campus training. And as I was a first-time handler, never having even owned or cared for a pet dog let alone the completely new territory of one being my guide, I knew these weeks would be crucial.
Our days were spent rising at 6:30 for park time (the term LDB uses for relieving the dogs), feeding and watering our guides, and ending with the last park at 8:00. In between, were sessions both indoors and outdoors, practicing a variety of techniques on different routes in Rochester Hills and on school property. I learned how to direct Cricket safely across a busy intersection, how to navigate stores and malls, what commands Cricket was taught and how to correct him when he disobeyed. I had been sent guidework training material ahead of time which helped me prepare me for the experience, but nothing compared to the thrill and the stress of walking, hand on harness, with my guide dog independently.
It was a fast-paced time, and I got to know my three teammates Very. Well. More than once, they offered me tight hugs because I burst into frustrated tears in the middle of the mall, wondering if I would ever get the hang of guidework.
Training was exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating and empowering. I needed all the energy I could muster to make it through the experience and retain the information I learned. And I remember how it struck me upon arrival and continually throughout my stay at the school, how I was able to concentrate solely on my relationship with Cricket because of one thing.
It should follow logically that, in being a school that trains both guide dogs and the handlers who receive them to be independent, Leader Dogs would be fully accessible to those with visual impairments. Yet, I still found myself awed by just how much independence they offered me.
And I realized just how much weight I’d been carrying on my own.
The example I most love to describe to my friends and family at home is the coffee machine. It sat on a table near the entrance to the RA’s office at the intersection of the Rochester and Avon hallways. And it was a popular spot. The coffee, I mean!
Beside each button was a brailled label with the name of the corresponding drink. I’m not a coffee person per se, but I made regular use of the cappuccino button! The rows of buttons and drink options seemed endless, and I wondered how long it would take me to memorize the order. But I didn’t have to.
Nor did I have to memorize where the cups, lids, sugar packets, creamers or tea bags were. Each basket that held these items were also labelled in braille and stayed in their place to the left of the coffee machine, easy to find whenever the craving struck.
I’m a coffee person, but my body doesn’t appreciate it as much. But while I was there, I visited the coffee station frequently, not only because I loved indulging in a drink that I didn’t buy often at home, but simply because I could.
I could grab a coffee whenever I wanted. Other than in my own kitchen, I’ve never experienced that anywhere. If I’m out, a sighted person is often assisting me with selecting a drink from a menu that isn’t accessible, or making it for me since I don’t know where they keep their mugs and coffee pot. Relying on others has become a norm for certain things in my life, something that I’ve resigned myself to accept.
But until I tasted this freedom, I hadn’t realized just how inaccessible, and unwilling to change, the world around me truly was. But here, I was valued, I was treated equal and meeting my needs wasn’t a nice thing to do–it was the right thing to do.
Accessibility was all over Leader Dogs for the Blind and it vibrated throughout the building and the program just how highly they prioritized it.
At the intersection between the Rochester and Avon hallways, tactile markers were set out on the floor so that I could distinguish by the texture when I was approaching the triangle. Along the hallways were handrails, and at varying intervals, my fingers would find a knob protruding from the underside of the rail. That knob was an indicator to lift my hand straight up to just above the rail where I’d find a sign with the name of the room directly across the hall from where I stood, in braille. And next to each door, there again was a sign with the room name to ensure that it was clear where you were.
In our rooms, a brailled schedule was fastened to the backside of the door, with the daily times for parking, feeding, watering and mealtimes listed for clients to check what was coming up next. Each room, and many of the common areas, were equipped with an Amazon Alexa, which made checking weather conditions, setting alarms for wake up, parking and feeding times as easy as ever. The dining room was set with several tables, with about eight or ten chairs around each for the teams and their instructors to enjoy meals together. to the back of each chair was adhered a braille number so that we could easily identify our assigned seat. I was #7.
It was completely accessible. And the freedom of it almost brought me to tears.
For a few weeks, I didn’t have to compensate for my lack of vision. I didn’t have to make justifications for the lack of accessibility all around me; “It’s too complicated, too expensive, too time-consuming, to make X-Y-Z accessible. It’s okay.” [For the record, it is not okay!] I didn’t have to ask for help nearly as often as I did at home or out in my community where things were constantly changing and making it difficult to be independent.
I was given a break. I could just be me, and I could rest. I didn’t have to work so hard just to exist. The world was finally catering to my needs rather than the other way around.
Three and a half weeks later, when I returned to Canada from training with my new, handsome, Cricket guiding me, I mourned the loss of that independence. I felt as though a part of me had been stripped and left at Leader Dogs for the Blind. I was back to the “real world,” the one in which I had to compensate for my blindness and never expect the world to meet me halfway. I was exhausted before I got off the plane.
Friends, this is why accessibility is so important. It isn’t a luxury. It isn’t disabled people being entitled or selfish or asking too much.
It’s realizing that disabled people are equal and valuable, and although our needs are unique, meeting them isn’t optional. It’s necessary to better the world and make it more inclusive for all of its people.