THE PROBLEM WITH PET FRIENDLY BUSINESSES AS A GUIDE DOG HANDLER

Imagine being able to take Fido with you everywhere you go. To the mall, the movies or on a plane. This is the privilege granted to guide and service dogs and their handlers, and it needs to stay this way.

Sorry, Fido [and Fido’s owner]. But you need to stay home for this one. But keep reading: You do need to hear this.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? You no longer have to worry about leaving your fur baby home, wondering if he’s peed on the floor, chewed up your shoes or worried about how little exercise he’s getting since you left him in his crate when you left the house. Why not take him with you on your afternoon errands? After all, the sign says “Pets Welcome.” No harm, right?

But there is harm. The privilege that allows guide and service dogs to enter public facilities is not there to give handlers an extra advantage or special treatment. It’s there to level the playing field. This is because of two factors: first, service dogs are not pets, and second, service dogs are trained to perform a service that mitigates the challenges of a disability.

When pets are allowed in public spaces where the community gathers, there are three things that can result, and they are what I call the Three D’s: danger, distract and detract. Let’s take a moment to go through each.

It Can Place the Team in Danger

Service dogs are highly trained to provide a particular service to their handler. My guide dog, Saint, spent four months of intensive training to learn how to guide a blind person. This meant learning to avoid obstacles, stop at elevation changes such as stairs, curbs, keep a straight orientation when crossing streets, and how to keep safe around moving traffic. It is a rigorous process, and only 50% of the puppies bred into the guide dog program graduate and are matched with a handler. It is not a job for the faint of heart; it is physically and mentally taxing. The responsibility they carry of ensuring their blind handler stays safe and out of danger is not for just any dog.

But it isn’t only the guide dog that gets trained. Handlers spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month learning to work with their guide dog. It takes upwards of a year to become a solid working team, and a big portion of their success is that both the dog and handler has a trust and respect for the other, particularly in situations that may be dangerous or distracting. That’s how they get through… together.

The world is rife with dangers for people who are blind. While we learn skills and techniques to keep us safe and independent, we are still living in a world that isn’t designed for disabled people and poses many challenges. Drivers of vehicles that don’t check for pedestrians can make crossing busy intersections risky. Encountering aggressive dogs who may be off-leash or not well-controlled pose safety risks for both the dog and handler. A guide dog helps to bear that weight. But it becomes increasingly difficult if the dog gets distracted.

It’s a Distraction

Service dogs may be highly trained, but they are still dogs and thus, will get distracted. They are expected to stay focused and avoid distraction while out in the community. But distractions are everywhere: people, food and other dogs being the most enticing of temptations.

If a working dog does get distracted, often, it takes only a simple verbal or light leash correction to get them back on track. But it can be more. And when a guide dog is distracted, it takes their focus off of their job and their surroundings; their focus transfers to how to get what they’ve just discovered–that piece of pizza on the ground, a pet from that nice lady making kissy noises, or a sniff of that cute girl dog. In this state, without the dog watching out for the safety of their handler, the team may walk straight into danger. Imagine what might happen if a guide dog gets distracted while crossing a busy road? They may veer into the traffic rather than keep a straight line across. I don’t have to imagine–I’ve experienced it. And it’s terrifying.

Guide dogs are inundated with possible distractions whenever they venture out of the house with their handler. And your pet is a perfect opportunity. *sniff sniff*

It Detracts From the Dog’s Purpose

But the greatest problem is a simple one of entitlement. If I get to take my dog with me wherever I go, why can’t you?

It’s simple: My dog is a mobility tool. He keeps me safe. He helps me navigate spaces that are difficult to do independently because of poor or inaccessible design. He levels the playing field, giving me access to equal opportunities that I may not have access to otherwise.

Your pet does not.

If pets are permitted to go places where only service dogs have the privilege, it detracts from the purpose of the service dog. Not only does it make the dog’s job that much harder, but it undermines the dog’s reason for being a service dog; to do its job, the dog needs to stay safe and focused so that it can provide the service it was trained to do. If any dog is allowed anywhere, then the privilege that these dogs have as working members of the community becomes meaningless.

I know it’s hard to watch someone walk into seemingly any establishment they wish with their dog at their side. But it isn’t always easy: almost every handler has experienced denial because of their service dog. Sometimes, this results in the staff learning about the rights of guide and service dogs, but too frequently, the handler is forced to go somewhere else because their legal right to enter a public facility was unjustly refused. And it happens more often than you think. This happens because people are unaware of the laws and rights surrounding guide and service animals, but also because someone has had a negative experience–a disturbance or aggression–by a pet, and to keep their businesses and customers safe, they feel that refusing all animals is the only option.

But in that moment, a disabled person has been denied the access that able-bodied people take for granted because of something that wasn’t their fault.

You might tell me that your dog is trained, and that he’d never do such a thing. He never even barks. To that I say: that’s wonderful! I’m so glad and thankful that you’ve taken the time and energy to train your dog properly. But that still does not give you the right to bring him with you when you go into the community because if you do, you’re undermining the tens of thousands of dollars it takes to train one service dog, and the work they do for one disabled person so that they can live their life with a little less challenge, and a lot more freedom.

BRAILLE IS NOT DEAD — IN FACT, IT’S MORE ALIVE NOW THAN EVER

January is World Braille Month, a time to celebrate the six dots that have opened up a world of freedom and independence to blind and visually impaired people, and the man who created them over 200 years ago.

But how much do we really know about Louis Braille, or how the Braille code came into being?

Who was Louis Braille?

Louis Braille was born in the French village of Coupvray on January 4, 1809. His father was a leatherworker and made harnesses, bridals, and other goods for the villagers. As a little boy, Louis loved to accompany his father to his workshop. When Louis was three years old, he took his father’s awl, a very sharp tool, and attempted to punch a hole in a piece of leather as he’d seen his father do. The awl slipped from Louis’ grasp and recoiled, injuring his left eye. Eventually, the infection spread to his right eye and Louis became totally blind.

He was a tenacious child. He attended school in the village, memorizing the teacher’s lessons, and at the age of 10, he was sent to the Institute for the Blind in Paris to study. It was there that he learned a system for reading by touch, invented by Captain Charles Barbier, called Night Writing, in which soldiers could read messages without the use of light or sound. Louis was intrigued by this system and worked to make it smaller and more efficient.

What came about was the system we know today as Braille. At the age of fifteen, Louis had invented a system which would make reading and writing for the blind possible.

He died of tuberculosis two days after his 43rd birthday in 1852. But he left a legacy that is beloved by thousands of braille readers throughout the world today.

What is braille?

Braille is a means of reading and writing for the blind through a system of raised dots. A braille cell is comprised of six dots–two across and three down–and various configurations of these dots represent the letters of the alphabet. Dot 1 occupies the upper most lefthand corner of the cell, dot 2 is beneath in the middle, and dot 3 is in the bottom lefthand corner. It’s identical on the right for dots 4-5-6. When these dots are organized into specific patterns, they represent letters. For example:

  • A = Dot 1
  • B = Dots 1-2
  • C = Dots 1-4

Braille is classified into grades–one and two. Grade one is called uncontracted braille, meaning that everything is spelled out, letter for letter. By comparison, grade two is known as contracted braille, where through a system of contractions, groups of letters are represented by one, single cell. For example, the word “and” is represented by dots 1-2-3-4-6, making it shorter and faster to write than uncontracted. There are several contractions, over 200 in fact!

In 2010, Canada became the fifth nation to adopt UEB, or Unified English braille. It was born out of a desire to standardize Braille so that resources could be shared more easily and without confusion. It is much the same as SEB [Standard English Braille which I described above], but with variations on which contractions are permitted, etc. To be frank, I do not like nor do I use UEB, so please see the list of resources at the end of this post for more info. But like it or not, it is a reality of braille use and I can read it well, though a bit begrudgingly.

Braille is used almost everywhere. Check your hotel or apartment elevator, and you’ll likely find Braille on the buttons. Check a public washroom and you may find Braille on the sign. Many restaurants have Braille menus, certain goods [shampoo bottles, chocolate boxes, etc] are affixed with braille labels, and there is a fabulously unique niche market for Braille jewelry and apparel within one click of a Google search. Many braille users choose to use a braille display or notetaker which connect to mobile phones or computers and allow one to read and write electronically in Braille. And Braille technology is expanding every day!

This system of six dots has infiltrated an entire demographic of people, and has given freedom and independence in a way I’m sure Louis Braille never dreamed about.

Why is Braille important?

But with the incredible technological advances since the invention of Braille in the nineteenth-century, there are those who have claimed that Braille’s time has piqued, or, in blunt terms, that “Braille is dead.” But friends, Braille is very much alive and thriving!

To enlighten us on the importance of Braille for the blind, I’d like to share with you other voices in the blind and visually impaired community. After all, we are a community, and it’s valuable to share our perspectives, ideas and resources. Let’s take a look at the insights from Sight Scotland on the importance of Braille [and check the list below for other resources].

• Braille for Literacy

“Braille allows blind and partially sighted people to learn spelling, grammar and punctuation and gain an understanding of how text is formatted on the page.

Individuals learn in different ways – some people may find it easier to take in information via audio while others prefer to read the written word in braille. But when it comes to really engaging with a text, particularly complicated printed material, the benefits of being able to read in braille outweigh audio formats as reading aids comprehension and retention of information. Braille use can allow someone to develop their skills for self-expression in written form.”

• Braille for independence

As I noted above, there are multiple ways that Braille is used in the community. Having the skills to both read and write Braille allow a greater level of independence and confidence to engage with the world and build meaningful connections with others. And, as Sight Scotland so adeptly puts it: “Public spaces that include braille signage, for example braille on lift key pads or on doors, can really help people who read braille to maintain their independence when out and about. Braille labels on everyday items can also help to quickly identify what something is. Medicines are usually braille labelled and in supermarkets an increasing range of packaged foods have braille notation.”

• Braille for Professional Goals

“Studies have shown people with a visual impairment who have braille skills are more likely to be in employment than those who don’t use it.

Electronic braille notetakers (a BrailleNote) can be used to take down notes – whether in a lecture at college or university or in a meeting in the workplace. Some people also find braille notes useful to refer to when when giving a presentation or speech.

An accessible workplace should provide the means and facilities for blind and partially sighted employees to utilise braille, audio and assistive technologies in the ways that suit them best.”

• Braille for Equality

“The ability to read and write braille provides the vital access to the written word that sighted people have. It can mean greater equality, enabling blind and partially sighted people to have the use, power, fluidity and enjoyment of the written word that sighted people have. Braille literacy promotes accessibility in society for people with a visual impairment.”

But more than a system of reading and writing for the blind, Braille represents a way of learning and understanding the world we live in. It’s a means of communication and connection, and a beautiful part of being a member of the blind and visually impaired community.

Thank you, Louis Braille.


To Learn More, Check Out These Links

You can learn more about Louis Braille and the Braille code at the following links:

Louis Braille:

Reading and Writing Braille:

Braille Displays and Notetakers:

The Importance of Braille:

Organizations Promoting Braille Literacy: