A BOY BROKE MY WHITE CANE AND DIDN’T EVEN NOTICE — A MINI MEMOIR

A true story from my middle school days, I’m sharing the following story because I want to raise awareness of a very real issue that many people don’t consider:

Never touch a disabled person’s mobility tool. Whether that be a guide dog, a cane [as in this story], a wheelchair or any other type of mobility aid, it is for no one’s use except by the person it’s intended to support. And that is because it is not simply a piece of equipment or technology, but it is their access, their freedom, independence, mobility, safety and their means of communicating with and moving through the world.

But when that freedom and independence is compromised, it can wreak havoc and put that person in challenging and potentially dangerous situations. And more importantly, it takes away their autonomy.

There’s the moral of the story, even though we haven’t gotten to the story yet. So, without further ado…


I’m in the seventh-grade wing of my middle school, the halls blissfully clear and quiet now that class is in session. I’m on my way to the resource room, where I frequently work on projects one-on-one with my braillist. It’s just easier sometimes, especially in math and science when I need more specific adaptations or explanations of sighted concepts that are hard to understand. I don’t mind; anything to get out of a classroom of kids I’m not friends with.

The resource room is on the opposite side of the school, up a flight of stairs, down a ramp and past several twists and turns. But I know it forward and backward. I can walk it with my eyes closed, I think to myself, and I smile sardonically at my own blind joke.

And it’s a good thing, too, since I’m still in the hall by Mrs. George’s classroom when a boy slams into me, nearly knocking me to the ground. Where did he come from? There was nothing but a split second of pounding footfalls before the impact.

But before I can say anything, he’s gone.
I regain my balance, and notice that the quiet of the hall has returned as quickly as it was interrupted. I shake it off as best I can and grab my cane to begin walking to the resource room. But something is wrong. Very, very wrong.

The end of my cane, which has a rolling tip on it that rolls smoothly as I sweep my cane ahead of me from right to left, isn’t there. Instead of the smooth, bumping sound reverberating from the linoleum, there’s only an eerie nothingness. The tip isn’t touching the ground. It’s then that I reach forward, trailing my hand from the rubber grip top of the cane downward.

And then I see it. My cane is broken. Snapped in two like a twig. A carbon graphite twig. The lower half hangs limply from the string which is normally thread invisibly through the cane, holding it together.

I can’t use my cane like this! It’s physically impossible. And without a cell phone, or anyone in the hall, and no way to tell my braillist what’s happened, I take a step forward and am thankful I was taught how to keep myself safe as a kid before I got a cane. I hold my cane in the crook of my arm, and put one hand up to protect my face and the other in front of my belly button, and I start walking.

I shuffle through the halls–careful not to lift my foot in case of missing a drop off and POOF, down I go–up the stairs, down the ramps, and listen for the echo of the openness where the hallways intersect, and turn. I don’t pass anyone which I’m grateful for because I know this must look weird. What’s the blind girl doing now?

I make it to the resource room unscathed, my broken cane tucked under my arm. I work on my science project, then my braillist guides me out to the parking lot to meet my mom when the bell rings.

Then, we buy a new cane.

MY GUIDE DOG ESSENTIALS LIST

Having the proper equipment for any job makes a world of difference, and I’ve found this to be especially true when working with my guide dog, Saint.

Because Saint is a fully certified, trained working guide dog with a special job, the equipment I choose to carry with me may be different from that of a typical pet parent. I want to be prepared to face any number of situations, so, I thought it would be fun and educational to share with you the equipment that I use as a guide dog handler.

I will insert links to the products that I personally use, but I may be unable to find links to every item. Also note that I may earn a commission from purchases made through the Amazon links on this page, but be reassured that I use and love each product listed.

Guidework Essentials

• The Harness and Leash

The harness is the most essential tool for a guide dog team since the harness is the means by which the dog actually guides its handler. When working with my first guide, my instructor explained the function of the harness as the dog’s mechanism of communicating with me, and the leash being my way to communicate with my dog.

The harness that Guide Dogs for the Blind issues to their clients is a leather item, consisting of a chest strap that crosses over the dog’s front, as well as a girth strap that passes beneath the dog’s belly and is secured behind the front legs with a buckle. The handle is u-shaped, with leather padding on the end that the handler holds during guidework.

The leather leash is a simple leash and can be adjusted to two different lengths—three and five feet, and attaches to a ring in the collar.

Both the harness and leash are the cornerstone for any guide dog team, and I love the quality and functionality of the ones GDB issues its clients.

• Gentle Leader

Also called a head collar, a gentle leader is a piece of equipment that fastens securely behind the dog’s ears, around the muzzle and attaches to the collar by a small strap for extra security. When in use, rather than attach my leash to the regular collar, I clip it to the ring beneath the muzzle which gives me more control of his head movement. This isn’t something that I use regularly, but it is good to have on hand; for high-distraction environments like pet stores, crowds, food courts etc, the gentle leader allows me greater insight into the position of my dog’s head and thus, greater control.

• Reward Pouch

The reward pouch is one of our team’s necessary items to keep within reach at all times. The pouch GDB issues is worn around the waist, with a magnetic clasp for quick and easy access.

Food rewards are a necessary part of maintaining a high standard of guidework. “Would you work for no paycheck?” my instructor asked. “You shouldn’t expect your dog to, either.”

The system GDB teaches is to fill the pouch with half a cup of the dog’s daily allotment of kibble, then whatever is left over at the day’s end is added into their evening meal. This way, the dog isn’t taking in extra calories from treats, and keeping the dog at a healthy weight is more manageable.

• Clicker

A clicker is a small device with a central button which, when pressed, produces a precise click sound. Clicker training is an effective method of training by positive reinforcement. When the dog exhibits the desired behaviour, the trainer clicks and the dog is rewarded.

I keep a clicker on hand for situations where I either need to train a new behaviour or reinforce one that my dog may need some reminders about. It isn’t to be used consistently, but as the dogs find it enjoyable [since they receive food reward after every click] and it’s beneficial for maintaining training, it’s great to keep within reach.

Health and Safety Essentials

Keeping both my guide dog and I healthy and safe is vital to a long, effective working life together. Here are some of the ways I do that:

• Poop Bags

Everyone’s favourite part of having a dog… picking up poop. It has the potential to be messy and a bit stinky [or a lot, in our case]. But the task becomes easier and cleaner with these poop bags that I buy on Amazon. They come in a box of 900 bags, with a dispenser that’s easy to carry with you on the go.

I’ve used these bags since day one of doggy-momhood, and I haven’t had a bag break or tear yet. High-quality and affordable, these are my go-to bags, and I ALWAYS, ALWAYS keep one, if not two, rolls in my bag at all times.

• Travel Bowl

Proper hydration is important not only for us, but also for our dogs. To always have a means of offering water to Saint while out working, I carry on eof these collapsable, travel bowls It’s also convenient for outings over mealtime, as I can both feed and water Saint using this one bowl, which expands to accommodate a large meal and then collapses to tuck discreetly inside my bag.

• Audible Beacon Safety Light

The audible beacon safety light that GDB provides to its clients is small, easy to use, and very effective. It attaches to the harness handle so I never forget it and can simply turn it on whenever Saint and I need to be a bit more visible to those around us. What I love about this beacon in particular is that it’s audible; a musical tone sounds when turned on and off, and every 10 minutes while on, another tone sounds as a reminder that the light is still on. As someone with no light perception, this is incredibly helpful as I can often leave lights on long after they ought to have been turned off simply because… I can’t see it, so I forgot! No need to worry about that with this light. And another bonus? It’s USB-rechargeable, and I keep the cord in my bag for on-the-go charging if the need arises.

• LED Collar

To add an extra measure of visibility, I purchased this USB-rechargeable, LED dog collar. To use, I simply fit it around Saint’s neck beneath his regular collar, fasten the buckle, and press the button to turn on the light. Simple, effective, and easy to keep in my bag for easy access should I need it.

• Reflective Jacket

Although I don’t always carry this with me, I have a reflective jacket which I wear in dimly-lit conditions to keep me visible to drivers and other pedestrians. This jacket has zippered pockets, a hood, and several strips of reflective tape sewn on for extra visibility.

• Boots

GDB guide dog teams are issued a set of boots from Ruffwear, an excellent source for all manner of high-quality dog gear and equipment. These boots have incredible tread on the bottom and a Velcro strap which tightens securely around the ankle.

Certain environments can be very harmful to the pads of dogs’ paws such as hot pavement, the salt that’s spread on icy sidewalks, and rough terrain. These areas require me to keep Saint’s paws protected, so I keep these boots in my bag at all times, just in case.

Saint’s right to enter public establishments as a working dog comes with a certain level of responsibility. One of my primary responsibilities is to keep him groomed and respectable. To do this, I have a few items that I keep on hand for when we’re out and about but just a tad on the dirty side:

• Microfiber Towels

If it’s raining out, I always like to wipe off Saint’s paws and belly before entering a public building so as not to leave behind a trail of wet paw prints. A pack of small microfiber towels is my solution; easy to slip into the pocket of my backpack, reusable and quick to remove the worst of the grit and grime, I keep these on hand at all times.

• Lint Roller

While I’m not bothered by the omnipresence of Saint’s light, golden fur making a home on every piece of clothing I own, there are rare occasions when being fur-free is appropriate, like job interviews , church, or a friend’s house where leaving a pile of hair behind isn’t always appreciated. To this end, I keep a lint roller in my backpack to quickly and efficiently remove the majority of fur off clothes and furniture.

The Backpack

While training with Saint, I visited the gift shop to pick up a few extra supplies. My best purchase, undoubtedly, was this backpack. As someone with chronic upper back and shoulder pain, finding a backpack that wouldn’t cause any extra stress was vital. This one is small, lightweight and when filled with Saint’s equipment, doesn’t overwhelm or add unnecessary weight. It’s perfect.

It’s Saint’s personal backpack, and at any given time, you can find the majority of the above items inside:

  • Gentle leader
  • Clicker
  • Travel bowl
  • Boots
  • Microfiber towels
  • Lint roller
  • The charging cable for the audible beacon
  • Lots and lots of poop bags

I didn’t carry very much equipment when working with my first guide dog, and whenever we headed out the door, I was scrambling to gather what we needed. I wanted to be as hands-free as I could, but that always left me feeling unprepared and panicky.

I wanted to do better this time. Now, whenever Saint and I head out of the house, I simply grab his backpack from the hook by the door and we’re off, prepared and ready for the adventure ahead. I can’t describe the difference it makes knowing I have what I need to help Saint and I succeed in our relationship together.

If you’re a service dog handler, I’d love to know what gear and equipment you find helpful. Let me know in the comments!

THE WAY WE ALMOST WEREN’T

It would be easier to tell you the story of how my guide dog, Saint, and I met and became a team. Spoiler, it involves a lot of cuddles, kisses, wags, wiggles, and lots and lots of love. It’s straightforward and predictable: I arrived at GDB for training, I was given the leash of my dream match, and two weeks later, we flew home to begin our life together.

But that’s not the story I’m telling today. Rather, this is the story of how we almost weren’t.

Tears on Tuesday

It was the Tuesday of the second week and we had only three days until our flight home. By this time in the program, we were scheduled to be working on training in environments specific to our home life. For me, that entailed walking along some trails, rough terrain and navigating through chairs, tables and the crowds in coffee shops.

But Tuesday afternoon, while my fellow clients and their dogs headed out to work on various routes, my instructor, team supervisor and I headed to a local park to walk a long, looping path. It was half concrete and half gravel, nothing complex or difficult to navigate. We were there to work on pace.

Pace is a crucial aspect of matching the right dog to the right handler. If the speed at which the handler walks is faster than the dog, a myriad of issues can arise. The dog may begin slowing down because of forward pressure on the harness handle. The dog may also feel defeated and wonder, “if my handler is going to walk ahead of me anyway, then what am I guiding for?” Additionally, with a slower dog, the handler is often “hopping-up” the dog—hopp-up being the command to go faster. Alternatively, if the handler walks slower than their guide dog, the handler is continually asking their dog to “steady” or slow down. While this may seem less problematic than having a slow dog with a fast handler, neither are ideal and the pace needs to be matched appropriately.

My first guide dog and I were matched primarily for my mental and emotional health. I was struggling significantly with anxiety and wasn’t terribly active. Therefore, they matched me with Cricket who was very chill, laid-back and cool with lazy days in. But as time went on, I noticed that our pace wasn’t cohesive.

I was walking faster than Cricket was and consistently asking him to hopp-up. In response, Cricket would slow, and when I slowed to try and match, he would slow to a stop. Pushing the harness handle forward and simply walking at my preferred pace yielded only a moment of catch up before he would slow again. It was a source of constant frustration in our teamwork and a mishandling of the situation on my part.

But after Cricket’s retirement, my lifestyle changed and so did what I needed in a guide dog. When asked what I was looking for, I said simply that I wanted a dog with lots of energy and a fast pace.

Fast forward to week one of training and Saint was all that I had hoped for and then some. He had a good pace that matched mine and lots of energy and enthusiasm for the job. At our mid-training meeting, my instructor said that she was confident Saint would be going home with me.

But by Tuesday, we knew something wasn’t working.

Saint had slowed down, even from his recorded pace during his training, and my instructor noted how often I was hopping him up on our routes. I was befuddled; our first week had gone off perfectly. But it was now a problem.

The pattern was all too familiar. I hopped him up, he slowed, and we both got frustrated. It was happening again.

So on Tuesday afternoon, we were at the park, hoping that on a straight and easy-to-navigate path, Saint would get into his groove. We called it “the wiggle,” and feeling that dance in the harness was what I so desperately wanted.

He didn’t. And when we walked an in-town route afterwards, the result was the same.

My heart was sinking. My stomach was in knots, and the only sound on the drive back to the school was the slight gasping of my breath as I tried not to completely break down. No one said it out loud, but the question hung over us like a dense fog:

Did I have to give Saint up?

In the fireplace room, my instructor and supervisor sat me down and laid out my options. There were three:

  • I could keep Saint, so long as I accepted his slower pace and was content to work with him this way.
  • I could go home without a dog and come back to training when they had a dog who walked my preferred pace.
  • Or, I could try out a new dog, because they just happened to have one in the kennel who had just graduated and walked that fast pace.

Tuesday night was one of the hardest nights of my life. Every time I ran my fingers over Saint’s silky fur, or got a surprise kiss on the face, I started sobbing. I called my fiancé and my parents, trying to process what was happening, but I couldn’t. My heart was breaking and I could do nothing but cry and whimper a prayer of “help me, God.”

Was this really my last night with Saint?

Whirlwind on Wednesday

On Wednesday morning, I put Saint into a crate at the downtown training lounge and picked up the harness handle of a dog with tufty, yellow fur and boundless energy. When we set out on our route, it was obvious from the get-go that he had the pace I was searching for.

Maybe even a bit too fast. But then, it was easier to slow a dog down than to speed them up. This dog had the energy and the pace I wanted… but Saint was my baby. Already, we’d bonded on such a deep, emotional level and I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Saint was everything I’d dreamed about but hadn’t dared to say out loud; he was a boy, a yellow lab, an enthusiastic worker and a snuggler. But working with a guide dog wasn’t about snuggles, but being guided safely and independently through the world.

I was torn. Seeing the struggle, my team supervisor offered to have me walk one last route with Saint before making my final decision. But before we took off, I took a minute to talk to God. I said, “God, I need an answer on this walk. I’m so confused and I don’t know which dog to choose. But you know. If it’s going to be Saint, you need to make it clear on this walk.” Then I picked up the handle and said, “Saint, forward.”

It couldn’t have been clearer. And I couldn’t stop the smile from taking over my whole face. My supervisor, observing from across the way, said that this walk either made my decision so much harder or so easy.

“Easy,” I said. “God gave me my answer. I want Saint.”

Love for a Lifetime

It feels impossible to think that I may have come home with a different dog, or no dog at all. Both were very real possibilities. My instructor told me that dog switches happen almost every class, so I wouldn’t have been the first.

But I was among the minority to keep the dog that I was originally issued. And in the month since we came home, I’m so thankful I did.

Saint is my baby. Once I took the pressure off of us to keep up a faster pace, his pace naturally increased and is now exactly what I wanted. We fly down the sidewalk like a well-oiled machine. We snuggle in bed at night, and while I groom him, he licks me clean. He loves playing with his squeaky dinosaur and chewing on one of his many Nylabones. His favourite place to be is on my lap, tummy up and getting endless belly rubs.

He has my heart so fully and completely.

Guide dogs aren’t just dogs, nor are they just mobility tools. Guide dogs are so much more than that. They’re dogs who are part of who we are, who give us things this world can’t, and who help us become the people we desire to be. Because of Saint, I feel independent, free, safe, a little more equal, and so, so loved.

This was the story of how Saint and I almost weren’t. But I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that we were, and are, and will be forever together—the dream team. Nothing in life is ever guaranteed, and once you come close to losing something you love, it changes your perspective. It helps you stay thankful and not take anything for granted. And that’s my prayer, to never take Saint for granted and to stay thankful for the amazing blessing that he is in my life. He gives me so much—independence, freedom, unconditional love—and all I want is to give him the best life I can in return.

SIX THINGS I LOVE ABOUT BEING A BLIND GIRL

Sometimes, it’s hard to be positive about having a disability. I’ve always called myself a pessimist and more often than not, I focus on the challenges and struggles that come with it. But, even I need a dose of disability positivity every now and then.

So here you go, a list of six things I love about being a blind girl.

I. Being A Braille Reader

A system of six raised dots arranged in various configurations to represent the letters of the alphabet, braille is a code developed to make reading accessible for the blind. It came out of the personal experiences of Louis Braille, born in France in 1809. After an accident in his father’s workshop at age three, little Louis was left totally blind and at the time, incapable of reading books independently. But determined to make a change, 15-year-old Louis Braille invented the system that is now universally accepted and loved.

And you’d be right to count me as part of braille’s fan club! My braille reading lessons started in earnest when I was in second grade and according to family, I soaked it up like a sponge. It’s true; I learned to read and write in braille with much enthusiasm and that enthusiasm has only grown with me as I’ve gotten older. I’m a sucker for braille apparel and accessories; I’ve had braille earrings, a braille necklace and the decorative quilt hanging on my wall has “love” and “friendship” knitted in braille on it. And from elevator buttons to washroom signs, to braille notetaking devices like this one that I use to a good, old-fashioned book read by the fire, I can’t imagine my life without it. It isn’t merely the way in which I read—it’s a way of life, a way that I learn and connect with my world. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully express my love for braille and what it has done in my life, but I’ll never stop trying.

II. Getting a Guide Dog

Although not every blind or visually impaired individual chooses to work with a guide dog as their primary mobility tool, I don’t think anyone, blind or sighted, could deny the perk.

From a young age, I knew I wanted to work with a guide dog. And while attending university, it was the end goal that propelled me to practice my independent living skills such as using public transit. By 22, I received my first sweet boy, Cricket. And now, I have Saint, who, by the way, 99% of the time, does live up to his name!

A guide dog has given me freedom and confidence beyond what I ever expected. Now, even though I do have to plan my routes in advance, I feel more equipped to walk out the door with the harness in hand and face whatever may come. Having a floppy-eared partner to journey with me and keep me safe along the way is a blessing I can’t imagine living without and I’m so thankful for.

III. Painting with Many Brushes

Let’s get this out in the open once and for all: Blind people do not have a heightened sense of hearing. We simply rely on our senses more and are more in tune with them as our primary means of gathering information—sight–is no longer available. After all, it’s estimated that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.”

But what is a reliance on sight when you have hearing, smell, taste and touch to paint a beautiful picture of the world. Think about it for a moment: If you could only look at a tree, you would miss out on the rustling of the leaves in the wind, the earthy aroma of the bark, running your hands over the rough knots of the wood, and… well I’ve never tasted a tree but you get my point.

Sure, sometimes I miss being able to see. But I’m just grateful I have other ways to enjoy this life and I’m completely content with that.

IV. Being the Innovator

By being disabled in a world that doesn’t always know how to accommodate it, it’s inevitable that a certain amount of creativity and innovation is required. Adapting to a disability can be challenging enough, but add to it the pace at which the world is evolving and it’s exhausting trying to keep up. Whether it’s a technical work-around or a tactile adaptation for an art project, simply looking about will give you enough fodder to be creative and find innovative solutions to a multitude of challenges.

At times, it’s been a negative, but I’m working on turning this into a positive. It stretches my imagination and expands my problem-solving skills which will help me in more ways than just my disability.

V. The Community

As a Christian, I often wonder who I’ll meet in Heaven. I dream about being reunited with my Grandma and Grandpa, and getting to have coffee with King David. Who knows if that will ever be part of a life in Heaven with Jesus, but why not dream, right?

But even here on earth, it’s quite amazing to think of the people, past and present, that are part of the blind and visually impaired community. History is chalk full of blind and visually impaired people who have left a mark on the world, like Louis Braille, [inventor of braille, 1809-1852], Helen Keller [disability advocate, 1880-1968], and Fanny Crosby [Christian hymn writer, 1820-1915]. Of course, there are contemporary figures including Christian speaker and author Jennifer Rothschild, Youtuber Molly Burke, among many others.

And I’d be remiss not to mention the blind and visually impaired friends in my personal life that helped me grow, heal and become a fuller version of myself—the one that accepts who I am as a unique, God-designed creation.

I don’t know about anyone else, but it feels pretty amazing to be in the same community as these amazing men and women who, in one form or another, have touched my life in immeasurable ways.

VI. The Little Victories

And I can’t end this list without having some fun. All right, it might be a bit at the sighted folks’ expense, but give us just this one.

  • We get to be the heroes in power outages when you don’t know where to go, but we do.
  • We can read books in the dark [and sneak past Mom and Dad’s bedtime rules].
  • We have access to programs, technology and resources that are unique to the blind and visually impaired community.
  • No one can peer over our shoulders at our text messages since we can operate our cell phones with the screens turned off.
  • We can watch movies from a different room, and without worry about the video quality.

There you have it, my friends! Another list, and definitely not the last! For any of my blind readers, what’s on your list? Let me know in the comments.

THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF AIR TRAVEL

I am not a good traveller. As a kid, there was nothing more exciting than waking up at 3 AM, dragging my suitcase down the stairs (and usually over someone’s toe, oops), and heading off on some grand adventure. Whether it was a road trip across Canada or a flight that would transport us to Disneyland, I was eager for it all.

But upon returning from studying abroad after high school, my budding anxiety had already attached itself to many a victim, and flying was one of its first. I vividly recall walking to and from classes at university and as airplanes passed overhead, stopping to cover my ears until it faded into the distance. Many a friend held me in the middle of campus as this new fear gripped me tight. And it was then that I realized that if I was having this strong a reaction to the sound of airplanes, flying on them would be unbearable.

And as I’ve just recently returned from two plane trips, one trip to Michigan to take Cricket to his forever home and one to visit my family, I’ve been reflecting on the process of travelling as a blind woman. Seeing as I’m often asked about how it works, I thought I’d take a moment to share my reflections with you and maybe help to answer some of your questions.

So, how does it work practically?

When I travel independently by air, I make a note in my reservation stating that I am visually impaired and require assistance to board and deplane. Thus, when I arrive at the airport and check in, there’s a well established system that I’m immediately taken into:

  • A customer service agent guides me from check-in, through security and to my gate where they seat me and inform the airline agent that I need assistance on to the aircraft.
  • When pre-boarding is called, the airline agent assists me down the ramp and on to the airplane.
  • Here, the flight attendant guides me to my seat, helps me settle in, and often gives me a description of the plane, where the nearest exit is located and the safety protocols.
  • I sit back and attempt to bear the flight as best I can, often with headphones blasting tunes until the Ativan kicks in and I fall asleep.
  • Once landed, the flight attendant guides me to the ramp where I am met by another airline agent who guides me either to the gate for my connecting flight, or to arrivals.

Being passed from person to person is at times quite overwhelming and exhausting; I find myself on high alert, taking note of my surroundings, who’s assisting me and where my bags are at all times. It can be a convoluted process, but it does accomplish its goal: it gets me safely from point A to point B, and I’m just thankful that airlines have policies and systems in place to assist their disabled passengers.

But I’d be remiss not to address the issues inherent in this system. Let me take you back to 2016 and my most notable solo air adventure. You’ll see why.

For my reading break, I booked a week in California, soaking up the sun with a friend of mine from Bible college. To save myself money, I booked the most inconvenient trip—three flights spanning an entire day. Needless to say, when I landed in Sacramento, I was utterly spent.

The first two flights were blissfully uneventful. But before I could board my final flight from Denver to Sacramento, I had a four-hour layover, and for its entirety, I sat in a chair. Just, sat. When the airline agent came to assist me to my gate, I was stiff, cramped and relieved for the opportunity to stretch my legs.

Pre-boarding was just beginning as I arrived and I was passed off to the airline agent for my flight. From here, it was a short walk down the ramp and on to the aircraft, and as I’d walked on and off all my flights and through the airports, I expected to walk this also. But the agent had another idea.

Many blind travelers that I’ve spoken to have been offered a wheelchair as a means of getting from point A to point B. While I know some visually impaired individuals prefer this method—it can be less stressful, faster and easier to manage luggage—it’s never been a method I use or appreciate. I prefer to walk, and I said as much to the agent who had a wheelchair at the ready for me.

“Oh, no thanks,” I said.
“Honey,” she said, her tone not at all kind, “you need to sit in this wheelchair so we can get you on to the plane.” She proceeded to grab my arm and pull me down into the chair, knocking me off balance. I stood up and planted myself firmly in front of her.
“I would prefer to walk on to the plane, thanks.” I could almost see the glare I knew she was giving me.
“Honey.” Again, that tone. “You’re making a scene in front of all these people, and you’re holding up the line. Just sit in the chair.” Once more, she attempted to physically force my body down into the wheelchair, but I resisted. I was losing my cool quickly, but again, I said, “I don’t need this wheelchair. I prefer to walk, and if I could just take your arm for you to guide me, I’d appreciate it.”

She was right. It was a scene, and I knew my fellow passengers were watching. But I wasn’t making a scene. I was asserting my independence, advocating for my rights, and being denied.

It was then that an angel stepped forward from the crowd of onlookers and said to me, “I could guide you on to the plane. May I?” I have to admit that it was a fight to keep the triumphant smirk off my face as I took the woman’s elbow and walked down the ramp and onto the plane. As it turns out, this woman was returning home from visiting her aging mother who was visually impaired.

I was exhausted and fuming by the time I fell into the arms of my friend. And even now, five years later, I find myself reliving this experience and asking myself the same question:

Why are disabled people valued less than the systems in place to serve them?

During that trip to California, I was patronized, verbally dismissed, and physically coerced, the result of which was the unmistakable feeling that my life as a disabled person isn’t worth as much as an able-bodied person’s.

But Rhianna, isn’t that a bit exaggerated?

No. Not when I’ve lived two decades as a disabled woman and continue to hear and endure countless experiences like this, and worse. Being disabled has forced me to take a good, long look at the world I live in and see it for what it is. Too often, it’s an ablest, discriminatory place with people and systems that show an unwillingness to learn, change, and do better for their fellow people.

But people can’t do better unless they’re taught how.
I won’t claim to know how to accomplish this because it isn’t merely an attitudinal change but a systemic one and I’m only one voice out of a global community facing these challenges. But I’m doing what I can, sharing my perspective as someone who lives in this reality, and praying that it might spark one person to action.

So to the woman at the Denver airport, I say this:
I’m not mad that you offered me a wheelchair.
I’m not mad that you were following the directives of your company’s policy regarding passengers like me.
I’m not mad that you assumed I needed the help. After all, that’s what you’re lead to believe by the world around you.
But I am mad that you didn’t value me enough to listen, and trust that I know what’s best for me. I’m hurt that you didn’t respect my body enough to treat it with care and consent. I’m disappointed that it was a fellow passenger who stepped into help while your coworkers stood by in silence. I’m angry that in a society that prides itself on equality for all, I was treated like anything but an equal.
I did not feel like a person in that moment, but rather a task on your to-do list.

And now I ask the all-important question:
Now that you know how, will you work to make a change?

HOW AN ACCESSIBLE WORLD FEELS AND WHY I’LL NEVER STOP ADVOCATING FOR ONE

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.

Accessibility.

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.

MY BLIND GIRL ESSENTIALS LIST

If writing is like my Daddy’s homemade pancakes for Sunday dinner, making lists are the maple syrup I drown them in.

I make lists for everything–to-do lists, grocery lists, clothing inventory lists, even lists to organize my lists. Yes, I am that person. My brain thrives on it to keep me organized, and… it’s fun!

So, I thought it might be fun to share a list with you of the six things that are essential for my life as a blind woman. This is of course, not a comprehensive list and not meant to speak for all blind and visually impaired people, but these are the things that make my life a little [or a lot] easier and I cannot live without. Here we go!

I. My Guide Dog

Arguably the most important thing on an essentials list for any blind or visually impaired individual is a mobility aid. For many, this is a white cane like this one that I own from The Braille Superstore. For others, a guide dog is their aid of choice. Some rely more heavily on the assistance of others through the use of sighted guide, a technique wherein the sighted person offers guidance by having the blind individual hold their elbow. And for others still, their remaining vision is enough to see them safely about—visual impairment is a spectrum and not every person with an impairment needs a mobility aid.

In becoming blind at six, I was taught to use a white cane. I learned various techniques for maneuvering through my environments, both at school, in my neighbourhood and in the broader community. The skills one learns with a white cane are invaluable, and are necessary if, like me, you wanted to transition to working with a guide dog.

Now, I work with a guide dog, and it is only thanks to the dedication of my orientation and mobility [O&M] instructors and my own perseverance that I’m here. For me, a guide dog is undoubtedly the best decision for my mobility needs, but it is not for everyone. However, having a reliable mobility aid is non-negotiable for the safety of a blind individual.

II. My iPhone

My iPhone is an invaluable part of my life, and not merely for entertainment purposes. Sure, I play my fair share of Battleship on Blindfold Sea Battle, but it is a vital tool for my independence, safety and wellbeing.

There are several apps that I use on a daily basis to be more independent and self-sufficient and help my life to run a bit smoother on the whole. These range from apps that offer sighted assistance for varying tasks, to navigation, and apps with AI [artificial intelligence].

Here are three apps that I use daily and would be lost without:

  • Seeing AI — This app has so many features that I love. Being fully blind with no light perception, I make regular use of the Light channel which outputs a tone which increases in pitch when pointed in the direction of more light and decreases when it becomes darker. This is awesome for knowing if I’ve left my lights on by accident! This app is also how I take my own photos, as after I snap a picture, Seeing Ai describes the photo for me–for example, when taking a photo of my dog on his bed, the app has said, “A dog lying on a rug.” Seeing AI has the capability of reading product labels and pages of text, making it handy for distinguishing between food cans, boxes and packages or incoming mail. For all these features and lots more, it is on the homescreen of my phone for quick access.
  • Moovit — This is a navigation app that helps me to feel confident in planning travel on public transit independently. Enter your starting location and a destination, and the app maps out the route, including all stops and arrival/departure times. While on the bus, you can monitor which stops you are passing, making it easy and efficient to get off at the correct stop. It’s fully accessible for blind users and is my main navigation tool when out and about.
  • Microsoft SoundScape — Another navigation app, SoundScape assists me while out on a walk by calling out the names of the streets I pass and the intersections I’m approaching. It can mark locations that you travel to regularly, and will describe your immediate surrounding and any landmarks in the vicinity such as parks, schools or community buildings. This app has saved me on more than one occasion when I’ve been out walking and gotten myself turned around; I use the app’s descriptions of my location to reorient to the correct direction and continue on safely. An absolute must-have!

III. A Perkins Braille Writer

Braille is an essential part of many blind individuals’ lives. However, it may surprise you to know, and saddens me to no end, that “fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in the United States are braille readers.” In my life, I’ve come to adore braille, finding it absolutely essential in becoming independent. It promotes literacy skills and gives me greater access to education.

Having a way to produce braille is a very important part of my life as a blind woman. While in school, I used a Perkins braille writer like this one but only recently received one of my own through CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind]. Nothing makes me quite as happy as the satisfying sound of braille being impressed onto the paper by my own fingers and then being able to instantly read pages of handwritten braille… it gives me chills.

IV. My Braille Bible

Because of my love for braille, a hard-copy, braille Bible definitely has a place on my essentials list. My first Bible was this 37-volume item produced by Lutheran Braille Workers, but after years of wear and tear and flattened dots, I now read this beautiful, hard-cover Bible in New King James translation. It’s big, inconvenient to store and nearly impossible to take along outside the house, but I find it easier and more enjoyable to read in this fashion rather than simply listening on audio–it’s a more immersive experience and something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

V. Tactile Dots

While seemingly small, tactile dots play a significant role in my day to day life. These dots, varying in their size, texture and shape, are used in a multitude of ways. From marking the buttons on my microwave, to the temperature controls on my oven, to the cycles of my washer and dryer, these dots are invaluable. I’ve found them at stores dedicated to adaptive equipment for the blind, or simply at the local dollar store. They needn’t be anything fancy, but without them, I’d be lost and much more dependent than I like to be.

VI. Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain which helps to regulate the wake-and-sleep cycle. Because light intake is directly related to melatonin production, totally blind individuals like myself often struggle with keeping a steady circadian rhythm. Struggling with sleep as a preteen, my ophthalmologist recommended I take a melatonin supplement each night to help keep my sleep pattern on track, and I’ve taken it every night since.

As a teenager, I came close to having Non-24-Hour Sleep Wake Disorder, a condition that “causes sleep and wake times to get pushed progressively earlier or later, usually by one or two hours at a time. Over days or weeks, the circadian rhythm becomes desynchronized from regular daylight hours.” It’s a very disruptive sleep disorder and taking melatonin nightly is how I’ve maintained a sleep schedule which keeps me functioning at my best. Though melatonin affects every person differently, I’ve found absolutely essential to my health and wellbeing, and I’m lost without it. I personally recommend Nature’s Harmony, though keep in mind that I speak only from personal experience and have no medical background. This is merely what works best for me.

There you have it, my blind girl essentials list! I hope you had fun reading, because believe me, I had more fun than you’d think writing this list for you!

So, what’s on your essentials list? Let me know in the comments.