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The Joys and Perils of Guide Dogging

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired

In celebration of National Guide Dog Month, we are re-sharing this post from former College Success Program Mentor, Alecia Iwima. Alecia shares the benefits of having a guide dog, but also the struggles that can come with it. She shows us that it's okay to chose a cane over a guide dog or a guide dog over a cane, it's a preference and all about what works for you. And just because you chose one, doesn't mean you have to stick with it forever. Be sure to read the About the Author section at the end of the blog for an update on Alecia and whether she's still using a cane or working with a guide dog again. This post originally appeared on Learning Ally's blog on October 23, 2017. 

The Joys and Perils of Guide Dogging
By Alecia Iwima, former College Success Program Mentor and Avid Blogger

Dear 85% of the People I've Met in the past 6 years,

I forgive you.

For devouring me with your eyes every time I walked into a room. For announcing me as an exhibit. For withholding from me the freedom to be known. For blatantly disregarding my requests and my safety. For the guilt trips and the invasive questions and the forgetfulness of my personhood. I forgive you. You didn't know what you were doing.

And neither did I. The first time I traveled with my guide dog at night, I was overwhelmed to tears with a sense of liberty. I weaved effortlessly with her through mazes of tables and poles and people, none of which I could discern through the darkness. She faithfully alerted me to street corners and uneven sidewalks and obstacles; nobody cooed and nobody stared. I felt confident and unhindered and empowered.

And I don't regret having gotten her. But when I left the town where we trained - where life was on pause and everyone was accustomed to the sight of cute guide puppies - things were different. For the first three years with Brownie, I spent the vast majority of my time on a small college campus in the middle of nowhere. Within two weeks of her arrival, everyone was used to Brownie's existence and educated on service dog etiquette. During the day, I hardly needed her, and at night her guide work was inconsistent. But I loved not having to wait for my eyes to adjust before maneuvering a crowded room and not having to struggle to see stairs. She quickly found doors and empty pathways. It was a substantial amount of work to care for her and to maintain her training, but she was helpful. Besides, I loved her, and surely it would all pay off when we moved to a big city, right?

In the fall of 2014 I relocated to Dallas, Texas. I am pretty extroverted and always surrounded by people and, as it is usually not feasible to use a guide dog and talk with friends at the same time, it was common for me to have Brownie with me but not end up using her much. She was also slowly beginning to develop a lot of anxiety, which made her guide work tentative and halting, and eventually rendered her unable to travel in cars without being terrified. And this was not my tiny private college anymore: I was in the vicinity of new people almost every day. And all of them loved dogs; all of them "just couldn't help" but caress/talk to her; all of them had a story about their pet or a question about my blindness or a comment about her appearance. And yet, somehow, at the same time, none of them saw me. It wasn't just you. It was normal. And you couldn't have known you were the twelfth one that day.

Brownie was a pretty good guide, but I hated the constant attention so much that, for the first time in my life, I came to dread social gatherings; for the first time in my life, I thought you were my enemy. You existed to assail me with discomfort whenever I entered the public sphere - to show up and say something that would strip me of my ability to enjoy a lively party or a beautiful concert; worse than that, you existed to convince me that I was not a person beyond her - that my essence was in her and that I was not worth knowing apart from her. Sometimes, Twelfth Person That Day, I was terse with you and impatient. Sometimes, I hated you for your insensitivity and inconsiderateness, without ever having engaged in a real conversation with you. I derided you with my friends and fantasized about angry Facebook posts I could write in your honor. You made a thoughtless comment one morning at Walmart, but I made a consistent decision not to love you. Please forgive me. I didn't know what I was doing.

And it's over now. I retired my guide dog in July, and have been using a cane ever since. It is not able to guide me through mazes of tables or quickly locate exits, but I am again overwhelmed with a sense of liberty. The truth is, canes just don't incite acts of unintentional dehumanization the way dogs do. No one comments; no one stares. For the first time in six years, you're remembering to ask my name! When you initiate conversations with me now, it's about the weather or my work or my life. It's refreshing to be able to stow away my mobility device at my leisure, and to not need to constantly be monitoring the behavior of an animal or of the people who take interest in it, but it is most of all refreshing to be finally seen.

With no resentment now, I recognize that some of you are wondering, "But how do you get around with out her?" Because, I confess, I was often too impatient with your "ignorance" to quell it, even when you asked. Guide dogs are trained to avoid obstacles, while canes are designed to detect them. Neither a cane nor a dog can function in place of a personal sense of direction: just as a cane is unable to take me to science class on command or tell me how to cross a street, neither is a guide dog capable of performing those tasks. Each, then, comes equipped with its own advantages and disadvantages. While a cane is unable to discern a pathway through a restaurant, for instance, most dogs are unable to reliably identify signposts or texture changes that may be extremely helpful landmarks for a blind pedestrian. While a dog can be taught to follow people or locate specific objects on command, a cane requires no training or maintenance whatsoever. A dog will stop to alert you to a patch of uneven sidewalk; a cane will show you the exact nature of its unevenness. It's a preference thing.

I'm thankful to be able to have this conversation with you, now that I'm slightly removed from the experience. But I'm even more thankful that, as a cane user for the time being, I can participate in my community knowing that there will be no Twelfth Person to have it with tomorrow.

About the Author
Alecia Iwima served as a mentor for the College Success Program and is now beginning her second year of law school. After taking a break from working with a guide dog, she realized that traveling with a cane was not conducive to her particular lifestyle. So, she switched from working with a very people-oriented golden retriever to working with an intimidating German shepherd, and interference from the public greatly decreased.