Regarding Access To Digital Publications: An Open Letter To the ARRL

Several years ago, the ARRL, our country’s ham radio organization, began publishing its monthly membership magazine, QST, electronically, both on the web and in a smart phone application. Unfortunately, the web version was Flash based, and the iOS version just plain didn’t read with Voiceover. Naturally, the blind ham community was pretty disappointed, because, while we do get QST from the NLS talking book program, it’s delayed from the printed and electronic edition, and doesn’t include advertising. (It used to be even more delayed and not include a bunch of other stuff, too, so that’s improved.) Parenthetically, of course we want to see the ads. After all, it’s the best way to learn about new gear, right?

Back in 2014, my friend Rob and I had the chance to talk to QST‘s publisher, steve Ford, about this problem of their inaccessible magazine. He told us then that they would look into it more, that a publication usable by us was possible, they just had to figure out the best way to handle it, words to that effect at any rate.

A week or so ago, we got word that the electronic QST was changing formats, and since this new one was HTML 5 and not Flash, maybe i would be usable. I was pretty hopeful anyway, as HTML5 is not inherently problematic in the way Flash is.

It was not to be, however. First, we got suggestion that it should work, because it worked with this thing that I’d never heard of. Then, this evening, we got another note saying that no, it didn’t work with JAWS or Zoomtext. Sure enough, I tried the sample provided, and it didn’t work on the Mac either.

I wrote the below email a couple hours ago and sent it to the person who was in touch with another blind ham. Apparently Allison Mclellan works with Steve Ford on QST.

Anyway, here’s my reaction and what I wrote to the ARRL via Allison. Some may think I’m overreacting. That’s OK. But the fact is that the ARRL had offers of assistance. Even if they didn’t, they know who in the membership roster signs up for the blind membership and could have asked. (They didn’t have to, I know I’m not the only one who offered to help or asked about this.) So what other conclusion can I have drawn?

Hello Ms. Mclellan,

Please feel free to share my comments with whoever should see them, including the general membership if you so desire.

Thank you for corresponding with Tom Fowle and others on this issue. I was excited, if apprehensive, about the changes that are going into effect for the new digital QST. I remember talking to Steve Ford about the issue of access to the digital QST by blind hams during the 100th ARRL anniversary convention. At that time, he told me and my friend Rob, KB5UJM, in his office, that accessibility was possible, they just had to figure out with the publisher how to implement it. I was disappointed to see no real movement on this, but I understand how slowly change can be brought about.

I really must express my extreme disappointment, therefore, at how the issue of accessibility was, or rather was not, handled while implementing the changes ARRL has. While I’m pleased that you have apparently been tasked with dialoguing with our community, it seems to me that this is playing catch up, at best, and a token effort at worst. Here you have an untapped resource that is willing and able to assist you: a group of tech savvy blind members, and I know at least a few of us had volunteered our assistance directly. Untapped, yes; during these developments, was any effort made to reach out to your tech savvy blind members to ask for help, even with testing to see if the solution you had could be made to work? I was certainly never contacted, and, judging by your response, neither was anyone else.

Before I go on, you’ve hit a couple of the major accessibility tools. Voiceover on the Mac and iPhone, and the free NVDA screen reader, are a couple more. I had a quick look with Voiceover with as little success as you had with JAWS and Zoomtext. I don’t think the accessibility tool in use will make much difference.

Here’s the real question. Are we or are we not valued members of the amateur radio community in general, and the ARRL in particular? Does the League, an organization to which I have a lifetime membership, consider me fully able to contribute to the hobby, or am I just a charity case that this great hobby can only serve to be a little bright spot in my otherwise pathetic little life?

Of course we all enjoy the recorded version of QST. We’re pleased that we now have very little of the content removed now. We enjoy it several weeks after everyone else. While this has certainly improved since I first became a ham 29 years ago (now we have, say, a three-week lag instead of a six-week or more lag), even that lag sometimes leaves us scrambling to keep up with events, not to mention being left out of the conversation when all the other guys in our radio clubs are discussing the new QST that just landed on their doorsteps. I understand completely that this used to be unavoidable, and the recorded version was, and still is, a great solution. But now, with the advent of readily available (and cheaper) hardware and software that we can use, we should have options, and many of the barriers to full inclusion are becoming more and more artificial. Including access to digital publications.

Of course we’re willing to help make better access happen, but we can’t do it without the ARRL first asking for help and providing us with the ability to help. Of course we want to be full and equal members of the ham community. And, for my part, I’d happily pay full membership price, not the blind rate, for full, equal, and timely access (yes, including all the ads, we want to drool, too!) to QST.

Response to “16Benefits of Being Blind”

Well, it appears to be my lot in life, at least lately, to rain on parades.

Maybe I should quit reading Twitter, because that, again, is where this all started. I came across this article, and I was interested to see just what these advantages might be. Sure, I wouldn’t say blindness is horrible, and there are advantages to be had in everything.

Unfortunately, the advantages listed here aren’t, at least to my mind, advantages at all. Most of them are perceptions I see as actually harmful to our struggle for equal treatment and equal status.

I suppose it’s possible that I’ve had my sense of humor amputated. Read the article for yourself, and have a look at my thoughts below. You be the judge.

I hasten to add that I bear no ill will toward Max. I actually like Max and respect his achievements. He’s done a lot of interesting things. It isn’t everyone who brokers deals on amusement park rides, after all, among other things. I certainly hope Max doesn’t take my comments too personally.

OK, here we go.

16 Benefits of Being Blind

1. You don’t get asked to help people move.

You also don’t get asked to do much of anything else. Because apparently, there’s some disconnect between eyeballs and muscles involved in carrying and toting, at least as far as moving goes. The extension to not being asked to help move, or really much of anything else, is that it can make a fella feel kind of useless. When your job is to “Sit over there out of the way”, that’s hardly an advantage. You’re not asked to help because you’re not expected to be able to help. In fact, you’re probably incapable of being of much help at all. If you can’t help with something like that, how can you be expected to hold down a job or contribute in any other meaningful way? In short, you can’t. Not being asked to help move is more a symptom of a much larger problem of low, or no expectations.

2. You don’t have to be the designated driver… ever.

Well, you know, I guess it’s all right, after all, blind people can really put it away. Just go to a blindness convention if you don’t believe me. Unfortunately, you can’t be the designated driver. No choice there.

3. You can read in the dark – if it’s in Braille.

I really can’t argue with this! Now if only we could get more braille, not to mention cheaper braille, and a higher literacy rate. 10% literacy would be deemed absolutely unacceptable were it any other population, but it’s OK for us for some reason.

4. You don’t have to buy light bulbs or have a night-light on your bedside table.

My sighted family members, and even my legally blind ones, would object most vociferously to this! I guess this would be an advantage if you also never had visitors. Sure, it’s probably true that we’re so scary that we don’t get lots of visitors (seems to be the case at my house, anyway), but it’s only polite to accommodate the light dependent.

5. You save money on your Hydro bill.

I don’t! If you mean because of the lights, well…that will be less a thing with LED lightbulbs. On the other hand, I’ve got a whole pile of gadgets that unfortunately require electricity.

6. You get special treatment or bonuses.

I’d really rather not have either. You get special treatment because society feels sorry for you. I’d much rather society not feel sorry for me and treat me as an equal. That means that I wish to accept all of the rights, and the responsibilities, that this entails. I’d really rather not be allowed to cut lines or employ handicapped parking, for example. My legs work fine. I’d trade all of these “perks” for a much lower unemployment rate.

7. You don’t have to be the map-reader when traveling with friends on a road trip.

Because your friends don’t expect you to be. They don’t actually expect you to do much of anything besides sit your ass in the car. The really great news is that you can be the navigator now, with talking GPS and iOS and Android-based GPS and all manner of GPS. Not to mention your own perhaps formidable knowledge of how-to get around wherever you live. If I’m familiar with a place, I must say I can give pretty good directions.

8. You can avoid looking at unpleasant things, like a gory accident, or something else that’s disgusting.

While it’s true you can’t unsee something that’s been seen, assuming you’re sighted, not being able to see it doesn’t make those things less real.

9. You’ll never get asked to paint or wallpaper a room during home renovations.

I have been. Of course, I won’t be picking out colors, and I’ve never done it before, but I still have been. Actually, the same person who asked me to help move some stuff around her house has also asked that I help with some other bits of home improvement. I’ve already warned her that whatever I help with had better be unskilled, because I don’t have any skills, but it’s sure nice to be asked all the same, because my friend actually believes that I can contribute something. Really, it’s pretty nice to not be told to sit over there out of the way for a change. Again, it’s all down to general expectations. I’d much rather someone have some expectations for me, rather than thinking I’m incapable of contributing.

10. You’ll never get asked for directions.

Oh, how not true! See the map reading question above.

11. When you ask for directions, most people will be friendlier.

Really? Are people really friendlier to blind people who ask for directions? I don’t know if this is true or not. If it is, it sucks for others. Whether it’s true or not, the downside is that most people can’t give directions. “Over there” or “That way” are definitely not advantages.

12. You don’t have to decorate.

Nice to accommodate the light dependents. Decorating is certainly not my forte, but I fortunately have friends who are better at that than I am!

13. You save money when buying a smaller TV or phone, because all you really need is the sound, not a big screen.

Well…there’s actually some truth to this, assuming again you’re living by yourself and don’t have other people who like television.

14. You can’t see that spider on the wall. You know, the one that’s inching closer to you right now.

OK, that’s pretty funny right there. Until the spider bites you.

15. You can use your blindness as an excuse to get out of doing certain chores (even though you are perfectly capable of doing them yourself).

OMG. For real? Really? I know you didn’t actually say this. Say it with me, ladies and gentlemen. Low expectations. Do you really think that having people think you’re pretty useless is an advantage? I sure don’t.

16. You don’t have to put up with dirty looks from others. How can you? You can’t see them!

So they don’t much matter. They sure don’t to me. It’s not an issue.

Benefits of Having a Blind Friend

You can roll your eyes as often as you want, and not be judged.

You can flip your friend the bird (give him/her the finger) when you get frustrated with him/her… and you can even laugh about it.

OK, so essentially, what you’re saying is that you can be a rude asshole, and your friend won’t know any better. That isn’t very friendly, and I’d be very, very disappointed in any friend who treated me with so little respect or regard, because I never would do that to someone else.

You can lie to his/her face about the new outfit he/she loves, even if you think it’s hideous.

Again, you can be a rude asshole. And disrespectful. And, in the long run, hurt your friend’s feelings by lying to him, rather than tactfully saying that the outfit s/he loves is probably not appropriate or is ugly or whatever. You really think that’s OK? You’re a shitty friend, and eventually, your blind friend will hear the truth and be really hurt by the fact that you’re a shitty friend.

Benefits of Dating a Blind Man

You never have to worry about a bad hair day, or wearing make-up.

Hell, you don’t have to worry about those things anyway. It’s a choice. While it’s true that the blind person will love you anyway, it’s equally true that unless you’re going on a date to a cave because you’re embarrassed to be seen with a blind person, you’ll be seen by lots of other people. Do you care what they think? Again, your choice, but do you really think so little of yourself, or your partner?

Your socks don’t have to match.

My friend Andrea tells me that this is actually a thing these days. Do as you like.

You can walk around naked without being self-conscious.

What’s stopping you anyway? And why should my presence make any difference?

You can pretend to be taller by wearing heels.

Really? Shallow much?

You can say you’re a blonde, even if you’re not. How’s he going to know?

And who cares? Again, you think he’s not going to talk to other people ever? Damn…I’m sure glad you’re not my girlfriend! Grow the hell up…this is high school shit.

Benefits of Dating a Blind Woman

They are pretty much the same as the benefits of dating a blind man, but when you date a blind woman, you don’t have to wait forever for her to fix her make-up or her hair, or try on 50 different outfits before she decides upon one that is simply “perfect.”

I ask you. How many blind women have you dated? I’m here to tell you, blind women are as obsessed with their appearance as sighted women are, maybe more so because they’re expected to not be put together very well.

You also don’t have to wait for her to apply polish to her fingernails. She’ll have already had someone do it for her. (Of course, that person might be you!)

Umm…really? So blind women don’t do their own makeup? Many do, and without your rotten help, thank you very much. Again, low or no expectations. Definitely not an advantage.

If you have a lot of pimples on your chest, you can play a game (or trick) on her. Just tell her you created a special love message in Braille for her, and see if she can decipher it!

This seriously doesn’t even merit comment, it just doesn’t. It isn’t even funny.

You will never awaken to screams for you to kill a spider. (Unless she feels one crawling on her!)

What’s with the spiders anyway?

Anyway, lest you think I have no sense of humor, could be you’re right. I sure get a chuckle out of boneheaded things I do, or things that happen to me. I think my friend Holly said it best:

I also think that the distinction is between being able to laugh at things that are actually funny, and things that are always, no matter how you look at it, damaging. If I walk into something I might laugh with my friends, it was a mistake and I was being careless. But a lot of these things, like, people never asking you to help, they actually prevent blind people from having employment opportunities. If someone doesn’t think I’m capable of helping them, am I also not capable of working? Of getting an education? The fact that people don’t ask us to help them move, or to do chores is a direct result of them believing we are less able, which, as we know has very real implications.

Couldn’t have said it better.

By the way, my friend BlindBeader wrote this blog post sort of indirectly addressing this same topic. She’s a lot less ranty and has a lot more class than I have.

Update #2: In the interest of full disclosure and “fair and balanced”, Max has responded to my post, which I sent a link to on his blog. He rightly points out that just sending a link with little commentary (I just said my reaction was different than others on his site) would probably be labeled as spam and not read by most bloggers and would be marked as spam. He’s right of course, but I also didn’t think he’d like me putting my whole response in a comment. Anyway, his response is on the comments section of the blog, linked above. For your convenience however, here’s his response in its entirety:

Hi Buddy; I actually read your post objectively, and you will notice that I haven’t deleted the link to it. Most web masters would have seen this as spam as the point to comment luv is you enter your url and then your latest post is automatically displayed. However, my point is that you wrote a great post. You gave me credit for my own achievements and then spotlighted the flaws you see in it. I should mention two things. One the post was written in fun. It was never intended to be a serious look at advantages and disadvantages of being blind. And since posting it I’ve had many people tell me that they will no longer omit their blind or otherwise apparently disabled friends when needing to move, getting directions, choosing colors, etc. I should also mention that I used to help move a 45 by 75 ft. roller coster 40 weeks out of the year so everyone in my family knows I can help move. They actually look for me first when heavy lifting is needed. They leave me out when fragile delicate items are involved. 🙂 I chose the colors for my website. They were exceedingly bright but lead to conversations rather than getting in the way of sales. I get your point. I’ll try to be more serious, you try to be a little less so? What do you say my friend? And don’t get down on twitter. Blogs need comments and twitter is one of the best ways to get them. After all would you have seen this post without twitter? Many blessings to you, Max

I should note here that it’s highly unlikely that I would actually stop reading twitter. Sometimes doing so is a bit like watching a road accident, admittedly, but other times it’s not and generates interesting discussions.

Sorting Through My Feelings: Can’t I Just Be Happy?!

I have a couple of things I want to write, and that I’ve been intending to write, but this one maybe can’t wait.

Reading through twitter, I came across this article. Mind you, it’s not the first sort of article I’ve seen like it, but I had a reaction to it.

OK, I had a couple reactions to it. First, I hated the headline, because it just sounds icky and like inspiration porn may well be coming.

That really wasn’t all though. I read the article, and I thought, “I think that family’s going to be disappointed”.

Wow, I’m usually not so negative about things.

I’ve seen other articles about the next big thing that would offer some sort of sight for some kinds of blind people, and usually, I think, well now…that’s interesting. Usually, the people who benefit from these things are those who have had sight before and have lost it due to accident or to a genetic condition like RP. So what’s the deal with this one? Why the negative reaction?

Before I go on, I want to say that I hope I’m wrong. Being wrong would make me very happy, and being right would not. If these glasses are everything this family hopes they are, I will be the first (well, second maybe) to be happy for them.

There are probably several things going on here. First, I think it’s an expectations setting problem. If this kid’s sight is bad enough that he really can’t read print, I’m fairly sure that learning to do so will at least take a lot of time, at best. In any case, at least the way the story is framed, it seems they’re hoping these glasses will solve all of his blindness problems, and I’m thinking that it just isn’t so. Anyway, everything I’ve read suggests that, if you don’t learn to integrate sight when you’re very young, doing so later isn’t easy, and may even be fairly traumatic. Maybe my reaction would be less negative if this family had different expectations. I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m discussing this article with a friend who happens to be sighted, and she asks me something that I thought about just a little bit before she asked me. “Could you…perhaps….just a little bit….be jealous?”

This is indeed a possibility, and it’s a possibility I kind of hate. You see, I’m just not the brooding, bitter, jealous type, not at all. I’ve got a full life, with friends and a family. I’ve traveled, not only to many of the states, but to other countries. I’ve shared my life with amazing people, not to mention amazing animals. I’ve had fulfilling jobs. (I’ve had the soul sucking kind too. And, really, there are aspects of sight that I find, frankly, kind of frightening and overwhelming.

OK, so yes, there are things I wish I could do but can’t. I wish I could enjoy the sunsets and pictures and the silent bits in movies where everyone’s laughing uproariously and I have no clue why. I wish I could drive. I wish I could read printed things without either asking someone or relying on sometimes unreliable technology, even just to pick up any book I wanted whenever I wanted. I wish I didn’t have to work twice as hard for half the credit. But you know, these are the cards I’ve been dealt, and I’m fine with that. Usually. Most of the time.

So…Is there some jealousy there? Because this kid may have something that I likely never will? Even though it’s not necessarily something I’ve really spent a lot of time missing?

Maybe. And I hate that.

But what I hate more is that I can’t be happy for this family’s joy and hope for this new thing. And I really wish I could.

Update: oh dear. Thanks to Holly, or maybe no thanks…anyway…I read their fundraising page, and I think maybe I don’t feel so bad about feeling so bad. Actually, now I’m a little bit disgusted. Mom is saying that her son can’t, can’t can’t, can’t, can’t, unless he gets eSight glasses. Can’t use a computer, which he’ll need to do for high school. (My question is, why has he not been getting access to a computer by now? Somebody ha failed this kid.) He can’t go to college unless he gets eSight glasses. (Really? Blind people were doing that before the advent of lots of really useful technology.) And lots of other can’ts that just aren’t so. Yeah. Somebody really short changed this kid and his mother, and they apparently either don’t really know what’s possible or they’re really pulling at the heartstrings of other people who don’t know what’s possible. Sadly typical.

“But…You Don’t Look Blind”

Inspired by this post, I decided to take her challenge, even though she’s said it about as well as anyone I’ve seen.

Sure, we’ve all heard it, or anyway, all of us who are blind have heard it. We know its intent, too. Of course it’s intended as a compliment. Is it a compliment?

As I’m so fond of saying, words mean things. Be careful which ones you use. “But…you don’t look blind”, “You don’t act blind”, “Wow, I forget you’re blind” have subtexts that you may not have considered, or even thought of, and probably didn’t intend, although if you think about them for a second, you might see them next time.

My first reaction when someone says that I don’t “look/act blind” is, naturally, “Really? What’s blind supposed to look/act like?” Usually, if I ask, it comes down to a lack of sureness or confidence, a slow and halting step, a bumbling and stumbling one’s way through life, things I don’t generally do (though, admittedly, sometimes doesn’t everybody?) So, the statement really points up a preconception that I, somehow, don’t fit into. I must, therefore, be special or better, or something. I assure you, I’m neither special nor better.

Some people may get this comment because their eyes look “normal”. I’m pretty sure mine don’t, if only because I don’t open them very wide, so that really can’t be why I get it sometimes. Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious I’m blind, and I’m OK with that. Sure makes some people edgy though!

Oh, but I didn’t mean it that way, I meant that, you know, you just function so normally. I mean, you do everything. You shop and travel and play games and use the computer and have a daughter and animals. That’s kind of amazing.

Stop.

Or put another way, when you’ve found yourself in a hole, stop digging.

I get it. I know you meant to say something nice, express admiration, even express that, “were our roles reversed, I’d curl up and die”, or something. Your intentions were good and kind, and I appreciate your intentions. But this is what I hear:

“Blind people don’t do normal things like have kids, pets, or hobbies, they don’t go anywhere, they need someone to mind them, they certainly don’t travel alone. Can’t expect much out of them really, what with their affliction and all.”

So you’re amazed today. What about tomorrow when you’ve decided that I’ve run up against some thing you just don’t think I can cope with?

Am I a one off? Am I really that special? Or is it just a fluke, and at midnight my carriage turns back into a pumpkin?

I have a friend who says that the greatest compliment you can pay a person who is blind is to forget that s/he has a disability. Really, I couldn’t disagree more. No, I am not my disability, but my disability is part of who I am…kind of like my odd sense of humor, penchant for random useless trivia, geek tendencies, love of animals, and sensitive nature. No, I’d say the greatest compliment you could pay would be to understand that I have a disability, then Move on and for god’s sake treat me like a human being anyway. Not an object of pity, not an object of misplaced awe and admiration, not Superman, not an incompetent, not a child. Just a human being, same as you. Maybe I’ll need your help with something different, but that’s about it. If you want to compliment me, that would be the highest compliment you could pay me. Ever.

Is It Possible To Be Too Polite And Accommodating?

Marlon will appreciate this.

Not long ago, I made a friend. Yes, I know, it happens to the best of us, and sometimes, to the rest of us. But I managed it somehow, and, after chatting online a while, we managed to meet in meatspace. Since then, we’ve managed to meet up a few times, and she’s helped me out with errand running and shopping and things like that. I’m the first blind person Andrea’s really ever met, or at least been friends with, the case probably more often than it isn’t, but we developed a natural rapport without lots of awkwardness. Even so, a bit of miscommunication in the name of polite accommodation (on both our parts, I hasten to add), now gives us one more thing we can laugh at.

Anyone who knows me knows that I walk at a pretty decent clip. Melanie claims that I don’t walk, that in fact what I do (especially with Leno or one of his predecessors) is run. I think that may be stretching a point, but that’s what she says. Anyway, I told Melanie, after one of my shopping trips with Andrea, that “She’s a pretty slow walker, but at least she’s good company, and she doesn’t complain at the length of my shopping list.” This in sharp contrast to the Walmart greeter who helped me a couple times, who, had he walked any slower we would be going backwards, commented at the length of my shopping list, and would say things like, “Oh, hey, we’re really getting through this list” every 5 minutes or so.

This past Monday, Andrea took me downtown in among both of our errands to renew dog licenses, and to get Hilda her lifetime one. She told me where we were parked, and off I went, then remembered that I maybe should wait for her to catch up. I thought nothing of this, as this isn’t too unusual. Dog licensing completed, we did her shopping and my shopping. It took us a while, time passed, and the day got away from me, but that’s another story.

We were chatting last night, and Andrea mentioned that I was “kind of reckless” crossing streets. I protested that I certainly was not, at least not most of the time, When crossing near the municipal building, I had the traffic light and everything. She says that she was amused, and surprised. I asked, “Why surprised?” She responded, “Because we snail crawl through stores.”

Oh yeah. The lightbulb went on.

She was trying to accommodate me by slowing down. She’s never had a blind friend before, so how did she know? I never said anything, assuming she was just a slow walker…some people are, and I didn’t want to rush her if she was a slow walker. How did I know? After all, when someone’s guiding you, you walk at her speed, right? So here we were, both trying to accommodate a need neither one of us actually had. “My mama taught me to be polite,” I said. “Lol well, at least we can’t be called rude. Slow. Turtle like. Passed by a snail. But not rude. ” It’d probably be a great scene for somebody’s sitcom. You’re welcome. Anyway, we are both relieved that we don’t need to be so polite anymore.

So, just remember. It really is possible to be too polite and accommodating. Y’all blind folks, don’t assume those sighted people really need special accommodations. Sometimes they do, and we have to take their affliction into account by, for example, remembering to turn lights on. Sometimes though, not so much.

A Profound Lesson I Learned With My First Guide Dog

This afternoon on one of the far too many Email discussion lists I’m on, someone posted to remind people getting new dogs that, no, your dog really doesn’t like you yet, and this takes time. He also mentioned where to stick your dog in the car while traveling, but I don’t really want to talk about that. i mention it only for reference purposes, as I bring it up in the below Email that I posted to the list.

—–Email begins—–

While I won’t comment on dog placement in vehicles, after all, we all do the best we can–I mean, leaving the house is a dangerous proposition, as is staying home–I do want to echo what Mike says about our dogs liking us, or not, when we meet them.

I learned what is, I believe, one of the most valuable things I’ve ever heard from my first guide dog class, at another school, lo these 17 years ago. During the lecture preceding our getting new dogs, when we were being told what to expect and everyone found out what everyone was getting, yeah they do it differently there, our instructor, Dan, said the following. This was so profound to me, and so valuable, I think I have it memorized verbatim:

If someone were to ask your dog, he would say that he has no interest in meeting you, much less in becoming your lifelong partner and companion.

Dan went on to say that, because of this fact, it is incumbent upon us, and entirely our responsibility, to make friends.

This is so at odds with the popular literature, all those feel-good books and stories where the dog is looking forward to his life’s work, where he just lives and waits for you, that special person, to enter his life. To learn, in such blunt terms, that this is not, in fact, the case, was a real revelation, even though, looking at it from the dog’s point of view, it made sense pretty quickly.

This, much more than the mechanics of guide work, is what is most important about class, I think. Learning proper commands, foot placement and hand signals, and all the rest, is really pretty easy. The tricky bit is adapting those lessons to a very unique other being, and gaining that other being’s trust and confidence, as both of you get to know each other and learn to, at first, work together, and eventually, love each other. Both hearts are willing in their own fashion, I think, but not in the way that all the fairy tales would have it.

The amazing thing is that this stuff works at all.

Have fun out there, guys.

—-End—–

This bit of wisdom has stood me in good stead through all three dogs. The romanticized thing that we always see, in the kids’ books about guide dogs, even from guide ddog users who write about the guide dog match (sometimes from the dog’s supposed point of view), even in guide dog school literature, is a nice, feel good thing. Sure, we all want to think that our dogs are just waiting their whole lives to meet us. The story we tell each other is they know they have this special purpose, that they know that they’re destined for some greater, selfless life. This is so at odds with reality though, no matter how good it makes us feel to tell each other the story. I’m not sure it serves any useful purpose though; certainly it doesn’t give the prospective guide dog user a real picture of what’s involved. Maybe it makes donors feel good, although I think that how things really work is pretty darned amazing even without the fairy tale. The real story, though not as rosy and full of destiny and misplaced anthropomorphism, really is as interesting, as exciting, and ultimately, as heartwarming, as the fairy tale.

These dogs are specially bred for a particular purpose, it’s true. All the guide dog schools have had breeding programs for decades, where they keep track of health problems, temperament, suitability to the work, soundness of mind and body, all sorts of things. I’m sure that they’ve got charts and graphs and family trees and dogs rated on this or that characteristic. In fact, Jack Humphrey, one of the guys that was instrumental in the Seeing Eye’s earliest days, compiled such a list and published a book with a study on the desirability of certain traits in working dogs. I understand that much of Jack’s initial training and selection work is still the backbone of the Seeing Eye’s work today, some 75 or so years after he finished putting it all together. I’m sure the other schools have similar records and procedures, and I know there’s a certain amount of knowledge shared between programs.

True as this is, however, the dogs don’t know any of it. THink of the transitions they go through in just a couple of short years. At eight weeks or so old, they’re taken away from their mother and go to live with a family. This family raises them and loves them, and new puppy loves the family. This is his world. He forms an attachment to these people, and he learns lots of useful things, like how to sit, lie down, ignore tempting things, stay off furniture, how to behave in public, react calmly to noise and unusual situations. Then, he’s taken way from his family and “goes to college”, except that he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing. He just knows he’s getting taken from his family. And he eventually gets to know the trainer(s) and kennel staff. And he learns new things. Interesting new things. Interesting new things that he becomes happy to do for these new people. He has no idea that he’s going to meet some blind person and have this greater purpose, he just does these things because it pleases his new pack leader to do them. That he can learn to walk in a straight line, stop for things that aren’t at all natural for him to stop at, learn his left from his right (which, by the way, lots of humans don’t know), avoid traffic and guide a human around obstacles and not go under things that he can but a human can’t, all of that is pretty amazing, don’t you think so?

He may have to get used to new people a couple times before he meets his new partner. He has no idea that he’s going to do these things for this new person, he’s perfectly content doing them for the old person. But eventually, his loyalties do change, and two very different beings learn to work together and act as one. Like I said, it’s amazing that this stuff works at all. Even without the fairy tales.

One might suppose I’m a killjoy. After all, what’s the harm in a bit of poetic license? Far from it, I think these are amazing, amazing animals, and I think it’s important that we celebrate them for what they are, not to mention all of the wonderful and selfless people that mold them into the confident, poised, competent, and just plain amazing guides that they are. As I say, the story is amazing enough without adding in things that just aren’t so.

Of course, the debate rages: do they know that we’re blind, or are they just playing a game, the same game they learned to play with their instructors? I happen to believe they know. Dogs are very perceptive. Some are extremely perceptive and empathic. They all know, though. There are even scientific studies that prove that dogs think they can get away with things if they believe the humans can’t see them. Regardless, I think that once they start working with us, as opposed to the sighted trainers, they do know that we’re blind. Whether they connect this fact with their job, I don’t know. I do know that sometimes a dog that works great for a trainer decides it really doesn’t want to do it “for real”, so maybe they do make the connection.

Regardless, it’s truly amazing stuff. And I, for one, am glad that Leno does what he does, no matter why he does it.

Buddy’s Frequently Given Answers

Following is a list of my current most frequently given answers. The questions are left as an exercise for the reader.

1) About 2.5 years.
2) He’ll be five n June.
3) Leno.
4) He’s a lab.
5) About four months, after a family raises him and does house training and socializing and that sort of thing.
6) Only on [current day of the week].
7) No, he’s on a strict diet.
8) No, not right now.
8) [Alternative]: Sure, if he stays put.
9) He failed reading class.
10) Really, he’ll figure it out, hang on a minute.
11) Hard to say, but my last two worked about 6.5 years. Sometimes they retire for health reasons, or because they don’t want to do the job anymore, or whatever.
12) He’s my third.

I think that about covers it…

Thoughts On Technology and Artificial Sight

Today, in reading through one of the far too many Email lists I’m on, I saw this article posted. I read it with some interest. I mean, it’s technology. It’s electronic. The future is now. Right? We’re living science fiction today. OK, you get the idea. Then, I read this one-line response to the article. It said, and this is a direct quote, “No thanks.”

No thanks?

No elaboration?

OK, we’re all entitled to an opinion, and, like myself, I’m sure the poster of this particular opinion is an expert on her opinion. But the inevitable question, in my mind anyway, is “Why not?” To flesh that out a bit more, I’d ask, and in fact, did ask, this way:

Why not? I think it’s possible that such sensory substitution could be useful some day. I also feel fairly confident that such sensory substitution won’t replace sight or turn blind people into sighted people. If such technology could be developed and implemented such that adjustment to it would be fairly straightforward and take relatively little time from our otherwise productive and busy lives, what objection do you have?

Hearing none, apart from “Everything else works fine”, this time paraphrasing, plus another pointing out that such a lot of noise or music for everything we “saw” would be distracting and bothersome, I asked:

By way of playing devil’s advocate, no one says that it has to be sound substitution that’s used in some eventually useful device, as opposed to something that’s merely a proof of concept. For instance, there’s the thing that projects images onto the tongue. This would not be my preferred medium, as I flap my gums too much to want anything to interfere with that. Still, nothing says that the sensory substitution has to be sound, or for that matter, has to be in any way connected to the ears. It could be sound via bone conduction like the Aftershokz headphones, for instance. Maybe someone will do something useful with the Flanagan Neurophone. What do I know? I’m just saying I think it’s a mistake to dismiss any such developments out of hand. Besides, nothing says one would have to use something like this all the time, nor that alternative techniques of blindness will overnight become obsolete or lose their effectiveness. But if at some later date such a technology could be implemented such that it is useful in whatever circumstance, and could be trained with a minimum of interruption to our already busy lives, what’s the objection? Especially f it could be turned off when it is either not useful or distracting in some situation?

People ask me occasionally, as I’m sure someone asks most blind people at least occasionally, if I wouldn’t like to be able to see. When I was a kid, I never gave it much thought, but adults seemed to want this thing for me, so I guess I thought it would be all right, but it was never something I just yearned to have. As I grew up (or grew older, anyway), I had more occasion to think about this and understand what it means. C’mon, let’s face it, when you’re a kid, someone asks you something like that, do you really know what it means? I don’t think I did. The conclusion I came to was, no, I didn’t really have this burning desire or need to be able to see. I now lead a full and productive life. I have a family, a job, fulfilling hobbies, more fulfilling relationships and friendships, in short, all the best things that life has to offer, all the things that really matter. How would sight change these things for me, or make them better? Besides, I’d have all sorts of adjustments to make; no one knows how to see, it’s something you learn as a baby, as a toddler, and as you grow up and integrate this thing into your life. I’d have to learn, not only what things look like, but how to do pretty much everything, from reading to cooking to walking around and not being scared that something is going to hit me. Sure, sometimes being blind is a pain in the ass, but in reality, the only thing that I really wish were different is that it’s a pain not to be able to drive a car. And that’s mostly because driving is so necessary to society. Don’t get me started on what people seem to feel is their God-given right to be out on the road, or on how horribly inadequate public transportation is, or any number of things. But I digress. Anyway, if I were to suddenly get eyesight, this wouldn’t change for me.

When I express such a view to people, I get one of two reactions. Shock that I wouldn’t want such a monumentally wonderful thing as eyesight, or else understanding. Maybe it’s pretend understanding but shock in reality, that might be the third reaction.

So, in a way, I see what the “no thanks” people are saying. But in another way? A couple dozen hours isn’t that much time. So, if some method for some sensory substitution were developed that would minimally impact my life, requiring a minimum of training, and would be actually useful, would I do it? Maybe, I’d have to weigh the benefits versus the cost in time and so on, and also the potential gain in opportunity, knowledge, freedom, and so forth. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, though, because every step leads to other things. Maybe some day we’ll have Geordie’s Star Trek visor, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

If some such technology became widely available, and useful, and if I could turn it off when it got annoying, I’d probably do it. Heck, I’d probably participate in a research study for such a technology, if only because it would be interesting, and again, if I could turn it off.

Two things that would provide some food for thought if you haven’t read them. One is a factual account, the other is science fiction, and i bring it up only because its portrayal of what adjustment to sight might be like seems unrealistic on several levels. First, the speed at which the adjustment occurs, second, the fixation on Helen Keller and the things the blind character couldn’t do blind but then was expected to pick up sighted. But besides that, they’re really good books.

I’m not going to link to all three books in the trilogy, but if you like the first one, you have to finish the other two also.

Would love your thoughts on this, so keep those cards and letters coming.

Who would I be if I wasn’t blind?

Below, slightly edited, is a response to a post on a listserv for Seeing Eye graduates. The discussion started in relation to an article, written by the sighted wife of a blind university professor. Some said the article was an accurate representation of what blindness is really like. Others said the article was more a reflection of the sighted person’s view of blindness and didn’t accurately reflect blindness at all, but rather was more a statement on common misconceptions, issues taken to their extremes, and so forth. Some felt the author had some resentment, while others said she was fair and accurately portrayed the issues that our sighted friends and family face surrounding our blindness. Eventually, someone asked what her life would look like, and what sort of person would she be, what would she do, were she sighted and not blind. Again, some people had some opinion on that; here’s mine.

First, in regard to the previous discussion on how, or even if, blindness has an impact on those around us, whether we spill things more often, generally require extra care and handling, and so on, I only have this to say.

Perception is reality.

Here’s a case in point.

A couple years ago, a bunch of us were out and having lunch. Three of us were blind, two had guide dogs, and we had a sighted guy along. Token sighted guy? I dunno, doesn’t matter. Anyway, this one guy, the other guide dog user as it happens, spilled his glass of water. He said something to the effect that this was to be expected, that being blind, he spilled things regularly, and it wasn’t a big deal, just part of his life.

From his point of view, this was part and parcel of being blind. From my perspective as someone who rarely spills things, and even more rarely does so in public, it was not, and I really felt that he was really selling himself, and the rest of us, short by attributing his clumsiness merely to his blindness.

I observe that many of the problems I face, and many of the challenges I need to overcome, have far less to do with my actual blindness than they have to do with what I, and those around me, think and believe about that blindness. What I think about blindness and feel about it in my innermost being is certainly not immune from the perceptions of others, and it would be a lie to say that such views held by society at large don’t shape my own views, even in some small measure. It is, therefore, an active and conscious effort that I need to sometimes make to remind myself that my blindness isn’t the problem, and that my limitations are not solely determined by it. Many of those limitations are down to a lack of creativity in finding better solutions to problems that I encounter, or to doubts others have about my capabilities, my own doubts about my capabilities, all manner of things, but rarely are these problems caused by the actual blindness.

Moreover, I’d say that all of us, whether sighted or blind, have to accommodate other people in some way or another, and I see blindness, and my guide dog, as no different. Someone who drives a Suburban will necessarily have a harder time finding a parking spot than someone driving a Corvette. Likewise, someone driving a Corvette will have a harder time moving a sofa. So, sometimes other people have to take into account that I have a guide dog. I have to take into account that my dear friend Melanie, who is different from my wife Melanie, doesn’t like seafood if we decide to have dinner somewhere. We always, and all of us, make accommodations for other people’s needs, none of us being an island. How others perceive such a need when it comes to my blindness, I think, says much more about them than it does about me or my blindness.

Now as to the question in the subject. Who would i be if i weren’t blind? This is a null question, IMO. For one thing, I am blind. I’m not sighted, and in my case, “what if”s are a fairly useless exercise. FOr one thing, the “what if” is not. For another, how do I know? Blindness has been a part of my life for my whole life. Not having another experience, I don’t have any valid data to make such a determination with any degree of accuracy.

Besides, the bigger question is, “Why is blindness stopping you?”

OK, you can’t be a race car driver or a commercial airline pilot. Not yet, anyway. But in most cases, I maintain that our only limitation is ourselves and the attitudes of others who won’t let us give it a go. Also our own attitudes. An, in most cases, it isn’t the blindness so much as our lack of techniques or creativity or what have you.

I already know some will say I’m delusional, and that’s OK. My delusional world is full of possibilities. And please don’t misunderstand. I have days where I’m as pissed off as anyone. I have times when I have my doubts and think it would be better not to be blind. Undoubtedly, there are advantages to having sight. There are also advantages to being tall, but I am neither sighted nor tall. I am who I am, and I’m not only content, I am fulfilled.

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