Imagine going to a street corner, ready to cross at the cross-walk, then asking your guide dog to obey the command, “Elvis, Forward”, only to be met with a sudden stop. You’re confused, disoriented even. You come to this intersection every day and know it like the back of your hand. You ask your trusted friend again. He spins you 180 degrees around, only to take you back to your lonely apartment. Why? There’s a 3 foot wall of snow blocking the intersection. Guide dogs have been trained specifically NOT to guide the blind on uneven, icy, or snowy footing. These dogs have been taught something unique from ANY other animal on the planet. It’s a built-in ‘governor’ if-you-will, that allows the dog to have the veto power in the relationship. If given a specific command by his handler that the dog deems unsafe, the dog is TRAINED to disobey his owner. Once you have asked the same command twice, the dog will shut down or re-route you to a safer location to cross or avoid the unsafe area entirely. It is paramount to our safety as blind travelers.
I am now entering into my 5th official winter as a blind person traveling formerly with a cane, and later a Guiding Eyes for the Blind Guide Dog. I had no idea what I was truly getting myself into the day I finally turned in my driver’s license on December 11th 2008. I envisioned lots of friends with cars who would assist me in getting to places like the grocery store, and an easy commute to my job as the Fine Wine Buyer for a major chain of retail stores. I was ill prepared for the reality of what was to come.
I was born and raised in Westchester County in New York State. Growing up I lived in a semi-rural area with no sidewalks and invisible neighbors, surrounded by thick woods and lined by stone walls and fields with our horses grazing peacefully. I never ever envisioned myself as a city dweller, nor did I ever aspire to be. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the smells, and the vast display of concrete held little appeal to me. Never would I have imagined at 33 years of age that my first piece of advice upon losing my sight was to ‘move to the city’. The thought terrified me at the time, but 5 years later, I’m beginning to ‘see’ the wisdom in this advice.
With limited vision, travel is already a challenge. The wisest decision I’ve made in the past five years was to move from suburbia in the town of Fairfield CT, to downtown Greenwich, near shops, transit and my gym and PEOPLE. Living in Fairfield made me truly feel isolated and disabled in a way that rocked me to my core. I was terribly depressed and felt utterly hopeless at times. The 3/4 mile walk to the bus stop felt like an insurmountable object to my independence. The town left sidewalk maintenance in the hands of the homeowners, with a statute indicating that they were required to clear the sidewalk within 12 hours of the first snowfall. Needless to say, no one enforced this, and I would spend the winter months stuck at home, alone and isolated from my formerly busy social life.
Bus travel is the cheapest and generally most reliable travel aid to the disabled community. Most disabled fares are less than $1, and you can get to a variety of places depending upon your proximity to a major city. My wise decision to move to Greenwich gives me a few good options, provided that my transit is along the major thoroughfare, which is known as Route 1 or the Boston Post Road, which literally runs from Boston to Florida. Elvis is not a huge fan of the bus, as we generally sit near the front in the handicap seat, where he gets stepped on, petted, shoved, and slides helplessly on his belly each time the bus comes to a sudden stop (nearly every two blocks for more than 8 miles). I’m not a huge fan of the bus, as it’s difficult to find a safe place to keep Elvis out of the way, and find the floor to be particularly disgusting in the winter, causing my beautiful Blonde Labrador to look unkept and dirty. Plus, I’m prone to motion sickness, and the constant abrupt starts and stops tend to set me over the edge. I end up having to make small talk with curious onlookers who are admiring my dog, and sometimes have to hold his head in my lap, as many bus riders are terrified of dogs.
The train is certainly the easiest in many ways, especially for distance travel, but getting to the train leaves a lot to be desired for blind guide dog handlers. For one, winter travel on sidewalks, stairs, and train platforms means rock salt. Rock salt on dog paws presents a major challenge. Guiding Eyes for the Blind provides each new guide dog team with a pair of Grip-tex “Ruff Wear” rubber-soled booties. They train their guide dogs to wear these. However, I have yet to meet a dog who will actually ignore these booties and walk with a normal gait with them on. Elvis acts like he’s walking on broken glass when they are put on his paws, moonwalking his way down my hallway to the front door of my apartment building. His ridiculous behavior often is so distracting to his actual work, that I relent and call a taxi to avoid having him suffer the mile long walk to the train in his extreme discomfort. Having watched him gingerly hold his salt-encrusted paws up on the train platform however, makes me realize that I’d rather have him unhappy with me than in pain.
Because of the shorter days and reduced visibility in the winter, I look somewhat like a airplane runway engineer, with my flashing dog collar, reflective vest, Yaktrax grippy shoe covers, fleece skull cap, and flashing strobe light attached to both Elvis’ harness and my backpack. My backpack is heavier due to the multiple layers I need to pack for myself, the ‘indoor’ shoes for when I reach my destination, and the wet wipes I carry for Elvis’ dirty body and paws from laying on the gross train or bus floor. I feel more ‘Sherpa’ and less ‘Cosmopolitan single female Sommelier’ in the winter. I try to remind myself daily that commuters to Manhattan probably face the same challenge, but realize as I stand on the train platform that it is indeed different. If ONLY I could safely carry coffee or a cute handbag! An umbrella is a thing of the past. Guide dogs require your left hand on the harness handle to safely communicate between dog and human. The other hand needs to be free to give the forward, left, right, wait, sit, stand, and down commands to your dog. Coffee or bags with handles are not an option. Also, god forbid, you lose your balance, it’s nice to have a hand free to grab a stair railing or the person next to you.
Finally, with the winter weather, protecting our eyes is paramount. Blowing snow, wayward plows spraying salt as they speed by, and lower hanging tree branches above the sidewalk present the greatest of dangers to the visually impaired. Wearing eye protection with UV filters further reduces our limited vision, but protects us from the additional dangers that winter incurs. Ironically, in the winter I am even MORE dependant on Elvis due to the limited daylight and poor visibility in the grey days, yet it is Elvis that needs even more help from ME at this time of year. Taxis are prohibitively expensive for the disabled on a fixed income, but if your life is like mine, without a set ‘routine’ time of travel, arranging cheaper local paratransit proves difficult. I try to justify my $450/ month winter taxi bills this way. Back when I drove, that was essentially my car payment. Gas and tires and insurance added to that monthly total. So while YES, my disability income is HALF of when I was working, my overhead is somewhat reduced (albeit now replaced by expensive glaucoma meds). Public transit can be a wonderful thing when it works properly. I find that the ‘suburban’ bus drivers often accidentally pass me by, leaving me shivering by the side of the road waiting in sub 20 degree temps for the next bus in 30 minutes, Why does this happen? Despite the large leather harness on my guide dog, these drivers will sometimes mistake me for some blonde lady out ‘walking her dog’ by the side of the road and keep on driving past, despite my frantic waving and yelling.
So while it’s not glamorous, I am grateful to be in a more ‘metropolitan’ city such as Greenwich CT, with its multitude of transit options, and my vast supply of generous friends with cars. The sidewalks are reasonably well maintained with a few exceptions, and I no longer feel stranded or isolated. As for the potential of city dwelling? Well, honestly I’m not sure. I’m already dreading a few wine trade shows and tastings I need to attend in New York City this month. Between the salt on Elvis’ feet, and the giant blocks of snow blocking the crosswalks for safe, accurate, and straight passage, I’m not sure I want to tackle it on a yearly basis. While summer travel can be challenging on hot pavement, there is less disruption in Elvis’ and my lives in the summer. We can get everywhere we need to on foot and generally without external assistance. Texas and California are calling……
My message to you readers is to think about your disabled friends this winter. Perhaps help shovel them out. Maybe buy them a bag of ‘Paw-safe’ ice-melt for their four-legged friends. Offer a joint trip to the grocery store if you’re already going. Maybe a lift to the gym where you work out together, a doggie play date for their ‘cooped up guide dog’, or even take them out to escape their winter hibernation and isolation for a simple cup of coffee. These may seem like little things to you, but for the disabled people living in a typical New England winter, they mean more to us than words could ever say. Thank you to all of my wonderful friends.