By Todd Smith
“You are so lucky!”
We hear it frequently. And it always makes me cringe.
Many times when I am out and about with my wife and her guide dog, people comment about how ‘lucky’ she is. I like to think it is because she is married to me, but after a few years of hearing it, I now know better.
It is because of her guide dog.
The comments are, for the most part, innocently made because of the general public’s misunderstanding of just exactly how being blind can impact a person’s day-to-day living. They do not see the barriers, both physical and mental, which must be overcome in order to do the same things that so-called “normal” people do every day and seemingly take for granted. Things like getting safely from one place to the next, not bumping into other people and things when walking, noticing hazards that can trip someone easily and possibly cause an injury, and even simply walking across the street without being hit by an inattentive driver. These are some of the reasons she has her guide dog with her, not because she is ‘lucky’. And yet we hear it all the time: “You are so lucky that you can have your dog come with you. I wish I could take my dog with me everywhere I go.” They never see the real reason behind having the guide dog; all they see is the dog.
And it is not just guide dog users that hear the ‘lucky’ platitude. The general public sees a person with any kind of disability who uses any kind of service dog and automatically uses THEIR OWN interpretation of THEIR OWN life to come to the conclusion that somehow being able to have the service dog “along for the ride” makes the person with the disability ‘lucky’, because, after all, “you get to take your special friend along everywhere you go”.
The sentiment is genuine, but the understanding is lacking.
So, was my wife ‘lucky’ that she was shaken as an infant, causing her retinas to detach? Was she ‘lucky’ to have the scars on the inside of her brain from the shaking to swell, press on her brain stem, and cause her to have seizures? Is she also ‘lucky’ that the visual cortex in her brain was so damaged by the shaking that there is no type of medical treatment or procedure which can ever allow her to see ‘normally’?
She will never do the simple things that others with ‘normal’ vision do. She adapts by using special programs on her computer to ‘read’ the text on the screen. She adapts by using a portable GPS device because she can’t read the street signs. She adapts by using an Audio Description service when we go to the movies or a live performance play. She adapts by using specially marked knobs on the stove, washer, dryer, dishwasher, and with marked shelves in the pantry and kitchen. She adapts by walking or taking the bus or train because she cannot drive. She adapts when shopping by using a UPC scanner to read what the items are. And yes, she adapts in her travels by using a guide dog because she can’t see you and your shopping cart, automobile, stroller, or anything else. Is that what makes her 'lucky'?
I can honestly tell you that my wife would turn her guide dog into a pet dog in a New York minute if doing so meant that she could see like every 'normal' person and not have to constantly be gawked at, questioned, bullied, and made to feel inferior simply because of the type of mitigating device she uses to try and compensate for her blindness. Would she still be 'lucky' then?
Using a service dog is a lot of work. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. The logistics are mind numbing. One has to prepare many things in advance just to take a quick trip to the store. The dog has to be brushed, relieved, have all the gear in place, special leashes, and many other things which differ depending on what the dog needs to do. And when it comes to trips that are overnight or longer, there is a lot more which needs to be considered such as food, bowls, clean up supplies, crates or sleeping mats, vaccination records, and other things. At least a wheelchair doesn’t have to be fed, watered, walked or relieved. A white cane won’t get sick in the hotel room and puke on the carpet. But for many service dog handlers, a wheelchair or white cane simply cannot do what needs to be done efficiently or quickly, and many times cannot give the personal confidence and reassurance that handling a properly trained service dog can bring.
When one truly has an understanding of what the day-to-day life of a person with a disability who uses a service dog is, one is in a better position to see that it isn’t ‘luck’; it’s adaptability. It’s overcoming. It’s finding a way to get things done in spite of the challenges one faces. In the simplest term: It’s doing what works best to be as independent as possible. There is no ‘luck’ involved.