by Cindy Van Winkle
When you’re blind, you have choices on how to travel. It’s a personal one and not much different from someone choosing to drive an SUV over a sedan, or sports car over a truck. There are many factors that go into such a choice: season in life, lifestyle, confidence level ...
Some people choose to rely on others such as a family member, friend, colleague, or stranger to get from point A to point B. This is called sighted guide and is typically is done by holding on to a sighted person’s elbow, and can be especially helpful to me when maneuvering through a crowd or someplace I’m not familiar, even if I’m with my dog.
Some people choose to use a cane, a long white stick. Some of us also choose to be creative and have canes in other colors, but I digress. The cane is absolutely a viable mobility aid and, when used properly, will indicate things like a change in surface, obstacles, and the all important, identifying you as someone who is blind, alerting drivers and those in the public with whom you may come into contact. You can even get a cane that folds up, which makes them very convenient.
And then there are those who choose to partner with a guide dog. In a way, a dog brings the first two options together wrapped nicely into four paws, a tail, and two ears. The dog maneuvers you around obstacles, alerts you to steps, curbs, and other changes in the walking surface, can find learned targets such as doors, elevators and escalators, and more. And while in harness, a guide dog should certainly be an identifier to the public at large that you as the handler are blind.
For me, though, a dog is so much more than a mobility aid. Balsa knows our routine and she’s grown to know me. When I’m not feeling well or am just having a bad day or moment, she snuggles up against me and reminds me it’s OK. Travel with her is so much smoother than with a cane. With a dog, obstacles are maneuvered around, often without me even knowing they’re there; with a cane I have to touch the obstacle to know it’s there to move around it. With a dog, moving objects can be detected without me ever encountering them because she sees the crowd, bike, or even the vehicle; not so with a cane.
The luxury of having a guide dog carries a greater responsibility than something I can fold up and toss into my purse or place in the corner to forget about. My time is no longer my own. I have a living, breathing partner to care for. I have to awaken earlier to feed her and take her out in the morning and keep her on a schedule throughout the day. I have to buy her good quality food and carry her little kibble-sized treats with me wherever we go to reward her for her working for me. I have to take time to play with her, groom her daily, and provide her needed medical care. Sometimes, I have to defend her being with me to those who wish to deny me access because they do not like dogs or understand the law. And I do all of this and more because she deserves every bit of it!
Bottom line: the decision to use a cane or guide dog is a personal one. The best choice for me right now is partnering with a guide dog. Thank goodness for choices and for my guide dog, Balsa!