Not a Long White Cane but a Short Black Tail
It’s the spring of 2004, and I’m a nineteen-year-old college freshman majoring in voice. I’m on top of the world because I’ve just received my admission letter from The Seeing Eye—it’s official, I’m getting a guide dog! This is very much needed good news. This first year has been rough. Between getting my textbooks and access technology for last fall right before Thanksgiving break, and the music department’s unwillingness to accommodate me, I’ve been feeling pretty defeated and alone.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2004. Abbie and I have been a team for just over three months, and I’ve been told that my dog is too distracting to be on stage. In fact, last time I performed, my vocal coach had another student take Abbie outside and said that if I didn’t keep singing, I’d fail. I’m pretty sure this is wrong but I don’t know where to ask for help. I feel so helpless and alone.
Ten years later I’m loving my life with my second dog. We travel a lot for work, and I am extremely confident with her. New York, Chicago, Washington, DC — we’ve been there done that. Has it always been smooth sailing? Absolutely not. Along with the discrimination that guide dog teams have experienced since the 1920s, there are these new forms of it popping up, like rideshare drivers speeding off the minute they see my dog or flight attendants who force me to sit in the bulkhead of airplanes. At times, it’s been scary and definitely frustrating, but I know now that I am not alone.
For years, I’ve heard that the National Federation of the Blind “hates” guide dogs and that they are not welcome at the training centers in Colorado, Louisiana, and Minnesota. This myth is so pervasive that when I was offered a job with the NFB, people were surprised that I was excited for myself and for my guide dog. I learned very quickly that it all came down to a piece of an article that was taken way out of context.
The fact of the matter is that the Federation fights every day for the rights of those like myself who choose to travel with guide dogs.
The National Association of Guide Dog Users, a division of the National Federation of the Blind, has a hotline one can call for advice on cases of discrimination or to get clarification of the laws of individual states. There’s even a NAGDU app that can be downloaded onto a smartphone which gives the user access to the law whenever and wherever it’s needed. Not to mention that thanks to the efforts of the NFB, rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft are being held accountable for their refusal of passengers with guide dogs.
There are many people who are exploring the idea of getting a dog. One very knowledgeable resource who is more than happy to answer questions about working with a guide is the First Lady of the Federation, Melissa Riccobono, who has worked dogs for years.
It’s now 2017. I am almost nine months into working with my fourth dog, a beautiful black lab named Schulz. A lot has changed in the thirteen years since I first picked up a harness handle. I have learned and grown and though I have no regrets, I do often wonder if things would have played out differently if I had reached out to the NFB when I was struggling in school. Would I have had the confidence to fight for my place on that stage with my guide dog at my side or would I have still decided to change my major? How different would my life be today? What I am certain of is that there are countless experiences out there in the world for us to have, and it’s exciting and scary, but with Schulz walking by my side, and the NFB behind me—supporting me, fighting for me, and loving me (and my dog)—I know that I am unstoppable.