Photo of Stephen Kuusisto with his second guide dog “Vidal” a yellow Labrador.
Its not easy to be an advocate for human rights because the engines of neo-liberalism smog the village square. I think history will show this is an age of ruinous acquiescence, a time when its easier to prefer convenience over complexity–a hint of Al Gore here–truth is always inconvenient.
Recently some of the schools that train guide dogs for the blind, non-profit agencies all, have adopted the Bain Capital model of employee management, laying off vital staff (translate “older” and “experienced” if you like) and several have chosen to reduce staff retirement benefits by shelving long standing retirement plans for 403B packages–plans designed for churches and non-profits. Almost no one can actually retire on a 403B plan–they're essentially “cafeteria” plans that allow employees to put aside money from their pay checks in a temporarily non taxable and limited investment fund.
There are roughly twelve guide dog schools in the United States and all are charities. Each breeds and trains dogs for the blind. Because 80% of the blind are unemployed (even twenty five years after the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act) the guide dog schools provide dogs to blind clients free of charge. The cost of a guide dog is guess-estimated to be around $40,000 per unit–that is, per finished product–a successful dog and person team. It's expensive work. Puppies must be bred, then raised until they're old enough for training at about a year and a half. Training requires 6-8 months of consistent, daily work by professional guide dog trainers who teach dogs how to navigate country roads and inner city traffic, all the while encouraging each and every dog to trust its instincts and recognize it must often think for itself and countermand its human partner's orders.
Guide dog trainers have demanding jobs: they work in rain and snow. They walk thousands of miles a year. Moreover they undergo a long and poorly paid apprenticeship with a senior trainer to master the rare skills necessary both to train exceptional dogs and work with blind people. When they finally become guide dog trainers after years of brutally hard work they're still paid rather poorly. The average guide dog trainer makes a salary roughly equivalent to the earnings of a high school teacher. But the rewards of guide dog training are great. You work with dogs, help people, and change lives for the better.
In former times a guide dog trainer could imagine having a career. Although they were poorly paid, they could count on a solid retirement plan. In general guide dog schools valued veteran employees who possessed long experience working with the blind and their dogs.
Enter neo-liberalism: “capitalism with the gloves off” as Robert W. McChesney calls it.
Two years ago “The Seeing Eye” (the oldest guide dog school in America) suddenly fired over twenty long time employees–trainers, field representatives, even a veterinarian. The fired staff didn't even have time to clean out their desks. They were simply told not to come back.
Following suit, “Guide Dogs for the Blind” a famous school in California eliminated staff. Later, after protests, employees there were reinstated.
If you're blind and travel with a guide dog you count on veteran staff: folks who know the complex and challenging circumstances of vision loss and safe mobility. Additionally you want to be assured those who work with you–support you–are being taken care of.
Now “Guiding Eyes for the Blind” –the guide dog school from which I've received three guide dogs, and where I once worked, where in fact I played a role in hiring some extraordinary people, has announced summarily, without warning, they're eliminating their retirement benefits plan in favor of a second rate 403B.
In this digital age with its “Instant Karma” public relations administrators can say almost anything. When I posted my dismay about Guiding Eyes treatment of its employees, one PR person wrote on Facebook that the new retirement plan was long studied and it was necessary to ensure that guide dogs can be provided free of charge to blind people.
The guide dog schools I've mentioned have combined endowments in the neighborhood of 700 million dollars. I'm not convinced cutting veteran staff and making it harder for people to achieve a career is necessary at all. What I am convinced of is that the justifications of neo-liberalism have become the narrative template of management in our time. Everything should be lean and mean.
The alumni of the guide dog schools can't really protest. They're not cash paying customers like college alums. Many guide dog users fear criticizing the schools will hurt them–they'll be branded as “difficult” or “disloyal” or “uppity”.
Right now I'm finishing a book about guide dog life for Simon and Schuster. I've been a loyal and upbeat spokesman for the guide dog movement for years, appearing on national TV and writing widely on the advantages of traveling with a professionally trained dog.
I fear for my friends who train the dogs. I dare to say so.