My Disability “Piece” the New York Times Didn’t Print

When morning comes my Labrador brings me a shoe. It’s a Nike, light as a duck, and as I slip it on it’s damp. She’s a guide dog, mine—blindness has this graceful compensation, one wakes to an eager companion. Silly to say she’s optimistic, dogs don’t need hope, not the way we do, but expectation is another thing: she knows the day. This day, will be its own reward and will not fail. She’s not silly is she? I get dressed, throw a ball cap on my head and we head into the weather.

We walk along Central Park West in a light rain. Her name is Corky. It’s a proper name for a killer whale but not precisely right for a service dog, but we’re happy in all weather—together we laugh about it because dogs can laugh and you bet the blind know it, and you bet we’re happy in the rain. We’re moving in a rich, trans-species dualism, sharing oxytocin and a walking song because singing happens when humans and animals team up. We’re also moving fast.

Strangers see us and don’t know what we’re about. Some think the dog is directing my life, taking me places as if I’m attached freight. They don’t know it doesn’t work this way. They’ve no idea the blind woman or man is the conductor, the director—we call out directions to our dogs as the blind know things. Mr. Public doesn’t necessarily understand this. The blind are in charge and their dogs are trained to navigate and make good choices. In this way we both make good decisions. The two lives you’ve just observed outside the Center for Ethical Culture are so completely in tune we put most human relationships to shame. Who would you really trust with your life and intuitions?

You might trust a dog. Working with Corky showed me I had to differentiate between human ideas and my dog’s life if was going to make a “go” of it. A blind friend told me god gave man dominion over the animals. The very thought made me shudder. Dominion conjured slavery, imprisonment, entitlement. My life and Corky’s were not in a hieratic power relation even though she’d been trained to watch for traffic and trust her judgment—even though she guided me and I set our course, practiced daily obedience—even with all this I knew she was her own being and it gave me a great sense of relief. I believe in the dignity of animals. A large part of this was knowing we were equals.

Yes dogs respect their leaders. But while this is so—working animals, whether horses, dogs, or dolphins adhere to our requests—where does the notion that domestic leadership makes us better come from? It’s the oldest narrative of all: savages vs. the civilized. We label them beasts because they’re not like us. The taxonomies of inequality are profound. I couldn’t imagine being like my blind friend who thought god had put her in charge of her dog.

We entered Central Park. Corky turned her face up to the mist. We were happy. We walked a long way and reached the boat pond. I was walking with my eyes closed. It was a late March day and the scent of fresh grass was in the wind. The sun came out. From a distance we heard boaters laughing.

Sometimes I thought of our respective hearts, man and dog, as being wrapped in delicate cloth and that walking together and exploring we were unwrapping them. A boy raced past on a skateboard. I wondered if he was unwrapping his own heart. I thought of William Blake: Mutual forgiveness of each vice/such are the gates of Paradise… 

To this one may add mutual admiration of embodiment and of our connected, intangible souls.

If I was correct and we were equal what did that mean for a fumbling human who was often possessed of poor judgments? I could take comfort in the experiment of being. Sometimes Corky made mistakes and I told her “you can’t eat that” and then, inevitably, I made mistakes and she put her body in front of me, preventing a fatal step. Who was better than whom? We were In it together.