On Retiring a Guide Dog…

My friend Peter Altschul will be retiring his guide dog Jules in just a few days; he will return to our mutual alma mater, Guiding Eyes for the Blindto train with his fifth guide dog on Aug. 1. Read his fine tribute to Jules and learn about his recent book! And follow him while he’s at GEB as he posts about his training with a new, as yet, unknown guide dog.

A note from Peter:Thanks for all the support concerning the retirement of my current guide dog. Please check out http://peteraltschul.authorsxpress.com/2012/07/27/for-the-fifth-time/ for more of my take.***************************Professor Stephen Kuusisto is the author of Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir Planet of the Blind, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. His second collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press, “Letters to Borges, is scheduled for release in October 2012.  As director of the Renee Crown University Honors Program and a University Professor at Syracuse University, Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com

Disability and Poetry, Part 145

Thanks to Chris B whose blog, Through Alien Eyes, is a thoughtful and lovely place for disability reflections. He heard me speak recently on disability and poetry at The Ohio State University and has written a kindly analysis of my presentation.

When I am In New York City with my guide dog the happiness of the city is mine. Swiss tourists want to tell me about their Labradors at home. Doormen call out as we walk by. It’s a different city for us, communal, improbably humane even at moments ecstatic. This must go into the living poem of physical difference.

So too the damages and the ugliness. What I like to call the mercenary labeling of ableism. People with disabilities experience the crackling, unspoken diminishing glares of strangers. Until they are spoken. Then the day tilts like a bad amusement park ride. This must also go into the living poem of physical difference.guide dog, Nira

What the guide dog schools won’t tell you, or by turns, tell you imperfectly, is that guide dog teams will encounter public incomprehension and outright discrimination as they walk around. In my case this discovery came 18 years agoin New York City when I tried to get into a cab and the driver began screaming expletives. Despite this I got into the car. His language and mine became an instant study in art for all the ingredients of creativity were present: tension, incomprehension, passion, and spontaneity.

Sitting stern as a tree in the backseat, I told him that the law permits guide dogs for the blind in all taxis–in fact guide dogs are allowed everywhere. Hell, I even had an ID card from the school with my picture and the dog’s picture and all the appropriate legalese. But the driver, my driver, did not believe in the bravery or happiness of others. He began revving his engine and revving up his shouting.

What can you do? My driver hated me and my dog and was refusing to budge. I was reciting the law. Oh the godforsaken wilderness of human rage. When you have a disability every moment of discrimination evokes all the others: you’re again the boy who was told he couldn’t play with others, couldn’t go to school with them, sat alone in a room. This must also go into the living poem of physical difference.

Then again, the shy, unanticipated joy: in Central Park a man says to me, “You can’t tell, but I am the statue of liberty.” “Me too,” I say.

Previously published on Steve’s other blog, Planet of the Blind

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Professor Stephen Kuusisto, blind since birth, is the author of “Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening” and the acclaimed memoir “Planet of the Blind”, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”. He has also published “Only Bread, Only Light“, a collection of poems from Copper Canyon Press. As director of the Renee Crown University Honors Program and a University Professor at Syracuse University, Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy.

Thank you, Guiding Eyes

Back in 1998 a book reviewer at The Boston Globe suggested that I am a shill for the guide dog schools. What he meant is that my first book of nonfiction is richly devoted to sharing the experience of training with my first guide dog “Corky”—a life changing event for me and the glue that holds together my book.
I didn’t mind being called a shill. I’ve been called worse.

Today as I was walking in the Iowa snow with my third dog from Guiding Eyes I remembered that old Steve Martin joke where he says to his audience “I want to thank each and every one of you” Then he proceeds to say over and over: “Thank you thank you thank you thank you” etc.

Occupied in this way it dawned on me that Guiding Eyes for the Blind is worthy of every thank you I could pronounce. Guide dogs are expensive creatures to breed, raise, train, and then pair with a blind person. Despite the fact that each dog and person team costs well over 40,000 dollars to create, Guiding Eyes absorbs all the costs through its non-profit program of charitable donations.

I am a comparatively lucky blind person. I have a good job and a wonderful wife and family. Yet I can assure you that if I had to pony up 40K for my street mobility would be very hard pressed indeed. This in turn gets me to my point. Some will doubtless think of me as being too sentimental. Thanking those who have helped you is perhaps, in the minds of some “too old fashioned” or “too caught up in the charity model of disability”.

I believe that as I walk safely and in most cases euphorically that I have a big team behind me. Donors, puppy raisers, puppy breeders, veterinarians, fund raisers, construction and buildings and grounds personnel, volunteers, guide dog trainers, orientation and mobility specialists, dietitians, nurses, folks who work in the kennels, and the blind men and women who have trained alongside me with their new dogs.

Today, walking in the snow I heard in memory the voice of Steve Martin thanking everybody.

S.K.

My Dynamic Duo

Here they are, Steve and "Nira" –  stepping lively.

Once they’re home, I’ll be jogging behind just to keep up!   ~ Connie

Dynamic_duo_2

P.S.  Thanks to Graham Buck, of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, for the photos.

Photo description: yellow Labrador, Nira, is in harness and guiding Steve down the sidewalk.

Blind Date

Here she is.  "Nira".  Steve’s ultimate blind date.

Jan_08_blind_date

Photo description: Nira, a yellow Labrador, is in a down position.  She and Steve are doing obedience.  Although we can’t see Steve, we can see the leash he’s holding attached to Nira’s collar.  She is looking up in his direction.  It’s a great head shot, compliments of Graham Buck of Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Vespers

Tomorrow, if all goes well, I will be united with my third guide dog. This will happen in the early afternoon. Once more the circle of blindness (at least for me) will be entered by a safe and reliable creature who was raised and trained by innumerable loving people. I’ve written about this in my memoir Planet of the Blind and I don’t think I can do more than reiterate that having a new guide dog is absolutely the "ultimate blind date". There’s a difference though for this dog will be poised and self reliant which is more than one can say about your average human blind date. They know what they’re doing at Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

By early afternoon I will have a remarkable four legged companion and together we will work over the next two weeks to earn each other’s trust and loving kindness None of us can claim any more for our relationships.

Blessings on the puppy raisers and the guide dog trainers and the superb staff here in Yorktown Heights, New York.

And thanks, Al Roker, for the temperatures which are in the mid sixties.

S.K. .

Greetings from Guiding Eyes

After two canceled flights and a long day’s journey I arrived back at Guiding Eyes for the Blind last evening. I’m embarking on a fabulous adventure, training with a brand new guide dog. In twenty minutes I’ll be heading to my first full day of training–a humbling process for although I’ve had two previous guide dogs, the training has evolved and the dogs nowadays are trained to follow some new commands. Can an old blind guy learn new tricks? We shall most certainly find out.

Guiding Eyes is one of the nation’s premier guide dog training schools and my wife Connie and I used to work here before we moved to Ohio and then westward to Iowa City. The school has undergone some significant changes since Con and I were last here in 2000, most notably there’s a brand new student residence and a fabulous new dining hall and a beautiful new multi-purpose room for classes and events.

There’s also the "march of time" because of course the new guide dog trainers are ever younger. And they have new training techniques and I already feel like a slightly disreputable uncle whose  manners need to be seriously improved.

As always, the other students come from every corner of the United States and they are made up of new guide dog users and old timers; young folks and those of us who are middling old. There’s a nice camaraderie and I know I’ll be hearing  all kinds of disability related stories over the next 10 days. I’m immediately reminded that disability is entirely democratic in its discriminations: we are a diverse group from all kinds of backgrounds and we have only blindness in common. And soon we shall have dogs in common and that’s a beautiful fact. We will get our new guide dogs on Wednesday.

Photo
I got my first dog "Corky" when I was 39 and now I’m 52 and the veteran staff keep telling me that I look good and haven’t changed and aside from the decency of that premise, maybe in a small way I’m lucky to have had two good dogs to work with and travel alongside as a principle means both of being safe and staying young. Dogs after all are important for human physical and emotional well being.

I must go now into the busy day with its lessons and unimagined astonishments. Here’s to the good dogs and their human pals. 

S.K.

Photo description:  Black & white of Steve and yellow Labrador "Corky".  This is the photo that was used on the cover of Steve’s memoir: Planet of the BlindWhile we only see this "headshot", Steve is actually lying on his left side with his face propped against his left hand.  He’s wearing tinted glasses.  Corky is sitting next to him in such a way that we see her profile, and because her head is higher than Steve’s because of their positioning, it almost looks as if she could be resting her head on top of Steve’s. Many have said that Steve looks like a young Paul McCartney in this photo.  Photo Credit: Marion Ettlinger