Delta: Leave the Blind Alone

As a blind traveler who uses a guide dog I’ve flown a lot of places. My professionally trained dog lies under my feet and never stirs, no matter how long the flight. I’ve had four such dogs and all of them were trained by a top notch school in New York called Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Although going places with a disability isn’t always easy its generally achievable because protective laws are in place that guarantee the disabled rights of passage. In the United States both state laws—known as “white cane laws”—and federal laws, including the ADA and the Air Carriers Transportation Act have made it possible for blind people and their exemplary dogs to go anywhere the public goes.

In the world of service animals guide dogs are the gold standard. Trained to guide the blind through heavy traffic, watch for low hanging branches, take evasive measures when cars or bicycles run red lights, watch for stairs—even prevent their partners from stepping off subway platforms, everyone can agree that they’re the “few, the proud” just like the Marines. Yes, and they’re also trained to stay quiet and unobtrusive in restaurants and when using public transportation.

This canine professionalism is possible because guide dog schools spend tens of thousands of dollars breeding, raising, and training each and every dog. In turn guide dog teams have earned the respect and admiration of the public here in the United States and around the world.

Recently Delta Airlines, in an effort to curtail the appearance of fake service dogs on airplanes has issued a new requirement that actually hurts the blind. Delta is demanding that service dog users upload veterinary health certificates to their website 48 hours prior to flying. This is essentially a stumbling block—an obstacle designed to impede the blind while doing very little to halt illegitimate or phony service dogs from boarding flights. As a blind person who uses a tasing computer I can tell you that navigating websites and uploading documents isn’t easy. In fact its often ridiculously hard.

The blind and their amazing dogs are not the problem for Delta or other airlines. Fraudulent service dogs are a problem for sure, but really, do they think dishonest people who are already passing off their pets as professionally trained dogs will be unable to attach rabies certificates on a website? For sighted people this is a snap.

All guide dog users carry ID cards issued by the guide dog schools, certifying that the dog team pictured is legitimate and has graduated from a real service dog training program.

I don’t know what to do about the sharp increase in fake service animals on airlines, but I do know Delta and other carriers should leave the blind alone. We’ve earned our passage.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a professorship in the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Denied a Cab Ride, Grieving for Who We Are…

Tomorrow I’m heading to the University of Michigan to participate in a program on accessible publishing hosted by the UM Press and the University’s library. As a blind writer who teaches I know as much as almost anyone about how difficult it often remans to get access to books, journals, online publications, websites, software platforms—it’s a long list. So my hat is off the the folks in Ann Arbor for taking seriously the challenges of access for people with disabilities and putting together an ambitious workshop on accessibility.

In a mood of warm anticipation, packing for my trip from Syracuse to Detroit, I was wholly unprepared for the mean spirited encounter I had by phone with a cab company in Ann Arbor this afternoon. Just recounting what happened is an exercise so objectionable I’m forced to be brisk as the altercation was nasty.

I told the man who answered the phone I needed a ride from Detroit-Ft. Wayne airport to the U of Michigan. He was agreeable. Then I said I had a guide dog. He was disagreeable. He said:

“These dogs are stinky, they go to the bathroom, they’re dirty, I can’t have them.”

“Not the first time this has happened to me,” I thought.

“Guide dogs are allowed everywhere,” I said.

“I don’t care, now you’re going to tell me all about your rights,” he said. (Sneering, he was. Your rights…uttered as if I was some whiny baby.

“Well yes,” I said, “it’s a violation of state and federal laws to deny a blind person and his dog a cab ride.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“You should care,” I said. “It will become a big story. Plus there’s a huge fine associated with this.”

“I don’t care,” he said.

“This will become a news story,” I said. “I myself write for newspapers like the New York Times…)

It’s hard to describe the effect this had on him. He began shouting that Donald Trump had won the presidency and “you people” (apparently meaning blind New York Times readers) “don’t matter anymore.”

He was absolutely vicious and crowing about how people like me don’t matter.

I said, “well, I’m going to turn you in to the Department of Justice.”

He said he didn’t care.

I hung up.

I went upstairs to tell my wife.

Five minutes later he called me back.

I answered.

He said, “I have allergies.”

He’d apparently shared his conversation with someone else. This was his effort to pull his leg out of a hole.

“It doesn’t matter, you still violated my civil rights,” I said.

He began abusing me again. Hot, geothermic mistreatment.

I hung up.

I posted his company’s name and phone number and a description of what I’d experienced on Facebook.

I didn’t know the man’s name.

He apparently received dozens of phone calls throughout the afternoon, including some from the press.

He’s now claiming victim status. He has allergies. He can’t be expected to take a passenger with a service dog.

The law is very clear on this matter. He doesn’t have to. All he has to do is find me a cab that “will” take me.

He chose contempt and mean-spirited bullying.

Some people on Facebook have messaged me to say he now regrets the matter.

Me too.

Whatever happened to saying, “hey, I know all about having a physical condition! I have one myself. I can’t help you but I’ll get you someone who can.”

Instead he went into a rebarbative snarl and wouldn’t stop.

He apparently told someone on FB that I ruined his day.

I have in fact filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

I’m still shaking. I want to close by saying I’ve heard promptly from the U of Michigan. They’re as upset as I am.

Is Trump’s ascendancy now a patented script?

If you hail from a historically marginalized group you know the answer.

 

 

 

The Guide Dog and the Cruel Nun, Italy…

I didn’t want to cry. The wide sun was covering my face. Tourists were all about. The day was warm for April. I didn’t want them, the tears, the choked tears of disability exclusion but they came and I leaned against a wall outside Santa Maria delle Grazie, home to “The Last Supper” and wept before strangers. I’d been denied entry to the church by a nun. She’d hissed like a goose and had pointed me away. It was Corky—no dogs in the grotto! Her disdain was cruel and it belonged to the viaticum of ruthlessness and I understood it wasn’t Corky she objected to at all but blindness itself, a pre-Roman atavistic stigma. I heard it. It rose from the back of her throat.

I’d encouraged Connie to go in and so I swayed and cried alone and hated myself. It wasn’t the spectacle of weeping that disgusted me, it was having to cry and letting a dried up craven, superstitious dingus get the best of me. “Supper Sister” had turned me away from Heaven and she knew it.

I slid down the wall and sat on the pavement. Corky, Labrador, large, affectionate, concerned, pressed against me and I cried all the more. The guide dog was supposed to fix this; to give me freedom; open the world, and to the best of her ability she had. We were in Italy where only three years ago I’d been living a sealed and provincial life in a small town, unsure of how to go places. Corky had done her part.

Godammit! I cried all the more. What was wrong with me? The Italians weren’t friendly to guide dogs, and over a span of three days I’d absorbed the evil eye from at least eighteen men and women. So what? Where was my inveterate, subversive streak—though I’d lived much of my childhood and adolescence fearing disability, I’d also been wild enough to say fuck you to teachers and aggregate bullies. Fuck you, I’d said to the high school chemistry teacher who wouldn’t describe what was on the blackboard. Fuck you, I’d said to the college professor who said I shouldn’t be in his class. Fuck you and Fuck you. And Fuck you, Nixon. Jesus! I’d been undone by a nun! A sputum bespattered unfounded wobbly nun!

I laughed then because that’s how it is with tears of discrimination—you get there.

 

 

Homage to Thich Nhat Hahn

Something has happened to me I can’t say what. It seems I’ve stepped from one concentric mandala to a smaller one, a turn toward peace. It’s as though all the laughing I’ve done has blown backwards and now that wind has pushed me to contentment. I can write it. I can dance a little. I believe in peace but now I “am” just so, a difference.

Like anyone I’ve had a hard life—I was bullied in childhood because of my disability. I’ve been oppressed in the work place and all the while, like some refracted ring of sun around a tiny lens inside the spyglass, I knew it wasn’t real, knew I wasn’t in those rooms. I wasn’t there when the famous University of Iowa professor of modernist poetry told me I couldn’t be in his class because of my blindness. Wasn’t there when the college president told me behind closed doors I’d have to learn how to drive a golf cart and hand out towels to summer lacrosse players if I wanted to keep my adjunct teaching job—who told me my blindness simply meant I wasn’t competitive enough.

Wasn’t there and wasn’t there.

All of us take steep paths to find contentment. My setbacks never felt real as I climbed. Oh the arrows hurt and the tears were hot, I won’t contest it. There was the eighth grade teacher who laughed about my blindness in front of the entire class. Who caused me to stumble from the room to peals of adolescent laughter. But as a friend of mine in Finland likes to say, “I’m the bird inside the bird” and somehow I always knew it.

I couldn’t think my way to peace. Of course I tried. Reading played a major role. I read the ascetics and martyrs, the ecstatics and the happiest rebels. The list is long.

But reading was to inner peace as the sound of someone else’s gramophone.

I took long swims; sat beside lakes; spent months alone. And these things were good.

One day in middle age, walking with my white cane sweeping the sidewalk it occurred to me the stick was leaving tiny dots in snow. That was a Zen moment for me and I wrote this tiny poem:

Zen Braille

Basho is that you?

I’m friendless

As the poplar

Still working my way down the street,

Curious, hands moving swiftly

On the book of wind.

When I traveled to China and saw men writing poems with water on the sidewalks I knew we were of the same tribe.

**

The world of course, simply is, but my journey across it changed forever in March, 1994 when I put aside my fear and trained with my first guide dog.

Here’s a journal entry I wrote moments before I met my dog:

Journal, March 3, 1994:

Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.” (Meister Eckhart) I am willing. I am an amenable greenhorn!  

“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.” (Walt Whitman) Afoot and lighthearted! Walt! Amen! 

“You know, it’s quite a job starting to love somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness. There is even a moment, in the very beginning, when you have to jump across a precipice: if you think about it you don’t do it.” (Jean Paul Sartre)

**

Peace takes risk. There’s an old Zen adage: “if you want to get across, get across…”

You’ve got to start somewhere. Take a first step. Take it despite your hurt and anger.

When they gave me a yellow Labrador named “Corky” I started.

They told me to walk with her.

And there I was hurrying past storefronts. Corky pulled and I concentrated on breathing, trying to be loose. My arm was straight, my shoulders squared, my posture  upright. In the guide dog lecture it had sounded easy but now I was moving faster than I’d ever gone before. I was scared and joyous as we went. A trainer was behind us, monitoring. We were “stepping out” as they say in guide dog work. Corky was going so quickly I didn’t have time to worry about oncoming shadows—people, street signs—whatever they were, they just dropped behind us.

I’d always been a timid walker. A tippy-toe walker. Now I was putting everything my feet and for the first time I felt alive in relation to my footfalls. It a circumstance for which I’d no prior lingo: a dog driven invitation to forwardness. Pounding up the sidewalk we were forwardness itself.

Then Corky stopped. Firmly. She’d arrived at our first curb. “God,” I thought, “she’s doing what the trainers said she’d do.” Then she backed up. The harness, the well known guide dog accouterment is perfectly rigid. Its handle is a steel fork with a skin of leather. As your dog moves you move.

“Earth will be safe when we feel in us enough safety,” I thought. The words were Thich Nhat Hanh’s, the great Viet Names Buddhist teacher. I felt safe at the curb.

“Nice stop,” said Barbara a trainer stationed just a few feet away. “That’s our Corky girl!”

“And she’ll always do that?” I said—it was half a question, half exclamation.

“Yep,” said Barbara. “She’ll always do that.”

“Earth will be safe,” I said to Corky.

**

Peace is always inside and outside at once. Reading and sitting are good, but you also have to walk it.

What a Dog Can Do

So I’m writing a book about my decade spent with “Corky” my first guide dog. When you live with a dog every day and travel everywhere with her you ask yourself questions.

I thought she was heroic. She thought I was hopeless. Question one: “what was Corky really thinking while guiding me?”

I could only surmise what was in her head. This would become a habit.

I imagined the exercise of man-to-canine dialogue was good for the mind. If you play the game properly it means you’re tough minded. For instance, a man thinks his dog is always looking out for him—she’s valiant, non-distractible. This isn’t entirely correct but he chooses to believe it. He needs to think it. After all he has his insecurities.

But he also knew his dog was a dog.

And so, walking in strange cities I thought about my investment in ideas about Corky versus Corky’s likely thoughts.

She watched cars. We were in Wichita, Kansas. I said “forward” and she didn’t budge.

A bus roared past and then a truck.

How had I not heard them?

She’d done her job—had stopped at a curb and had scanned all movement.

I was thinking about all the summers that might remain. How long might I live? What oceans had I yet to swim in?

Oh heroic dog! Who’d saved me! She was “Lassie” and “Rin Tin Tin” rolled into one.

We walked a few blocks and entered Wichita’s Botanical Garden and I asked Corky directly if she felt like Rin Tin Lassie. She wasn’t paying attention to me.

“She’s watching butterflies,” said a woman. “You’re talking to her, and she’s got butterflies on the brain!”

She had a smoker’s laugh, big and phlegmy.

“We have a lot of butterflies here,” she said. “This is the “Butterfly Garden”.”

“Ah,” I said. Smoker woman went away.

“Butterflies and trucks,” I thought, “are equally compelling in a dog’s eyes.”

A bright flash of color. Each appears at the margins of vision. Both warrant full attention. They create amplitude—both ends of the motion spectrum are the same.

“Dogs aren’t heroic,” I thought. “but they are alert, quick, and certain.”

Dogs say: “That’s motion and it’s mine.”

Sitting there amid the Wichita butterflies I saw that it takes some bravery to understand your dog’s view of things.

Once you understand this there’s a purity to it.

A dog sees all the dizzying, big eyed sparks of dailiness.

And doesn’t worry about it.

 

 

 

 

Disability and the Radial Republic

NewImage

US Postage stamp honoring guide dogs, picturing Morris Frank and his pioneering American guide dog Buddy, a German Shepherd. Beneath them it says: “Seeing For Me”

 

 

 

I haven’t been posting on my blog lately. Sometimes the limbed life of physical difference is overwhelming and one feels a temptation to lie down in the long ditch of sadness. The largest psychiatric hospital in the United States is the Los Angeles County Jail. Veterans with disabilities  since 9/11 face extraordinary obstacles to employment. Rehabilitation services for all persons with disabilities are underfunded. 70% of the disabled remain unemployed in the US. Only one quarter of matriculating college students with disabilities actually graduates. Long standing charities like guide dog schools are experiencing a general decline in philanthropic donations—Baby Boomers and their children aren’t as generous as “The Greatest Generation” it seems. 


Meanwhile the toxic and shrill bloviating of politicians like Paul Ryan (who argue social programs are the root of America’s financial problems) helps to convince Americans that generosity and fairness are nearly unpatriotic—and would this were not so—for giving hard working and ambitious people with disabilities a shot at the American Dream ought to be deeply carved on the entablatures of our public buildings. 

 

What do I mean by a “radial republic”? Many things of course but principally a renewal of the social contract—our American contract which has grown stronger after every war and which has assured veterans with disabilities will be properly assisted, treated, educated, and welcomed. What do I mean by a radial republic? As we nurture disabled vets we assist all Americans with disabilities. Many people know I’m a guide dog user but I’m willing to bet that most of my readers don’t know that guide dogs (or “Seeing-Eye Dogs” as they’re sometimes called in the US in homage to North America’s first guide dog school which is named “The Seeing-Eye”) are the product of rehabilitation work in Germany at the end of WW I. 

 

Halfway through the First World War a German physician, Dr. Gerhard Stalling introduced a blind veteran to his pet dog. The two men were in a hospital garden when Stalling was suddenly called away. When he came back the soldier whose name is now lost, was laughing as the dog licked his hands. Stalling saw dogs might be trained to guide the blind. The war had produced an astonishing number of blind veterans. The total number of wounded from the first world war remains unknown but during the four and a half years of the conflict 230 soldiers died every hour. 11% of France’s entire population was killed. The ten month Battle of Verdun in 1916 caused over a million casualties. Chlorine and mustard gas killed nearly 90,000 troops and left one and a quarter million men permanently disabled. Blindness was a common result of gas warfare and one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous paintings (“Gassed” 1919) depicts a ragged line of soldiers, their eyes bandaged, all the men walking in a line, each man’s hand on the shoulder of the man before him—with two sighted men in the lead. The sky is yellow above a field of corpses. 

 

Trench warfare included working dogs. Germany employed 30,000 dogs in the field and their work was divided according to need. Sentry dogs were used on patrols. They were taught to give warning when a stranger entered a secure area. Scout dogs were also used. Their job was more refined—they accompanied soldiers on reconnaissance and had to keep quiet. They could detect the enemy at a distance of a 1000 yards, “scenting” and pointing. 

 

Casualty or ‘Mercy’ dogs, also known as ‘Sanitatshunde’ were trained to find wounded or dying soldiers in the heat of battle. They carried medical supplies on their backs. The wounded could use the supplies if they were able, or they could count on the Mercy Dog to wait with them as they died.

 

Dogs also ran long distances across battle fields carrying messages, often during artillery attacks. The heroism of working dogs was well known on all sides. The Germans employed 30,000 dogs during the war. British and French forces had approximately 20,000 dogs in the field.    

 

The guide dog was a consequence of war. Because dogs had proved themselves capable of miraculous work under the worst battle conditions ever seen, it was clear to Stalling war dogs could be trained to help the blind navigate post-war streets which were suddenly filled with automobiles. With a small group of military dog handlers Stalling began training dogs for blind soldiers. Old photos show trainers and veterans working with German Shepherds, all the men wearing peaked hats and long wool coats. In addition to harnesses the dogs wore tunics bearing the Red Cross logo—the insignia of the battle field “mercy” dog.   

 

Stallings idea captivated the public’s imagination. An official guide dog school opened in in Oldenberg in 1916. The sight of veterans and dogs working in traffic was powerful and seemed natural. In popular imagination blind people had always been accompanied by dogs: a first century mural in Roman Herculaneum depicts a blind man with his dog.  A 19th century woodcut from the United States shows a blind man from Boston being lead by a dog and crossing the Commons. Such pairings were likely the products of serendipity—the blind and their dogs forged relationships by necessity. The history of blindness is filled with sorrow. Before reforms like Social Security and organized rehabilitation services were created in the 20th century, the blind often begged for food and shelter—some played musical instruments—many wandered searching for compassion. Dogs helped ease their loneliness and offered untrained navigational assistance.    

  

Sometimes I like to joke by saying the guide dog is the only good thing every invented by the German Army. This may be true. But what is true is that rehabilitation programs for disabled veterans impact the broader republic. Nowadays when an autist, or a deaf person is accompanied by a trained service dog we can and should give thanks to Dr. Stalling. And in turn we should be seeking with all our Republic’s strength to carry on the difficult work of lifelong optimism that disability rehabilitation and education calls for. 

 

I’m not fond of the term “wounded warrior” precisely because disability isn’t a wound—it may heal in some dimensions, but in others it will always be present. A commitment to people with disabilities in general and to veterans in particular means understanding the full arc of life. The radial republic means giving people with disabilities and equal shot at education, travel, vacation, family, housing, medicine, you name it. 

 

Making this happen benefits all.

 

 

Huffington Post: Dogs in the Playing Field

I’m so very pleased to mention I’ve been invited to be a guest blogger for The Huffington Post. It’s quite an honor. Below is an excerpt published yesterday, December 4. I’d be grateful if you’d visit the site and if you like the post, please feel free to share it with your social circles.  Thank you!

Dogs on the Playing Field

Steve Kuusisto & guide dog, Corky

No one gets a free pass to public life — “public life” — the elusive goal people with disabilities strive for. While the village square is sometimes difficult to enter often a service animal can help. In my case I travel with a guide dog, a yellow Lab named Nira who helps me in traffic. Together we race up Fifth Avenue in New York or speed through O’Hare airport in Chicago. We’re a terrific team. But even 23 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and 70+ years since the introduction of guide dogs in the U.S. life in public isn’t always friendly. Lately it seems more unfriendly than at any time since the late 1930s when the blind had to fight for the right to enter a store or ride a public bus. What’s going on?

Read more of Dogs on the Playing Field

Dog Schmooze

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 has just been released. Listen to Steve read “Letter to Borges in His Parlor” in this fireside reading via YouTube. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled What a Dog Can Do. Steve speaks widely on diversity, disability, education, and public policy. www.stephenkuusisto.com, www.planet-of-the-blind.com