What's Wrong with the Guide Dog Schools, Part Two

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Photo of Stephen Kuusisto with his second guide dog “Vidal” a yellow Labrador retriever. 

 

 

I wrote just days ago about the bad behavior—the execrable behavior of several guide dog school administrators and its been interesting to see (behind the curtain, as it were) responses from people who work in these programs and who cannot speak for themselves. They have expressed gratitude for my public outcry.

 

The poet Wallace Stevens wrote, famously, “the world is ugly and the people are sad” but if he could be here today he might write, “the world is ugly and the people are terrified” as the business of biz has become aggressively heartless in a new and sinister way.

 

For over 70 years guide dog schools in the US have assured the safety of blind people. Their job (as advertised) has been to provide professionally trained dogs to blind men and women. They have done that job very well. One reason they’ve been successful—in fact, the chief reason, is that senior guide dog trainers (who understand profoundly the complexities of blindness and the complications of dogs) have been central to every facet of “the work” as they themselves like to call it. “The work” requires years of apprenticeship, learning alongside veteran trainers; wearing blindfolds in traffic; living with blind students while wearing a blindfold; learning the hundreds of ways people can become blind; understanding the social and cultural obstacles faced by disabled people; and learning how to work with clients who have multiple disabilities. All this while walking thousands of miles in rain and snow and during heat waves. All this while learning everything there is to know about dogs and traffic and how to handle danger. 

The seniority system has always been one of the standout features of “the work” because younger guide dog employees, prospective trainers, and even administrative and housekeeping staff can learn almost daily what the older trainers know. “The work” is about accumulated knowledge. In many respects guide dog schools, like colleges and universities, are involved in knowledge production. 

 

While guide dog trainers are not well paid, they have always been able to count on having a career. Let’s be clear: the “career” is about knowledge and empathy and a profound awareness of disability in all its myriad forms. 

 

By reducing retirement benefits; summarily dismissing senior staff; and pretending that these things are necessary in order to serve the blind, the new style administrators and Wall Street directors of the guide dog schools are destroying the morale and undermining the security of people who have given their “all” for blind people. 

 

The guide dog schools have plenty of money. These heartless management ideas come from the current corporate driven management idee fix—that reducing investment in employees is good for the bottom line. But I say this is hogwash. And I say the very idea—the very adoption of Bain Capitalism where guide dog employees are concerned puts the blind at risk. 

I can say these things because I’m not afraid. The guide dog schools may well put me on a “do not admit” list and prevent me from getting another dog. But I can live with myself. I can’t live with the knowledge that guide dog trainers are now working in fear for their very livelihoods.   

 

I can’t reveal the narratives I’ve heard from guide dog trainers, but I assure you their stories would break your heart. 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

    

Yes, There's a Dog in My Heart…

If there's a dog in your heart it will do no damage.

Read: Dog in Heart, an excerpt from my upcoming book, as seen on my website: StephenKuusisto.com. Then tell me, is there a dog in YOUR heart?

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

Dog in Heart

If there's a dog in your heart it will do no damage.

Dog Man Writes to Parts of Himself

If there’s a dog in your heart it will do you no damage. If there’s a thistle inside you, you’re in trouble. Only weeks after getting my first guide dog, and walking freely on the ordinary streets I met the thistle hearted all around me. They were people who lived in the famine of effect—unhappy inside and projecting unwarranted hostility outside. Meeting them with a dog at my side, and a dog inside me, a protective dog of the heart, well, that was different—to say the least. Standing in line at the bank a thistle-woman caught sight of Corky and screamed quite literally: “You damned disabled with your damned dogs!” She waved her arms like she was on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. There were three or four other customers. They all backed away. She kept shouting her wild gibberish. And Corky wagged her tail. I felt it against my left leg. She was telling me that two worlds described our rewards, we were in tandem, we were in accord.  We were a musical chord. Her tail was saying: “each lives in one, all in the other.”

So I smiled. Just smiled. I probably looked like a simpleton. But our dog heart was smiling. The woman turned and bolted out the door. Of course that’s when the other customers began speaking up. “Wow, she was really out of line!” “There must be something wrong with her!” But I had Morse Code dog heart—which was all I needed.

While still at Guiding Eyes I’d kept a journal—titled “Dog Man Writes to Parts of Himself”.

One entry read:

You were always a dog in your heart—you were forced to conclude the matter when, one morning, early, you felt a giddiness, a happenstance wakeful half-assed joy. It wasn’t the electrolysis of sex or the sticky dendritic jazz of chocolate or bourbon that marked your inner life. It was dog, dog-ness, dog all the while. You were standing at the window, still wearing your pajamas. You felt like running into the yard and rolling in snow. You didn’t care what the neighbors might think. A good snow roll in your PJs was in order. You saw that now, saw it was always “the thing”—to be a dog and sharply alive with all your senses in order. No tax forms. No darkness blotting out hope. Dogs are the darkness. Dogs are hope. You saw there was nothing more to be said about the matter.

**

I was insensibly happy. The person bearing my name had been transformed. He was lighter, like a character in fiction—the fairy tale dog man was walking, running. He didn’t have to explain himself. That was the great thing. He didn’t have to explain the convoluted gears and motors of his brain.

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

Dog Language 101

The utility of language resides in two questions: what’s upwind and what’s the best way to get there?  For all I know dogs may have poetry—sonnets of smell—amusing to think so—but when I took my first solo walk down the subway stairs with guide dog Corky I knew she had a bold and ancient comprehension of our circumstances.  When you feel the language of others, even when its silent, you’re sensing competence.  Some days a silent language is all you need.

Once, riding a train from Helsinki to Tampere, I sat beside three old women.  They knew one another well.  You could see it in their postures, long familiarity.  One was knitting.  One had a book.  The third looked out the window.  Every now and then one of them would say a confirmatory thing—“snowing again” or “coffee?”  It was easy to be in their company.  I was a young man writing poetry and starting to understand the delicacies of language and consciousness.

With a dog you don’t have to be all tricky and wild.  Trouble free words will do.  Heartfelt silence will do.  Walking through the subway with Corky I let her guide me and kept my mouth shut.

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

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

fyi: featuring Steve and guide dog Nira

The University of Iowa has a great news magazine for faculty and staff called "fyi" and this month features Steve and "Nira" in an article and "picture show"!  This is very nicely done if you ask me.

~ Connie

Read article: Blind professor helps others see another side to disability
Photo feature: Steve and Nira’s first day of class
Audio slide show: Professor, Nira get acquainted with UI campus, each other

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.