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.