Saturday, April 30, 2011

Unsent Thank yous, getting it right

Ablism can be defined as discriminating against or being prejudiced towards anyone with a visible or invisible disability. This can be shown from the words, such as crazy or lame, to the actions such as excluding someone from a social event or emotional and physical abuse. I'm sure many of the Blogging Against Disablism Day writers will have several posts about ablist language and actions, but that's not what I want to write about here. It is often so easy as a blind person to notice and remember all the times people have been rude, invaded my personal space, distracted my guide dog, denied us access, or didn't give me a chance once they realized I was blind and associated that with lack of ability and intelligence. However, there have been several people, especially in education, who gave me an opportunity with expectations that I would succeed.

Dear Mrs. Lowe:
Thank you for being the first person to encourage my dreams of journalism. You not only saw my potential to write articles, but you assigned me to be the copy editor for the yearbook when I had no previous experience. This was my first time in a leadership position, where I learned the importance of speaking up to others as well as many of the rules for line, structural, and content editing. There were no problems; everyone gave me the work on disks, so the content was immediately accessible.

Dear Dr. Brasch:
Thank you for teaching me much about all aspects of journalism. I learned how to come up with more and more story ideas, even when I thought I was exhausted. When my story draft wasn't exactly what you wanted you made me go back and fix it to your specifications, even if it took six times to do it. You showed me how to promote the magazine in everything from baking and selling cookies to making balloons and painting with children at the local fair. You made me go to local businesses and get ads and distribute magazines, especially to places I've never been before. You made me copy editor and later a senior editor/main fact checker in charge of proofing all articles for accuracy. You told me I was going to lecture in front of your class of 250 students because I would be able to do a good job of discussing disability in the media and social justice. You came down hard on me when I missed deadlines and wasn't giving it my best because you knew I was capable of more than that. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of a team that had nothing to do with blindness.

Dear people on the study abroad trip to Guatemala,
Thank you for welcoming me as just another volunteer without the awkward, uncomfortable silence that so often greets me. On that trip, I learned to paint road lines, brick walls, and the ceiling of the medical clinic even though it terrified me to be so high up on a ladder. I went through the Mayan ruins, to the outdoor markets, and learned to make tortillas. After we went horseback riding up the mountain to see a volcano, thank you for helping me balance; after I dismounted, I was having severe hip pain because of my scoliosis and you helped me to walk the rest of the way to the lava without making a big deal.

Dear Dr. Podeschi,
Thank you for all the extra work you put into making the coding analysis program accessible. After having negative experiences with professors, especially one that semester who said I shouldn't bother him and he wasn't going to help me and should ask another student for computer assistance I was pleasantly shocked with your patience and creative solutions. It is one of the most visual-based programs that I have seen, and using a macro program to write computer scripts using keystrokes was a wonderful idea. You didn't have to spend at least 4 hours with the initial setup of Atlas TI and an additional 4 or five hours fixing all the bugs and crashes each time a new technical issue arose. Also, thanks for all the research project articles and suggestions for improving my independent study.

Dear Michael Collins,
Thank you for making intro to theater such a memorable and fun class. It was one of the best ones I've taken during my college career, and I loved your endless stories and the non-powerpoint way you lectured. I usually need to ask for accomodations, but you automatically gave me exams on a flash drive and emailed me any documents, ahead of time, that I would need for class that day. Finally, thank you for taking the initiative to auditorially describe the settings, costume, and actions in the plays and films we watched. I didn't even have to ask, you just came to sit near me and started talking about everything as if it were the most natural action in the world.

Martha, an appreciative student

Sunday, April 17, 2011

staying in touch

This is one of several upcoming posts I'm bringing over from my other blog.

Working with a guide dog involves many people: the people at the breeding station, the staff who cares for them in the kennels, and the trainers who teach them how to guide. However, the puppy raisers and the people who have them after they retire are an important part of the process.
I received my first guide Valerie in July 2006. At first I agreed with other students that I didn't want contact; I don't remember why, but that's how it started. A couple months later, I changed my mind. We received a puppy profile with basic info: name, age, what kind of environment, habbits of the puppy, how did the puppy let you know when it wanted to relieve ETC, but I wanted to know more. I also started to think that if I had raised a dog for a year, I would want to know how he or she was since it was like losing a family member with no idea what happened for the rest of his or her life. My puppy paper had the first names of the main raiser, her sister and brother, and the parents. I did a search online and found their last name. I found the main raiser on one of the social networking sites and sent her a message letting her know I had her former puppy and asking if she and her family would want to stay in contact. At first, she thought I had the wrong person, since Valerie's name didn't match. I knew that since Valerie was a reissue, a dog that had a previous handler, that she had another name. After we confirmed my information was correct, we started chatting on AIM, and I got to learn fun things about my dog. Valerie was the focus of her senior project for high school, so she was used to being busy and surrounded by lots of people. She went to volleyball games, bowling, the mall, and the airport. She had dog and cat friends, and she loved to cuddle with anyone who would hold her. She knew bed time, and she would come down the stairs to stair at people to come with her. I shared info about how it was to work with her in college. I told her how my French professor always pretended to offer Valerie coffee and tell me seeing her made him feel better on bad days. She loved to curl up in a beanbag chair and take a nap. She did a good job guiding through crowds of students, and I had never felt comfortable walking that fast before I got a guide dog. I also shared my struggles. How I got hopelessly lost for the first three weeks going to class on a new campus every day, how she would sometimes not move faster even with correction, and that she would scavenge for food on the ground.
Once we had been chatting for a couple of months, I said they could come visit Valerie and me if they wanted to. We met, and that was awesome. We talked for a couple of hours, while everyone petted Valerie and gave her beloved belly rubs. They took lots of pictures, and they gave us presents. There was a squeaky hamburger and a nylabone; Valerie of course has destroyed the nylabone, but she still has the burger. They also gave me a water bowl/bottle holder, a bone keychain, and my favorite, a photo album. It shows her from the day they got her at two months old to the postcard they received in the mail from when she was in training at The Seeing Eye; it is one of the things that is always with me, no matter how many times I have moved since 2006. We also met again a few months later when I went to their house for the weekend. It was great getting to see where Valerie was raised. I learned she loved to sit on a certain step and stare out the window at all the people passing by. She loved to chase snowballs with the other dogs in the family. She knew how to balance a treat on her nose, throw it up in the air, and catch it before it hit the floor. We went to the mall, a bookstore, and the movies, where they got to see Valerie guide and do her job well.
Over the next few months, I began to realize that we wouldn't make it long as a team. I called the school every three months or so with maor issues; they would straighten out for awhile, but then something new would happen. I also noticed her continuing health problems with infections and tiredness. It was eventually determined that she was stressed and had alergies to chicken, wheat, rice, and 17 other outdoor-related things. I was worried that they would be upset or angry that Valerie wasn't going to be working for a long time, but they were awesome and supportive.
When she retired, it took me a few months to find and decide on a final home for Valerie. The school would have gladly placed her in a loving home, but again, I wanted contact and would have had none if I had gone that route. She is now with one of my former roommates friend's parents about an hour away from where I go to school. I forwarded the puppy raisers the new contact info, and they went to visit her once she had been settled. The lady who has her now and I send emails every few months; I ask how she is, and she shares stories. Valerie goes for walks a couple times per day; I taught her with clicker and treats, and Valerie continues getting treats for sitting at the corner and other things. One day, she refused to move from the corner and cross the street till she received her reward. She chases grasshoppers, loves to steal tomatoes from the garden, and has dog and human friends, especially the little children in the family. I have seen Valerie twice since she retired almost 2.5 years ago. She is happy, healthy, and stress-free, and that is all I wanted for her.
As her raiser told me, "inside the heart of every dog guide beats the heart of a puppy raiser." I also say inside every former guide dog is the love of a handler who always tried to make the right decision for the dog based on his/her needs, even if it was hard hurt at the time.
This is my submission for The Second Assistance Dog Blog Carnival I hope you take the time to read posts by others who made decisions involving assistance dogs.

college reflections

At this time in three weeks, I will have graduated with my BA. I can't believe it is finally happening. College didn't go the way I had planned. At the end of high school, I was enthusiastic and eager to go. The first couple weeks were hard; I spent so much time getting lost, getting accustomed to my new guide dog, and scanning textbooks. I made friends in some of my classes. We started eating lunch together every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I loved my classes, and I made Dean's list both semesters my freshman year. I thought that pattern would continue, but it ididn't. I took summer classes, and I had an amazing intro to theater professor. He had endless stories about plays he had worked on and written. I also took a world politics class with a professor from Gana who used to do something with the United Nations. However, I was so alone. I didn't have a roommate, and no one I knew was taking classes.
Sophomore year started with a guide dog access issue, financial problems, and an 18-credit course load. I wrote before that is when my depression started. I didn't care about my work. The next semester, I sent Valerie to a new home, got my second guide dog Zorro, and finished the year. I was also alone my junior year when I crashed. I didn't get out of bed, skipped classes at least 50% of the time, and failed my internship. Zorro went back to the guide dog school and was reissued to a wonderful second handler.
I started to realize I hated journalism and didn't want to do it any more, but I was too many credits and too many lab hours in to change. Senior year was better. I got Dee, had awesome friends and roommates, and started to put my life back together. I took off the fall semester to go to blind inc; I think I will post my entries from there. this semester, I'm just biding my time; I'm already mentally gone from here.
I've learned a lot from college, some fun things and some serious.
Just because someone has a PHD does not mean he or she necessarily has common sense or tact
there are some unbelieveably kind and helpful professors who give me hope for education
It is ok to fail; sometimes it can lead to better opportunities
it is a good idea to eat food before drinking and not mix drinks
Sharing problems with a friend is wsonderful, even if they don't give advice and just listen
People lose their sense when they see dogs, or they scream bloody murder and run to the other side of the sidewalk
Walking at 2 am isn't as scarey as some people like to make it seam.
People who go to midnight pizza and bingo can be vicious.
Drunk students shouldn't be allowed to sing Sweet Caroline; they make up their own words and the song is never the same again.
Getting an education is a privilege, and I wish I could remember that more often.

Monday, April 4, 2011

reaction time

Until last year, I spent most of my time in small towns. When I got Dee in 2009, we worked in Portland for a week, so I knew she was confident and did her job well. During training, I was nervous with all the traffic and people, but it was just an every day occurance for Dee.
In May last year, I moved to Minneapolis to attend BLIND, Inc., an adjustment to blindness center where I learned to travel independently and other skills. We took the bus to and from the school every day, so I knew the route well. I had been there about two weeks and was gaining confidence with my travel skills; but, I was still having trouble knowing which were two-way and four-way stops and wasn't sure when we should cross on streets with heavy traffic.
We were walking the two blocks to take the bus home for the evening. There was no traffic moving, but I heard a bus or truck on the other side of the road. I waited a few seconds, and still there was no movement. I told Dee forward, and she went at her usual fast pace. All of the sudden, about 3/4 of the way across, the bus pulled out. I wasn't sure what to do since we were already in motion, but Dee took care of everything excellently. I could feel the bus a few inches in front of my face. She shoved me back a few steps with her body, and she spun me around to face the way we had come from. The bus grazed my left shoulder and kept going. I think I was kind of in shock; I petted Dee and told her good girl, hopp up? We turned back around and finished the crossing, and after we got on the curb, I knelt down to hug her and give her treats. If she hadn't shoved me back and spun me around, I probably would be dead or critically injured.
She seemed fine for the next two days, but that Saturday, she began acting afraid every time we approached a corner. She stopped somewhere between five and ten feet from the edge of the curb; when I got her to the edge and clicked/treated for the approach, she either sat down or immediately ducked behind my legs and faced sideways down another sidewalk. Even when I was sure we had a light and told her forward, it took two or three commands to get her moving; when she entered the street she was slow and hesitant when approaching the up curb.
After talking to GDB, they suggested that I help her gain her confidence back by working her on quieter street crossings and praise and c/t at the upcurb every time she responded well. On the busy streets, I dropped the harness handle and healed her across using my cane. Needing to help Dee feel safe in the street prompted me to practice my cane travel more, and it made me have to be confident in my street crossings. If I wasn't sure, that would travel down the leash and the cycle of problems would continue. After two weeks of this, she approached the curb and only took one step back. At this point, I had her guide me across the busy streets, but I still carried the cane in my other hand, just in case she froze in the middle.
At the beginning of July, my confidence had grown a lot, and Dee's was pretty much returned. What sealed it was traveling to Dallas for a week and working in a new busy environment. My Dee, the wagging, fast-paced, confident guide showed herself again. People told me I should send her back to the school and getg another dog, but I knew we could make it through. I am thankful we worked it out. Her quick reaction and fast movement allowed me to live, and in turn, weboth gained the confidence we needed to keep traveling.
This is my entry for The Third Assistance Dog Blog Carnival

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fear of Rejection

I have always had fear of rejection. I was the shy, booksmart kid, but I didn't grow up with family near my age. In preschool and elementary school, I had many friends. It was middle school when everything fell apart. My mother was overprotective to the point where I supressed my thoughts and opinions because they were drastically different than hers. I wasn't allowed to go anywhere, and after a while of asking and receiving I can't answers, my friends stopped asking me to hang out with them. Since I didn't go many places and wouldn't share my opinions, I didn't have much to talk about. I spent much of my middle school years reading. Why should I even try to make friends; it was futile.
High school was better. By that point, I had two good female role models who slowly got me to open up, asked my opinion and thoughts about everything, and encouraged me to share my ideas with my classmates and teachers. I joined clubs: the newspaper, yearbook, reading competition, foreign language club, honor society, prom comittee, diversity, Bible study, NFB students, ETC. I still had a hard time opening up and letting people in. I was (and still am) surprised when people talk to me and it isn't to ask a blindness or dog-related question. Why should I let people in when they are eventually going to hurt me and leave?
This trouble with making friends and letting people be close continued into college. I found my group of friends freshman year because Stephanie saw me standing outside the ecology class and randomly came over and started talking to me. We sat together during class, and she explained the slides with pictures. Afterwards, we'd go for coffee or lunch since we didn't usually eat before the 2 pm class. She introduced me to her friends, who in turn, introduced me to their other friends. I had classes with them, and we joined clubs together. They were all juniors and seniors, so they left during my sophomore year. That was the time when Valerie left, and I just had no energy for going to talk to new people, new clubs, ETC. I barely wanted to get out of bed to eat, shower, not to mention go to class. I withdrew from mostly everyone my junior year. I didn't leave my room often, didn't return emails, and didn't call people back.
By the middle of 2009, I realized I couldn't stand to live this way anymore. That is when I started the slow process of rebuilding myself. I applied for blindness training; I knew I needed skills for cooking and travel, and I thought a move across the country would help. Being around people who were constantly encouraging, supporting, and having high expectations would be good for me. By that time, I had worked with and retired my second guide dog, and I was rejected by the guide dog school. I applied to guide dogs for the blind in Oregon, where I got Dee November 2009. I started seeing a psychologist, and I went to the GP for other medical issues. I had problems with tubes in my ears, and I was having constant back and wrist pain because of repetitive motion and cold weather. I entered physical therapy and went to the chiropractor.
What was I talking about again? Oh yeah, rejection. I started opening up to epople more; I told my friends and my boss about my struggles with depression, and much to my surprise and relief, they were all supportive. Not so much for my family who said "what do you got to be depressed about?" I made new friends in 2009, and my roommates and I did everything together; we ate dinner, talked about our problems, and went shopping. I made more friends at blind inc., and if seeing the same 14 people for at least 9 hours a day for at least six months doesn't bond people threw all emotions, then I don't know what will. We learned all of our past histories, our frustrations and tears, and celebrated our small and large triumphs.
I think I should find a new therapist; I quit going to mine because I just didn't feel connected and as if I were getting anything out of the sessions. I am doing much better with letting people know what I think and feel. Now if I could just get find the courage to tell my mother, that would also be a step in the right direction.

Grieving the Loss Part II

Before she retired, Valerie went back to Seeing Eye for a month of evaluation. She did fine there, but she didn't have the constant work like she had with me. After 2.5 weeks of my evaluation, I told them that that was enough and I wanted to retire her. They wanted to send her out as a guide for a third handler! I absolutely refused, citing my ownership, her expenses which many blind people can't afford, and her stress and exhaustion. After talking it over some more, they completed the paperwork in October of my sophomore year, 15 months after I picked up her harness handle for the first time.
I was not known for crying; Beckie and I had been best friends at that point for four years, and having the access issue aththe B&B was the first time she had seen me cry. When I was first considering retirment for Val, I cried more than I had ever cried in my life. I cried with frustration when she was slow and signaling with everything she had that she was too stressed and tired to guide, with anger because it wasn't supposed to be this way since many guides work for 6 years or more, and with loneliness since she was my constant companion. I cried when I realized I could make much better time with my cane. I cried when she always wagged her tail and gave me doggy kisses when I returned from class. Finally, I cried every time I made contact with someone asking if they could take Val, only to be told I should let the school do it or they didn't want her for her expenses, too many dogs already, ETC. After three months of searching, I found a family for her. When the day came to say goodbye, I didn't cry; I had made peace with her retirement, and it was what was best for her.
I was emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially depleted. All of my friends, except one roommate, were graduating that semester. I began missing deadlines, lying to too many people, lost concentration with textbooks, and didn't have interest for my usual activities. Losing my Valerie to retirement was the most overwhelming, personal loss I consciously dealt with. I grew up emotionally reserved, often to the point of detachment, because if I had differing opinions or feelings, I was shouted down by my mother or other authority figures. I think all of these factors built up to trigger my crash into depression.
Many people retire dogs or lose pets; that shouldn't have been so traumatic for me. However, since I had not grieved my losses from adoption and had been subconsciously repressing my feelings about it for years, it sent me over the edge. Just because my mother had happy feelings since she had infertility issues and got a baby does not mean I always shared those feelings. The newborn baby in me grieves my first mother who abandoned me at the hospital because she had six other children to feed and could not feed herself, since we both were malnourished. I grieve the loss of what could have been, the family traditions, the culture and language of Paraguay, of growing up with people who sounded, acted, and looked like me. I grieve the loss of medical history, a birth certificate, and other documents that make it easier to track the past. I grieved never knowing other adopted children or adult role models who could help me deal with these feelings. It's a primal, still opened wound, that I did not, and in many ways, still don't know how to handle. I grieve having a parent who would have let me express these feelings, even if it went against what she felt I should believe about the adoption process.

grieving the loss

I've never felt very close to my family. I always participated in the activities, picnics, and family reunions, but we just don't seem to have much in common. One of my uncles died when I was 12, but I wasn't very affected; maybe I was detached, I don't know. My mother told me the little info she had about my adoption, but I never felt comfortable expressing my true feelings about it to her.
When I was 18, I got my first guide dog Valerie. I never had a dog before, so this was a totally new experience for me. I remember thinking she was huge (she is a 48-pound black lab), and I was uncomfortable when she licked me. I didn't know what her signals meant, when she needed to relieve, when she wanted to play, ETC. I stayed at Seeing Eye for a month, and I got used to her and her signals. I went back to my mother's house, and three days later, I moved to college to start my freshman year. I was sooo overwhelmed. I wasn't prepared well with orientation and mobility, and I didn't know how to explore new areas on my own. I spent my first two-three weeks lost on campus. I asked people for directions, but I never took the same way to and from a building twice, so I couldn't form my mental map. My roommates and floor mates were in to drinking, smoking weed, and partying, and that isn't my thing at all. I was feeling alone and lonely, and having Valerie helped so much with that. She was confused because I wasn't giving her consistent feedback at the beginning since I was so lost myself. If I don't tell the dog where I want to go, she can't help me get there.
After the first few weeks, I had a general idea of the locations I needed to know. I had also started talking to people in classes, joining campus volunteer activities, and having lunch/coffee with friends. Valerie snored threw chem class, and I almost joined her. She went with me to campus movies and curled up with me in the beanbag chair, even though she wasn't supposed to. We went to plays and concerts. We experienced navigating threw snow and continuous campus construction at the same time. They moved the fences every day from January threw July, and it was always an adventure going to class. We had fun at new year's where she stole a chicken leg and carried a pug in her mouth as if it were her puppy. We went to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for accesssible textbooks and the Louis Braille coin. We went to Baltimore where we saw a dolphin show, walked for hours, and got followed by tourists with many small children.
Through all of these happy experiences, we had significant problems. We were alwys at the vet because she was constantly scratching, and they gave her more and more medicine for bacterial infections that never seemed to go away. She also got a UTI, which put her out of work for three weeks. One vet insisted she had mange and it couldn't possibly be alergies since she was only three. After ligistical issues with my college town vet, we finally scheduled sskin alergy testing with a vet hospital in New Jersey. What should have been a simple trip turned out to be ridiculous. My friend Beckie and I missed the greyhound bus by five minutes. I refused to go the next day and lose $120 in B&B fees, so we were going to take a later bus and transfer to another later bus. Her family decided they didn't like that idea, so they drove us to New Jersey. We got stuck in traffic in a constant downpour, got lost, and a 3.5 hour trip turned into six hours.
When we arrived, the B&B owner made an access issue by saying she didn't allow pets in her home because a family member was alergic, and she had some other nice hotels she could recommend. Hers was the cheapest in the area, and she wasn't legally allowed to do that. After explaining the laws and threatening to get the police involved and file a law suit, she backed down. We went to the vet's the next day and it turned out that Valerie was alergic to 17 tenvironmental things, as well as three foods I had found threw an elimination diet. The shots were $300 per month. I had paid on carecredit for the vet visit and on credit cards for the travel and B&B.
I didn't have much money as a college student, so I used at least $2,000 from my scholarship to pay the care credit and four months of alergy shots. The shots combined with benedryl made Valerie exhausted. Since she had previous working issues, was too tired for my active life, and since I definitely could not afford her continuing care, she was retired.