Let’s Go for a Walk

Pippen and I invite you to come along as I take our daily walk around the neighborhood. We’ll describe how a guide dog works and what challenges we experience along the way.

We like to walk early in the morning, either before7:30or after8:30. We avoid walking during that hour, because that’s when the great exodus takes place in a suburban neighborhood. How does this affect us? Think about what you do when you get in your car to leave for work. Do you hop in and immediately back out? You might check your make-up and realize you forgot your lipstick. You see that your son sent you a text, and you need to respond. This may take a few minutes, and during this time, do you ever look up and down the sidewalk to see if a pedestrian is coming? I don’t think so. That’s why, when we approach a car that’s idling in the driveway, we come to a stop and wait… and wait…and wait. Does the driver see me? Should we walk behind the car in hopes that he does? I don’t ever do that anymore, because I have been hit this way. Now, when I approach, I either stand and wait or raise my arm and wave it around, trying to draw attention to myself. I may look a little crazy, but it’s better than being run over.

As we walk along, we enjoy listening to the joyful songs of birds. The sounds that I do not enjoy are the roaring lawn mowers. Usually, we pass by them without incident, but they are a real danger to us when they are on a corner lot, and there is a street for us to cross. My ability to hear oncoming traffic has just been completely wiped out. One Sunday morning, as we were walking to church, I stood at the corner of a busy intersection, as a lawn mower roared in the corner lot near where I stood. Realizing that the operator of this obnoxious machine probably did not know that the noise prevented me from crossing safely, I turned and faced in his direction. I was so grateful when he shut down the mower and asked if I needed something. “Yes, if you could keep your mower off just until I get across the street, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.” At that same corner, I have often played a waiting game with a car that has pulled up to my left and is also waiting for a clearing, so he can pull out. Thinking he is being helpful, he sits and waits for me. I stand and wait for him. Finally, I motion for him to go ahead and turn. What he doesn’t understand is that the noise of his car is masking the noise of oncoming cars. I need to be able to hear the traffic to cross safely. No, Pippen does not make that decision. She is a dog, so she can’t make a judgment, like how fast that oncoming car will get to us. I have to do that. She also does not know where to turn or what route we will take. I make those decisions, because I am the human in this team. Her job is to guide me around obstacles, such as toys left in the sidewalk, cracks in the pavement, parked cars in their driveways, and low hanging branches. She turns right or left when I tell her to. She slows down at curbs or comes to a complete stop. She keeps me on the sidewalk and crosses the street in a straight line. She really has a very important job to do, so if you see us coming, please resist the urge to call out to her. She needs to keep her mind on the job. I, on the other hand, would love for you to speak to me. More about that in another post.


Let’s Go Shopping

“Who picks out your clothes for you?” I’m often asked by people who are curious about how a blind person can be well dressed with matching tops and skirts. It’s an innocent question, but on first hearing it, I was a bit insulted. I pick out my own clothes, and I dress myself each morning, all by myself, because, contrary to public conjecture, I don’t have a staff to do that for me.

It’s actually two questions. What they mean is, “How do you select your clothes at the store,” and “How do you know which top goes with which skirt when you get dressed?”

Shopping for clothing can be a challenge for someone who is totally blind. First, there is the problem of transportation, but I’ll save that for another post. How I select my clothes depends on several factors. When I start shopping, my companion or store associate will say, “what color would you like?” This is not an unreasonable question. I used to be able to see, so I have my own preferences, but what I’d like and what they have in my size are often not the same. I’m also subject to the opinion of my shopping helper, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes by my choice. “Does this make me look fat?” “Is this too bold a print?” “Is this a good color for me?” “Does it look like I’m trying to look younger?” In the end, the choice is mine, but in a subtle way, you can almost tell who took me shopping that day. I’ll never forget going shopping with a woman who was 20 years older than I. What I had been told were stunning outfits turned out to be clothes that my mother would wear. My absolute favorite helper for clothes shopping is my daughter. I think I can safely say this is true for many blind women who have a sensible and sensitive daughter. She already knows what I like and what will work for me and what won’t. She knows what is fashionable, but she doesn’t waste time showing me things that would look ridiculous on me.

I have a few rules for myself when shopping for clothes. 1. Never buy a skirt, pants, or a top without something to wear with it to make a complete outfit. Sighted people have the luxury of being able to keep an eye out for it as they shop on another day. I do not. Clothes shopping is always a one-day event, so if you don’t find it that day, don’t buy that odd-colored garment. 2. Always ask your helper, “Would you wear this?” Many times, when trying to match a top with a skirt, they’ll say, “Well, that’s not bad.” And that’s when the red flag goes up. Not bad? Would they wear it? 3. No matter how trendy or cool they say a particular garment is, if you don’t feel good in it, it’s not for you.

Now, to answer the second question, I Manage to keep from wearing stripes with plaids or grays with browns by keeping my closet very well organized.

I hang all my black skirts on a multiple skirt hanger, and the same with all my black pants, brown pants, and grey pants. Then I must be sure to put the corresponding clothes back on the same hanger. Often, I can tell which dress is which by touch. No, I can’t detect color with my fingers, but I know that the dress with the ruffle in the front is green.

For other colors, I clip a Braille note to the hanger. I also have a secret weapon called a color identifier. It says “black” when I hold it next to a pair of black hose, and “brown” when I put it next to the brown hose. Sometimes, it gets pinks and purples mixed up, and it has no idea what to say when the garment is khaki, but it’s still one of my favorite pieces of technology. It’s a blind woman’s best friend when she’s getting dressed.

How I would love to be on “What Not to Wear.” Then when I’m asked who picks out my clothes, I’d have a great story to tell.



Retiring a Guide Dog

“What will you do when Pippen retires?” The question people often ask is not about what I’ll do, but what will happen to Pippen, my Seeing Eye ® dog.

Pippen is 10-1/2 years old, and she’s still functioning as my guide. Many guide dogs retire at a much earlier age, but Pippen has had a pretty stress-free life. We don’t encounter heavy traffic very often, crowded hallways, or complicated routes to work or school. Most of her life, all she has been required to do is guide me into and out of buildings and on long walks around my neighborhood. We live in a quiet suburb, where there are blocks and blocks of sidewalks, and where there is very little traffic. These days, I don’t ask Pippen to take long walks, because she just isn’t up to it, but she still does a fine job of taking me to my mother’s apartment in an assisted living home, to my church, which is about a half mile away, and in and out of doctors’ offices.

Pippen and I have been a team for about 8 years. In the early days, we’d get up at 5:30in the morning and take a quick brisk walk around the neighborhood, before getting on the bus that would take us to my office. We’d take a walk at lunchtime and another good long walk in the evening. But in the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that Pippen hasn’t been very peppy on our walks, and she certainly would rather sleep in than jump up and go dashing around the neighborhood. Tell you the truth, so would I. I still take her for walks around the block, because it’s important for her health. I now get my exercise in other ways, such as swimming and working out on my treadmill and jogging trampoline. This is what I call phase one of her retirement.

Eventually, I will have to return to The Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ to get a replacement guide dog. I have several options, that is, if Pippen is still living a comfortable life. I can keep her as a pet. However, when I bring a new dog into our household, and the new dog is the one who gets to go with me whenever I leave the house, and Pippen has to stay home, it could be very sad for her and result in doggy depression. I could ask a friend to adopt her, but it might be difficult to find someone who is willing to adopt an elderly and possibly ailing dog. I could return her to the Seeing Eye, where there is a waiting list of people who would love to adopt a retired Seeing Eye ® dog, but that would absolutely break my heart, and maybe hers too. The truth is, I really don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll just have to see what my life situation is at the time when I really need to make that decision. It’s tough, really tough, but we know going into this kind of relationship that that’s part of the deal. Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier though. My first two dogs died near the end of their retirement, so the decision was made for me in each case. One lived to be 11, and the other to 13. Both times, I had made a vow to them that I would wait until they were gone before I replaced them. That’s just me. Ask another blind person who uses a dog guide, and you may get a completely different answer. We are all individuals, and there is no uniform way of dealing with this emotion-filled time.

Playing Scrabble

“I’ve got a triple letter on my q and it’s a double word score too!” If you’re a Scrabble player, you know how exciting this can be. I’ve loved playing Scrabble since I was a child, but only recently has it taken on new importance in my life.

You might wonder how a blind person can play Scrabbel, unless you’ve been fortunate enough to play on a brailled Scrabble board. The board’s grid is raised, so the tiles fit securely in each square, thus making it unlikely that they will be accidentally pushed off their positions. Each premium square, such as a double letter or triple word is marked in Braille. DL for double letter, TW for triple word, etc. Each tile has a print letter on it, with the numeric value, but also a Braille letter and numeric value. My scrabble game is decades old, and the board has seen some interesting repairs. My daughter owns one too, and so does my mother, so I don’t have to drag it all over the place. Unfortunately, these sturdy boards are no longer being produced, so we really have to be careful with them. A newer version has been available for some time, but it is a far inferior product. The plastic tiles have raised letters, which interfere with the reading of the Braille. I find them virtually impossible to read.

Playing Scrabble with a real board with real live people sitting around the kitchen table is one of my favorite ways to spend a Sunday or holiday afternoon. Lately, I’ve been playing Scrabble with my 96-year-old mother on Wednesday afternoons. We’ve developed a routine with my visits to her assisted living home. On Fridays, we go to Happy Hour together. On Mondays, we go to bible study, and on Wednesdays, we play Scrabble. She really lights up when I suggest I get out the Scrabble game. At 96, she sometimes has difficulty coming up with a word she wants to use in conversation, but her vocabulary at the Scrabble game is awesome. She has been a crossword puzzle player for as long as I can remember, so some of the words she comes up with are foreign to me, but then I was never any good at crossword puzzles. She keeps score, because she has always been the score-keeper in our games. She has to use a magnifying glass, even for surveying the board, and although her methods of addition are meticulously executed, she gets confused as to whose score is whose. I don’t care. The final score is not important, but she delights in beating me by even one point. Who knows if that is the right score. I don’t try to keep the score in my head. The important thing is that we’re both exercising our brains, interacting over a challenge that’s fun, and we’re not talking about how bad her back hurts or how she wishes she could have her old life back and still be living in her own house.

For those two hours on Wednesday afternoons, the most important thing in the world is to get to that triple word score, use all 7 letters in one turn, or go out and leave your opponent holding a Q or a Z.



Making a Joyful Noise

Is your church fully accessible to members and visitors with disabilities? When I ask that question, you probably think of accessible bathrooms and automatic front doors, and no steps. My church meets all these requirements, but until I joined a few years ago, no thought was given to making things accessible to visually impaired worshipers.

When I belonged to the Methodist church, the church purchased a whole set of Braille hymnals. It was a loose leaf binder, so I would find out what hymns were going to be sung that Sunday, and take out those pages and carry them to church with me, instead of lugging four volumes of Braille. That worked well. However, when I joined the Good Samaritan ReformedchurchofAmerica, I discovered that they didn’t use hymnals, but a monitor that showed the words on a screen. In jest, I would call it the “follow the bouncing ball” method. Consequently, I was left standing there humming along instead of singing, which was disappointing. Then I thought, wait a minute. Those words had to be produced by some computer. How about if they send those words to me in an email. Then I could send them to my Braille printer, and then carry them to church to use during the service. After a little tweaking of the process, it works beautifully.

I am now one of the song leaders, and although it’s quite noticeable that I am reading Braille as I stand up in front of the congregation, it apparently doesn’t look as strange as I had feared. It just takes a little planning ahead. When I attend practices, I record the whole thing on my Victor Reader Stream, a wonderful little digital book player and recorder. I can put book marks in at the beginning of each song, so I can skip to one that I especially need to practice. My church has been helpful in two other significant ways. One of the members, Ken, who is an architect, made a raised line map of the layout of the church, including the gathering area, the worship area, the offices, and the classrooms. It really helped me get a picture in mind of what the building looked like. The treasurer, Julie, sends me the treasurer’s report in an email. Because I have a screen reader on my computer, which translates print into synthesized speech, I can come to congregational meetings having already read the minutes and the treasurer’s report. It really gives me a sense of inclusion.

Here is a stunning example of how technology and good old hard copy Braille work together to enrich my life.

Happy Hour at Assisted Living

Who would ever think that there would be a “Happy Hour” at an assisted living center? It’s true. Many of them have a gathering once a week or on holidays, and they serve wine, beer, soft drinks, and even mud slides and margaritas. Where my mother lives, they have Happy Hour on Friday afternoons, before dinner, so it happens from about 3:00 to 4:00.

The first time I went over to Mom’s place to join her for Happy Hour, the highlight of the week for her, I worried that my guide dog would be distracted by all the people standing around with drinks. Silly me. It’s assisted living. People are sitting around, mostly in wheel chairs. There was no difference in threading our way through the lobby than on any other day.

Last Friday, the Happy Hour turned into something truly happy. My mother and I were sitting near a gentleman who was chatting with a particularly friendly and outgoing volunteer namedSandy.Sandyasked the man, whom I’ll call Henry, what he used to do before he moved there. It turns out he used to own an elegant restaurant in town, where a singer entertains in the evenings. “I used to sing sometimes,” he toldSandy.

“Well, you could sing for us,”Sandysaid. “Would you sing for us?”

“I’d sing if you could find an accompanist for me,” Henry said, doubting thatSandycould magically produce an accompanist. ThenSandyturned to my mom, and half jokingly asked, “Regina, can you play the piano? Henry here says he’d sing if I can find him a piano player.” Little did she know that my mother played piano for over 85 years.

“Sure” she said with the sweetest smile she’s worn since she moved in a month ago. “I used to teach, and I’ve accompanied hundreds of singers.”

Sandywas thrilled. As soon as the taped music was turned off for Happy Hour, she guided both my mom and Henry over to the grand piano in the lobby. I was a little worried that maybe Mom couldn’t remember all the chords, or maybe her 96-year-old arthritic hands would fail her, but I should have had more faith in the power of music.

“How about In the Garden,”Sandyasked Henry. Do you know that one?”

“Oh sure. That would be good.”

“What key do you like it in,” my mom the musician asked.”

And then she’d give him a nice arpeggio for an introduction, and off they’d go, Henry singing his heart out and Mom playing confidently, slowing down or speding up, to match the singer, being careful not to upstage him. The dining room workers sang along as they prepared for the evening meal, and they applauded after each song.

As Mother made her way back to her apartment, several of the aids stopped her and told her how beautifully she played. When we got back to her apartment, she plopped down in her favorite chair, exhausted from the walk back from the lobby, but also from the exertion of the performance. Yet, even though I couldn’t see her face, I knew she was pretty pumped up. “I think I’ve lost my touch,” she said modestly.

“Oh no,” I said. “You haven’t lost your touch at all. You might have missed a chord now and then, but you’ve still got it. I bet if you go down there and practice, it will all come back, and you can be sure that when you start playing, somebody will run and get Henry. They’ll say, ‘Come on Henry.Regina’s at the piano. We want a concert’”

I always knew that music can heal the soul, but on this day, it was music, not the wine, that put the happiness in the hour.


Ballroom Dancing

Mary Hiland dancing with instructor Mark Miller

Mary Hiland dancing West Coast Swing with instructor Mark Miller (Photo courtesy of Circle E Photos)

If you’ve ever heard a talk by a “motivational speaker,” you know that we all should find our passions and pursue them. That’s what makes life fulfilling. I said it myself in a keynote address I presented to the 2012 Student Citizen Awards Breakfast, sponsored by the Clintonville Area Chamber of Commerce. I asked the rhetorical question of my middle-school-aged audience, “What does it mean to find your passion?” Here’s some of what I told them.

Let me tell you a story of how I rediscovered mine. A few years ago, some friends of mine gathered at my house to learn to do line dancing. Just imagine four middle-aged women, shakin’ their boodies, and clappin’ and singin’ “My Achy Breaky Heart.” We had a blast. That’s when I realized that what was missing from my life was my passion, dancing.

When I was 14, I started taking lessons in tap, ballet, and what was known back then as modern jazz. I was a very serious student. I was in love with dance. I even had dreams of someday dancing on Broadway. Then at age 18, the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentoasa, a progressive eye disease, dashed my dreams. I was told that it would probably result in total blindness, and it did.

I put away my dreams of a career in dance, went to college, got married, got a job in social work, had two children, and tried not to think about it. In the meantime, I taught dancercise, joined a singing group, learned to cross country ski, took up cycling and hiking, got involved with other interests such as church and toastmasters, and yet….

I didn’t know what was missing from my life until we danced that night in my family room. I needed to dance. “But how?” I asked myself. “I’m 50 years older now and totally blind. How can I dance?” then I thought about ballroom dancing. With a partner, I wouldn’t have to worry about falling off the edge of the stage. I had always loved the waltz, and I was fairly good at other dances such as swing, rumba, and cha cha. I had longed to learn to tango.

Remember “Scent of a Woman?” I called Dance Plus Ballroom and scheduled a lesson. That first afternoon, when I stepped out onto the dance floor at the studio, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.. This is where I belonged. I was home. I learned later that I was my teacher’s very first student. Imagine starting a new job as a dance teacher, and your first student was blind. It didn’t bother Mark at all. I told him that I had taken years of dance lessons, so he didn’t need to start with teaching me the box step. I recall that I said to him, “I could teach you the box step.” So of course, the first thing he taught me was the proper way to do the box step. I discovered that there was a lot I didn’t know.

Mark was everything a good teacher should be, kind, patient, diplomatic, and all with a good sense of humor. Because he expected me to dance well, and because he knew how to help me improve my style and technique, we didn’t zoom through a hundred steps. He made sure I executed each one with good form and confidence before moving on to the next. Because I didn’t have a partner, and being in a class would not have worked for me, I took private lessons for several years. Mark served as my partner in competitions at the studio. Other dancers were often complimentary to me about my dancing, but more important, Mark enjoyed teaching me, and I felt joy again. Mark was careful to describe every step with words. There was never a “go like this.” Here was a place that being blind was not even noticeable, not even to me.