by Belo Cipriani
Being independent is all about feeling confident and I was feeling pretty confident one chilly San Francisco afternoon when I ran into my childhood friends in the Castro district. In the Slider's parking lot, my friendly greeting was met by icy stares and they began to beat me. As a result of the injuries I sustained that night, I became blind.
The world of darkness that followed the assault was obviously frightening, but also surprisingly frustrating. One of the most annoying aspects of being newly disabled had to do with getting assistance from friends and family to do simple tasks around the house like cooking or taking out the trash. Even more maddening was the idea that my independence had been taken away and that I would never get it back.
Through therapy and training at different centers for the blind, I soon realized that independence comes in various forms. Being reliant on talking devices is not much different than being dependent on GPS and smartphones, and I soon discovered that there is a blind way to do just about everything.
I completed my rehabilitation training and found myself enjoying the Internet, cooking for others, and traveling alone with a white cane. However, mobility was the one aspect of my life as a blind person that felt incomplete. I was in my late 20s, doing back flips in my Capoeira class, and running three miles every day at the gym. Except, when it came to walking in public, I moved terribly slowly through crowds and often found myself running into dirty trash bins and low hanging branches.
Even though I had never owned a dog before and the thought of caring for a guide dog felt colossal, my desire for speed prompted me to apply for one. A year after losing my sight, I received my mobility independence by working with Guide Dogs for the Blind, the largest guide dog school in the country. They partnered me with Madge, a petite 45-pound yellow Labrador, who taught me how to fly without sight on the busiest of streets and loneliest of blocks. Madge not only helped me walk faster, she also served as a social magnet; I quickly noted that people engaged me at cafes and restaurants – something that never happened when I carried my white cane. Madge got all the attention and it felt marvelous to be addressed with gusto and not with fear or concern.
Madge and I were a great team for many years until her retirement. Now, I am not only enjoying my second guide dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind, I am also a spokesman for the organization. My new set of eyes is Oslo, a 75-pound black Labrador, who has taught me that it's possible to love and trust a second time around. Oslo and I are featured in a documentary about Guide Dogs for the Blind that was just released.
The short five-minute film talks about the many services the organization provides that go beyond matching a blind person with a great guide dog – it provides mobility and independence. Guide Dogs for the Blind provides a lifetime of support despite the fact that it doesn't receive any government funding and relies only on the generosity of donors. I accepted the offer to be featured in the short film because it was a great way to build awareness for the organization as well as give the public at large information about the guide dog lifestyle.
While having a guide dog enables me to travel and live very independently, this independence is threatened when businesses deny me service because I am accompanied by my guide dog. In San Francisco, I have been denied access at restaurants and shops – particularly in Chinatown and in the Mission district. It both saddens and angers me when my rights are being taken away; these business owners are unaware they are actually breaking the law.
Another issue threatening my independence is the growing number of people who have their pets pose as service dogs. They attain fraudulent papers from websites and buy fake vests for their pets. Because some of these animals are very poorly behaved, it creates misperceptions among business owners and leads them to view all service dogs as a hazard.
As a spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind, I want to shine some light on access issues in San Francisco and around the country. I believe that there is no better way to understand someone's viewpoint than by walking in their shoes – in this case two shoes and four paws.
The documentary is available in both English and Spanish and accessible via YouTube (http://youtu.be/T8-zkA8Tz6g class=watch-page-link>) and at the end of this column. I invite everyone to check out the video and also share it with friends and family. It is only through learning about the wonderful guide dog lifestyle that one can truly understand what these magical creatures can do to enhance the lives of the visually impaired.
Belo Cipriani is the writer-in-residence at Holy Names University and a spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind. His first book, Blind: A Memoir, is a multiple award-winner and has made various high school and college reading lists. Learn more at www.belocipriani.com and www.guidedogs.com.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8-zkA8Tz6g&list=UUOLoervJZ7NQgr-izC67WjA