Growing up and the “Good Book”: Reflections on a Year at Bible School

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Ten years ago – has it really been that long? – I found myself in a remarkably similar circumstance to the one I am currently facing. Out of work, in a place of personal, spiritual and professional transformation, I decided to take the plunge and spend a year at a small unaccredited Bible college. My choice was made because of a complicated combination of financial and theological crossroads, and it’s a decision that I have never regretted.

 

So why am I writing this now, a decade later? A combination of reasons. One of the benefits of being out of work is the ability to read books by a wide variety of people – those who have embraced the Christian faith wholeheartedly, those who have abandoned it due to pain or abuse, and those who struggle to believe. It’s beautiful and tragic and messy, seeing those who share my faith embrace some fellow earth-dwellers and reject others, those who no longer share my faith who cry and wrestle with those who do and whom they love, and those who never shared my faith – or those whose departure from it was particularly traumatic – who become furious at anyone who professes any form of belief in the divine. Such literacy and conversation has rounded out my worldview in ways I never anticipated, and it started at that small Bible college ten years ago. Another reason I decided to write about it is that a friend and classmate wrote of his experience in an articulate, moving reflection (though one that’s more theological than I’m going to get into here).

 

I remember the day I dropped off my application form. The journey to that place is too long to get into here, but I remember thinking that it was foolish for me to be out of work and wanting to spend money to study the Bible… but I had to do it for reasons that I still can’t quite explain. I remember calling the school, being so lost in a residential area, expecting more foot traffic than I got, and having one of the instructors come out and meet me. I was so embarrassed, but I put in my application (and, not 3 hours later, received a part-time job offer that would work around my class schedule). After being accepted, I wondered how my classmates and instructors would accept me as a blind student – I worried for nothing.

 

Our courses were a combination of Bible study, interpretation, and practical Christian living. We read the whole Bible during the course of that year – when I discovered all the passages about justice for the oppressed that I had never encountered in my previous church experiences. We discussed living on earth and a home in heaven and how to emphasize both and neglect neither. We volunteered in organizations that challenged us, that showed us poverty or illness or disability. Along with classes and short-term missions trips and volunteering and working, I found my faith changing from a loud, boisterous show of enthusiasm to something quieter, something stronger, something harder to describe. Along with that spiritual struggle – because that’s what it was – came the most complete exhaustion I have ever felt in my life. I was in many ways happier and busier than I ever had been, but my schedule was so hectic that I would go to my little basement apartment after a day of classes and/or volunteering and/or working, say hi to my roommate, and fall exhausted into bed… only to do it all over again the next day.

 

But it wasn’t all hard work; in many ways it was a ton of fun. My classmates took me in as one of their own – pushing me beyond my comfort zone, asking questions, all but stapling my pants to the piano bench during chapel because I was the only student who was even remotely willing to play the piano publicly. I fell in love with the piano again during that year, frequently taking time alone in the chapel to decompress and play that out-of-tune upright that belonged in a 1900s saloon. I found out later that the entire school could hear me, and more than once someone would slip quietly into the chapel and hear me sing hymns or write chord progressions or just make up little ditties where my fingers would dance across the keys.

 

I not only learned a lot from instructors, but many of my classmates taught me about openness and generosity. Within two weeks of starting classes, I moved from an apartment into a basement suite, and no fewer than half my classmates helped move my stuff (in the rain) and helped clean up my old apartment. Over the year, many cried with me, some sang with me, even more laughed with me, others encouraged me to jump off a roof into a snowbank (my other option was to climb down the ladder after 20 minutes of panicking). I hated to feel like I needed help with anything, ever, but both classmates and staff patiently helped me realize that everyone needs help sometimes, and that’s OK.

 

Instructors were accommodating in most ways. Even the one who seemed to never get me assignments or tests on time – due to his reluctance to use email – let me explore with my hands a model of the Old Testament Tabernacle. Another instructor shared of his faith journey with such vulnerability that I related to him so completely. Another listened to me obsess and worry when my feelings for this guy who was “just a friend” had morphed into something I didn’t even recognize or want to acknowledge as romantic intentions. Still another gave me a ride to class once a week, allowing me to sleep in an extra thirty minutes; that thirty minutes was so small in the grand scheme of space and time, but it was inestimable in its impact. Looking back on it, I learned more about self-care at Bible college than I ever learned anywhere else. It’s a term that doesn’t appear in the Bible, though the concept certainly does.

 

2006 – looking back on it – was truly a pivotal year in my life. I moved in with my first roommate (the first time I ever shared space with anyone as a contemporary), I met the man who would become my husband, I grew (as many people that age do) in maturity and life experience, and my faith morphed from the experiential into something more systematic and sustainable. It was the year I learned to carve out my own identity, discovered it was OK to not be OK all the time, and that sometimes quiet reflection makes you stronger than just faking it. Maybe I would’ve learned those lessons in other ways had I not attended that small Bible school, but I didn’t learn them elsewhere, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Empowered Series: Celebrate You

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I’ve gotten to know my next feature in my Empowered Series, Joshua White, on Twitter over the past several months. We’ve spoken primarily about disability, self-esteem, and ableism. When I saw that Joshua had his own business featuring neurodivergent themed T-shirts, I asked if he’d be willing to be featured on my blog. Thanks, Joshua, for your openness and candor, and answering all of my silly questions.

 

About Joshua

 

Joshua lives in North Carolina with his wife, two children, and four cats. He describes his family as “neurodivergent”, and they share many hobbies (among them watching Star Trek and playing Minecraft).
Fifteen years ago, at the age of 21, Joshua was diagnosed with autism. Prior to his diagnosis, he was not provided with supports in the public school system and completed his high school with the Commonwealth Challenge (a program led by Marine and Army drill sergeants). After several years struggling to find a way to make it on his own, Joshua moved to North Carolina with his wife and her children. He is now studying social work in college and running his T-shirt selling business, Celebrate You.

 

About Celebrate You

 

Celebrate You is an online shop that sells neurodiversity themed merchandise as a way to raise awareness about what neurodiversity is, as well as providing a visual reminder that neurodiversity doesn’t mean “bad”, just “different.” Using t-shirts is a public way for those with neurodiverse conditions to show that they are proud of who they are, and hopes to foster understanding with a neurotypical community that can sometimes view neurodiversity as something to be hidden or changed or downplayed. Joshua believes that his recent success at college is due to the fact that he learned to embrace his particular learning style (he’s a visual learner and tends to notice patterns that neurotypicals may miss); he believes that once other neurodivergent people embrace how they best learn and function, they can also reach a place of self-acceptance and success in school, the workplace, and everyday life. Joshua says he didn’t have any autistic role models growing up, and he wants to use his shop as a way to not only support his family, but to show his neurodivergent son that autism in and of itself doesn’t hold him back.

 

How it Works

 

The designs are brain-childs of Joshua White and his friend Chelsea Yarger. Joshua uses an open source imaging software called GIMP to design logos, and uploads them to the Celebrate You shop. The TeePublic web site hosts his online store and then prints and ships the purchased products to customers.

 

What’s Next?

 

Joshua would love to be able to finish his Batchelor’s Degree at Appalachian State and move his family to Boone, North Carolina. He hopes to continue to raise awareness and pride among young neurodivergent people – something he never had – and help support his family. He is overwhelmed by the support and encouragement he has received and hopes the support will continue, not only for himself, but to spread the message that neurodiversity is nothing to be ashamed of and can even be something of which to be proud.

When Life just Doesn’t Seem Fair

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Sometimes, life just doesn’t seem equitable, reasonable, or – dare I say it? – fair. Think of discrimination, ableism, injustice for starters. For the most part, it seems clear that in those instances there is a right and a wrong, a hero and a villain. But what if – as in much of life – there is no hero or villain? What if life seems to go swimmingly for someone you know and love, someone you wish the best for… someone who gets the one thing you’ve fought for, prayed for, dreamed of for so long? And what if you are that friend, relative or loved one, who knows someone who has struggled so much with something that seems to have come to you so easily?
I’ve been there. I’ve been on both ends of this theoretical table, and I can’t say I have any easy answers. A year ago I got myself a shiny new job, with all of the hope that entails, and I felt intensely guilty about having success after a sudden layoff, while many others – with and without disabilities, with a wide variety of skills – were struggling just to get interviews. Now that I’ve been back on the employment journey for several months, I’ve seen many others find the success I’ve previously enjoyed, even while I am struggling and pushing against discrimination disguised as compliments on how inspirational I am. It is their time to shine – it truly is – but while I wish them nothing but happiness, their success makes me both thrilled and miserable simultaneously.

But it’s not only about employment. What about being the “token single” in a huge group full of couples? Or the only (involuntarily) childless couple in your church congregation? Attending or planning a wedding after a messy breakup or the death of a partner is both joyous and heartbreaking…

And those who are rejoicing are often struggling to reconcile their obvious (and reasonable) joy with the thought they can’t laugh as loudly or smile as broadly because they know and love someone who feels like that laughter and those smiles are shots to the heart.

So what do we do? We can’t walk around dressed in metaphorical black all the time – life is full of joy and sorrow, and we can’t deny the existance of either. We all love, hurt, succeed and fail – and those who truly care about us understand that our tears of joy at their celebration mingle with those of frustration or (occasionally) despair that we’re still hoping or fighting or praying for that same thing for ourselves. No true friend or loved one wants to take away the joy and success of another. And when we have that success, we feel guilty in a way – that we can’t sprinkle magic dust on those we love and grant them in equal portion the joy we’ve found through love, birth, employment, celebration.

But, please, I beg you, wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, don’t deny your joy, your pain, your frustration, your love. Those who are struggling, wish all the success and happiness in the world to those of whom you are envious; if they’ve done nothing hurtful or illegal or unethical, they deserve that happiness. And for those who are thrilled beyond words at your new job, expected baby, celebration of love… gently share that joy with us who are currently not as fortunate. In your sensitivity to those fragile feelings of hopelessness and despair, you both acknowledge your happiness (there’s no need to hide it) and the complex emotions of support and envy of those who currently can’t celebrate such success for themselves. And yet… don’t hide it! Please, don’t hide it! Your happiness, success, and joy tells those of us fighting in the trenches – in moments of weakness and darkness and pain – that one day, it will be us, and you’ll be right there cheering us on and lifting us up and holding our hands as we welcome our own joy and success into our lives.

Book Review: Touching the World

I rarely read books more than once. If I do, it’s because there’s so much material that I just know that I missed something the first time around, and I’m usually right. “Touching the World” by Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith is one such rare occurrence.

About the book

Touching the World is the extraordinary story of Cathy Birchall, a blind woman, who set off with her companion Bernard Smith, to become the first blind person ever to circle the world on a motorbike, an 18 year old BMW R100. What transpired has become an inspirational worldwide story that challenges people to question their own self-imposed boundaries. From desolate and dangerous mountain roads, difficult border crossings and numerous mechanical breakdowns, to climbing Wayna Picchu (first ever blind woman to do so) and riding an elephant mounted from the front (via its trunk!) – not to mention a poignant visit to the Centre for Blind Women in Delhi where they talked to women abandoned by their husbands, and an (inadvertent) overnight stay in a Kosovan brothel – this book has it all, travel, adventure, triumph over adversity, and through it comes a real sense of just what it means to be blind. Their heart-warming writing reflects a vivid account of the world, often hilarious and always positive.

Blindness: both Ever-Present and Absent

This book is a traveler’s journey. It is in some ways about blindness but in others it’s about learning more about yourself and others than you ever thought possible. In many ways Cathy’s blindness elicits sympathy, while in others it opens the minds of those she encounters. I wonder if she would be treated differently had she been a local, or had her blindness been immediately obvious (as it’s indicated clearly that it’s not) or had she visited certain places alone. Her own views on blindness – about being as independent as possible – really resonated with me, though her partner guides her through public women’s washrooms, which I found incongruous and strange. A couple of passages where her hands are guided to chairs or wineglasses are viewed by her as “kindness” (possibly due to language barriers?), but may be considered as invasive to others. That being said, Cathy has an articulate way of responding to her blindness, describing how many blind people get things done, as well as her own viewpoints regarding education, employment and marriage for a blind person.

But it’s not just about that. One reviewer indicates that not enough was made of Cathy’s blindness in this book, that it didn’t encompass the journey as a whole… I tend to disagree. It was neither the focal point of this book, nor was it discounted. The journey was more about a lifelong dream of Bernard’s in which Cathy enthusiastically participated.

Traveling, Digging Deep, Swerving Into the Curves

I’ve got a thing for motorcycles. Riding around the world would probably never be my dream, but it’s fantastic that it has been done. Cathy and Bernard’s year around the world showed them – and, by extension, me – that people are really not so different after all. Maybe circumstances are different – one country’s residents struggle for employment while another can’t get enough food – but they found people (even in areas they were told not to attempt to ride) were warm-hearted, generous, and open to learn. From the security detail that trailed them most of the way through Pakistan, to the (sometimes helpful, sometimes not) border or Visa agents they encountered on their journey, to the hospitable Nepalese who gave them respite from the Indian roads that nearly destroyed them emotionally if not physically, they were looked after many steps of the way.

While they were overwhelmingly positive during many portions of their journey – even through mechanical breakdowns, government bureaucracy, and inadvertently spending nights in brothels – I would not agree that it’s “always`positive.” In fact, there were certain points – India comes to mind, but there are others – where both Cathy and Bernard were at their breaking point. The last two weeks saw them simply wanting to be going home – after zipping through small central American countries, then the heat of Mexico, and then having to book it eastward to make it home on time (thanks to American bureaucracy). You see them and their relationship, warts and all, and in this reader’s opinion made it a more well-rounded book.

Conclusion

If you’ve ever wondered about foreign countries – culture, food, living conditions – in some ways this book only scratches the surface. Blindness organizations were explored in many countries – guide dog training centers, schools, vocational training centres – but, again, it wasn’t necessarily the focal point of their journey. I enjoyed every minute of this book, but it left me hungry for more. Thankfully, the World Tour Web site has many bits of information about the trip and what happens next. My understanding is that Bernard has another – in many ways more difficult – book ahead of him, and while it will be without Cathy’s wry sense of humour, I think I’ll see traces of her in it.

Overall, “Touching the World” was both moving and poignant, with moments that delighted, frightened, and inspired me.

4.5/5 stars.

Schoolbooks and Slingshots: Education, Legislation, and the Mess In Between

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What does discrimination look like? Is it being told, flat out, that you can’t do this task or have this job or enter that building or raise a family? Is it using insulting words, raised voices, thrown objects? Or is it subtler? Is it the pervasive idea that our presence in and of itself – with minds or bodies that don’t function “correctly” – is unwanted?
More important than that, how can we combat it? Is education the best way to eliminate misconceptions? Or is confrontation more productive? Over the years I have believed that one or the other is appropriate, but I’ve done a lot of thinking recently… why is it assumed that the two are mutually exclusive?

Not long ago I found a couple of friends posting on Facebook a status that went something like this: “Maybe I’m the only blind person you know, and maybe you’re afraid to ask me questions. THIS is a safe place to ask any questions you have – big or small – about my life as a blind person.” It’s an interesting thought – something that I would consider doing on social media, for people who have already built up some form of a relationship with me. But I question the appropriateness of educating the general public… just because they are curious and don’t know how I live my life. It’s one thing for a prospective employer or university professor to ask questions about how the job gets done – but my life is my own, and I shouldn’t have to educate the passenger beside me on the bus how I cook, clean, live my life, just because they’re curious and are dying to know. If someone has the time and inclination to share this information, that’s absolutely acceptable. But not everyone wishes to do so, and should not feel judged by the disability community at large or by the general public for politely declining to answer what can be considered nosy, invasive questions when directed at a non-disabled person.
But what if someone says or does or asks something truly offensive? Is education appropriate? The answer is… yes and no. It does definitely depend on the situation – what was said, how it was said, and how willing the other party is to understand that what they said, did or asked was inappropriate or invasive. I recently had a really rough day, where someone I asked for directions talked over me as though I couldn’t talk for myself, an interviewer told me that my resume was just what she was looking for but she “just didn’t know if I could do the job”, and then a woman on the bus told me that I “looked so young and attractive” that she “never would’ve guessed I had any challenges.” With person number 1, I was admittedly abrupt and short, thanking him sincerely for his help but that I could take it from here and speak for myself (His response: “Really? You can?”) The job interviewer was much trickier, because I felt like I had to not only convince her that I COULD do that job, but also be polite in the face of that dreaded C word (“can’t“). When I was later advised the position had been given to another candidate, I requested more information about my interview itself and was able to explain why her comments and questions were unreasonable and inappropriate, and how it’s always best to presume competence; she thanked me for my feedback and promised to implement changes to her interview practices. The lady on the bus… I was so taken aback by her comment – that attractiveness, youth and disability couldn’t co-exist – that I thanked her for her compliment but told her that it was offensive, because disability is not just for the old and the unattractive. She thanked me for telling her and said she would choose her words more wisely in the future.
But not everyone is as willing to hear our answers, having their own ideas about our capabilities and the realities of our lives. More than once someone has made a statement of how sad my life must be, but when I try and explain, I effectively get told that I’m wrong – that I miss out on so many beautiful things. It’s frustrating on an emotional level, but when it comes to employment it becomes economically frustrating as well. So what do we do when others’ perceptions and ideas and design affects our ability to work, to study, to access facilities? We sometimes fight through legislation. Maybe it won’t change someone’s mind until they realize how serious it is that we’re denied job opportunities, academic pursuits, and the ability to move freely through cities, streets and businesses. I’ve never seen the picture of the “Capitol Crawl” – a public visual demand for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act – but it’s an important image to keep in mind: access to some is not access for all, and until all citizens have access to the same products, services and facilities, a society is not truly free and equal. And even though not everything is a fight, it is important to band together as a stronger disability community – to support each other and the non-disabled who stand with us as we try and make a difference.
Sometimes it’s best to catch flies with honey rather than vinegar. But if you can’t catch them with honey because they just don’t care, vinegar is absolutely a valid option. It’s important to choose our battles wisely, to conduct ourselves with a strong will tempered by grace, wisdom and logic. Emotion, if channeled appropriately, can be powerful, but it can’t be the only way we respond to circumstance. And logic without personal experience is dry and boring and, frankly, no one wants to hear that either. Sometimes change is best accomplished through well-timed, well-tempered words; other times it means pushing back against ideas and thoughts and practices through personal or government advocacy. No one way is right or wrong for everyone, but it is important that whatever we do, however we combat discrimination and prejudice, that it improves life for everyone, not just one segment of our community.

It’s Been a Wild Ride!

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This post is dedicated to you, my wonderful readers; without you and your reads, comments and shares, this blog would just be like spitting into the wind. I’d be nowhere without you – your support, encouragement, constructive criticism,and your discussion.

Two years ago, I started this blog with the unlikely first post entitled “Welcome to Blogville.” I had no idea of the readership this blog has received – more than friends and family, or friends and family OF friends and family… but from all over the world. People who can see, people who can’t, and everything in between. People with disabilities, people without, people whose kids have disabilities… You have read and shared posts like this or this or that over and over. I’ve written posts like these ones that had you either cheering in agreement or vehemently disagreeing with me – but you’ve always been generally respectful, even if you think I’m wrong, too harsh, or otherwise out to lunch.

My readers have joined me on a trip to New York city, been along for the bumpy ride of unemployment, and even had a little bit of fun with me. You’ve been interviewed for my Empowered series, discussed books I’ve written about, and encouraged me, my writing and my blog in a million other ways.

A thank you is not nearly enough for all this, but it’s what I can give, so a huge, heartfelt THANK YOU! It’s been a wild ride. Whether you’ve been with me since the beginning (like Meagan who encouraged me to do this in the first place) or are reading this as one of your introductory posts, please keep joining me on this journey called life. It’s constantly changing, almost never boring. It’s painful and wonderful and exciting, and while this life – my circumstance, decisions, viewpoint – is my own, it’s all the richer for having you in it.

A Burger with a Side of Discrimination, Please

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Not long ago, I was visiting British Columbia, a province with a very well-publicized and shiny new Service Dogs Act. My trip was generally a positive one, until I attempted to enter one particular bar/restaurant that I had previously frequented. I’m not unfamiliar with being asked for ID to verify my age in such places, and even my (thankfully relatively) few access challenges with my guide dog have primarily been handled discretely and/or quickly. What I did not expect was to be demanded, loudly and publicly, for my guide dog’s paperwork… from across the bar. My dog was doing nothing inappropriate, was guiding me into the restaurant, her nails slightly struggling to gain purchase on the slippery floor. So… I was demanded – loudly and publicly – for paperwork that no one else in the restaurant was required to produce. Long story short, I realized that I didn’t have current ID with me (I had mistakenly packed an expired school-issued ID card), and I was asked to leave. When I told the employee she should consider discretion if she had to request paperwork from paying patrons, she acted so surprised that such a thing would be requested of her.
Without getting into the nitty-gritties, I contacted the BC government on this issue. They ended up responding to my complaint with an inaccessible PDF (one that was scanned as a picture, so no readable text for a screen reader), which said – basically – that since I didn’t have a piece of plastic (whether issued by the government or a guide/service dog program), a business was within their rights to refuse service. They did not address the humiliating and embarrassing experience of being demanded publicly for such information and then publicly being told to leave.
Where is the outrage outside of the service dog and/or blind community? Would anyone else be expected to accept this treatment?
Last week, a news story made the rounds about a teenager with a disability who was purposefully excluded from a relative’s wedding because of her disability. The support on sites like Reddit came in fast and furious, which is awesome… but it got me to thinking: Where is the support from the public when people with disabilities are turned down for jobs (whether stated or implied) because of their disability, forced to alter their academic pursuits or undergo additional testing, find it easier to obtain resources to assist in their death than aids to live life, are killed for simply being disabled?

There is open discrimination in the world – being told you won’t get a job because of your disability (yes, this happens). There is invisible discrimination where it’s implied by the subtext of a conversation or interaction that your presence, request, or concern is not wanted or valid (yes, this happens, too). There is violence against the disabled as can be evidenced by interactions with police, the murder in Japan last week, or by cultures who view disability as a curse on a family. While disability can have its own limitations (at this point, I won’t be driving a car anytime soon); but I believe that it’s not disability that holds us back as much as perceptions and demands of others. To some, not eating at that particular restaurant may be a “little thing”, and I suppose it’s true because we had other options. But what if we didn’t? Maybe that young girl loved her aunt and really wanted to be at her wedding for that special day, and she got slapped in the face because of a perception of what she could and couldn’t do. Judging by the amount of tense family gatherings I’ve witnessed and heard of, discrimination – even by a family member – is a pretty big deal. And how big a deal is open or invisible discrimination in the job hunt when it directly impacts one’s ability to make a living and contribute to a local, national or even global economy? And if we can’t access facilities like everyone else, attend family functions, obtain employment if we have the desired qualifications and skills, do we reach a tragic end because we just don’t belong? To quote a friend of mine, I’ve been gifted a double portion of stubborn. Maybe this will help me, maybe it will help others. It’s never “just about a restaurant” when you’re made to feel scrutinized for simply walking or rolling through the door. It’s never “just one day” when you get told that you, specifically, are not welcome at a celebration, but your whole family can come along now. It’s never “just one job” when you get told there’s no way you can do job tasks you’ve honed over years of practice and hard-won experience.

And it’s never “just one life” when you have to fight not only others’ perceptions, bureaucratic red tape, medical concerns, and discrimination… but yourself underneath it all. Sometimes being who we are is a radical act of defiance.

Book Review: The Branch of Hazel

Short stories are not normally my preferred reading material. Not long after my trip to New York, I discovered Grand Central, an anthology of unconnected stories taking place at New York’s Grand Central Station on one day in September 1945. I loved New York so much, and have a serious fascination with the post-War period, so of course I had to read it. Little did I know that I would find one story with a blind character that would leave me scrambling to discover the author.

“The Branch of Hazel” by Sarah McCoy was that story.

It is less about the blind man, but by how his brief interaction with a woman formerly part of the Lebensborn program changed her life.

A man and a woman meet on a train. It is not a love story; he is already married, and she’s been so used by men. But he enables her to see that where she’s been and where she’s going are both so similar and so different.

This story is hard to read, particularly as it puts to voice many of the ideas about disability that are faced by disabled people today. The woman on the train had two children in the Lebensborn program, one of whom had been taken away for being a “Mongoloid”. The businessman on the train is impeccably dressed, with perfect manners; he faces life with realism and optimism – and discrimination with firmness and grace – that is both fairly unique and yet sets him up to be the “angelic blind character” that sets my teeth on edge. He notices her perfume because his mother used to wear it, he knows what direction the wind is blowing based on other factors, and my city-slicker thinking makes me wonder if such observational skills really did exist in that time and place.

Ultimately, this man – with a mind for business, a wife and son at home, and the words of a priest – opened this woman’s eyes to a new way of life. Without spoiling other elements to this story, I’m glad it was his openness and patience that pushed her forward into a new way of thinking.

4/5 stars.

Relax! It’s Independence!

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All the way through high school, I traveled with a white cane. I would move the cane in an arc on the floor no wider than shoulder width (as I was taught), sometimes even narrower than that. You’d think I’d brought and aimed a weapon or set someone’s hair on fire, the reaction was so intense. Students would jump over the cane, slam themselves and their buddies into lockers to get out of my way. My friends thought it was hilarious, but it was probably the first time I seriously felt that people were afraid of me for something that, to me, meant independence and freedom. Since then, I’ve been made aware of huge crowds of people parting the waters because a blind woman with a cane has started walking through a mall during the holidays or a concert venue at intermission. Sure, it makes my life easier, having a clean path, but it’s always made me feel somewhat “other” when it’s announced or otherwise apparent that a path is being cleared for me so that I don’t hit anyone.

Fast forward several years, and Jenny, a wonderful, communicative guide dog wiggled her way into my life. Her presence means that I can travel more fluidly than I ever could with the cane, can even run independently (something I never thought possible). Not everyone likes dogs – some are afraid of being bitten or licked or approached by a dog – and I understand that. If my dog gets invasive, obnoxious, causes a direct disturbance not related to her being a dog doing her job and people being fascinated by her, that’s one thing (all service dog handlers have had moments where their dog’s behaviour has made them want to melt into the floor). But in the span of a week this past spring, I experienced two instances where the mere presence of my dog has caused people to publicly overreact in ways they probably hadn’t intended.
I was sitting on a bus, minding my own business, when the doors opened and a man got on. He turned to walk to an empty seat, saw my dog, then went back to the bus driver and said that he would get on at the back of the bus so he didn’t have to “go past that dog”. I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything. If he hadn’t seen my dog, he’d never have known she was there on the bus. And before anyone raises the “allergies” argument… I’ve worked with people who have allergies, have friends who have allergies, have had strangers discretely tell me they have allergies so that I know to make 110% sure that my dog’s nose is where it belongs, that she’s out of their way, that the risk of contact is as minimal as possible. I have never felt by any of those people as disrespected as I did that day on the bus…
Later that week, I went shopping with a couple of friends and had a lovely time trying on clothes, finding some bargains, and laughing uproariously at a couple of items that fit just slightly wrong enough to be hilarious. After paying for my purchases, Jenny and I were making our way to the exit when two young women more than twenty feet away started screaming that there was a DOG in the store! I chose to redirect Jenny to go a route that didn’t intersect their path, and she handled it with professionalism and grace, but I was so shaken up that two people felt the need to publicly vocalize their fear when my dog and I were doing absolutely nothing to them. At the time, I thought that no one would react similarly to the presence of a wheelchair, but I recently discovered this article that makes me think that such instances happen more frequently than I ever considered.

Last week, I went into a store to return an item. Jenny and I walked up to the counter behind another customer, who very abruptly asked the clerk to ask me to move my dog. I took several steps back out of her way, waited my turn, then walked up to the counter while the other customer walked the looooong way around to exit the store. The clerk told me that the instant she saw my dog, her face just tensed right up. For some reason, it really hurt. It was yet again one more instance proving that I am still considered “other” because I use a dog to travel independently (and if I used a cane I’d get griped at for hitting someone in the ankles).

Why are we so feared? And why is it acceptable? Why did I feel so helpless, like I couldn’t just turn around and ask some of those people if they had something to say directly to me? If someone expressed discomfort with or fear of someone’s race or gender or place of origin or religion, they’d be called out for what they are – homophobic or zenophobic or racist. But because the presence of a disabled body in public is so rare and unexpected, manners go out the window? And that’s acceptable?

So the next time you see someone using a cane for identification or mobility, a guide or service dog, a scooter or a wheelchair, unless they are directly interfering with your ability to go about your day, keep your mouth shut and your fear to yourself. If you want to know how we go about our days so bravely, imagine frequently encountering the fear of others, publicly, and think how you would feel if you had to go through that. We want to go about our days just like you. And you wouldn’t like it if we told our friends that we didn’t want to sit next to a non-white, Hindu man minding his own business on the bus, or freaked out because a woman wearing a head scarf happened to be shopping in the same store as us. You’d tell us to relax… it’s only a bus seat, only a head scarf. Guess what, when reacting to our presence? Relax! It’s a cane, a wheelchair, a dog. Relax: it’s independence.

The Empowered Series: Alberta Service Dog Community

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Samantha Hjalmarson (Sam), my current feature for The Empowered Series is someone who hasn’t started a business or a nonprofit, but a community that empowers, encourages, and connects others. I had an opportunity to meet her a few months ago. Both of us have service dogs (though for different disabilities); at our meeting, her dog was much much better behaved than mine (due to Jenny’s cat-litter consumption). In response to her disability, Sam spearheaded and almost exclusively runs the Alberta Service Dog Community, but she’s reaching for different heights as well. And who would want to say no to cute puppies?

 

About Sam

 

Sam developed fairly severe PTSD after years of abuse by her stepfather, though she didn’t realize it for many years. After high school, she joined the military as a signals operator, and the PTSD along with Generalized Anxiety Disorder started causing problems with her ability to cope. After her three year basic engagement was up, Sam left the military primarily due to her mental health (though there were other reasons). Things were manageable until a car accident put her in the hospital for a few days, then left her bed-ridden for weeks after and then it all started going really downhill. PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) have manifested themselves in agoraphobia; Sam spends most of her energy on managing stress levels, and sometimes even leaving the house is a challenge, making work outside the home impossible. One employer after another fired her; even though Sam worked productively when she was present, she couldn’t consistently be at work every day. Eventually she went to a therapist and was diagnosed with PTSD. It eventually hit the point where she was unable to work at all, had to fight to get onto AISH (“another long story by itself!”) and wound up with a Service Dog to help her out.
Sam’s hobbies include making chain mail, finding meditative benefit from baking and cooking. She’s a massive geek, “like Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying level geek”, video games, fantasy books and TV. She enjoys amateur photography and is a cat person (“Honestly if we could have service cats instead of service dogs I would be all over that.”)

 

About ASDC

 

Alberta Service Dog Community (ASDC) came out of Sam’s desire to be a productive member of society. Being on disability and taking money from the government left her feeling like she was being a drain so she really felt that urge to do something to help other people. While Sam’s search for a service dog went quite smoothly most people don’t have that same experience. She was lucky, extremely lucky, in that not only did Hope Heels give her a service dog but she also met a group of women who have turned out to be an incredible support network and some of the best friends she’s ever had. Hope Heels went on a hiatus (it’s currently up and running again) but those friendships remain.

Disabilities like Sam’s in particular, but others as well, can be isolating and lonely. Sam wanted to create a support network like she had, so she started ASDC to bring members of the community together. People who get service dogs from schools and programs often have that built in but owner trainers don’t. ASDC isn’t specifically FOR owner trainers, anyone is welcome, but Sam thinks they benefit the most from it, removing the isolation and creating a support system for each other. Much of the discussion and support is virtual (through facebook), but occasional training dates, coffee meetups and other activities are coordinated to get the group together.

 

More than a Support Group

 

The ASDC mandate is education and advocacy. People who want to get a service dog are educated on some of the ways they can go about that and about the laws that would protect their rights (there are two in Alberta, the SD Act and the Human Rights Act). The public is also educated about those laws, what service dogs are and the rights of Service Dog Teams.

Advocacy is another big piece of what ASDC does. Not everyone who faces an access challenge with their service dog has the ability to stand up for themselves and their rights so ASDC offers to do that for them. ASDC can provide advice on self-advocacy, or will contact a business or other entity on behalf of someone if they cannot advocate for themselves. “People with disabilities need less obstacles in their lives, not more.”

 

So what does Sam… Do?

 

Sam is currently the jill-of-all-trades at ASDC, receiving phone calls, answering any questions that come to the main page, posting the majority of articles, and stepping in to resolve an occasional conflict. Currently, her biggest role at the moment is representing ASDC on the technical committee to develop a National Standard for Service Dogs in Canada. The hope is that this will be adopted across the country and will make it so much easier for owner trainers to be legally recognized and protected, in addition to making service dog standards and access rights clear and consistent across Canada.

 

What’s Next?

 

In the future, Sam hopes to incorporate ASDC as a charitable foundation, but at this point “it’s a lot of work!” She also hopes to build a website to house resources, educational pieces, a list of trainers who can help people train their own service dogs, a list of schools that service the area. Eventually once the National Standards are completed and implemented, she hopes to do a series of videos explaining how to train for the points required to meet those standards. About the future Web site and access challenges: “Pretty much anything you can imagine someone wanting to know about Service Dogs or what to do with one I want up on that website, including a link for businesses telling them when they are allowed to ask a handler to remove the dog. I think that if a business feels secure in their ability to protect themselves then there will be far fewer access challenges.”

 

Conclusion

 

There is more than one way to contribute to society. For many of us, it’s holding down a job and contributing to the economy. If that’s not possible, it’s important to find another way. Sam has created a lively community of service dog handlers from across the province while simultaneously providing support to those who need a place to turn or a question answered. Thanks, Sam, for being “chatty” (you made this post SO easy to write!)