I am not at all going to start the debate about which method of travel is best for the blind. I can only say that a dog is better for me, but not every blind person can or should get a dog. Not all blind people have the desire for one, are willing to put in the extra effort that guide dog travel sometimes takes, have the space and time commitment available to properly caretake the dog, or have the mobility skills to truly benefit from a dog. I am by no means judging any of them, at all, period!
However, good, bad or ugly… the public does! My friends who still use canes have received tons of impertinent questions as to why they don’t have a dog and they should get a dog (see this blog’s intro page).
Having traveled with a cane for 25 years, and a dog for just 1, I have noticed a marked difference in how I am treated with a dog than with a cane. The assumption while I was a cane traveler was that I couldn’t possibly get along anywhere on my own, and if my cane hit a wall, bench, whatever, it was vitally important that a well-meaning member of the general public would just HAVE to assist the poor blind girl. With a dog, it is much less so. Occasionally I will tell my dog to find a seat on the bus, and someone will tell me “there’s a seat to your left,” but it rarely if ever goes beyond that (btw, this is helpful information!).
I remember once shopping with Meagan before I got Jenny, and to get to the mall we had to cross a parking lot to get to the mall. One thing I used as a landmark was a low wall, which would help me orient myself through the parking lot to get to the mall. My cane hadn’t even hit the wall – I must’ve been at least 5-10 feet away still) when this lady came out of nowhere just screaming, “WHOA! WHOA!” If it weren’t so rude to do so I would’ve told the lady to chill out; this is sometimes how blind people navigate, but overreacting situations like that are not going to change by a comment from me.
That example is just one of many in my years as a cane traveler. I had no idea how much it would truly have annoyed me until I didn’t receive it anymore. Now, I receive many comments on my dog, kids coming up wanting to pet her, comments about other peoples’ dogs… but thank God for the most part people assume that my dog and I can get around on our own.
This is not to say that I have never had to ask for help because I’ve gotten turned around; this does not mean I will be a cow because someone dared to ask if they can help me… I am simply addressing the perceived idea that guide dog travelers do not need assistance like cane travelers do.
I can’t remember where I saw this, but someone once described walking with a cane as having a microcosm view of the world; you “see” things like lightpoles, garbage cans, walls, doorframes, bus shelters, and other stationary objects through the tip of your cane and you use them to orient yourself. Perhaps this is why the public thinks that we are about to bang into them, because a cane – an extension of one’s person – is about to hit the wall, bench, whatever. With a dog, you avoid most of those things, and thus you don’t need those stationary objects to orient yourself – you feel it with your feet and with the movement of the dog.
I once had a conversation with InternetKing about this, and if I recall correctly, it really annoyed him, this perception. Now that I have been on both sides of it, I can’t say I blame him. We use what works for us. Sometimes we will hurt ourselves (I have a HUGE scar on my forehead to testify to the number of walls/poles/doorframes I have hit, even with a cane), but walking with a cane is safer than walking without (see this article).
I don’t have any nice neat tidy answers for how to correct this misperception; until they invent more compact, practical and affordable object-identifying devices to avoid canes hitting poles/garbage cans/whatever, it is up to us – whether using cane or dog, to travel around the best way we know how… and smile at the occasional unnecessary freakouts after the fact.