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.