The offer to participate in a blind fold walk was unexpected but enthusiastically accepted. We planned it for the following day. I fell asleep excited for the upcoming experience, The sunlight streaming through the window woke me with its brilliance. I checked my appearance in the mirror, happy with the way the light seemed to glow in my eyes and hair. I chose my outfit with care, aware that I would be in the public. As a professional and a woman I enjoy looking nice. My hair was straight and I felt pretty, it was going to be a fun day.
I entered the kitchen and while I did not mind changing my boots to a rubber soled pair, I did so with an indulgent smile. I can walk in my boots, the heel was less then a quarter of an inch; but I changed because his worry seemed real.
I watched as he readied the blind fold, I have interacted many times with guide dog users with my volunteer work with Freedom Guide Dogs. The guide dog teams I have seen were seamless, they moved as a pair with ease and confidence. My excitement mounted as he brought forth the guide dog. I had seen this particular dog in play and in training. The three of us walked together for several feet, he explained that he would be walking with us and that I need not worry, I would be safe. We went over how to turn left, right, not over walking the dog. Feeling the nuances of the dogs movements through the harness.
My mind mulled over his words. This was going to be so easy, I could still hear the world, I just needed to follow the dog right. I have walked in the dark through the house this would be simple. My confidence grew after having seen this done by so many, I was almost a pro at this.
He placed the blind fold on me and the world fell into black. His voice seemed to boom at me from darkness. Ok put the lead around your wrist and follow it to his back, ok now find the harness. I did as we had discussed and soon the guide dog and I were in position. My confidence and excitement grew, I stood straight and took my first step.
By the fifth step I had forgotten my hair and clothes. By the tenth step everything had fallen away all that mattered was the harness in my hand that connected me to the dog that was guiding me. That connection had taken over all my thoughts. I could indeed hear the world, but in the darkness it was a confusing and scary dichotomy of sorting out the noises and ignoring them to concentrate on the pull of my partner.
From beside me his voice informed me that we were approaching the curb and the street. In my head I felt worry, how far was it? Was the way clear/ how big was the curb? What if I over walk the guide dog, and how was I not going to over walk him I couldn’t see when he stopped. Goosebumps raised on my skin and I felt myself center in on the guide dog.
I felt the dogs body moving, felt myself following. His voice came from beside me, “Ok there are cracks in the sidewalk here” the rubber soles of my boots glided over the sidewalk, absorbing the uneven ground, and suddenly I was truly happy about having changed my boots. He said that there were obstacles ahead and that the dog should adjust to clear them, but if the guide dog didn’t do so he would step in, and not to worry he wouldn’t let me run into anything.
I was silent but my voice yelled in my head, WAIT, WHAT! I might run into something? I felt the heavy sturdy body of the guide dog, the subtle movements of the harness in my hand. Felt the slight pull as we moved slightly to the right and felt a little calmer. The stop at the curb was smooth and I did sadly over walk the dog. Again his voice came from the darkness, good he is right where he should be, ok now feel the curb with your foot so you can feel how deep it is. I reached out and felt the cavern that was in front of me. Where had he brought me? There was no bottom to the curb, it was endless and I was sure I was going to fall off the edge and die. Again his voice spoke to me, ok now listen to the traffic and tell me when it is safe to go.
Listen to the traffic? I was still trying to figure out how to get the dog and I down the Mount Everest of a curb! The car engines sounded from all around me, echoing off the buildings. I didn’t know when to go! I couldn’t tell when the light turned. Suddenly the reality of a guide dog team and their relationship came into focus for me. It was not about being led by a guide dog, It was truly team work. The guide dog works with his handler. They guide each other, to turn right you have to have confidence in your ability to trust your guide and to help by feeling the subtle movements and trusting the skill of the guide dog to take you both where you need to go. We walked around the block, it is a distance I can normally cover in minutes but it felt like I was navigating a foreign country with cliffs and mountains.
My confidence while not nearly as bright and steady was kindled, when from beside me he suggested we get some food. Going from the street to the restaurant was rather shocking. The air was different, I could feel the wall but had no reference to what wall it was or where it led. Again I focused on the guide dog, he seemed un-fazed by the new location. My hand touched the bench and I sat with a plop. I told the dog down and under and was amazed when I felt him move down and under the table.
I was alone with the dog for several seconds, I praised him and patted his head. I sat waiting but had to keep reaching down to touch the guide dog. Still wearing the blindfold I felt lost without the connection with my partner.
He placed the pizza in front of me and I lifted the fork and knife to cut it. I have been cutting my food and eating on my own my entire life. It was a humbling experience to realize that I was struggling to cut a piece of pizza. I knew my hands were covered in sauce as I had to touch it to determine if I was actually cutting it. I did it and with pride lifted the bite to my mouth. To say it was bigger than I expected is an understatement. I choked it down unwilling to admit just how real the struggle to cut my own food was. Again I considered the reality of not being able to take the blind fold off. To not have the ease of my sight to assist me in everything. Respect expanded in my chest. We completed the walk and as I reached up to remove the blind fold, I paused for a second listening to the world around me. The sounds of the bike passing, the birds chirping, the distant sounds of the town. I realized that while the blind fold took away my sight it had not taken away the beauty of the world.