Have Dog, Will Travel
I was late to the race, the opera, the prom—whatever you want to call it. I was terribly late. At thirty-eight, verging on middle age, having been blind since birth, I was not much of a disabled person. I was a second-rate traveler who didn’t know how to go places independently. But late or not there I was, alertly hugging a yellow Labrador named Corky. We were brand spanking new to each other. We were an arranged marriage. We’d been together all of fifteen minutes.
“You’re exactly what a dog should be,” I said to her. “Your head’s bigger than mine!” We were at a guide-dog school, a training center north of Manhattan. “Yes,” I repeated, “you’re what a dog should be.”
It wasn’t just Corky’s size, though her largeness had merit—you want the dog who’ll guide you through traffic to be sturdy. No, the “thing”—the ineffable “it,” the “should”—was something like a welcome word. Maybe the word came from a distant room; the word had traveled a long way. So what if I’d been an unsuccessful
disabled traveler? The dog before me, this Labrador, this superb creature didn’t give a damn who I’d been or what I thought about myself. She was radiant.
* * *
Disability has numerous implications. One can live a long while recognizing only some of them. In the 1950s my parents couldn’t imagine a future for me if I presented as blind. They forcefully encouraged me to do absolutely everything sighted children did, minus any acknowledgment of my difference. In the spring of 1961 my mother signed me up for the Durham, New Hampshire, Cub Scout troop and bought me a uniform and a flag. I marched in the Memorial Day parade, stepping in time to Boy Scout drummers. I held that flag straight before me and walked in a gorgeous gold mist, which was how my brand of blindness transmitted the world. I was legally blind. I saw colors and shapes.
“Who am I?” should always be answered by acknowledging physical life as much as say, knowing one’s ancestry. But in 1961 a Boy Scout parade wasn’t the place to learn about disability dignity and pedigree. The scouts’ handbook didn’t have a chapter about successful blind people.
I found it was best to not think about blunted sight—that’s how it was. And I had help with my repression. None of the grown-ups in my life admitted disability. They’d come of age in the 1940s watching newsreels. In a famous (or infamous) short produced by the March of Dimes called The Crippler unsuspecting children were abducted by polio, who lurked as a menacing shadow—infantile paralysis was a molester at the playground’s edge. My parents thought disabled kids were victims of a nearly unimaginable fate, a predatory darkness. Against this tragedy stood only human will.
There was a blind World War II veteran who lived a block from our house. My parents always referred to him as “the Blind Man” with tones of sadness and piety. The meaning was clear. I mustn’t display vision loss, ever, for doing so would make me a victim of the Crippler. By today’s standards this may seem quaint, but then again, even now I receive enough mail to know the story is still common. Many people across the globe still feel they must hide their disabilities.
* * *
We arrive at self-awareness according to thousands of influences. It took me years to see I wasn’t a victim of
a shadowy Crippler and that my parents’ ideas about blindness were immaterial. In the twenty-first century self-determination for the disabled has grown from a nascent concept to a global movement. From Africa to Asia, Europe to the Middle East, disability activists are calling for their rights and living their lives in accord with the best principles of independence and empowerment—educating others, assisting their sisters and brothers, demanding opportunities for children, health care, freedom to travel . . . just to name the basics. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 helped create international opportunities for dialogue between the disabled and served to incite a worldwide confrontation with outdated cultural assumptions.
Now at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, I had Corky’s large paws on my shoulders.