RNIB Young People’s Ambassador: being a student and guide dog owner

Around this time last year, I signed myself up to volunteer as a Young People’s Ambassador for RNIB Cymru. Being an ambassador gives me the opportunity to share my insight and experience of growing up as a visually impaired person to help and advise others in a similar situation. RNIB Cymru has a number of ambassadors located across Wales, whom they will match with any young person who contacts them seeking support or advice from someone who’s been there and has the T-Shirt to prove it.
I know from my own experience how valuable a service like this would have been to me when I was a gawky teenager trying to figure out this whole “sight loss” thing, so I take my roll very seriously. Of course I am not a trained professional in the subject of blindness, but I hope that my personal experience of both mainstream and specialist education, higher education and being a young guide dog owner qualifies me to some degree to advise others on the topics. After all, you can study something until you’re blue in the face but you’ll never understand it as well as if you’ve lived it.
Most recently I was contacted by the RNIB to do some ambassading about having a guide dog at University. Most of the questions were ones I’ve been asked by blind and sighted people alike and that I myself had before becoming a guide dog owner, so I thought I would share a few examples of how I answered the FAQ’s about having a guide dog at University.
 
Q: How do you manage other people and students reactions??
 
A: I think it makes a massive difference if you set the boundaries straight away. The first time I brought Jazzy to a new lecture, I asked for a minute before the tutor began to introduce her but to explain that she is a working dog doing a job an consequentially should not be touched, fed or distracted. Clear explanations make people much more understanding and cooperative in my experience.
 
Q: When you’re in lectures or seminars, do you take a blanket or a bone for her?
 
A: I don’t. Usually she will sprawl out and fall asleep for the duration. I only poke her if her snoring gets too loud!
 
Q: In a lecture theatre where the seats are tiered, where do you sit?
 
A: I sit on the end of the row to allow her room to spread out, especially if it’s a long session. As long as she’s not blocking the way too much for anyone getting passed, there should be no problems.
 
Q: What if a flatmate/classmate is afraid of dogs?
 
A: Again, I think full disclosure is the best policy in this case. Be open to questions and be patient. When Jazzy moved into my flat, I distributed little leaflets under every door on my floor with some information about guide dogs and an invitation to knock on my door if anybody had any questions. Make sure your accommodation department is aware that you’re bringing a guide dog so that they can ask your potential flatmates about allergies before move in day.
 
Q: What do you do with your dog when you go out clubbing?
 
A: Guide dogs advise that it is fine to leave our furry friends alone for up to five hours, providing they’re in a comfortable and secure environment. When I go out without her, I leave some entertainment like a bone or a chew and leave some music/TV/audio book on to mute the noise of other students. I leave fresh water out and lock the door and she’s pretty content. At least I’ve never had complaints of howling or come back to a trashed bedroom, so I assume she just enjoys the alone time.
 
I hope this post has cleared up any trepidations you might have if you’re a guide dog owner soon to be fresher, but also that I’ve hopefully managed to clear up any confusion or questions about the logistics of being a student and owning a guide dog.
 
I will soon be writing a post about some blind student life hacks I’ve picked up while at University, so please keep an eye out for my upcoming blogs and remember to check out the Facebook and Twitter pages to keep up to date with See My Way!

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Dog Blog: All work and all play!

Hi there!
 
Its Jazzy here again, the four-legged one (and the better looking one) back for another Dog Blog!
 
After the success of the last Dog Blog I posted during International Assistance Dogs Week, the boss has decided to let me take over here twice a month to keep you updated on what I’m getting up to. So make sure you enter your email address in the box and follow us on See My Way so you can get my masterpieces straight into your inbox!
 
Anyway, onto business.
 
In this Dog Blog, I want to tell you about a visit to the hospital I made last week. Now before you start to panic, don’t worry! The boss and I are both perfectly healthy. We were actually visiting the hospital to do some very important work. We volunteered a few hours out of our day to do some fundraising for Guide Dogs.
 
It was my job to look as cute as possible to attract all the passing Doctors, nurses, patients and hospital workers over to our table where they could purchase some Guide Dogs merchandise, enter the tombola or give a donation. It was the boss’s job to answer everyone’s questions and generally tell them all about how fabulous I am! We had a couple more volunteers helping us with selling the merchandise and tombola tickets, but naturally I was the star of the show.
 
Fundraising apparently is work, but it was more like play for me! I spent two hours being stroked, cuddled and generally made a fuss of, all in the name of fundraising for Guide Dogs. It was our first time volunteering in this way and we both enjoyed it, though I was pretty tired by the end of our shift. I never thought I’d get tired of attention but even I admit that being so avidly adored got quite exhausting after a while! Just when I was about ready to sneak under the table to have a little snooze, my colleague Freya thankfully appeared to take over my post.
 
The volunteers helping us man the tombola table were two lovely ladies who’ve been volunteering for Guide Dogs for years. One of them is a border, which means that she takes care of dogs like me if our bosses are going on their holidays or have to stay in hospital overnight. On the other hand when that day comes to hang up the harness and enjoy a comfortable retirement, the other lady is one of the people that I or one of my colleagues might be rehomed with.
 
But boarding or rehoming retired dogs like me isn’t the only way you can volunteer for Guide Dogs. The lovely couple who raised me for the first year of my life, before I received advanced training for my job, they were puppy walkers and were also volunteers. Guide Dogs have a whole army of volunteers, from drivers to fundraisers to My Guide volunteers that they rely on to keep providing people like my boss with dogs like me.
 
The boss enjoyed being able to contribute something back to the organisation she feels has made a huge difference to her life, and I thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded by adoring fans. We raised a total of just over £200 that day, around £50 more than they normally make! Obviously my charming personality is too hard to resist 😉
 
So that’s it from me for today. If you’d like to check out how you can get involved with volunteering for Guide Dogs in your local area, have a look at this:
https://www.guidedogs.org.uk/supportus/volunteering/#.Vehup6twZYc
 
Otherwise I’ll see you again in my next Dog Blog!
 
Bye for now,
 
J xx

#EndTheAwkward

Disability Charity Scope UK’s #EndTheAwkward campaign is back stronger than everv trying to end the awkwardness surrounding disability.
 
“Two-thirds of people feel awkward around disability”
 
Emily Davison AKA Fashioneyesta recently made this video telling her stories about the awkward moments she’s experienced due to her disability.

 
So after she tagged me to join in, I couldn’t wait to get involved and share my own cringey moments in a bid to #EndTheAwkward.
 
“Are you blind love?”
 
This first awkward moment happened a few years ago when I was travelling alone on a train. I hadn’t long been travelling independently and was still getting used to using my cane on a regular basis. Growing up, I always felt that the cane made me stand out and was reluctant to use it for fear of not looking “normal”. It wasn’t until I was about 18 that I really gave into using it productively.
Anyway, so there I was. Sat happily on the train, feeling quite pleased with how the journey had gone and enjoying the boost in confidence I’d gotten from visiting my friend. Along came the food and drinks trolley and feeling pretty thirsty, I plucked up the nerve to say “excuse me” to flag the trolley down.
I think this was the first time I’d done this; not being able to make eye contact or see peoples facial expressions has always made me a bit nervous of situations like this. There have been far too many occasions when I’ve answered someones cheery greeting, only to realise that they’re actually on the phone, or I’ve asked someone for directions only to find out that I’m actually chatting to a lamppost for things like this to come easily to me.
So riding on my recently boosted confidence I asked the man pulling the trolley, “Do you have any drinks on this trolley?” (This may have been a stupid question, but in my defence it made sense to me to make sure that this was the food and drink trolley before I asked for a diet coke). My enquiry was met with the scornful and disbelieving reply, “do I have any drinks?”
“Yeah…” I said, a little uncertainly. To which he replied, obviously not trying very hard to suppress a snigger and feeling very proud of himself for this witty comeback,
“Ha! Are you blind love?”
“Well, yes” I said, casually lifting my folded cane from the seat next to me to show him.
The deathly silence that enveloped the passengers within our vicinity let me know that this encounter hadn’t gone unnoticed. Now, I obviously couldn’t see how red he went. But considering the tremor in his voice when he listed the soft drinks and how much his hand shook when he dropped my change, I think he was a little embarrassed.
But he’d embarrassed me too. His ignorance and smart-arse attitude made me feel so small and stupid. But at the same time I knew that he was the one in the wrong. In the long run the experience only served to thicken my skin against such comments.
 
The invasion of the prams
 
This awkward encounter again went down on a train (I travel a lot).
The rail assistance had put Jazzy and I in the disabled seats because the train was so full that some passengers were forced to stand. We don’t normally do this because if a wheelchair user gets on and needs the space we have to try to find another alternative, but on this particular occasion we had no other choice.
In fact I don’t know what would’ve happened if a wheelchair user had needed to board the train because following us into the carriage came no less than three sets of families with a pram each. I was asked to move to make room for the prams, but I had to explain that on this occasion I couldn’t due to their literally being no alternative and my needing space for my guide dog. My reply was met with grumbling and mutters but I was challenged no further.
Sometime into the journey I became aware that Jazzy was eating something. When I investigated I discovered that she was eating crisps that seemed to be falling from the nearby pram. I tried to draw the attention of the childs mother, but her reaction made me feel very embarrassed, undermined and incompetent. She loudly shook off my request saying,
“Oh they’re only crisps love, she doesn’t mind sharing.” I gathered from her response that her child was actually trying to feed Jazzy, so I asked again if she minded preventing her child from doing so as it would interfere with my guide dog’s training. She seemed to take offense at this and said,
“Well if she’s so well trained she shouldn’t be eating my kids crisps then should she?” and then proceeded to explain very loudly to her child so that the whole carriage could hear, “no don’t give the doggy your crisps love, that poor doggy isn’t allowed any food. Doggy shouldn’t have been eating your crisps anyway should it sweetheart, come here don’t look at the doggy anymore.”
She called the care of my guide dog into question and made me out to be the bad guy, but I wasn’t confident enough to stand up for myself and explain properly. I get very tongue-tied when faced with confrontation and find it hard to articulate myself clearly, so I felt powerless to defend myself or Jazzy. This was also quite early on in mine and Jazzy’s relationship and I hadn’t really encountered this kind of thing before. But all the fun of Jo Public’s varying reactions to my guide dog is something for another post.
 
Hiking stick or mobility aid?
 
This awkward moment is the most recent and funniest that I’ll share today.
Only about a month ago, myself and two other visually impaired friends had just gotten off a train and were standing outside figuring out whether to get a taxi or to walk home. I had Jazzy with me while both my mates were using canes. However, one of my friends has chosen to jaz up his mobility aid by opting to have a bright blue cane rather than the traditional white.
We were talking amongst ourselves trying to work out what to do when a young guy came up to us and quite smugly said,
“Did you have fun hiking today guys?” We stopped mid-conversation, thinking we’d misheard.
“Those are some funky looking hiking sticks you have there” he elaborated, going on to ask us where exactly we’d been hiking, in Cambridgeshire, where there are no mountains…
It finally dawned on us that the poor guy had mistaken the canes for hiking sticks. We explained that we hadn’t been hiking, that we were blind and that they were our canes whilst trying not to laugh along with his mates who’d witnessed his blunder. I chipped in sarcastically with,
“yeah, she’s my hiking dog. I ride her up the mountains…” which I was rewarded for with more laughter. The poor guy was pretty embarrassed and very apologetic, but we tried to reassure him that we weren’t offended.
Occasions like this present a different kind of awkwardness I think. From my experience, it’s much better to laugh at yourself and with others rather than get stressed out or touchy about silly mistakes. What makes it awkward is when the perpetrator of the misunderstanding can’t laugh along with you. They’re too mortified at having possibly offended you to relax enough to see the funny side. This often makes it much more awkward than if they’d just share the joke.
 
#EndTheAwkward
 
I could share so many other awkward moments, but I don’t think I’d ever finish this post. There’ve been times when canes have been mistaken for fishing poles, when strangers have wanted to pray for me to be healed, when my guide dog has been described as “magic” and all sorts of wonderfully weird situations have arisen.
What I’ve come to learn is that your own awkwardness about your disability is reflected in others. If your uncomfortable about your impairment and don’t know how to talk about it/understand it/laugh about it, you’re not in a position to make others feel comfortable addressing it either.
Scopes #EndTheAwkward is a fantastic steppingstone towards dispelling the taboo that surrounds disability, but I think it’s important to remember that it starts with us; only by accepting ourselves, our capabilities and limitations and by understanding our position in society can we begin to change it.
 
Find out more information about #EndTheAwkward here:
http://www.scope.org.uk/awkward
 
And I tag these bloggers to share their own awkward moments:
Beauty Within http://www.wakeupandcthemakeup.wordpress.com
Freely Me marameeh.wordpress.com
Dekota Rose https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ty8cFHexOEs&feature=youtu.be
 
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