Talk to the Face, the Dog’s not Listening

Sitting in the church it was the average scene for any 10:30 am gathering. People bustled between each other for how-do’s and pleasantries. It was my second time here but the congregation seemed to have changed enormously, the many small children and their parents had probably headed somewhere for the holidays which left the slower of the worshipers to hold fort.

We prayed enthusiastically, we sang even more so, and it was all very nice. Then a sermon. Though I understand the concept of God and my faith in him is slowly building after an amazing time at a christian summer school, my principles remain untouched. The sermon went along the lines of sharing the word of God, however seemed totally out of sync  with the modern world. It was suggested that we bring up God in conversation with our atheist friends, our acquaintances and even people we meet in shops. I couldn’t help but find myself thinking how this probably wouldn’t be doing me any favours as a ‘let’s talk about God’ line with my local butcher would probably earn me only a smack in the chops. Our preacher then went on to exclaim how ‘as long as we have faith’ we will always have food, clothes and everything essential to live. Because God will provide it.

This is one hurdle in my religious journey that I struggle with. How can I accept that, when I know about the starving people living on the streets? The alone, the ill and the hungry. Are they not praying hard enough? If this is the case God doesn’t seem very charitable. Terrible things happen that make people lose faith; that doesn’t mean they should be given up on. Food doesn’t miraculously appear for those who pray, like some kind of halo-scanning drive through, Christians go to Tesco like everyone else. Though I (like many others) will be thankful for the food and the money we use to buy it, but it is through our own doing that we can feed ourselves. We can thank God for numerous things in the process of creating, buying, preparing and eating food but at the end of the day we have to do the leg work- and it costs. I am in no doubt that the people in Syria (a used example in the sermon) are desperate for food. They must long for it with every inch of their dwindling energy. So are they hungry just because they aren’t Christian and praying to the right God? In my opinion that is not cool.

After the service I faced misconceptions of my own over tea and biscuits. I am used to life with my guide dog and the often unwanted buzz that it brings. During a conversation with one lady she stopped mid sentence and went into a high and squeaky voice and fussed my dog. A voice of that pitch could only belong to a ‘dog lover’: the kind of people I see on a daily basis who say things like “I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help myself…”. I politely ask that Lai is not stroked at the moment. I can feel that my dog is a little jumpy, a fly (her chase toy) appears to have accompanied us into the room and I want to keep full control of her so she is on her best behaviour in this new environment. She doesn’t say anything, and seems to have taken this personally and disappears. Minutes later she reappears, however this time she brings with her a daughter.

“Go and introduce yourself to Lai.”

For a moment I think, hope, that she has just mistaken our names but as I focus I see that she is gesturing towards my canine companion and her daughter is launching herself on my guide dog. I remake my point, feeling slightly bad and a little confused, and the woman makes her apologies once more and we all join a group of happy chatters.

A minute later I am spoken to by another lady. I am happy to make conversation and chat but she seems to have her mind set on one topic only. Blindness. More specifically mine.
“Are you able to get about a bit then?” She asks. I notice instantly the way her tone has gone from friendly to pitying but holds no hesitation in asking the question. I tell her that I am independent and travel a lot, in fact I am living at a residential college in september. I restrain the cheeky voice in my head telling me to ask her the same question with a gulp of my tea. Though I answered pleasantly she seems a little surprised with my response, like she would expect the contrary.

“Have you always been blind?” She asks quickly. I have had this kind of conversation before with strangers, but never have I felt quite so interrogated. I explain that I am not completely blind, that I was born blind in one eye and the other eye’s sight deteriorated a lot when I was eleven. Her response was:

“That must of been traumatic. Did God bring you through?” It felt as if she had mixed up her expression. The first statement was said briskly as if she were making observation of the weather, and the latter like I was a dying kitten under a four by four. I decided to be honest: No actually, God didn’t bring me through. I looked for God but couldn’t find him. I had to do a lot of work myself and be strong. It was tough but you do what you have to do. Well… maybe I didn’t manage quite that but it went along those lines.

Without a beat she passed onto the next question. I couldn’t understand what her intention was, she hadn’t passed any comment on any of my responses. I am fine with people asking one or two, well thought out, questions about disability to me. I see that as helping spread awareness of visual impairment, however I just felt uncomfortable with this interrogatory style and her expectation that my life is limited and confined.

“So have you managed to get some kind of education?” She blasts on. I tried to work out whether her choice of words was intentional or just unfortunate but couldn’t come to an exact conclusion. I respond with yes, that I am waiting on the results of my GCSE’s and in september I will go to college and study Psychology, Sociology, English Literature A levels and Braille. She doesn’t know what to say and was clearly not expecting me to of had any kind of education at all. She muttered something about how she hopes I do well in my GCSE’s, and that A levels are very hard, before moving away.

I found my Dad who was happily chatting away to a man who appeared to be more the type of person you would expect to be in a church. He was polite, could hold a conversation and had a sense of humour. He also appeared to be the husband of the dog-loving lady from earlier. Conversation is light hearted about christianity and the structure of the church but the topic, as usual with strangers, turns to my guide dog.

“I won’t stroke her because she’s wearing that harness” says the man smiling. I smile gratefully back and am just about to ask him how long he has lived locally when his wife steps in.

“I just got told off for doing that.” I am completely taken aback. She doesn’t sound jokey or lighthearted, just outright bitter. I am confused and can feel little bubbles of rage popping in the back of my brain. It doesn’t happen often that I get angry, but the collective attitude of the people I had met seemed so negative, so confrontational, so backwards. There seems to be something inside me that says I shouldn’t even feel anger in a church, let alone show it, so I suppress it and smile.

“Please don’t feel like I was telling you off, I just needed to say that it isn’t a good time to stroke her right now.” She looks affronted. I can tell that in her mind she is seeing me as a rude teenager who shouldn’t of come to her church in the first place. Her husband steps in:

“Is it detrimental to their training if they are fussed?” He asks, keeping his lighthearted tone. I am so tired of this now. I become more and more aware that two out of the three people who had spoken to me seemed to see me as nothing but a chauffeur for an amazing dog or a disability to be examined. I decide that I might as well be honest.

Yes, it is detrimental to their training. Guide Dogs are constantly being trained and having their training reinforced by their owners. I depend completely on her to act perfectly in all kinds of social situations, and most importantly I put my life in her hands on a daily basis to live an independent life. Though people want to stroke her, sometimes I just can’t let that happen because I need her to stay calm and ready to receive commands. It is a lot harder to keep control of a dog which is over excited and I, as her owner, can recognise when it is an ok time for her to be petted and when it isn’t. And sometimes… just sometimes… I like people to talk to me rather than her!!

Well… maybe something like that… I am far too polite for my own good sometimes. Dad could sense my tension so we thanked them for the service and the tea and left. As soon as I stepped out of the graveyard I erupted into flames. I really do not feel anger often, I like to stay calm and hope that people will do the same around me. But this time I was furious.

If you are reading this thinking that this is a rant about religious people’s attitudes towards disabled people, stop. I know lots of religious people and I am religious myself. This is the kind of attitude that many disabled people face day in, day out, no matter where they are. It just happens that the most concentrated experience of people misjudging me was at a religious building on a summery sunday morning.

When in doubt of what to talk about to a disabled person, stick to the weather.

Image of a chair with a light bulb above in a dimly lit room.  interrogation

8 thoughts on “Talk to the Face, the Dog’s not Listening

  1. Cracking prose, well written, and I empathise with you. I too have a guide dog, and am also a Christian. I have experienced the very same behaviours and comments from so many people over the years. I agree, it does indeed feel like folk are talking to some third person, a person who bears no resemblance to the person actually stood in front of them. I am often confronted with the comment ‘you do so well’. No, I don’t. I do what I need to do, to live – just like anyone else. I might take longer, I might struggle to find things, but still, I get on with the business of life, aided by my friend, companion and guide, Kambo. Like you I experience elements of surprise when listeners discover I have a law degree, an honours degree in sociology, and a diploma in social policy and criminology. Imagine the surprise when people discover I am called to ministry, too! Blind people are ‘supposed to be helpless’, seems to be the maxim. No, blind people are as able as society allows us to be, and we are not very keen on being restricted. By the way, we are NOT being rude when we ask that our dogs not be distracted. Neither are we being over protective or expressing jealousy of having our dogs. They are our partners, so much closer to each other than people imagine. I would not walk up and stroke your child’s head, nor would I wave my hand in front of your eyes, yet these actions are so similar to what people do with our dogs, every day.

    Rant over! I am heading off to the shops, with Kambo. Bet we get at least one daft question before we get back….

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! I completely can relate to your point about people thinking they understand. I didn’t understand, even as a dog owner, before getting Lai. The connection guide dogs and owners have is very special and the height of understanding both dog and owner have of each other is incredible. We are with our dogs 24/7 and understand them so much, as I’m sure they understand us. For members of the public to come and tell us that our dogs ‘need a fuss’ or one of the many other lines we hear isn’t giving these animals credit for their amazing ability. Congratulations on your achievements! I am studying sociology next year and am really looking forward to it.

  2. I’m a priest, and also work with a friend who happens to be visually impaired – we run an organisation trying to raise awareness of the issues you’ve raised so eloquently (www.lightingthelandscape.co.uk) and we try to organise events etc that everyone would want to come to, and which are well thought-through from an accessibility perspective so that visually impaired people are encouraged and comfortable to get involved and enjoy what we do. We see loads of people making new friendships through this, and many of the ignorances and poor attitudes melting away. We have a passion to get the awareness levels on these issues raised within the church (which is my workplace) and in society in general. I hope we make a bit of a difference.

    I hope that you have a fantastic time at college doing your A levels, and thoroughly enjoy it.

    Also, when you have a quiet moment, and Lai is out of the harness and having a break, give her a little tickle behind the ears from me 😉

    • I’m sure you make a huge difference. That sounds really interesting, and there needs to be more people like you giving opportunities for the public to see that people with a visual impairment are people with personalities with likes and dislikes and all sorts of other quirks- not just shells of a disability. Thank you very much and all the best to you! Laila is looking appreciative for the tickle as she sits on my feet right now. Thanks for reading!

  3. I appreciate your honesty. Sometimes, patience runs out. There are times when I don ‘t want to be the educator and informer and stereotype-buster. The white cane has that nasty habit of being visible and people just can’t seem to help but blurt out things. On good days, I remember most of them mean well, they just don’t know any better yet.

    • I completely relate. When I was a cane user I varied between being completely invisible or a novelty for the public. Sometimes people say some really stupid things. Some days it is easier to deal with than others, but at the end of the day you are educating people and fighting the stereotype just by being yourself doing mundane things! Thanks for reading!

  4. I love the title of your blog post and the way you described how it is detrimental to the guide dog training. Unfortunately I also have experienced situations like this. Loved this post.

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