By David Saxberg, our Inclusion Advisor.
David is totally blind and uses a screen reader daily. In this article he shares the decision that led him to getting a guide dog and the lifestyle changes that come with it.
Learning how to take advice
As the Inclusion Adviser for the Information Access Group, I have the pleasure of helping people with screen reading software advice. I demonstrate how the software works and give advice for writing code to make it work well. But, over time, I have needed to seek my own advice on how best to travel independently. Asking for advice didn’t come easy to me when I was younger. But as I aged I started to listen to people, especially about using a cane.
I have lived in Sydney, moved to Canberra for University and now live in Brisbane. On reflection this has been the best decision that I have ever made. Having travelled to all those cities, plus a little of Melbourne and overseas to the UK on my own using a cane, I thought 'Why would I need a guide dog?'.
It all started when I was living with friends in a large share house. Over a cold drink one evening a friend asked me if I had considered getting a guide dog. I said 'no'. We continued to talk and I walked away from the conversation thinking – why don’t I look into this more?
Sign me up
I contacted an independent orientation and mobility organisation that I had previously used when I needed some refresher work with the cane (I had a bad tendency to drift when I was crossing roads). I asked if I could do an experience walk with a dog and after a couple of minutes of discussion, a date was set for me.
On the day, the instructor Jason rocked up with a dog in tow. After getting the dog ready he attached a safety leash. We walked along my local streets and crossed roads safely and straight. The experience got me thinking – I really did want to do this.
I went on the waiting list.
But then my nerves got the better of me and I thought 'I don’t need some animal guiding me everywhere – I can just use a cane and blunder my way through it all'. Big mistake. There was a day I was using a cane in the city and it was noisy. I was hot and stressed and that’s when I realised that I really did want a dog.
I went back on the waiting list and I didn’t have to wait very long before a dog came along.
I had a slight false start last year with a dog that was brilliant but didn’t quite suit my style of life. Then along came Gizmo. He is a Labrador retriever cross, and he is beautiful. From his floppy ears to his big nose and his love of food he seemed to suit me well, but what about the way he guides?
Jason taught me all I needed to know from how to call the dog, commands like sit, stay and and how to manage medication feed times. Additionally, he taught me travel commands like forward, find right, left, find the curb etc.
But the biggest moment for me was when I got to go into the city. I went on the train with him because I love train travel. Being able to walk through the city and dodge people and obstacles that I otherwise would have bumped into with a cane – it was a brilliant experience.
The training process took about three weeks and I have follow up appointments once a week to make sure that I am managing the dog well.
I am now out on my own and I love it. I can go places I have never gone before with a cane because I no longer have to find a road or object to navigate off – I can just tell the dog to find it. This is so much easier than sweeping my cane back and forth and attempting to find it that way. Don’t get me wrong, a cane is still important to have on you because sometimes you may need to find an object that the dog can’t find. But as time has gone on, we are building a good steady relationship and I trust it will get stronger over time.
In summary, it is a difficult process that you have to be ready for. It’s not just a dog, it’s a lifestyle change. But if you are willing to make a couple of changes to how you do things, the positives do outweigh the very few negatives. A guide dog is not for everyone but I think people should be at least open to the idea of doing a trial walk. Once you have done it you can make a decision based off the evidence you have in front of you to make sure you can move forward in life with or without a four-legged companion.