Don’t Blame the Victims!!

This morning, as on most mornings, I sat down with my first cup of coffee to read my email and found two articles in my Blind News (link above) folder explicitly “blaming” people with vision impairments for the failure of the open source push portion of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ open document format (ODF) initiative.  The first article, “Blind leading away from open source” ran in yesterday’s ZD Net out of Germany and the second, from the UK based, “Visually impaired prevent Massachusetts move to open source,” both propose the argument that we blinks should take the blame for the lack of accessibility in the open source office applications, “Open Office” and “Star Office” from Sun Microsystems.  Both articles admit that the ODF plug-in for Microsoft Office meets the Commonwealth’s requirements of keeping data in an openly documented file format and that Microsoft Office is accessible to all users and doesn’t exclude those with vision impairment.

Blaming the possible victims of the ODF legislation, specifically people with vision impairments who could lose their government jobs in Massachusetts because they hadn’t tools that could, prior to the introduction of the ODF plug-in for MS Office, be used to perform their jobs.  Citizens of the Commonwealth and others with vision impairment who chose to access this information would also have discovered barriers to entry without such a plug-in.

Discriminatory statements and blaming the victim, tactics common to most arguments against civil rights movements, simply do not hold water when placed in the light of scholarly scrutiny.  If we go back to the middle of the twentieth century, we will find many statements suggesting that company X would hire African Americans if said minorities had the skills to perform the requisite tasks.  Of course, as “said minorities” had no access to training for such a job, the validity of blaming the victim of discrimination for not having the skills is demonstrated to be void of reason.  In this case, these articles blame blinks because screen magnifiers and screen readers do not work with the open source office applications.  Thus, it seems that these people also believe that my transportation problems must result from the lack of a JAWS for Windshields that I could run on our Toyota to get around town.

The ZD Net article quotes Peter Korn, Accessibility Architect at Sun Microsystems (link to his blog above) and one of the smartest, most energetic and outspoken advocates for the digital rights of people with disabilities in the mainstream technology industry as blaming the AT companies for not investing enough in the open source office suites and, therefore, the relatively puny Freedom Scientific, AI^2, GW Micro and Dolphin Systems, according to Korn, should foot the blame and bill to remedy the situation.  “If Freedom Scientific and GW Micro and Dolphin Computer Access (makers of JAWS, Window Eyes, and SuperNova respectively) were to make similar investments in scripting and customizing their assistive technologies for as they have for Microsoft Office, or if they were to improve their existing scripting and customizations for WordPerfect and Wordperfect were to support ODF, then screen reader users should have no accessibility barriers to equal productivity and efficiency with ODF as they have with Microsoft Office in Windows,” wrote Korn according to the article.

When I worked for Freedom Scientific, a job I left nearly 2 full years ago, Peter and I had this discussion in person, on the telephone and in emails.  I have written at length about the general failure of the entire system of providing accessibility in the pages of Blind Confidential many times and, once again, find myself forced to argue against the intellectually vacant myth that one can blame the AT companies or their customers for the accessibility problems in products your much larger and wealthier company prefers.

Freedom Scientific, GW Micro and the others hardly have the resources to keep up with the latest releases of the number one market share products in every market niche.  An equivalent in the racial minority example would be saying that if relatively small organizations like NAACP, SNCC and SCLC would only pool their meager resources and start their own General Motors, MIT and professional baseball league, they could integrate them at will.  As I wrote in these pages in the past month or so, JAWS 7.1 came out with “support for Windows Media Player 10” listed as a new feature months after Microsoft had released Windows Media 11.  Freedom Scientific, the leader in the business of making AT for people with vision impairments, doesn’t intentionally lag behind the mainstream releases for the joy of hearing a cranky asshole like me point out such failures as the collective inability of the AT industry to maintain pace with the mainstream but, rather, its relatively large software engineering team works very long hours sweating blood to put out the best and most current product they can in the current economic climate.  I’ve no indication that my friends at GW Micro, AI ^2 and Dolphin Systems behave any differently.

Peter includes the closed source WordPerfect as another example of a product with poor support by the AT companies.  WordPerfect, which also does not support ODF, had far better screen reader support in the DOS days than did Microsoft Word for DOS.  Why?  Because it had a far greater market share, had a little known and hardly documented DOS interrupt that a third party TSR application (like Visual Eyes or JAWS for DOS) or a grammar checker like Right Writer (for which I wrote the TSR interface) could access a lot of information, thus probably making it the first host of an accessibility interface and as, according to John Dvorak, “was a simple application, you went to the DOS prompt, typed ‘wp’ and very little changed.”

Then, the founders of WordPerfect Corporation sold their enormous baby for $1.1 billion to Novell in what was then the single largest acquisition of a private company.  Novell played around with consumer software for a few years and watched the Microsoft Office market share surge past the once unbeatable WordPerfect as they mismanaged their entire consumer division.  Ultimately, Bob Frankenberg, having killed most of the WordPerfect line of products, sold its remnants, except for the still mostly inaccessible Groupwise, to Corel for $100 million.  I then wrote a letter to Bob, now the former CEO of Novell, suggesting that the next time he wanted to spend $1 billion and get virtually nothing for it that he should call me and that I would, for half a billion, guarantee that I would provide nothing of any value whatsoever, thus cutting out the overhead of managing such a loss.  Bob didn’t respond.

At one point during my six year tenure holding the reins of JAWS development, we did spend a fair amount of time working with Corel to help them make their office suite work well with JAWS.  The strategy we took, obvious to anyone who has a copy of JAWS who elects to open up and read the source code to the scripts for WordPerfect or Quatro Pro, was to advise Corel and coach them on implementing an object model identical to that in Microsoft Office which would let us leverage the existing investment in supporting the Microsoft suite to make theirs work in a similar fashion.  Corel paid Freedom Scientific its hourly consulting fee to do this job as, otherwise, FS would not have had the financial wherewithal to work on a product other than the market leader.

When Sun first got into the Open Office/Star Office business, I discussed this strategy with Peter and his then supervisor Marney Beard (also a terrific individual with a ton of energy and great focus in this arena).  I said that if they went with an object model identical to or similar enough to the one used by MS and Corel, that either FS or a third party or a group of volunteers or anyone else who cared to could write the scripts using the source to the JAWS scripts for the Microsoft and Corel suites as a template.  Sun chose to take a divergent path.

In the period since then, Corel has let its object model support decay and, as a result, the JAWS support for it has also fallen into decline.  Is this the fault of the relatively tiny Freedom Scientific or the billion dollar Corel?  Also, in the interim, other screen readers, Window-Eyes and Freedom Box System Access for instance, have followed the FS example and have started deriving information from the MS object model to provide their users with information from the market leading office suite.  If corel had chosen to keep its object model support up to date and hired their own JAWS scripter, they, for a minimal investment, could remain current with JAWS and, today, probably other screen access products as well.  If Sun had elected to add a MS emulation object model, powerful but different from the gnome accessibility API, they could be in the same position and, with some of their current employees, one the former manager of the scripting department at Henter Joyce, could easily have provided an open source office suite with the excellent accessibility available to blind users of the Microsoft products.

Microsoft has never tried to stop any other company from copying the functionality of their object model.  They were well aware that FS worked with Corel to provide a replica in Perfect Office and, indeed, employees in the MS Office team helped Corel and FS do this project.  

I know Sun Microsystems doesn’t have the same financial power it once had but I’m willing to bet that the Freedom Scientific stockholders would do a one for one trade of companies if offered the possibility.  Sun, compared to the entire blindness industry combined, is a giant.  The AT companies do what they can to support their customers while supporting their investors who took the big risks to bring talking and magnified computing to market in the years before ADA and 508 forced the hands of the mega-bucks mainstream companies.  People like Ted Henter, Doug, Ben, Jim Fruchterman and others shouldn’t be blamed for poor accessibility when an incompatible standard emerges but, rather, be applauded for bringing products as far as they have with so little financial ability.

I don’t want to blame Sun Microsystems or Peter for this mess either.  Sun stands as a terrific example of good corporate citizenship in the disability realm and Peter Korn’s leadership has gone a very long way to make the world of computing profoundly more accessible for people with disabilities.  The problem, as I’ve described in many ways from many different angles in these pages, has no simple solution.  

Blind people, as a group, have never made any objections to open source software as the articles I read this morning would imply.  These traditional victims of discrimination merely want to maintain the technological progress they have made so far.  Perhaps if one tried to deconstruct the path Massachusetts chose to take to get to its goal of using an open document format the oft repeated problem of including people with disabilities at the end of the process rather than the beginning might pop out as the culprit in the process.  I haven’t talked to my old buddy Joe Lazarro, formerly of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and now of the Commonwealth’s information technology bureaucracy, in a long time.  I wonder, if when he held the position of Technology Director at the commission if anyone in IT called him to ask about compatibility and inclusion issues early in the process?

On the opposite side of the coin, many blinks have joined the open source movement as both advocates and hackers.  JAWS, for the most part, exposes it’s most interesting components, nearly its entire user interface, in its scripts for which the source code comes included with every download.  One can actually look at most of the code for the JAWS user experience without buying the product as the script source, where the majority of the interface comes from, can be had by anyone who downloads the free demo of the product.  There is also a large community of JAWS hackers who, when FS chooses not to support a particular application, does so themselves.  Recently, on the blind programming listserv, a group of we blinks have been working together to create a tutorial for using the Microsoft development tools with screen readers and a subset of the tutorial team has been writing an excellent set of scripts and distributing them with source code included to support Microsoft Visual Studio .Net 2005.

The community beyond JAWS also does some really great things in the open source realm.  TV Raman’s emacspeak, an outstanding set of extensions to emacs, is a great example of open source development by and for blind users.  If I remember correctly, Raman takes a totally free software approach to the world and will not use any product that does not carry the GPL and does so successfully as a blind person in the corporate world.

Others, including those who work on SpeakUp, BrailleTTY, and the many other varieties of kernel modifications for console based flavors of GNU/Linux also work very hard to bring open source solutions to our community.

Finally, major corporations, including Sun Microsystems and IBM, have built their own screen readers for the gnome desktop.  Sun has ORCA and I can never remember the name of the one from IBM but I recently received an email that said it had been coming along nicely.  Both of these gnome solutions were demonstrated at CSUN as alpha versions and both, when they reach a truly usable level, promise to provide full support for both Open Office and Sun’s Star Office so, if the blind people in Massachusetts can do their jobs as well or better with these solutions, they can move away from Microsoft’s solution to an open source solution when the screen readers for a completely open source graphical desktop reaches maturity.

The gnome accessibility API, one in which I, as Freedom Scientific’s representative,  participated in the description of, takes the idea of an accessibility layer further than any I’ve seen from Apple or Microsoft.  It includes what might remain the Holy Grail of accessibility solutions, a generic way of exposing contextual information, which, if proven to work, may truly mean the next generation of access for blind users can start to emerge.  The operative point being “proven” to work which, in this context, means beyond working in the lab with some highly controlled applications and beyond being an outstanding demo that the market refuses to accept.  Sun and the gnome desktop accessibility advocates need to sell this solution both to the community of disability advocates as well as to the market at large before the little guys like FS, GW AI, etc. can be expected to use their scarce resources to support.

I believe in the gnome API on a theoretical basis.  I will write anything I can and add my voice to a truly generic standard for accessibility API layers that run on multiple platforms whether the standard turns out to be the one from Sun, Microsoft, Apple or a still unknown source.  I will not, however, stand by and watch people who work for multi-billion dollar companies, state governments and major media outlets take cheap shots at the victims of discrimination as they excuse for their own short falls.

As much as the beautiful Massachusetts State Capital Building atop Beacon Hill cannot put out a “Whites only” sign so as to not inconvenience the still racist communities in Chucktown and Southie, they cannot start insisting on using file formats inaccessible by people with disabilities.  The blind population should not be blamed but, rather, the disability advocates in the Massachusetts Information Technology bureaucracy should be applauded for stopping what could have forced a lot of people out of jobs before the deadline.  The plug-in for MS Office is a reasonable compromise and should be viewed as a victory for people with disabilities and not a defeat for the open source movement.

This is a rare situation in which everyone can win so, instead of pointing fingers, slinging mud and playing the proverbial “blame game” perhaps all parties should take this as a wake up call to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are considered from the outset rather than when the cow has nearly left the pasture.


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Bored, Hot, Angry, Annoyed: A Rant

Where did the nearly daily posts to Blind Confidential go?  Probably, along with my general mood and outlook on life, very far south.  The calendar reads mid-August, the Florida equivalent of mid-February in Boston.  While I swore I would never complain about the Florida heat as long as I didn’t have to endure another New England winter, I find the discomfort of doing nearly anything during daylight hour’s outdoors to feel a bit oppressive this time of year.  What makes matters somewhat more depressing is that, in Florida, we know we have a full month of September to go before autumn arrives.

The new dog enjoys walking quickly when in a reasonably comfortable situation, if it’s nice and shady or, even better, air conditioned, he and I glide along quite rapidly.  When, like it started to become as we left the diner where we enjoyed our breakfast yesterday, sunny, hot and humid, he slows to a snail’s pace and reminds me that I’m neither wearing a fur coat or going barefoot on hot concrete and that I should shut up and enjoy that I’m not walking into anything dangerous.  His skills remain entirely intact but his pace slows to a near crawl.  If we go to the mall, though, he shows off by weaving in and out of crowds of people, showing off everything he knows and we move at a near trot.  The heat, however, slows us both down.

I’ve wondered if the heat of the South really does get to the brain in a bad way.  Surely, the South has given us a great literary tradition with people like Faulkner, Capote, Eudora, Toni Morrison and far too many others to list.  But, American recipients of Nobel prizes in areas other than literature tend to reside in the Northeast or out west.  Economists tend to come from the northeast or U. Chicago.  I would guess that U. Texas is the odd exception but it is in Austin, home to a lively chapter of the BPP and medium cool music scene.  Austin feels more like Cambridge, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison – the axis powers of thinking America than of the rest of Texas or the south.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of programming these days.  I’m working on a pretty cool project using Visual Studio .Net 2005 and C#.  It is my first “real” C# program (real defined as not just a demo or experiment).  I find that a lot of my rusty skills come back quickly and that I’m adapting to .Net and C# pretty quickly.  I’m still dubious of all of the code generated for me by the IDE but, alas, my state of malaise provides me with the permission to ignore things that work and proceed with the portions of the program that actually effect usability.  Still, I find it pretty scary that I am sending things to the compiler without even looking at them first.

I also find that I spend between 50-60% of my time wrestling with the IDE and my screen reader.  .Net 2003 worked better than 2005, which my vendor does not claim to support anyway.  Thus, I get frustrated as programming is certainly better for blinks than it was fifteen or twenty years ago but not as good as it was two years back.  I’ve gone over all of the reasons why screen readers can fall behind ad nauseum in these pages so I don’t want to repeat myself lest I find myself returning to a psychiatric facility for suicidal observation due to the general ideation that life for we blinks will never get much better.

I spent a while yesterday, after reading an article in Blind News (link above) about the new revision of the Macintosh screen Reader, VoiceOver.  The author said they included some verbosity options so the users could make it less chatty, something Windows users have enjoyed for more than a decade now, they have added support for refreshable Braille displays (something the author struggled with conceptually), another feature DOS and Windows people have had for at least 20 years and, if I remember correctly, existed in outspoken, the broken old screen reader for Macintosh from Alva, a product that, along with Alva, died on the vine.  Finally, the sighted author was most impressed by the really human sounding voice that Macintosh and VoiceOver now support.  These have also been available for a long time on Windows and GNU/Linux systems but never let someone tell Steve Jobs that he wasn’t first to a party.

I can hear Apple defenders writing comments already.  Well, it’s only a second revision, JAWS, Window-Eyes, HAL and even outspoken have had years of effort so you should cut Apple some slack.  This is akin to saying that a new automobile company should put out something that performs just like a Model T, with a few improvements, this year and claim, “It’s just a start, we haven’t had the time to learn all of the things that Toyota, Ford and the other guys have learned in the past century.”  I don’t buy the excuse that “it’s a relatively new product,” Apple has JAWS, Window-Eyes and lots of other stuff to serve as models and should not put out a half assed solution that raises hopes that are dashed by the reality of the system.

Also, I am really sick of sighted critics of technology for blindness related products.  Typically, they first ask, “so you talk to the computer and it does what you tell it to?”  No, dumb ass, I can type, there’s nothing wrong with my damned fingers.  Then, they ask, “How can you understand that robotic voice talking so quickly?”  Because I practiced to get good at hearing high speed feedback so I didn’t have to spend my entire day listening to a nice human voice reading my email to me without getting anything else done.

I am also completely sick and tired of reading articles by sighties who stumble across assistive technology for the first time and suddenly think they are experts in the field and must tell the world about it.  It’s 2006 and I still see at least one headline per week which says, “New Technology Gives Blind Access to Internet” and, upon further reading, realize that someone is writing about JAWS, Window-Eyes, Freedom Box, HAL or any of the other products that have been kicking around for a long time.

I really can’t stand the articles that tell me that K1000 “helps” me read books.”  No, K1000, OpenBook and Fine Reader, are tools that I can employ to hear text converted to speech.  This doesn’t “help” me, it gives me a damned tool that I can use or not.  If Ray Kurzweil wants to “help” me, he can come over and mow the lawn or do the forms layout stuff in the IDE which is really troublesome for a blink.

While I write the “kids these days” articles about programming and how different it is between then and now, I’m growing very tired of the “blinks these days” statements made by people blind far longer than me.  I hear all about how much better it is today than it was twenty years ago.  Fortunately, I don’t live twenty years ago but I live now and a lot of stuff still sucks out loud.  AT companies provide partial solutions (due largely to mainstream companies lack of compliance but also to a reticence to invest in innovation).  Mainstream companies fight compliance with such vigor that it would probably be simpler and cheaper to comply than fight.

I’m fortunate, I get to live in a fairy tale world of academia where our primary purpose is innovation and, while I am constrained by budget, market forces don’t play too hard on schedules and such.  Still, I bump up against the “no blinks apply” boundaries when I need to spend twice as much time to accomplish the same task as a sighted counterpart.

Somebody, please, send me some good news…

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Kids These Days

Somewhere between fifteen and twenty years ago, I sat at a table in the Crown Room at the Las Vegas Hilton accompanied by my good friend Gordon, a very peculiar journalist whose name escapes me and Charles Petzhold, the author of the best books about Windows programming back in the early days of the environment.  Hewlett-Packard hosted the gathering and Gordon, the journalist, Petzhold and I sat together to avoid the complete sleaziness of the marketing folks around us.  We certainly enjoyed the view and aroma of the occasional booth babe but, as nerds, we knew they avoided looking in our direction as our mere presence distracted from the generally good looking crowd of advertising, sales and other bullshit artists.

Our conversation started with whining about the “good old days” of COMDEX, when nerds ruled the scene in Vegas and even the marketing types looked and dressed like a bunch of geeks.  We laughed about the day Bill Gates received a new t-shirt from someone and, electing to wear it immediately, pulled it over his head without removing his sport coat.  It just doesn’t get much geekier than that.

In the old days, we could tell the difference between the people from the business and the Vegas types.  We looked like geeks, they looked like freaks.  When we saw a geek with an attractive woman, we knew, without question, that she came from an escort agency.  Back in the day, Las Vegas News Channel 8, their version of a 24 hour local news channel, would actually do updates on how the escort businesses performed during the convention.  You would actually hear a madam interviewed on the news say things like, “It looks like a typical COMDEX, the Asian business men all want tall girls with big ones, gay Europeans want tall black men, the rich guys all want blondes and the fetishists and nerds want something exotic…”  

By the time the four of us sat together at the party thrown by HP that night in a long ago November, COMDEX and the industry had passed us by.  No longer did the geeks rule.  No longer did companies (Toshiba in one case and I cannot remember the other) throw parties so wild that the local boys in blue would show up and shut them down for “violating the moral standards of Las Vegas.”  I only got to attend two of these but I have heard of others.  No longer did you find people like Gates, Philippe Kahn and George Tate making loud and obnoxious announcements in the middle of parties.  COMDEX had deteriorated to a point where the sex, drugs, booze and all night parties disappeared as everyone wanted to rush to their rooms to make sure they got a good night of sleep so they would look good in the booth the following day.  In the times about which we reminisced, no one ever looked too good so the party didn’t need to end.

We also bitched about how anyone could stand talking endlessly about laser printers.  They’re really not that interesting we thought and, as one of us got up to go to the bar for another round, someone plopped their butt down in the vacant chair and started professing why the HP standard beat Postscript.  When our beers got back to us, we politely got up and retired to the casino downstairs.

I don’t think I have talked to Petzhold since that night but, yesterday, my friend and frequent BC commenter, Will Pearson posted an email to the blind programming mailing list with a link to an article Petzhold did last November, almost two decades after we nerded out in the LV Hilton.  The article, “Does Visual Studio Rot the Mind?” is one of the best “”kids these days” rants I’ve read by an old timer in years.  I did one in these pages on June 1 about progress the PPO team made on its development but Petzhold really slams it home with excellent examples.  He concludes by describing a nice little command line program he wrote recently in straight “C,” using Notepad as his editor and gcc to compile it on the command line.

Petzhold sure brought back memories.  I started thinking about the days when I could program for days on end without consulting a single reference book.  When we cared about memory, efficiency and how “tightly” or “cleanly” our hacks looked.  Now, a kid learning to program with Visual Studio .Net 2005 not only has no idea what the processor sees but hardly needs to know what the compiler sees.  Petzhold points out that the code generated by the Windows Forms Designer gets hidden by the environment as the compiler expects it to come in a particular format and, when you go in and inspect the code (something I did on my own and not mentioned in the article) it actually contains comments that says “don’t touch this code as it may make your program behave badly.”

For a couple of days, I fought with VS 2005 .Net Standard Edition.  First, it couldn’t find its local help files, then, when I tried to add a form to my application, it couldn’t find the appropriate templates and told me to go to Control Panel, click on Administrative Tools and, at that point, I gave up and ran the “Repair” which, during its reboots caused my screen reader to crash twice so I got to start the process three times last night.

Sure, DOS tools would crash from time to time.  Of course, DOS compilers and assemblers had their share of bugs, I remember going nuts trying to find why a program I wrote and compiled using MSC 4.0 back in 1988 didn’t work and found the culprit was a compiler optimization gone awry.  I remember Borland shipping its Turbo Assembler 1.0 which included a command line switch to emulate MASM bugs as some of we real old time hackers would sometimes use those bugs in creative ways to make our programs work better.

This weekend, while struggling with having no help files and a corrupted installation of VS .Net, the blind programming list members took to the topic of program comments.  As a joke, I wrote, “Comments, we don’t need no stinkin’ comments!  Hell, we don’t need no stinkin’ symbols either.”  I then said that any “real programmer” can just use SoftIce and someone else’s binary to make something work nicely.  One response seemed angry and said that “just because we all can’t read machine code doesn’t mean we’re not good programmers,” to which I replied that I had been kidding; obviously the reader hadn’t seen “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.”  Another reply that made my heart sink a bit, however, came from someone new to programming who asked, “What is SoftIce?”

I guess I must learn to accept that a generation of programmers is learning to write programs without really understanding what the computer does or how it works.  Maybe this is all part of a conspiracy between Intel and Microsoft, one which forces us to buy faster computers with more memory so we can run bloated, robotically generated software that looks and feels great but, somehow, lacks a human touch.


In addition to the audio programs I write as part of my research into human understanding of multi-dimensional semantic information through non-visual stimuli, I work on programs for PPO (link above) and some other ideas we have for the GatorTech Smart House at the RERC at U. Florida.  I find that I get frustrated with making forms in VS as the interface design intends to make things easy for sighties.  Thus, I’ve added to my list of projects, the attempt to mingle my research with my hacking and come up with a three dimensional sound scheme as a plug-in to VS .Net that might make blind hackers more productive.  If it sucks, remember, I haven’t completed my research yet and, other than Will Pearson and a few audio game hackers, no one has really explored 3D audio for user interface purposes.  If it doesn’t suck, you can send me a thank you note and some money if you enjoy using it.  Either way, I’ll release it with source included for you to play with, add to and improve.  It will carry the GPL.


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Guide Dog Chronicles IV: Coming Home

I intended to do five initial articles in this series, the arrival, the rules, the people, the staff and coming home.  I decided to forego the article about the staff as I’ve spent a lot of time lately working on projects for my day job and preparing for the fall academic semester.  Thus, writing a lot of code, dealing with a ton of little things, a bout with depression, having a dental disaster and trying to instigate a revolution of the blind, for  the blind and by the blind has kept me away from Blind Confidential lately.

Thus, I will skip an article entirely on the staff at Southeastern.  I will, however, point out that, in previous articles in this series, I have referred to the trainers and others who work at Southeastern as a bunch of saints.  I wrote a letter to the Pope about Kate and Katie, the two trainers with whom I worked most closely, asking him to sanctify, transmophograte or do whatever Catholics do to officially raise an individual to the level of near deity and, for Darleen, our house mother, I will bring a letter to the Dalai Lama when I visit him later this month to suggest that she might actually be the 98th human incarnation of some great Buddhist from earlier in history.  About these three tremendous women, I can only say that they demonstrate personalities that can only come from divine intervention.

Now, to the specific topic of this article, coming home with my dog.

On July 1, my wife Susan drove down to Southeastern and we loaded the X-Dog in the Toyota and drove home.  We introduced the dogs to each other and then went to Pet Smart to buy a bunch of stuff, including a fold up kennel for the X-Dog.  The instructions we left the school with included keeping your guide dog tethered to you for two full months in order to build a very strong relationship.  Thus, unfolding the origami cage turned into a much more interesting experience than I expected.  My favorite part occurred when the back wall of the thing came crashing down on my forehead while the dog, leash attached to my ankle, pulled toward a toy.

We didn’t do much else that first day but introduce the guide dog to Baby, our 20 pound Corgie/Yorki mix.  After a little apprehension, I can happily report, that the two guys get along terrifically.  They share toys and play in the yard together, the big Labrador seemingly cautious and gentle with the much smaller guy.  

The following day, we went on our first training walk around the neighborhood.  Susan had Baby on a leash and I had X in his harness.  It seemed that, overnight, I forgot all of the commands, I lost track of my left and right and the walk turned into a somewhat frustrating stroll about the local streets.

The following day I felt a bit nervous (valium would have helped that pass) but Susan, Baby, the X-Dog and I set out for another walk.  I did a better job of keeping my left and right straight and Xcelerator seemed a bit more confident.  Thus, the walk went nicely and my confidence grew.  Actually, the confidence grew too much.

Day three started with my decision to try a solo walk on the route we took the previous day.  This resulted in me getting somewhere and calling Susan on my MSP enabled iPAQ PDA phone for help.  She found us and we came home.

Not to be deterred, I tried a few more solo walks.  Sometimes, I found my way home.  The last of these solo attempts found me walking east on 30 the St. but thinking we were walking south on 9th St., I knew I had lost my coordinates and, once again, called Susan.  She drove up and down 9th St. and I walked back and forth 30 Ave, we obviously didn’t find each other.  Fortunately, a neighbor asked me if I was lost.  “Yes, where am I?”

“You’re on the corner of 30th and Grove,” he said.

Thus, I stood less than a block from my back door.  I called Susan and told her of my whereabouts, thanked the kind neighbor and started in the direction of our house.  

The following week, Kate, one of the saintly trainers mentioned above, came to my home to help a bit with some additional training.  She seemed surprised that I would even attempt a solo walk so soon after getting home.  “Nobody told me not to…”  I mumbled humbly.  “Well, don’t,” she replied.

Kate and I worked a route to our local diner and back.  She showed me a number of refinements to my dog skills and, when she returned two weeks later, seemed quite pleased with my progress.  Susan and I go to the diner for breakfast pretty often and the X-Dog has grown quite confident with the route.

Kate will return at least once more to help me with a few other problem areas.  Xcelerator and I have done a few solo walks and, surprisingly, I find that the extra training and practice has really helped.  

Our house, however, now has a patina of dog hair.  It seems that no matter how often we brush the dogs or vacuum the rugs, the dogs will have a new layer of hair over them within two hours.  It’s a good thing that my allergies don’t include dogs.

As our relationship and bond has grown stronger, both the X-Dog and I have grown much more confident with each other.  Our travels go much faster and I’m gradually growing accustom to walking so fast without a safety net.  


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