I am Here (#CripTheVote)

In the author's openpalm is a circular, unused sticker displaying the image of a red, white, and blue cartoon American flag and the words "I Voted" in blue, block lettering below on a white background.

Today, I demanded to be heard. I stood in front of you, awkward, blushing, annoyed with your surprise at seeing me here, angry with my mother – because she let her anger with you flow freely, and me too busy with holding my own anger back, jealous of her freedom.

“What do you want me to do?” I ask. Subtly telling you that I am here. Me. I. Do not speak to my mom. Do not give her instructions.

You repeated yourself: “Have her put her signature here.” After the second attempt of me signing my name – “Have her write right there,” and “She has to push harder with the pen.” – someone remembers that they have a signature guide. I am instructed on how to use it; the irony doesn’t escape me.

My subtlety never seems to be blunt enough. Or, it is too rude – not polite enough. I am always one or the other. Too quiet or too loud.

Later, as we walk out, I laugh it off. Telling my mom – who is still furious – not to worry, that it’s okay. The sunglasses hide my eyes tearing and my smile hides me pushing my tongue and holding it down.

I am furious.

I try to tell myself that I was unexpected. It was the woman’s first time and I was – clearly – the first blind voter she’s ever had to sign in. It could have been worse.

It doesn’t help. From the lady who told my mom – not me – to follow the arrows, rudely interrupting me when I tried to ask for actual directions, to the couple of women behind the sign-in desk that had no idea what to do with me and how to deal with me, to the children running around, not listening to me when I said DO-NOT-TOUCH-THE-DOG, and to the man who refused to take a “I’ve got it, you don’t have to help me,” as evidence to GO-AWAY-I-CAN-TAKE-IT-FROM-HERE.

Telling myself that I voted, I was heard, I am here and have proof that I am here doesn’t help.
I could write a post about the struggles and triumphs the disabled community has had when fighting for the right to vote. I could write about how I am not sure the candidates I voted for will actually remember us (not just when using us as an example or feel-good moment), recognize that we are here and we want – should – be heard, and realize that health care – although important – isn’t the only thing we care about: equal access to education, justice, employment, housing, and society; we are more than disabled, our lives and bodies intersect with all areas of life.

The fact of the matter is: it is all the same – rather, it begins in the same place.

People with disabilities are disabled and only disabled. Until we stop being “unexpected”, nothing will change. All stories will have the same starting point, the same hope, the same struggles.

She stands with an "I Voted" sticker in her left hand. She is wearing black sunglasses, a sleeveless top with vertical white and coral colored stripes, blue jeans, and black sandals. Her curls are swept to the side. She is standing in front of a poster that reads: "Orange County Supervisor of Elections; EARLY VOTING CENTER". Sitting in front of her is a golden retriever seeing eye dog, who is looking at the camera.

Freedom

The Seeing Eye harness, black background

Today is not just your birthday but our anniversary. It’s been three years. Three short years since we first met. Working with you has been freedom; I am not grounded when walking with you, I am soaring, I am untouchable, in flight – and the only thing that connects me to Earth is the smell and sound of the environment…and you: the pull of your harness, the turn and direction of your body; informing me to slow down, speed up, turn left, turn right, there is a door, a curb, a bench, the Publix bakery, a hallway, my favorite chair at the university library, home.

 

This is not to say walking with a cane is not freedom. Having complete control over your movements, knowing as much of your surroundings, making sure to stay in contact with landmarks that will inform you to turn soon, turn now, wrong area – turn around…this is freedom too.

Me sitting at a fountain wearing an orange shirt and blue jeans with Sadie sitting next to me looking towards the sun. Behind us is the blue water in the fountain and some strollers for people at the outlet mall to use. Beyond that, some bushes and ttrees just starting to get their leaves back and a tall brick building against ablue sky

However, with you I am in constant flight. The skills I use with my cane take me to the next level with you. I do not trip, my feet are in constant motion, never stumbling. My hand is steady, they do not tremble with second guessing (did I miss that landmark?). I am just as confident with you than with my cane; head held high, back straight, body direction forward.

 

There is also a quickness and a sense of security with you. If there is a crowd that I need to walk through, a flick of the wrist and a command, you will lead me through it – and not once will I bump into bodies, trip over feet and other objects. I am turned around and need to find my way back, the turn of my body, a flick of the wrist, a command, and you will take me there. The buildings are too far apart and there is a wide-open space separating them, there is no landmarks that I can find to tell me that my body direction is correct but with a flick of the wrist and a command, you will take me there.

Me with my hair down wearing a yellow T-shirt and blue jean shorts with white sneakers walking Sadie at Lake Eola. We're on a sidewalk in front of some green grass and willow trees. Sadie is looking at something interesting to the right of the camera

It hasn’t always been easy. Our bodies haven’t always walked as partners: I didn’t trust you at first, always second guessing your direction, instruction, and feedback of the environment; you, who can be playful and compliant out of harness, refused to listen to me, to follow my commands, you knew where you were going, so there was no need for me to tell you anything.

 

I cried during training. I thought it was a mistake to give up my cane and pick up a harness. I was so nervous that you would do something un-service animal like that would cause people around me to judge me, judge you, judge the Seeing Eye. I imagined running into doors, walls, tripping over things, I imagined you taking food off of plates and out of trash cans, I imagined you jumping on people, barking when in classrooms, chasing after squirrels and birds. I doubted myself, would I have the strength to correct you in public when you did something wrong?

 

Things, of course, did get better. While in training, you started to listen to me more. I became more comfortable with you – and with the harness. I made mistakes and so did you – luckily, I was in good company, people who were in training for the first time, telling me the same fears and doubts I had, and there were people there for the second, third, eighth time, telling me about the times they felt as if they weren’t going to be good handlers, telling me the different ways they made mistakes.

Me in sunglasses with my hair hanging down over my left shoulder wearing a white off-the-shoulder sweater that reads "Believe in Love" with black pants and sandals next to my luggage at Orlando International Airport. Sadie is laying down between my feet as she waits to see her new home for the first time

We graduated from training. And some of my fears did come to pass.

 

At the university, I learned quickly not to let you use the bathroom on thick grass because you would eat it. It was Florida and September and the second week of school – so hot and busy and loud – and since I had my hands full of things, I decided to put you on long leash and let you do your thing. Standing there, sweating and weighted down with books, a laptop, your bowls and bag of food and a few bottles of water – for me and you – I wondered what was taking so long. “Park time,” I repeated. The leash didn’t move. “Park time.” Nothing. Then, from behind me, a man asks his friend, “Dude, why is she telling her dog to eat grass?” I was embarrassed. I am able to laugh about it now but back then I felt as if I didn’t know what I was doing.

 

You don’t grab food from plates or trashcans, but you do love napkins and wadded bits of paper – receipts, notebook paper, essays. I learned this because in one of my psychology courses, there was a young woman who loved to look at you. She would coo at you and make kissing noises. To my pride, not once did you look her way, you did not return any of her kisses. But she had a half of a hamburger that she wanted to give to you. Without knowing it at the time, she placed the hamburger on a napkin and placed it in front you. I didn’t know she did it until I heard you chomping a way. Napkin in your mouth and burger ignored on the floor.

 

There were quite a few service animals on campus and you ignored every single one of them, until they licked your paws, rubbed against your side and sniffed you. You would say a quick hello back; you were working and didn’t have time for playing or conversing.

Sadie laying on her bed with a red ball in her mouth with an expression of "no cameras, please" in front of the fully-ornamented Christmas tree and wrapped presents

I was noticed more. Being a blind woman, I am used to the glances and comments from people, but with you, their glances were longer and their comments were louder. With the cane, people would usually get out of the way – no one wants to get their ankles hit – but with you, a small, fluffy, golden retriever, there was no hesitation in blocking the way so they can have that quick pat, a conversation – with you – about you. People love the way you look and watching you work; without asking, they take pictures and videos of you. You are on Instagram and SnapChat – despite me not having an account, you are a photo on Facebook posts – despite me not knowing them.

 

It took a while to move fluidly. There were quite a few times in the beginning where my body direction and my commands were in complete opposites. You would choose one and we would trip over each other’s legs. You would choose another and I would correct you. And there were times you wouldn’t move at all. Our walk is better too; we do not walk head to head – my body is behind your ribs. We do not race one another, you are the guide.

 

I am comfortable with you now. I am quick to repeat a command if you need a reminder. I am also quick with a correction if you need it. When you stop and refuse to go any further, I fix my body direction, if that doesn’t work, then there is something in the way.

 

You and I are more in tandem now. I move with your body and you move with mine. You follow my commands and I trust you will get me there, even if it feels as if you are going the wrong way. We are perfect together. I am extremely light sensitive, and you will always choose to walk in the shade rather than the sun. You are up for a cuddle just asMe in my white sunglasses with my hair cascading down over my goldenrod colored shirt and shite pants. I'm kneeling down for the puppy love as she goes to lick my nose, and behind us are some yachts and trees, and even some of the Orlando skyline farther away much as a quick nap or a few hours of play.