A DIFFERENT VIEW - Winter mobility a challenge for the blind


After 16 days of training at The Seeing Eye Inc. in Morristown, N.J., my friend Joleen and her new guide dog Puffin were flying home to Walla Walla.

Though the class was excellent, it was intensive, at times stressful. Joleen knew the real test would come the first few weeks after graduation. Her instructor told students to go straight home and walk a well known route that day if possible.

"I'll be home soon," Joleen thought as her jet flew west. But a wild mid-January snow and ice storm was ravaging Washington state, and she and Puffin weren't going to be able to make it all the way home that day.

"The next leg of your trip has been cancelled," Joleen heard as she entered the Sea-Tac terminal. "We can schedule you for the evening flight."

She chose a hotel rather than chance that option, a flight that later was cancelled. She wanted to minimize Puffin's stress and take her out of the busy airport while hotel rooms were still available.

The next day, a Friday, her plane left Seattle, but after circling Walla Walla for three aborted landings it returned to Sea-Tac. Again, Joleen had to reschedule the flight, find a relief area for Puffin, retrieve baggage, reserve a hotel room and find the shuttle. People in the airport assist passengers with special needs, and Joleen and Puffin have several workers to thank.

One thing Joleen learned about Puffin was that she is not crazy about flying, and the final flight included a bumpy takeoff and landing - but it did take her to her new home.

It is the blind person who must give directions to the dog and it is the dog that must follow them without bumping the person into anything. The person chooses to begin a street crossing and the dog who decides if an oncoming vehicle will be an immediate danger.

But during her airport and hotel stay, Joleen was unfamiliar with her surroundings and had difficulty giving directions to find the restaurant and other locations in the large facility.

Arriving home, it was still not possible for Joleen to take well-known routes for another four days because snow and ice blanketed the Valley.

During the same time, my guide Randy and I were also stranded - in our home - due to the winter storm.

Though county roads had been plowed, our road remained covered in several inches of ice and snow; there was no way for either of us to determine the road's shoulder.

I cleared our back sidewalk, the path to the dog relief pad and the dog pad, hoping for a thaw. But instead we had freezing rain. By that night the dog relief pad plus the path to it were glare ice - ready for skating but I had no skates.

Then sleet fell along with more freezing rain and the ice grew steadily deeper. The snow crusted over so much that Randy and I could walk on top with only occasionally breaking through the slick surface. The route to the relief pad and out our driveway to the mail box remained sheer ice.

Randy would guide me and pause to look back when I slid and almost fell; he seemed to be asking what my trouble was since he was not having much problem. Yet there were times when even Randy found his feet slipping out from under him while trying to relieve himself, especially when standing on only three legs.

I was fortunate, for the only time I fell I had an easy landing with not even a sore spot to show for it.

After five days our road was still an icy mess but the more traveled roads were free. Still the road's shoulders remained covered with snow and ice, allowing no room for a guide team to walk.

Finally after 10 ice-bound days Randy and I set out for another wonderful walk, and what a great walk it was.

Such is the life with a guide dog during winter. We really appreciate the dog's great help but just as with the sighted folk, walking on ice and snow is not easy. Amazingly, though, with experience, our dogs seem to learn the danger that ice affords and learn to slow down or circumnavigate the icy patches.

Ernie Jones, a registered nurse who retired due to vision loss, can be reached at 529-9252 or at theolcrow@charter.net.


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