Imagine that instead of seeing cherished, vivid sunset views, that now you see only fuzzy light toward the western sky that could disappear if you turn your head slightly. If you were to lose your freedom of independent movement, would you venture out at all to shop for groceries, knowing the event would make you a public spectacle? I imagine I would feel a sense of loss, grief, frustration and fear if my world were devoid of the visual stimuli to which I have been accustomed. Traveling Blind, written by Susan Krieger, gives a personal account as she travels with her partner and guide dog throughout the American Southwest. The bigger picture is the story of her journey as she loses her sight and learns to navigate independently in spite of a degenerative disease.
Susan's narrative warrants an audience because she shares her reflections as her vision deteriorates and she gains new insights into her life coping with a disability that threatens to limit her independence and change her identity. She reexamines her self-identity because of the constant intrusion of strangers' perceptions of her "invisible disability." Legally blind, Susan is preoccupied with what she can still see in front of her face. Using telescopic lenses or magnifying glass, she relies on the limited sensory input she retains. She doesn't fit a stereotype. Her vision is impaired, not totally absent. Hers is a keen paradox; she still can see some things, sometimes. She is faced with the conundrum of not wanting to draw attention to her difference, but her guide dog and her queries to strangers when she needs help attract great interest and often unwanted attention. The author is courageous to share her fears and shifting reality.
The account of her journey en route to the Big Hachet Mountains, though offering a detailed visual description of the desert southwest, did not engage me as much as later chapters. I felt I was on a tedious road trip, destined to join the trio at each rest stop, visit the bathroom and check in to each hotel. Then it occurred to me that in her world of shrinking vision, her focus tended toward close-up details.
Because a major theme of the book is how the public behaved towards her and her dog, this book is educational for a general audience on how to behave in the presence of service dogs of any kind. The dogs are working. The person with a service dog, whether you can see the disability or not, is simply trying to navigate independently through life. Sadly in this instance, Susan's loss of vision equates with loss of privacy because of her choice in using a guide dog. Strangers constantly remark, approach and reproach her as she exercises her independence.
Admirably, the author speaks up for people with "invisible disabilities." Also her message conveys that a service dog is not a pet, nor a robot that is programmed to work. The symbiosis of handler and dog is an intricate dance, requiring the dog handler to focus on the needs of the dog and her own needs simultaneously. Even with a guide dog, the author struggles to get around by herself. I look forward to the day that the public understands that assistance dogs are doing their jobs, and that interference only makes personal freedom harder to come by for people with disabilities.
Her inclusion of a literature review at the end of the book is a valuable resource on the topic of women and disabilities.
Susan Krieger, Ph.D. teaches in the Program in Feminist Studies at Stanford University. She has previously published Things No Longer There: A Memoir of Losing Sight and Finding Vision (2005). She employs personal ethnography in qualitative research. Read more about her on the Stanford website.
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