Visually Impaired: Now What?

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"Have Dog, Will Travel" Book Review

Editor's note: This review was originally posted on VisionAware peer advisor Susan Kennedy's website, Adventures in Low Vision. It contains snippets from that review and is part of the VisionAware bookshelf series.

Book Draws the Reader In Through Its Opening About Author's Guide Dog

A white guide dog in its working harness

Have Dog, Will Travel, A Poet's Journey is not the first book I encountered by Stephen Kuusisto, but it’s the first one I finished. From the opening scene, as he contemplates what it’s like to work with a guide dog, I wanted to know more. He vividly describes the flow of teamwork, the partnership of handler and guide dog. But this book isn’t just about Kuusisto’s first guide, Corky. The book is about his journey of accepting blindness, too.

Journey of Accepting Blindness

As the story unfolds, Kuusisto includes mistakes and interactions that humanize him and keep this from being one of those hero tropes. He admits his denial about blindness and showing vulnerability until age 38 when his teaching job ended. He had lived in an insular world of his construction. This didn’t make me judge him; it led me to want to know why.

Solid white cane skills of orientation are the foundation on which guide dog handling builds upon. Kuusisto must learn cane skills, or there will be no dog.

Overcoming Parental Doubts

Sharing his plans with his mother, a woman sidetracked in homemaking but more by her love affair with alcohol, the reader witnesses a missed opportunity for support. When told of the impending visit to guide dog school, his mother is not pleased: "People will know you’re on the fritz," she said.
"On the fritz? You mean like a household appliance," Kuusisto asks.
"Yes. You should never let people see you’re defective. They’ll think less of you."

It reminds me of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) tagline, "blindness isn’t what holds us back." Clearly, Kuusisto goes forward with his plans; otherwise, there would be no Corky, no book.

At the Guide Dog School

He goes on to my favorite parts of the book, the time at guide dog school. He illuminates the whole process, from the roles of loving puppy raisers to the trainers who match you by stride and pace to an available dog, to the dogs who make the cut and why. He weaves in history of guide dogs in America as well as some disability rights history. I doubt a general audience is aware of these things.


Now, this brings me to a criticism. Kuusisto indulges other tangents throughout the narrative by referencing characters in mythology and whatnot. His poet mind must be full of these kinds of things, but after a few mentions, I was over it. Yes, you’re professorial; you don’t have to keep proving it. Furthermore, the meaningful parts of the story are strong enough without the literary flourishes.

Book Educates and Fills a Void of Knowledge

Overall, Kuusisto’s experiences, both at school as well as his wide travels later, do much to educate in an entertaining way. As I finished the book, I realized it filled a void. Years ago, I read another book by a man who used a guide dog and lived through the evacuation of one of the twin towers on 9/11. His book ended up being more of a memoir of the man rather than a trip into guide dog handling, which is fine, but it was not what I expected. Kuusisto’s book answered those leftover questions and left me with a greater respect for all of the work involved with service animals.

Corky and Kuusisto hit their stride and so did Have Dog, Will Travel. A man embraces his blindness and the fascinating work with his guide dog that follows is well worth reading.

Have Dog, Will Travel is available through Amazon as an audible book and is narrated by Fred Sanders.

More Book Reviews

Read more reviews on the VisionAware Bookshelf series

Getting Around
Low Vision
Personal Reflections
Social Life and Recreation

Camping with Low Vision

Editor's note: As spring begins to blossom, our thoughts turn to enjoying the outdoors again after the winter months. Beckie Horter talks about the joys of camping, listening to the call of animals, and sitting by the campfire....Enjoy!

woman sitting beside camping trailer looking out at flowing water

Grab a lawn chair and come sit by the campfire a while. The night is cold, and the fire is warm. It’s only us here, unless you count the frogs by the pond or the geese honking overhead. On second thought, yes, let’s count them! Though I may not actually see them, they are an important part of the scenery up here on the hill.

Their company is one of the reasons I love this spot. Along with the call of the barn owls (and maybe some coyotes!), we’ll have plenty of exciting noises to wonder about.

It’s all part of the camping scene I look forward to every year. Low vision does not lessen my enjoyment of these experiences. In fact, it may even enhance them.

I find the warmth and smell of the wood fire comforting, the sounds of the animals fascinating, and grilling outdoors delicious!

Camping Quarters, Not Rustic

Before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify what I mean by "camping." While there are many ways to enjoy the great outdoors, for me, the camping quarters are strictly modern and never rustic.

After I listen to those sounds, I retreat to the safety of my travel trailer with all the amenities of home. Heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, stove/oven, shower, toilet, and queen-size beds. Even heated mattresses!

The wildlife feel doesn’t completely stop once inside, though. Due to the tent ends on our trailer, I have been known to wake up to the sound of something crashing through the woods nearby. Deer? Bear? Again, I couldn’t say, but I will ask my camping buddy/husband in the morning if he heard it, too.

One sound there’s no question about is rain on the tent canvas. Just like rain on a tin roof, water plunking on tent ends is an unmistakeable sound. At times, loud, but also soothing. As long as I stay dry inside, I can enjoy the noise and be a happy camper. If it decides to hail (as it has a few times), I may need to take cover under the hard roof. So be it!

Making Memories

It all becomes part of a memorable trip. Over the years, I have learned to record these outings in a journal for later reading.

"Take only memories, leave only footprints," said the Suquamish Indian Chief Seattle. I understand him to mean, enjoy the land and leave it unspoiled. My journaling reminds me of the footprints I left and the experiences I had.

Making memories is a big part of what camping is all about. That and appreciating God’s creation.

Spending time outdoors has always been therapeutic for me. Ever since I was a girl sitting high up in a tree watching the world go by, I have discovered that nothing recharges my spirit like the natural world.

Another way my husband and I take in the outdoors is through biking on trails close to the campground. With my low vision, these are the only places I feel safe riding; however, we have found some great ones over the years. Trails near water are fun as are paved, wooded paths where my leisurely pace is no problem at all.

Or, we may decide to take a car ride through the country, looking at mountains and stopping by a roadside stand for juicy, red strawberries.

If the pool isn’t crowded, there may be time for a swim before dinner, which is cooked outdoors, of course. Since the produce is summer fresh, the meal is sure to be tasty.

From mid-April through late-October, our travels take us north, south, east, and west. But any direction we go, the way back always leads to a campfire. There I will sit, listening to the wildlife, thinking back on the day’s adventure, and planning the next one in the not-too-distant future.

More About Enjoying the Great Outdoors

Back to Nature with Vision Loss

Hiking with Vision Loss

Spring Chorus of Twitters and Tweets

Arts and Leisure
Getting Around
Low Vision
Personal Reflections
Social Life and Recreation

Designing a Public Bathroom for Ease of Navigation

In this post, it's not necessary to provide one more "frantic public restroom" nightmare. We have included several examples in the post "Tips on Navigating Public Bathrooms with a Vision Impairment." You probably sighed and said, "Been there, done that," or just laughed out loud because you could identify completely with the situation. Even so, you have learned, no doubt, many good tips to try the next time you must venture into a public restroom.

Diagram of a high contrast bathroom sink - a white sink on a dark red counter top

Meaning of Universal Design

But wouldn't it be wonderful to walk into the public restrooms at the airport, movie theater, doctor's office, restaurant, etc. and know that all of them had the same layout? This concept is known as universal design, conceived at North Carolina State University College of Design in 1989. Universal design seems so simple when you consider the definition: a design that can be used by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. More specifically, as it relates to public restrooms, universal design refers to an environment that can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability. Simply put, in every public restroom, the stalls would always face in the same direction, the toilet paper dispensers would always be on the right side of the stall, and the flushing mechanisms would always be a button two feet above the toilet on the wall or sensor activated. You could confidently walk into a public restroom and always find the lavatories just inside the door facing the center of the room. And imagine always finding the soap dispenser on the wall between two lavatories—bowl-shape set in a solid counter with paper towels just above the soap dispenser and a hole in the counter between the lavatories to discard the used paper towels.

Development of Design Guidelines for the Visual Environment

Prior to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there were no enforceable accessibility standards for architectural modifications for maximizing accessibility and safety for people with disabilities. However, even the ADA standards provide only minimum requirements, such as wheelchair ramps, sizes of accessible restroom stalls, heights of lavatories and paper towel dispensers, and braille labels on restroom doors to accommodate individuals with disabilities. In May 2015, the National Institute of Building Sciences issued the Design Guideline Manual for the Visual Environment, including low vision guidelines for public restrooms. If implemented by architects and builders, their assessment and recommendations would be extremely helpful for individuals with limited but usable vision. Below are several excerpts from those guidelines.

  • Colors of wall, counter, and floor surfaces should contrast with those of the toilets, lavatories, and all other plumbing fixtures.
  • Walls of toilet partitions should contrast with walls and floors of the restroom.
  • White toilet, lavatory, and other plumbing fixtures which are easier to keep clean and replace are also easier to identify against darker backgrounds.
  • Faucets and flush valves with brushed chrome, nickel, or pewter rather than polished chrome reduce glare.
  • Toilet paper and toilet seat cover holders, paper towel, and soap dispensers may be located more easily when their finishes contrast with the walls and counters.
  • Full-length mirrors may be mistaken for doorways by persons with low vision if the mirrors are located where a door might be expected, such as the entrance to a public restroom.
  • Ambient lighting for restrooms should cover all areas evenly, including toilet stalls and foyer-like entrances to avoid shadows and dark areas that create discomfort and confusion because of the decrease in visual functioning.
  • Vanity lighting at mirrors should avoid glare while illuminating the vanity surface and the face of the user.

Currently, no law adequately addresses the principles of universal design. In the Design Guidelines for the Visual Environment, the National Institute of Building Sciences gives us a glimmer of hope that someday universal design of public restrooms and other public facilities may be as common as wheelchair ramps, accessible restroom stalls, and braille on doors and elevators, if we are as diligent as our predecessors were at obtaining passage of the ADA.

Additional Information

Simple Home Improvements for the Vision Impaired

Bathroom Home Modification

Bathroom Safety Tips

Orientation and Mobility Skills

Getting Around
Home modification
Low Vision

Tips on Navigating Public Bathrooms with a Vision Impairment

By Peer Advisors Empish J. Thomas and Lynda Jones

row of stalls in public bath

About a month ago VisionAware received an awkward but important question on the message boards. The person wanted to know about the best ways to access public bathrooms. Of course, going to the bathroom is something that we all must do but trying to figure out where everything is in a bathroom facility can be embarrassing, frustrating, and uncomfortable when you have a vision impairment. In an attempt to respond to the question, the VisionAware peers had a lively conversation about our own challenges when Mother Nature calls. We talked among ourselves about the lack of universal design and strategies we use to best deal with this delicate and sensitive topic sprinkling it with a bit of humor and laughter. During the discussion, I shared about a previous post titled "My Navigational Dance in the Bathroom." In that post, I used song and dance to explain how I navigated public bathrooms. We all agreed it was time to revisit this topic and share this information. We hope that this post will benefit others who are grappling with the same dilemma. Below are comments from some of the peers. In addition, Lynda Jones has written a separate post on universal design and how that relates to public bathrooms.

Take a Moment to Orient Yourself to the Bathroom

By Lynda Jones, Vision Rehabilitation Therapist

public bath with sink and paper towels

There is very little that is predictable about public bathrooms, and places like airports sometimes have 15 or 20 stalls including the "handicap" stalls. As guide dog users know, it's much easier to get around in public restrooms, but it can still be tricky. Now that I'm back to using a white cane, I usually step aside and stop when I enter the restroom. To get my orientation, I listen for the sound of toilets flushing, water running in the sinks, or the dryers when present. This doesn't solve all of the problems, but it helps. Often, by the time I've gathered my information, some nice lady has asked if I need assistance. At other times, I use my charm (LOL) and humor and ask for assistance. I don't recommend that a husband or male companion go into a restroom with a female unless it's a single bathroom. Even then, the man could look in and tell her where everything is located. That's another good reason for using a cane. Then you can locate the toilet, sink, and trash can. Locating the soap and paper towel dispensers, as we all know, can be an adventure that leads to frustration.

Ask for Help

By Maxwell Ivey

I think this is one of those areas where the solution won’t be found in the kind of bathroom we use; I personally find that this is one of those things where I just have to ask for help and trust the other person to be just as afraid of or disgusted by a dirty toilet seat. I have never been refused when asking these questions in a men’s restroom, and I would assume that women would be even more understanding. I understand the fear is real. I wish someone could come up with a good answer.

By Audrey Demmitt

I think it is worth mentioning that it is very likely there will be someone in the ladies room who will offer help finding the stall door, paper towels, soap dispenser, etc. That is my experience anyway. One time, while I was a cane user, I literally got "lost" in a public bathroom at the airport—notorious for chrome, glare, and all one color decor! I could not find my way out, and a kind woman noticed I was getting frustrated. She came up to me and asked if she could be of help, and she guided me out. Phew! She saved my dignity. This is also a good argument for using a white cane as an "identifier"—people see it and offer help.

Now, as a guide dog user, I can command my dog to find the "door," and she is trained to take me to the large stall that accommodates both of us. Then, she will take me to the sink. I can usually find soap and get the water on...can't always find the towels though, so I just dry my hands in the air!

Use a Guide Dog

By DeAnna Quietwater Noriega

A lot of the decisions I make depend on whether the public restroom is crowded or empty; whether it is a large room with several stalls or a single accessible bathroom. If I am using a white cane, I use it to explore either type if they are empty. I work to train my guide dog to look for the handicapped accessible stall in multi-stall restrooms. This gives me the room for my dog to stay with me. If that isn’t available, I back him in, and if there is room to get him beside the commode, I can then close the door. If there isn’t sufficient space, I will have him lie down and then close the door while he is low enough to close it over his front end. I also teach him to locate the sink on command. And I teach him to find the trash bins. If I am concerned about cleanliness, I do one of two things. I always carry hand sanitizer in my purse to use once I return to a restaurant. I also use the restaurant employee method if it is a single room accessible restroom. I locate the fixtures first by exploring. If there are paper towels, I roll one down first thing. Then I take care of my needs, wash my hands, dry them on the previously rolled down paper towel, use it to flush toilets, turn off the water, and open door before dropping it in the trash. By using the used paper towel to touch faucet handles, flush buttons or handles, and doorknobs, I keep my hands clean after washing. If the restroom is crowded, I ask for assistance so as not to cut ahead of anyone or miss my turn. If the restroom is large, I step inside, pause, and listen for clues like running water in sinks, toilets flushing, etc. to orient myself.

Use a Family Bathroom

By Empish J. Thomas

sign saying companion care and with symbols of woman and man and arrow pointing toward bath

I am out and about often and have learned a thing or two about public bathrooms. First of all, I try to make sure to never wait until the last minute to go. Being in a tight is never a pleasant situation and then on top of that trying to figure out an unfamiliar bathroom can be a set up for a very bad situation. I always look for a "family" bathroom first. This type of bathroom is an individual bathroom with everything you need in one room, and you can lock yourself inside. It is typically one perfect square, so I find that I can navigate it very easily. If that is not available, then I will trail my white cane into a regular bathroom. Usually, stalls are either on the left or right. I go for the smaller stall as it is easier for me to find everything that I need. Before locking the door, I double check for toilet tissue. Most of the time sinks are right outside the stall, but if they are not, I listen for running water or the hand dryers blowing. I will feel around to see if the sink is manual or electronic. I also feel around to see if the soap is on the mirror or next to the sink. The challenge is always finding the paper towels. They never seem to be in the same or most obvious place! Then, the next challenge is retracing my steps to the door. Sometimes I can remember, but if I am having a "senior moment," I might have to trail my cane around or ask a person who might be in the bathroom with me.

public family bath showing toilet, sink, grab bar

Avoid Germs by Coming Prepared

By Steven J. Wilson

The stress can be such that fears may prevent one from even touching anything public facility related, let alone touch a flushing handle or button. Sit on a toilet? Reprehensible! Yeah, yeah...liners or even lining with toilet paper are not enough protection for some. The fear is very real.

I only use a restroom that is well maintained when and if at all possible. I am such a germaphobe. Here is what I mean by this. In the past, I used my foot to flush the toilets and my elbow for the stand-up urinals. I especially appreciate the sinks with the long, protruding paddle handles I can turn on and off with an elbow. Today, for the planned trips, I bring along antibacterial towelettes. For the unplanned or unexpected trips and I must use a public facility, I go straight to the paper towel dispenser, grab half a dozen sheets, and use as a barrier. I use these for everything, from touching toilet handles to the faucet sink. Of course, I use soap and water most liberally when done and towel dry before exiting. I even use these for the door handle on the way out. There are usually trash receptacles nearby to dispose of my paper barrier. If not, I'll simply fold that last paper towel I used for the door handle I exited from and place into my back pocket until I can find a wastebasket.

Oh, by the way, the trash receptacles make a distinctive sound when tapping with a cane. I also try tapping the walls near the sinks for those receptacles that are built in flush with the walls. Some might consider me a noisy restroom user with all my tapping while others present will notice and ask me if I'm looking for the waste bin. They are usually kind enough to inform me where it is.

Learn Orientation and Mobility Skills

By Shannon Carollo, Orientation and Mobility Specialist and Program Manager of FamilyConnect

Picture of older man learning to use cane from orientation and mobility instructor

From an orientation and mobility specialist's point of view, the best friend of blind/visually impaired people in a public restroom is the white cane. The individual should work with an orientation and mobility specialist to learn to utilize the cane to locate the precise location of the toilet, toilet paper, general sink area, and bathroom door to exit. The person would likely hold the cane upright, tip on the ground, and use it in a motion similar to a windshield wiper.

The person can also grab a little extra toilet paper to use when searching for the handle and grab a little extra paper towel when searching for the opening of the bathroom door. The person may even want to bring their own little towel for drying hands/opening the door with minimal contact to germs. This was the norm when I lived in Japan, and I think it is a useful tip for an individual who is blind or visually impaired. I also suggest carrying hand sanitizer or wipes.

Additional Information

Bathroom Home Modification

Bathroom Safety Tips

Orientation and Mobility Skills

Getting Around
Home modification
Low Vision
Personal Reflections

Cardelia Cunningham: She Keeps on Overcoming

Editor's note: In honor of Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Appreciation Week, we are publishing an article about Cardelia Cunningham, VRT, retired, and former employee of the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services. Ms. Cunningham epitomizes what the vision rehabilitation therapist is all about as a dedicated, hard-working individual who fulfilled her goals despite many adversities and who inspires others to take up the work. This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of DIALOGUE Magazine, copyright 2017 by Blindskills Inc.

Cardelia Cunningham: She Keeps On Overcoming

by Empish J. Thomas, VisionAware Peer Advisor

No Shrinking Violet

Cardelia Cunningham is no shrinking violet. She has overcome numerous challenges since childhood and has somehow bounced back from each one. She battled with vision loss for the majority of her childhood, successfully took on college after 20 years as a single mom, earned success in her chosen field, had to give up that career because of poor health, and that's only the beginning of her story.

She credits her faith in God with helping her to overcome all of these challenges in her life. "If Jesus is my partner, how can I fail?"

Headshot of Cardelia Cunningham smiling at the camera

Diagnosed with Uveitis

Cunningham has lived most of her life in Florence, Alabama, a mostly rural community in the northwest part of the state near the Tennessee border. She began to lose her vision gradually when she was in the sixth grade. By the end of her teen years, she was completely blind. She was diagnosed with sarcoid uveitis, which causes inflammation in the middle of the eye, called the uveal tract. The uveal tract contains veins and arteries that transport blood to the parts of the eye that are critical for vision.

"I was the only one in my family with the condition," she said. "The doctors didn't really know where it came from or how I got it." The condition was very painful, and her family had little to no medical insurance for treatment. She recalls that she probably could have gotten more assistance but her father was a proud man and wouldn't accept it. She made a decision long ago not to dwell on that and to move on.

Cunningham was determined to go to school and brought a "homemade heating pad" with her. During class breaks, she would go to the bathroom and run hot water over a washcloth to place on her eyes to relieve the pain. Although she had no accommodations, she graduated from high school in 1972.

Raising a Family On Her Own Without Vision Rehabilitation Services

No one raised the subject of college with her, so she mistakenly thought that blind and visually impaired people could not go. After high school, Cunningham got married and began to raise a family. The marriage was short-lived, and she quickly became a single mom raising her two sons on her own.

Cunningham managed the best way she could without vision rehabilitation training. She recalls that she had no mobility training (travel skills) at all. "I had no clue how to cross the street," she said. "I would walk as much as four miles to get somewhere because we had no public transportation."

Going to College and Becoming a Social Worker

It was not until 20 years later when her sons were in college that Cunningham was approached about going to college herself. She says she was afraid because she had never heard of a person with vision loss attending college. Her vocational rehabilitation counselor encouraged her and provided mobility instruction from her home to the University of North Alabama.

Now armed with white cane travel techniques and accommodations for classwork, she built up her skills and self-confidence by walking to school every day. "It was a good experience with my classmates and professors," she said. "They were helpful, and I made a lot of friends." She also came away with a degree in social work.

Getting a Job with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services

Before finishing college in 1996, Cunningham met her second husband, and they got married. She had found a job in Decatur, Alabama, but it was 50 miles away—too far for her husband to drive her. She was able to make a carpooling arrangement with a person who lived nearby. That enabled her to make an employment connection which lasted for the next 19 years. She worked as a rehabilitation therapist for the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation services until illness forced her to retire in 2016.

Getting Her Master's Degree in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy

During those years, she took advantage of a fellowship at Florida State University to earn a Master's in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy in 2003. Eventually, she was able to transfer from the Decatur office to the Muscle Shoals office making her commute to work only five miles.

"Teaching and seeing people change right in front of you is what I loved most about being a VRT," Cunningham reflected. "It is amazing to see that. Because I am blind myself, I know what it feels like to be at those progressive stages of vision loss." But Cunningham also notes the challenges of being a VRT: "What I use to dislike is the casework, the paper and paper and paper; but it had to be done, so you get it done."

Becoming a Go-To Person for Information and Resources

As a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, she managed a heavy caseload, which covered five rural counties, conducted training classes at the center, launched five support groups, and served as an active member of various professional associations, such as the special education advisory council. She also became well known in the field and, through word of mouth, people would contact her for information, resources, and assistance. "The field is so dynamic. You have to be in constant learning mode; otherwise, you won't be as effective as a teacher," she said. "You have to suggest things to your centers and consumers, and you have to keep up with what is happening in the field."

Diagnosed with Kidney Failure and Getting a New Kidney

In 2014, she was diagnosed with kidney failure. While still working, she started dialysis. "The heavy caseload was just a part of the job. Funding was tight, and my illness caused me to not be as effective as I could have been," she recalled.

During the first month of her dialysis treatment, a remarkable thing occurred. Her paratransit driver, who had just started with the company, offered to be tested as a donor when she learned of Cunningham's need. The test proved a match, and today, Cunningham has a new kidney.

Launching a Nonprofit Business: Low Vision No Vision

Now, Cardelia Cunningham is moving toward her next career goal of launching a nonprofit business. Her organization is called Cunningham Consulting: Low Vision No Vision. She wants to offer services to people who are new to vision loss—services that focus on adjusting to vision loss, low-tech skills, and independent living skills. She also wants to do public education training and workshops where she can teach the general public how to interact with people who are blind.

Cunningham is filing for 501(c)(3) status and feels confident that her business will be successful. "I have been networking and made many connections over the years," she explained. "Also, because I am a licensed social worker and VRT, I can locate resources and services for people."

She says for those who are interested in becoming a VRT, the need is great, and there is much opportunity. "There is an influx of baby boomers, and we are working in a shortage right now. We need people that care, and people that want to help blind people improve their lives because the need is out there."

Additional Information

More Information About Vision Rehabilitation Therapists

How I Became a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist

Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Video

Low Vision
Personal Reflections

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