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On the Road with Barry: Gainesville

Day 1

Travel to north central Florida from Houston means a trip through Atlanta. Connections were all good, the plane train didn’t disappoint, nor did the automated soap dispensers and water faucets in Terminal B. Gainesville is a very small airport, which was refreshing in the fact that it was NOTHING like Atlanta. I’m headed to Gainesville for the week to work with JJ, who is a guide dog user but is looking to shore up her orientation & mobility (O&M) skills as she is contemplating retiring her current dog, Fergie. It’s another week in another town to which I’ve never traveled, which is a combination of excitement and anxiousness. Luckily for me, JJ has lived here for quite a long time and is really familiar with her routes. “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest….” Horatio said this about Hamlet upon his death, but I don’t need Horatio’s good wishes. I flew through Atlanta…

Day 2

Woman with white cane and black lab next to her in Leader Dog harness. They are standing at a curb near an intersection“Free, hot breakfast” this time meant watery eggs. I don’t think they came from the hens this way, so I’m not putting them in my body. I opted for the all-natural bagel with all natural cream cheese, from the bagel and cream cheese farm. At least I recognize the shape and taste of these two choices.
JJ lives in a condo community in between two fairly busy streets. There’s good sidewalk access, really good services a walkable distance from her home, and good access to public transportation. Well thought-out on her part. So, I’m here to help JJ in getting refreshed with her cane skills as Fergie the guide dog is close to retiring to a life of leisure. JJ has lots of canes and lots of cane tips, and one of the ways in which I’ll be assisting her is to choose a cane and tip that will work for her without having to switch too much. One of the few ways to do this is to try them all while on a familiar route, so I played caddy on our first walk to the corner with the lighted crossing. JJ would use a particular cane for a while, then switch to a different cane (2 inches longer or shorter) with a different tip attached. We ended up doing this for about 3 days before she decided on a tip and cane length with which she felt comfortable. All this while having her dog, Fergie, in heel at her side because she wants to make sure Fergie is good with having the cane being used around her. This is an added distraction for JJ, but it’s a necessary one if she wants to accomplish all of her goals this week.
We worked at night every night I was here, which was by design because JJ has retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that causes (among other things) severely reduced vision at night. Having the ability to travel at night will open up JJ’s options, so it’s well worth the time spent.

Day 3

There’s so much difference between working with a guide dog vs traveling with a cane. Top of the list would be the amount of tactile information that the user picks up on. The cane is primarily an obstacle detection device while the dog is an obstacle avoidance device. The amount of tactile information picked up by the cane tip can be overwhelming to a long-time guide dog user, while the lack of tactile information noticed may be unnerving to a cane user. It’s a fine balance, but one can learn to use one or both well, with practice. So JJ, being a long-time guide dog user, finds it almost too much information at first, but she learned to deal with it as the week went on. She often comments on how much she loves Fergie because Fergie guides her around most of the minutiae.
Woman standing outdoors on a sidewalk near a road sign. She is holding a white caneI may have mentioned this before, but one of the great advantages of Leader Dog’s home delivery of O&M services is that we get to work in the client’s home area. That’s what we did all week. We spent time today on a route that JJ normally travels with Fergie and learning how much work Fergie has been doing for her all this time. JJ is really picking up on her cane skills, although we’re still switching canes and tips on a regular basis. She has taken to calling the roller ball tip “Big Bird,” although I can’t for the life of me remember why, and the flex tip “Flexie.” This last nickname will make Brad Welling (another certified O&M specialist at Leader Dog) very happy. Flexie is his favorite tip, and he also calls it “Flexie.” He also likes to call chicken nuggets “nuggies,” so I may see a pattern developing….
JJ is a former gymnast for the University of Florida (another Razorback foe with another disturbing orange for their school colors. I traded that… orange… of Tennessee for that… orange… of Florida), and she spends a lot of time on campus for gymnastics meets. We spent a lot of time on campus, figuring out the best routes to and from the bus stop she usually uses. It’s Halloween today and the number of students dressed up for the event make my heart happy. So many to choose from, but my favorite was a student with long, blonde hair and a blonde beard who got dressed that morning, threw on a red cape, and looked exactly like Thor! Number two was a student who wore a blow-up T-rex suit and rode his bike home from class! Very funny. We laughed about that, and it broke up a rather frustrating day for JJ, who got a lot of information thrown at her in a short amount of time. It was a good day.

Day 4

Woman standing at a landing on outdoor wooden steps with trees in the background. She is holding a white caneWe went to Publix today, which is a grocery store in the southeast. It’s a great place to shop because everyone who works there is trained to not only tell you where items are located when you ask, but also to escort you to the item in question. Even a pharmacist will leave their station to take someone to find the Taylor’s Scottish Breakfast tea. Or the Flora Taralli (two of my favorites and I can only find them at Publix. Or on Amazon, but that’s no fun. It’s like asking Google. Use your brain, folks. You can’t just Google things on the YouTube and find out the answers to all the problems). Anyway, we went to Publix and worked out a route from JJ’s bus stop, through the parking lot, and into the store. Parking lots are evil places, with people whipping their vehicles around, stalking people with carts to see if they can park one spot closer. And what’s with folks not returning baskets? Is it that difficult to bring your basket back to the corral? I grew up calling it a basket, but in the southeast, most folks call it a buggy. Whatever it’s called, take it back to the corral. In Boy Scouts, and in my home growing up, I learned to leave things better than I found them. At least bring your basket back! Where was I? I digress…
I’ve blogged about shopping trips before and the different techniques that people with visual impairments can employ to create success for themselves. JJ and Fergie went through those options, got her items and we headed to the cashier. A gentleman in front of us remarked on what a nice dog Fergie was, and then proceeded to tell JJ that being blind must be the absolute worst thing on the planet and how he couldn’t imagine living life without sight. He mentioned that he was “disabled in my leg,” but he would much rather have “two crippled legs than be blind.” The man wasn’t being mean, just a little insensitive and JJ sensed that. She handled it very well. I do not believe that he meant any harm. JJ actually laughed about it later. What else can you do?
We went on a hike this evening to a place where JJ likes to go to really stretch her legs and get some fresh air. She used the cane with the tip she calls “Big Bird,” the roller ball, in one hand and a trekking pole in the other. I really think this is a good combination, and it proved to be a successful technique for JJ as well.

Day 5

We went to a different park this morning, without Fergie, where I saw my first two Florida alligators. They were maybe 3-4 feet long, so no monsters, but gators nonetheless. Lots of open spaces and intersections on the trail and JJ did a great job in negotiating all of these. Her speed has really increased over the week. I’ve never measured anyone’s walking speed, but an increase in walking speed over the course of a week of O&M usually is indicative of increased confidence. We had a pretty good hamburger at a place called Goldie’s that is ensconced in the old train depot.
That evening, we went to a farmer’s market that JJ frequents and, I swear, she knew half the people there. I felt like a local. Crowd work is very difficult with a cane or a dog, but JJ left Fergie at home tonight. Again, you make contact with a lot of objects with the cane, and even more if you’re navigating through the farmers market. She did an excellent job of not getting frustrated. Big Bird did the trick again, and JJ may be close to making a decision on which tip to use as a primary tip.

Day 6

Smiling woman walking down a sidewalk toward the camera with a white cane. There is grass on either side of the sidewalk and some trees lining the sidewalkOK, here’s the deal: 1. Gainesville has a really small airport that had no good outgoing flight options on Saturday, but Sunday does. 2. Why not work if I’m gonna be here anyway? 3. JJ has an appointment that she would really like to not have to reschedule. 4. What to do with my morning? Well, it just so happens that the Florida Gators have a football game with a noon start. Who are they playing, you ask? It also just so happens that they’re playing the Arkansas Razorbacks. What good fortune I have!

Yes, I went to a football game while JJ went to her appointment, but we did work Saturday evening. We worked, for the first time this week, in an area we’d been to previously. We went back through the empty farmers market area and ran a route to another farmers market area JJ likes to frequent, then back to the vehicle through a very crowded downtown Gainesville. I stayed back as much as I could and let JJ do this on her own and she really did well. As I said, it was super crowded, so she slowed her pace a bit, shortened up on her cane a bit, and narrowed her arc a bit. All these are good cane techniques for working your way through a crowd. She not only navigated the crowd but also weeded through some well-meant advice/directions. Things like “over here” or “this way/that way.” Things we, as sighted people, don’t really think about. It just comes natural. Again, well-meaning but not always the most helpful. To all of those retinally-dependent people reading this, please understand that trying to help is always appreciated, so please continue to do so.

Day 7

Lots of happy Razorback fans on my flight to Atlanta. We were on a 6-game losing streak and we managed to pull one out against the Gators in overtime. It made my night lesson and my flight home a lot more enjoyable. The trip home was uneventful, and I’ve got a short turnaround before my next trip. Everyone’s schedules get tight as we enter into the holiday season, O&M specialists included. I’ll be blogging next time from Carbondale, IL, probably with an entirely different wardrobe than my shorts and t-shirt combos I wore all week in Florida. Now, let’s talk about getting your cart/basket/buggy back to the corral….