Discrimination has been in the news a lot nowadays, especially with the Trump administrations view on Muslims from certain countries and the Mexican-American border. Recently, I experienced discrimination due to my use of a guide dog and hit me harder and in different ways than before, and I think a large part of that is because of all the discrimination happening in this world nowadays. 

I was in Houston for a work conference and was out with co-workers, some I knew, some I didn’t, for my best friend’s birthday dinner. We both work for the same amazing agency, as counselors, just in different offices. I walk in and am immediately thrown off a little bit because of the dim lighting which makes my residual vision go away. Immediately, as in I had only taken two steps inside, I am asked if Makiko is a service dog. I said yes. We went closer to the table. I sit down, am asked by somebody else. I say yes. I hadn’t even sat down long enough at the table to get Makiko fully settled before this second time being asked. Throughout the night I am asked about 4 times. However, what really really got me upset was I was sitting a few seats away from my best friend’s husband. He was the only male there at this point. He asked me if Makiko had papers. I thought he was just curious although I was pretty sure he should have known the answer. I said she did have an ID. He then said “this gentleman would like to see them.” I hadn’t even seen the man standing behind him at this point. I said “well he can’t..” and then the guy said to me with a very disgruntled tone “ok..” and then walked away. As we were leaving, the waitress was so excited to see Makiko and had NO idea that Makiko was under the table. That is a compliment and how it should be. 

However this “does she have papers?” thing really got to me. I later found out that the guy friend who the staff asked this question to tried to explain to him a few times that I am blind and she is my service dog before he really insisted on seeing papers. It bothers me that he was that insistent. It also bothers me that he asked the male at the table, not me. Finally, what really bothers me is im fairly sure, but not positive, that the gentleman who asked had already asked me earlier on if she was a SD. This was harassment. What has really resonated on my heart though is the “do you have papers” comment and how there have been a lot of members of the immigrant community and even permanent residents and citizens of different ethnicities have been asked this recently. Now I am being asked about my service dog, and not myself, but it still struck me pretty hard.. as if they didn’t think we had a right to be there. 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, we are only allowed to be asked if she is a service dog and what tasks is she trained to perform? I found in Houston in general they asked this far more than any other place I have travelled. We went into one restaurant and my friend’s everybody was giving us the stink eye. I haven’t had this much trouble or stink in a long time. 

I have several very close friends who are undocumented. I have a lot of friends who are legit scared of losing their loved ones for a while do to being of a different ethnicity. 

I did write the business that did this and they were pretty receptive and apologetic and said they would be following up with the staff that night personally as well as sending out a message about discrimination to all employees. I appreciated that and their response was better than most people have responded with reported discrimination. 

There is just something really wrong about all of this, what happened to me in the restaurant but also what is happening in our country right now. It leaves you literally with a bad taste in your mouth, feeling depressed, and sick. 

When can we go back to loving our neighbor? Loving all.. 

60 Feet 6

60 Feet 6- That’s an interesting name, isn’t it? 

The 60 Feet 6 Foundation is an amazing foundation established by Major League pitcher, Derek Holland. (He formerly played for the Texas Rangers).  The foundation originally raised funds to fight pediatric cancer but has now partnered with Guide Dogs for the Blind. The Lone Star Guide Dog Raisers (LSGDR) Dallas Club has a puppy in training, Dutch, raised by Henry Roberts (and family). “The Dutch Oven” is Derek’s nickname and he sponsored this puppy and therefore it was named after him. 

Every year, this Foundation hosts a celebrity golf tournament. Henry, Dutch, and other Guide Dogs for The Blind puppies in training talked to all of the golfers as they made their way through the course and shared the tremendous impact that these dogs have on people’s lives who have visual impairments and why fundraising is so important. 

 I had the honor of being asked to speak at the tournament. I was given a very short time frame and I wanted to really try and share the impact a guide dog has made on my life. I got a little nervous at one point, but I was overall pretty happy with it. I also had the pleasure of getting to know Derek Holland. He is such a wonderful guy with a huge heart. 
(There were some other famous people there too including Ranger closer Sam Dyson, former Ranger Michael Young and former NBA dunk champion Spud Webb) 

Here is the speech.. the person recording cut off the first part of my introduction but here is the bulk of the speech. 

Jessica, Makiko, and Derek Holland at the 60 Feet 6 Foundation celebrity golf tournament reception

The Joys of Traveling with Makiko

Makiko and I have been busy lately!

In August, we went to Florida for work – a Project SEARCH conference.

In September, we moved Mom to Colorado.

In November, we went to visit Mom for Thanksgiving in Colorado.

In December, we went to Houston for a work conference and are now in Colorado visiting Mom and family for the holidays!

Traveling can be tough for anyone, but especially if you have a disability. I have always loved traveling. It was a lot more frustrating though when I was a cane user, especially when flying alone, because I had to depend on one of the airlines’ escorts to help me to and from my gate. Most of them are incredibly slow to get there, aren’t in any rush, and usually are only trained to help people in wheelchairs, not those of us who don’t need a wheelchair. When I first got Makiko, I still waited for one of these escorts but now, we just wing it! Together we know the way through the DFW airport, Dallas Love Field Airport, and Denver airport and don’t need any sort of assistance. In airports we aren’t familiar with, I usually just ask for directions at the check in counter or from somebody when we get off the plane and then we go. It’s so much more freeing and remarkably less frustrating.

It’s always gives me a chuckle to see how TSA reacts to us. Almost always we have to tell them how we do it. (Makes me so glad for the practice we had at a real airport with real TSA agents during guide dog training) A few weeks ago, they kept trying to wave me through and then became frustrated when I didn’t notice. I finally was able to sense something and got it sorted out. This time they had four TSA agents gathered in a circle on the other side of the metal detector whispering. I noticed a TSA agent go right in front of me and asked him if I could assist.. he said they were trying to figure out if the alarm would go off. I said it would with her and once again explained how I put her in a sit stay, extend the leash, walk through, call her through, they pat her down, swan my hands, and then we are on the way. I wrote them and encouraged them to do a little more training and even offered to provide it.. for free! I haven’t heard back yet though. 🙂 

Makiko also loves traveling. Here is a video I took shortly after we got off the plane a few weeks ago. You can see her take me all the way to the elevator to take down to baggage claim. 

What makes traveling easier for you?!

Follow-up visit

Selfie style pic of Makiko (black Labrador) laying on Jessica (Caucasian woman) who is wearing a black tshirt with white writing. Makiko is cuddled against Jessica's chest resting, with her eyes closing as she rests. One of her purple toys is sitting on the couch beneath her.
Black Labrador guide dog is centered in the frame on Jessica's chest. Her eyes are closing as she rests with her purple toy near her paw.
Makiko and I had a great day! Michelle, an instructor and Field Rep, from Guide Dogs for The Blind came out as she was making the rounds doing evaluations on all the teams. Makiko and I did great! Michelle gave us a few tips on different tricky situations. I was so proud of Makiko and she was so proud of herself. We played and cuddled so much after. She is now happily laying on me and it melts my heart so. This precious girl keeps my heart and body going each and every day. Love her! 

I knew Makiko and I were doing excellent but it still makes me a little nervous when they come out. It’s always great to hear how our working relationship is still top notch!

Guide Dogs for The Blind is one of the only schools that has this amazing follow-up program. Most schools do not do yearly follow ups and emergent visits when teams have problems. It makes me so grateful I chose Guide Dogs for The Blind and Guide Dogs for The Blind chose me!

Shopping Blind

I’m not a shopper, by any means.. so when I do go shopping, I appreciate a good experience.

Today, I went shopping at Victoria Secret for the basics and left feeling so appreciative of their wonderful staff and the excellent customer service they provided. Steven and I were stopping by the Apple store and a few others stores today too so he was with me. We went in together and started to figure out where I needed to look when a very sweet customer service representative named Lauren came over. She asked me if she could help and I acknowledged that I would very much appreciate some help. We were looking at bras and underwear. I knew what bra size I was but no idea about underwear.. so she asked me what jeans size I wore.. no idea once again. Did I mention I don’t really go shopping? 🙂

So I told her what I liked and she took me to show me a few different kinds. She let me touch each one so that I could see it with my limited vision but also get what I couldn’t see with my limited vision with my hands. I so loved her accessible approach to helping me shop! I asked her about the prices, she told me a special about bras and underwear combined, so then we went on to bras but hadn’t quite picked out what I wanted for underwear. I told her what I was looking for and we agreed to have me try a few things on. At this point, I told Steven he could go wait outside because my sweet, shy boyfriend gets very awkward just waiting in the VS store.

I went back to the dressing room and tried on a few bras but then the fitting specialist decided that a different kind of bra might be a better fit, with the clasp at the front. So she lets me try it on and then a few minutes later she comes back, and I still hadn’t gotten it on. (Note: I had never had a front clasping bra before). I reminded her that I was visually impaired and was having a hard time figuring it out. She apologized profusely and then asked me what the best way to show me it was. She showed me how to clasp and then unclasp and then left me to try it on. What’s important to me is not that she knew how to help me right away, but was that she genuinely cared, wanted to learn, and asked me how to best assist instead of just guessing or assuming. That speaks wonders.

I left with exactly what I wanted, a great experience, and while I still needed a little help, I felt pretty independent because I could go into the store, get what I needed with the assistance of their staff, and then leave.

(Disclaimer: To me it’s a little weird writing this knowing my family reads this but hey, every girl needs bras and underwear, right? This kind of thing isn’t talked about enough either in the disability community.)

October – BIG month for People with Disabilities

As I have held the harness handle each morning as Makiko guides me into work, whether that be at one of the high schools I serve, the University of North Texas, or at my office building, I have been reminded of the importance of this month, October, for people with disabilities, especially those who are blind or visually impaired.

October is…

  • National Disability Employment Awareness Month
  • World Blindness Awareness Month
  • Eye Care Awareness Month & Children’s Vision Month
  • the month of National Braille Week (October 10th – 16th)
  • the month of White Cane Safety Day (October 15th)
  • the month of World Sight Day (October 13th)

Each of these are huge by themselves but together make a pretty big month.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month was declared in 1988 by the US Congress to raise awareness of the employment needs and contributions of individuals with disabilities.

This is HUGE to me both professionally and personally.

As a person with a disability in the workforce, I am blessed to have a very rewarding job that I absolutely love to go to, where as a person with a disability I am treated as an an equal and I have the accommodations and supports to work as one. I have an amazing supervisor who has been there for me as I continue to lose vision, is not afraid to learn or ask questions about accommodating someone with vision loss, and is just very generally supportive. I recognize though that not everybody has this opportunity to be equally employed or have an accommodating supervisor.. but that’s what this month is about.. helping highlight the importance of hiring someone with a disability and the contributions that they CAN have to the workplace. 

Professionally as many of you all aware are, I am a Transition Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for the State of Texas – now the Texas Workforce Solutions – Vocational Rehabilitation Services, formerly known as DARS. My passion/job is helping high school students and young adults with disabilities figure out their next steps after high school and how they can transition into employment. With that, I absolutely love when employers see these individuals who at first they didn’t think would be good employees or didn’t understand how they would be able to employ them, and then years later they see what amazing, devoted, hard-working, long-term employees they are and how they are an asset to the business in many ways.

It has been shown that when an individual with a disability is given the accommodations they need and are in an accessible environment, they often stay longer than their counterparts without disabilities. So, spending a little extra for a piece of Assistive Technology will pay off in the long-run when that person stays for years and years whereas they are spending a lot of money in on boarding and training of new employees who don’t stay. A lot of this is because individuals with disabilities have a hard time finding employment so when they find a good job, they often try harder to maintain it and make up for areas that they have difficulty in or aren’t able to do due to their disability. People with disabilities are often very LOYAL to their employer. People with disabilities often have to be creative in their personal and professional lives to “get the job done” and therefore are often more flexible and think with an open and creative mind. This is often a great asset on the job!

Of course, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has helped us TREMENDOUSLY in making sure that individuals with disabilities are given reasonable accommodations and to prevent discrimination as much as possible for employing individuals with disabilities. 

(Random fact: Did you know that public access for people with service animals and employing someone with a service animal are covered under different sections of the ADA? Public access rights are covered under Title III but reasonable accommodations are covered under Title I. What this means is an employee, in most situations, has to apply for a reasonable accommodation to bring their guide dog or service dog with them to work and in most situations, it has to be approved unless it provides to be an undue hardship on the business.) 

Now, I am charging YOU, yes you.. the person reading this.. next time you are looking at your candidate pool or interviewing someone, next time you are sitting on an interview panel, or giving input on hiring practices, please consider all of this.. please help make your workplace more inclusive as a whole and don’t discount someone’s abilities just because they have a disability.

World Blindness Awareness Month was created to help the world understand the realities of living with vision loss, encouraging people to become more aware of individuals with visual impairments and how they are vital members of society.

Eye Care Awareness Month and Children’s Vision Month are both in October to encourage individuals to get routine eye exams and take care of their eye health. One place I read stated that 80% of blindness is avoidable through prevention or treatment. (I’m not sure I believe that though.) Children’s Vision Month is to encourage parents specifically to take their children to eye doctors appointments and they can get their vision examined starting as an infant. Often times vision problems are the cause for difficulties at school but parents/teachers don’t realize it until after struggles.

National Braille Week was October 10th – 16th and aimed to raise awareness of Braille and other non-visual systems that open up written text and literacy to visually impaired individuals.

Personally, I am not a Braille reader but I have started learning it here and there. I think if I had lost my sight earlier on, I would have been more dedicated to it for literacy purposes, but right now, I use other methods of accessing written text that work very well for me. I switch off between using large print (when my eyes are fresh and I’m not tired) and audio. At work, when I’m not face to face with a consumer, I’m usually accessing and writing text and so I use my screen reader a lot for that, in addition to my CCTV and scanning documents into my computer using the PEARL camera and OpenBook or a regular scanner.

However, Braille is an amazing system and is absolutely essential to the literacy of our youth who can’t access written text visually. 

White Cane Safety Day was first signed and proclaimed by Lyndon B. Johnson on October 15, 1984. It is a day to celebrate the achievements of people with blindness or vision loss and also to raise awareness of the white cane as a symbol of independence for people with vision loss. In recent years, many White Cane Safety Day celebrations also include recognition of guide dogs as well.

I LOVE White Cane Safety Day (also known as White Cane Day – WCD) every year. In the past, I have organized it for my community with two staff members of UNT. This year, we decided to join forces with Fort Worth and participated in their White Cane Day — and loved it!! It was at the Fort Worth Stockyards. There was a Scavenger Hunt where we learned different facts about things that affected individuals with visual impairments, such as the development of the first guide dog school in the US, The Seeing Eye. We saw the Cattle Run, which was totally cool. There were a lot of guide dog handlers there so that is always fun to see new faces and catch up with old friends. We had a terrific lunch and had the opportunity to listen to inspirational stories of people with visual impairments and how they have overcome their blindness .

Makiko is seated in harness in front of the Fort Worth Stockyards Visitor Center. Cattle of many different colors moving forward in the Cattle RunSeveral people in red shirts posing - one lady with a yellow lab, one lady with a black lab, two other ladies standing, one male standing, and one male in a wheelchair

World Sight Day is on the second Thursday of every October and is designed to bring awareness to eye conditions that are avoidable.

World Sight Day has 3 goals:

  1. To raise public awareness about blindness and vision impairment
  2. To influence governments to support blindness prevention
  3. To educate people about avoidable blindness

The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), under the direction of the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO), and the Lion’s Club International work together to coordinate activities and events the world over to celebrate World Sight Day.

So, all this to say.. please be open minded when thinking about employing or working with an individual with a disability and realize they have many strengths and abilities. There is a great website, JAN – Job Accommodation Network, that does an excellent job at describing how to accommodate people with different disabilities. I encourage you to check it out. If you’re still not sure, feel free to ask me or another trusted individual with a disability.. most of us would be glad to share our stories and knowledge with you. You can also contact your state’s vocational rehabilitation program if you would like to know more or are interested in hiring people with disabilities. I also encourage you to get routine eye exams and encourage your loved ones to too. Individuals with disabilities choose many different tools (for example – for individuals with visual impairments, some use Braille, some prefer audio.. some use a cane, some use a guide dog) to be independent in their personal and professional lives and it is their choice what they want to use.

Oh.. and one more thing.. Happy Halloween! 🙂

Makiko, black lab, seated in harness in front of a squirrel and turtle cardboard cut out, with pumpkins. Her tongue is sticking out due to the heat. Jessica and Steven (white female and male) doing a selfie with pumpkins in the background. Makiko, a black Labrador, is positioned in front of a lot of pumpkins in a field. She is in harness and looking off into the distance to the right.Makiko is looking up at the camera in a pumpkin outfit that fits much like a cape.