Thank you for giving me my life back


Dear Makiko,

Four years and two weeks ago today, I laid my eyes upon you with your gorgeous brown eyes and black fur. We went through very rigorous training and exactly four years ago today, we walked across that stage at Guide Dogs for the Blind and officially became a team. Little did I know at that point just how much you would change my life. You’ve wagged, cuddled, and kissed your way into the hearts of so many people.

Makiko, you’ve enabled me to do what I love to do. My job as a transition counselor is incredibly busy and we travel A LOT. I don’t think I would have been able to keep doing this position, or I don’t know that i would have even applied to it, without you sweet girl. You give me the confidence to be okay with going new places independently and venture into the high schools which look like colleges. This confidence can be seen in many areas of my life – I am spending less time at home and more time out and about, socializing, volunteering, participating in community events, and being me.

I may be a bit biased but I think you are one of the best looking guide dogs out there and your sweet face just melts everybody’s heart. People want to come up to me and ask me about you and of course, I love to tell everybody about how amazing and beautiful you are! This has led to many new friendships and connections… relationships I know I wouldn’t have made as a cane user. You have opened many doors for me.

Because you have been such an life-changing guide dog, I have wanted to continue to give back to Guide Dogs for the Blind and become more and more involved in this selfless community. Because of you, I have the opportunity to travel and meet people, sharing about Guide Dogs for the Blind. I have the opportunity to help raise funds and introduce the guide dog lifestyle to many other individuals with visual impairments. My public speaking skills are steadily improving and I’m becoming more confident in this area, an area that I have struggled in for many years. I have co-founded and become the Co-President of “The Eyes of Texas”, the Texas Alumni Chapter for Guide Dogs for the Blind, where I have had the opportunity to meet so many incredible graduates with guide dogs across the state. I founded “Guide Dog Handlers Network,” a Facebook social support group for guide dog handlers from all over the world and we have had the opportunity to be there for each other and brighten each other’s lives. Because of you, I have a new amazing community that I have the honor of being a part of.

Because of you, my gorgeous girl, my wanderlust is back in full swing and I want to travel with you by my side because it is SO much fun and I feel totally free when traveling with you.

I am much safer with you by my side, leading the way with me holding onto that harness handle. I’ve had many surgeries and casts through the years due to falls or accidents due to my vision loss. One of the worst ones was when I didn’t see a particularly icy patch in Tulsa when I was going to school there and fell on it, unable to get up. One torn meniscus surgery and a lot of therapy later, I am doing just fine. I am proud to say that while working you, I have not had one vision related accident. That is HUGE. You’re a star at “intelligent disobedience.” If I tell you to go and you think it’s not safe, you will do everything in your power to tell me, “No, Mom.. really.. NO,” and will show me the safer route. You can be quite stubborn and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

You’ve helped me become much more physically fit and active. 5 years ago, I would have never dreamed about wanting to exercise. However now it’s a definite goal and I WILL make it happen. Through walking at your speedy pace, you have made me a much faster walker, even when you’re not guiding me. You understand my busy lifestyle and help me navigate crowds like a ninja. Sometimes, my sighted friends even let you just lead the way because you’re just that brilliant at what you do.

I continue to lose my vision. Just when I think I’ve lost a lot and it will stabilize, BAM.. I lose more vision. You, smart girl, are able to adapt to my vision loss more than the closet humans in my life can. You learn what Mama can’t see anymore or what she’s likely to miss, that she may have been just fine with 6 months ago. Not all guide dogs can adapt that well.

They say dogs are a man’s best friend, but you, sweet Makiko, are much more than that. When I’m having a particularly rough day or struggling with depressive symptoms, you are right there to stick your head in my lap and ask for permission to come cuddle, or lay right beside me. You make me keep going as I will never let your exercise, food, water, and relieving needs go unmet.

As we embark upon year five, sweet girl, I promise to show you daily how much I love you and am grateful for you as we have the time of our lives on this journey called “life.” Thank you for giving me my life back, after vision loss. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.

Love,

Jessica

Thankful for Makiko


  
Happy Thanksgiving! I have a lot to be grateful for this year. I have a very loving family, and while we have lost both of my parents this last year, we still stay pretty close. My grandparents were amazing people and I’m really grateful that they valued family so much, as they instilled that in their children and grandchildren. I also have a wonderful boyfriend who loves me to death and spoils me. Dating a gal with vision loss is just part of life for him and he embraces it. He has a wonderful family that I get to spend the holiday with while my Mom is visiting my sister in New York. I have an amazing job and a wonderful boss and many very compassionate coworkers. 

I am also EXTREMELY grateful for Makiko. Guide dogs are known to help their handlers have increased independence, freedom, and companionship. Makiko definitely brings that for me. But what does that mean? Here are many reasons why I am grateful for Makiko this Thanksgiving: 

  • Since getting Makiko. I have not had one injury while working her. This is HUGE. I have broken and torn too many things to count but Makiko has not once put me in any danger or missed something that led me to hurting myself. 
  • I serve 14 different high schools as a Transition Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for the State. Makiko knows pretty much the way to the place we office in each of these schools. I can be independent and confident in my schools because together, we can do it!  
  • Living alone can be pretty lonely. However, Makiko is the best companion. We go for walks around my beautiful complex, just sit outside, go to the dog park in the complex, and play all sorts of games inside together. She is my best friend, my snuggle buddy, and the best companion! 
  • Prior to getting Makiko (and then a year later starting my job), I loved to sleep in and not do much. I still enjoy sleeping in and not doing much but my sleeping in went from sleeping in until about 1pm to sleeping in til 10am. She gives me a reason to get up and get active. During the week, she is an excellent alarm clock. Most days if she doesn’t see me getting up after the alarm clock has gone off a few times, she starts her silly ways to get me out of bed. She knows. 

    

  • She has made me more interested in the ways dogs are trained and think. I have very much enjoyed learning the art of dog training and reading up on it. We have started doing some fun clicker training. Makiko loves learning new things too! 
  • Makiko can tell when I am not feeling well, often before I do. She helps me figure out something is up so that I can be aware and work on it, like when I’m starting to feel very woozy because of low blood sugar. If I am napping too long and need to get up and cook dinner, she will let me know. 
  • She has given me the opportunity to care for something. I am a caretaker at my core and she gives me the opportunity to take care of her on a daily basis, and if I skip certain things, she doesn’t “run” as well.
  • I can go off in crowded areas by myself. I hate crowds, and this really only started once I started losing my vision. Makiko and I can just go do our thing in crowds and I can be independent. That helps me a lot.. I can do what we need to do to help us and make it enjoyable. For example, there was recently a huge craft bazaar in Colorado when I was there for the weekend. My aunt had my great-aunt latched on (and therefore naturally are slow), plus she really loves to look at everything. I like those kinds of events but am much faster. So Makiko and I just went off and looked at our own booths and bought some fun things.
  • She has opened me up to a whole new community- the Service Dog community at large, more specifically the GDB community, and also the puppy raising community. I love helping and talking to other service dog handlers on Facebook groups and other support groups. I run a Facebook group “Guide Dog Handlers Network” that has close to 800 visually impaired guide dog handlers from all over the globe. It is so fun to learn about their experiences. There wasn’t a page quite like it when I came back from guide dog training but I created it to help others and have fun… It has done just that! GDB has some of the most caring and loving people in their organization as employees and volunteers. I love doing activities and talking to others from this organization because they are genuinely good people. That is the same for the puppy raisers. They raise these dogs for 1 to 1.5 years and get so close with them. They then have to “give them up” to GDB to go to “guide dog college” or formal guide work training. That is heartbreaking! A lot of work goes into running a puppy raiser club, coordinating the events, and raising a puppy. I have met some amazing people through our local puppy raising club, Lone Star Guide Dog Raisers. 
  • Makiko loves to travel and she is wonderful when we are traveling. She is absolutely perfect in airports and on airplanes, and on road trips you barely even know she is down there. She is a great foot warmer though! 🙂 I love to travel so it’s really awesome to have a buddy who loves to travel and helps me do it with such ease. She makes it much less stressful. 
  • Makiko and my Mom and boyfriend are all best friends. I am grateful that she loves my Mom and boyfriend so much and they love her. It warms my heart to see them all play together and love each other. 
  • Makiko loves her little place in the office and she has become an essential part of our workplace. I have to set boundaries with some coworkers who don’t quite respect my rules, but for those who do respect them, Makiko is great “therapy”. We have a very tough (yet rewarding) job, and work with a lot of individuals with disabilities with very heartbreaking and difficult situations. Sometimes they come to us and we are all they have left. We also have a lot of pressure naturally in the kind of work we do. Makiko has formed some very close bonds with my good work buddies and brings smiles to their faces daily. 
  • I totally respect those who choose a cane as their mobility aid but it is most definitely not the one for me. It’s sad but society doesn’t really know how to react to someone with a cane (but we are working to change this!). I also find that there are a lot more obstacles when using a cane and it’s just stressful to me. However, with a guide dog and particularly such a cute, beautiful, and well behaved guide like Makiko, she has increased and changed social interactions for me. I am very social and love the reaction from society with a guide dog much more than with a guide dog. I must talk to at least 10+ strangers a day on weekends when I’m out and about because of Makiko. I love that. Plus, I have the opportunity to educate others and that’s a blessing.
  • I have always been known, since college, for being pretty outspoken. However, since getting Makiko, I am a lot better with self-advocacy and advocate for my needs and rights more. 
  • I am a lot more confident all around because of Makiko. I am confident in myself, my ability to travel independently, my ability to go new places and try new things, my ability to meet new people, and just be me. I experience a lot less anxiety when I am with her.  
  • Many of you know that I got Makiko two months after my father passed away. My father is my best friend and this has been devastating. Still is. She has helped me grieve and keep going. Dad died one semester into my Masters and I got her my second semester of grad school. Makiko helped get me through grad school. 

Makiko is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Over 2.5 years later, she is daily changing my life for the better and helping me become the happier, healthier, and better me.  I am so grateful to and for her.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

White Cane Day (Denton) – October 15, 2015


"White Cane Safety Day" is written in white text on a black background with a white symbol of a person walking with a cane.
https://www.facebook.com/events/1050928814959912/

I’m co-organizing White Cane Day this year and would love to see any locals there. Here is more info:

White Cane Day 2015 is fast approaching! We would love to have your participation.

The Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) Denton Field Office and the University of North Texas Office of Disability Accommodation

invite YOU to the fifth annual recognition of White Cane Day!!!

This event is celebrated nationally to raise public awareness of issues related to blindness and low vision. We’ll be using white canes to navigate the square around the courthouse to bring attention to our cause.

When: October 15, 2015 at 12:00pm (noon)

Where: From the corner of N. Elm Street and W. Hickory (at the UNT on the Square gallery) for a walk around the block to the front steps of the old Denton County Courthouse.

Why: To raise public awareness of mobility-related barriers faced by people with disabilities to transportation in Denton.

Our plan: We are meeting at 12:00pm at UNT on the Square to pass out canes to people who reserve them in advance. Then we are heading out on the sidewalk around the courthouse block toward Locust Street, up W. Oak Street and back to N. Elm Street to the courthouse steps. Our entire walk, including returning borrowed canes to DBS at UNT on the Square should take less than half an hour from start to finish.

Bring your own cane if you have one, or RSVP to reserve one while supplies last, but you don’t need a cane to march with us and show your support. A nice crowd is what we need to raise awareness.

Please RSVP your cane request by October 8th, 2013 by email so we can get a headcount.

To RSVP for a cane, if you would like to share ideas, or if you have questions or concerns, you may contact Jessica Naert at jessica.naert@dars.state.tx.us or 940-384-7912.

Hope to see you there!

“You move faster than you have EVER moved”


A running joke in my family since I got Makiko was that I move faster than I ever did before. I think there are many reasons for this. 1) I was very insecure about my RP. I have had way too many falls and surgeries/medical treatment as a result. 2) I didn’t like using the cane.. At all. I was really good at jabbing myself. 3) I wasn’t very fit.

I remember when I arrived at DFW airport from training, I met my Mom and Great-Aunt Betty at baggage. Mom had already collected my bags and put them on the cart. We proceeded toward the car and before Mom knew it we were GONE! Betty walks pretty slow due to her age and disabilities. But we were way gone. Mom could tell right then how much exercise I had gotten over the past two weeks and how drastically Makiko had already and would change my life.

Makiko is still super fast. We have had a few scenarios lately where she has gotten slower but we are trying to figure out why. We are pretty sure it mostly has to do with the heat. (ugh, thanks Texas!)

But most of the time, she is still a speed demon! Last night we walked back from a dog park in our apartment complex to the steps near my apartment. It took under 1 minute. I could NEVER do this in that amount of time with a cane because there are a lot of twists and turns, as you will see in the video attached. My baby rocks!

November 20, 2013: Guide Dogs for the Blind


I am very grateful for Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB). GDB is one of the best guide dog schools across the world. Their main campus is located in San Rafael, California and their other site is in Portland, Oregon. This is the site Makiko and i met and were trained at. The organization is run purely on donations and it is such a worthwhile cause. It gives so many individuals with visual impairments each year their independence (back), their freedom (back), and such companionship. It has given me that and so much more in Makiko and the people I have met, and the opportunities I have had because of her. She helps me through so much and allows me to do so much, all thanks to Guide Dogs for the Blind and the wonderful people who donate to this organization.

Today, and everyday, I am grateful for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

November 1, 2013: Day 1 & Makiko


Each day this month I am going to try and post something I am thankful for. Today it is Makiko.

I can’t explain how much Makiko has impacted my life. She is a constant companion, my best friend, so much laughter, my independence, my freedom, and she helps me get through a lot of really rough times. She is the reason I have been able to keep going like I have been able to and I owe so much to her. We are the perfect team and we conquer so much together. We get each other and have a super close bond. She is the cutest, most amazing thing and one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Losing my vision is not half as bad as it would be without her.

Blindness Awareness Month (Catch-up!)


I recently found out that this month is Blindness Awareness Month. There are a lot of “months” or “weeks” happening and so it has been hard to catch up. However, I wanted to tell you all a little bit about Blindness Awareness Month. The goal of Blindness Awareness Month is to promote awareness of what is like to live without, or with very little, sight. One of more commonly known events that happen this month is White Cane Day. White Cane Day is on October 15, 2013 and is a national observance set aside since 1964 to celebrate the achievements of people who are blind or visually impaired, and the important symbol of blindness and tool of independence, the white cane. Basically, individuals with visual impairments can do just about EVERYTHING with the proper supports, such as reliable public transportation, orientation and mobility training, assistive technology, vocational rehabilitation, etc. We can be independent in our home and work lives and we can give back to the community while doing so.

With that, I thought that I would give a fact about visual impairments every day for the entire month of October. Since I’m jumping on this bandwagon late, I’ll catch up below. Also, I want to extend the invitation for you all to ask me anything you are curious about, by commenting on this blog or by sending me the question via the Contact Me button at the top of this page. You don’t even have to list your name if you’re too embarrassed or shy. I want to educate and spread awareness and so I would love to answer your questions. At the end of this month, I’ll compile all of the questions that I’ve been asked here, as well as some of the most common questions I get asked, and write a post answering them.

October 1/Fact #1: About 90% of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries. (World Health Organization)

October 2/Fact #2: Most people who have the label as “blind” because they are legally blind or visually impaired are not completely blind. Blindness covers many types of visual impairments from tunnel vision (like I have), lack of central vision but one can see in the peripheral, focussing disorders, only light perception, etc. In fact, only 1 in 10 individuals who are blind are without any sight at all.

October 3/Fact #3: Individuals with visual impairments do not automatically get a better sense of hearing because they are blind. They learn to concentrate and pay close attention to the auditory cues and what is going on around them and they find ways to use it to compensate for their lack of visual information. This may give off the impression that they can hear better than individuals with sight, but it is indeed not the case.

October 4/Fact #4: Globally, uncorrected refractive errors are the main cause of visual impairment; cataracts remain the leading cause of blindness in middle- and low-income countries.

October 5/Fact #5: Talking loud to a person with a visual impairment does not increase their ability to understand you. An individual without sight has eyeballs that do not work as a sighted person’s would, but unless they have an additional disability such as individuals with Usher’s Syndrome do, they do not require one to simply speak louder to compensate for the lack of visual information.

October 6/Fact #6: All individuals with visual impairments do not read Braille. Literacy is a problem with individuals who are visually impaired in today’s society for two reasons. Technology is allowing more and more individuals to not have to learn Braille because they can rely on screen readers, computers, apps, and smartphones to help them navigate their daily activities and responsibilities and that is a huge factor that contributes to the illiteracy in many individuals with visual impairments. Many of these methods do not promote good spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. Also, children have visual impairments are not required to learn Braille in school because many can get by with large print but then as their vision progresses over the years they are not able to use that large print anymore and don’t want to use Braille. I do want to add as a Disclaimer that there are MANY MANY MANY individuals with visual impairments that are very literate, but there is an increasing trend in illiteracy in the blindness community. Many individuals who are blind and illiterate are still able to function though because of thet assistive technology that I mentioned above. (Info from Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind)

October 7/Fact #7: When talking to an individual with a visual impairment, it is still okay to use the words “see,” “watch,” “observe,” “look,” “view,” etc. Individuals with visual impairments “see” things their own way, etc. There is no need to be hesitant when using these. HOWEVER, I will add this disclaimer just from personal experience. A time it is NOT okay to ask an individual with a visual impairment if they SAW something is if you clearly know they do not have the ability to see, visually, what you are talking about but still expect/ask them if they saw it. I will give an example as a situation. I was in a class where a Professor knows I have very limited vision, we have discussed this on multiple occasions, and I can only see right in front of me with any clarity and if it is text it needs to be large print or on the computer. She wrote something on the board and when I ditactdn’t get that information, I emailed to inquire about something related and the Professor wrote back, “Didn’t you see what was on the board?” This is an example when “see” is not appropriate but really that has more to do with a lack of awareness about blindness than the vocabulary chosen.

October 8/Fact #8: Some think that it is appropriate to describe directions to an individual with a visual impairment in terms of how many steps they have to take from Point A to Point B. While there may be an individual out there who uses this method, most individuals with visual impairments use tactile cues such as “when you get to the intersection of such and such,” because individuals can feel the curbs, etc and they learn to know the layout of the neighborhood, campus, etc.

Did you learn anything new? If so, what? What do you think about what I stated? What has been the most surprising thing that you have learned about individuals with visual impairments, whether it’s been on this blog, through me, or through another source?