by Jeremy Curry
“Dog! Doggie! Come ‘ere, boy!” ecstatically yells a man at the other end of the grocery store aisle, followed by several whistles. As I walked to the next aisle with my wife and daughter, another well-meaning mother leans over to her small child and quietly says, “Why don’t you go over to that man and ask if you can pet his dog?” And, as we enter the checkout line, another person bends down and begins reading the sign aloud on Darren’s harness, “Do not pet me. I am working,” followed by several pats on his head and an additional “Aww, that’s so cute. The sign says he’s working.”
I wish these were all part of a made-up story, but this basically sums up about every trip I take to the grocery store with my guide dog, Darren. It’s not that any of these people were intending to be rude or ill-willed; they simply have no idea how to treat a guide dog and his handler. So, they revert to what they know with their own pets, and do things like call the dog, whistle at the dog, or pet the dog. Others read the sign, but then look at the dog and say, “Oh, I know I’m not supposed to pet you, so I’ll just talk to you.” It’s a level up, but just as distracting to a service dog as if he/she were getting petted. Part of this ignorance comes from a lack of the general public’s lack of experience or interaction with a guide dog. Most guide dog schools don’t issue dogs to people who are blind or visually impaired until the person is at least 18 years of age. Additionally, there are only about 10,000 guide dogs in the United States, making the chance of interacting with a person with a guide dog even less. Many of us were not taught how to interact with people with disabilities as a child, and we didn’t have the opportunity to learn these types of social skills when we were young, as it is extremely unlikely any of our classmates had a guide dog. At the critical juncture of our lives when we are learning to interact with other people and learn what is and what is not socially acceptable; no one ever taught us how to interact with service dogs or what is socially acceptable when meeting a person with a disability. Fortunately, one principal is trying to change that.
Each year, I’m invited to speak to the 400 to 500 children at New Haven Primary School in New Haven, Indiana by principal Renita Peters. Each March is designated as the Disability Awareness Month led by the Indiana’s Governor Council for People with Disabilities, and Mrs. Peters ensures that all of her students learn about various types of disabilities, including being blind and visually impaired. It’s important for children to learn these skills, as 19% of the Indiana population has a disability. For me, it’s especially important the children know how to interact with service dogs and their handlers. I show them how Darren can take me around obstacles.
We also talk about why it is important to pretend a service dog does not exist, so that the dog can focus on doing his/her job. Much like a regular trip to the grocery store, I show the children how Darren can walk around obstacles to do his job. Then, I have them all yell, “Puppy!” and “Dog!” at the top of their lungs to demonstrate how that can be distracting to Darren’s job. I also show them other useful things Darren can do, such as finding his way out of a room or finding a person by his/her name. As Mrs. Peters and I have been friends for many years, the children are always excited when I tell Darren to “Find Renita” and he goes right to her. I also talk to the children about how some people who are blind use white canes and how to properly interact with a person who is blind if they need a sighted guide. Some of them get to experience what it’s like to use a cane, giving them an appreciation for using other senses to navigate rather than just their sight.
Mrs. Peters has different topics for the students each week of Disability Awareness Month. They learn about all types of disabilities, including blindness, deaf and hard of hearing, as well as mobility impairments. All 500 students even put together a puzzle about disabilities.
Perhaps one of my favorite things that Mrs. Peters does is allow her students to write down questions about people with disabilities. The questions are put into a box, and then sent to a special education teacher, and the special education teacher works with the classroom teacher to talk to the students about their questions. It’s a great way for the students to learn about people with disabilities without having to worry about being uncomfortable or possibly feeling like his/her question is inappropriate. One of the questions the students always ask me is, “How do blind people eat?” I have them all close their eyes and pretend they have a spoon in their hands. Then, I tell them to put the spoon full of food in their mouth. All of them quickly learn that it’s possible to eat without any vision at all.
Whenever I’m in the area where Mrs. Peters has students, I can always tell she is making a difference. Instead of walking into a grocery store and hearing “Dog! Doggie!”, I’ll often hear the small whisper of a child say to his/her parents, “You aren’t supposed to talk to the dog or pet him.” I can’t help but think that most of the time, the child likely just taught the adult something he/she didn’t know about people with disabilities. <smile>
If you would like to hear more about Jeremy’s presentation to the children of New Haven Primary School and how Principal Renita Peters teaches her students about people with disabilities, check out our podcast, recorded live from the Principal’s office.