By Lauren Ross, Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, Midwest Field Manager
Spring has arrived in the Midwest, although we're all still wearing hats and mittens. A final snowstorm sometime in April is a tradition that one expects and endures in the Heartland. Nevertheless, it's incredibly exciting when the sun coaxes the first purple crocuses through thawing soil at the end of March, signaling the final days of what has been a very rough winter for GDB teams in this area.
Navigating over piles of snow and sheets of ice, our teams have struggled through the past several months with perseverance, creativity and good humor…and often with the support of friends, family and community (and field managers, of course!). Community support comes in many forms: cities and neighborhoods assist in our teams' independence and safe travel through diligent maintenance of sidewalks and streets during endless periods of snow accumulation. City employees like bus drivers also play a crucial role through proper etiquette when interacting with customers who are blind, and even – in certain situations - advocating on behalf of those riders.
Susan Wilkening, of Harvard, Illinois, with black female cross "Mariko," must catch the bus each morning to travel to work. Snowfall in Harvard has set records this year; halfway through winter, Sue and her family had not been able to keep up with shoveling. Every day Sue had to struggle through an ever-growing drift at the end of her driveway to gain access to her daily route. One snowy evening, Sue's bus driver noticed the maintenance crew at nearby Mercy Harvard Hospital out clearing their parking lot with the snow plow. He stopped to ask the crew if – since the hospital is just across the street – it would be possible for them to swing by Sue's house and clear off the accumulated pile. The maintenance workers were happy to oblige. And then they took it a step further: every time it snowed the plow swung over to Sue's driveway, keeping her route access completely clear for the remainder of the winter months. For this ongoing support of one of our graduates, I will be presenting a GDB certificate of appreciation to Mercy Harvard hospital on April 1st.
Of course, in this story the thoughtfulness of Sue's bus driver stands out as commendable. Drivers on this route vary, though, and some are less considerate than others. In fact, Sue has had significant difficulties with a few of the drivers, so she put me in touch with the transit company. Early in March, I gave a presentation to the drivers of the Pace bus line in McHenry County, Illinois. The focus was on sensitivity and proper etiquette toward customers who are blind, including a section on service dogs and a brief discussion of other disabilities. Interactive devices - like low vision simulators and props to demonstrate high and low contrast - kept the audience engaged and interested, raising their awareness not only of ADA law and the correct way to interact in different scenarios with individuals who have disabilities, but also of the great variance in levels of vision and the danger in making assumptions about their customers' abilities and disabilities. The training was videotaped and will be used for future driver training at the transit company.
Although the wind still bites sharply through fleece jackets, we Midwestern GDB people are hopeful. With spring flowers come clear curbs to target, and the delightful idea that soon we will have eight straight months of ice-free bliss. We are thankful that we have had each other over the past five months; the warm strength of a community and a cozy act of kindness are never as apparent as during the frosty days of a northern Illinois winter. And we're fairly certain that the sunshine, grass and butterflies will get us through until the next one.