If you’re blind, or know anyone who is, you’ve probably either witnessed or been on the receiving end of comments like “I wish I could bring my dog to work” or “It’d be so awesome to have a computer that talks like Stephen Hawking.” Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure even Stephen Hawking wishes he didn’t talk like Stephen Hawking sometimes; he’d probably much rather use his own voice—the non-computerized, non-patented one.
People with disabilities have grown used to these comments which, as off-handed as they seem, sometimes carry larger, problematic implications about the extent to which the non-disabled fail to recognize what using assistive technology or having a service dog really means for the disabled person. As both a guide dog handler and an adaptive tech user, I can tell you honestly that they are, like everything else in life, alternately amazing and a huge pain in the butt. When my dog spares me the pain and embarrassment of twisting my ankle on a crack in the sidewalk, he’s amazing; when he scavenges through the trash or chews a hole in my favorite pair of running shoes, not so much. When I can “see” a picture of my friend’s baby by running it through TapTapSee, technology is awesome; when my screen reader freezes on a website I’m navigating because Flash keeps refreshing the page every ten seconds, not so much.
Recently, the network drivers on my brand-spanking new laptop decided to stop working. As a freelance writer and consultant, I find the loss of internet capability more than a first-world problem; it jeopardizes my work and my ability to pay my bills. Desperate to resolve the issue and admittedly not particularly tech savvy, I put myself in a cab and made my way to the nearest Best Buy with my weirdly possessed laptop in my bag and my rosaries in my pocket, praying that somehow the geek squad would tell me I wasn’t screwed. In what I suppose was an attempt to make polite conversation, the driver asked what I needed at Best Buy, and upon hearing that I was on my way to troubleshoot a computer problem, he predictably asked, “Oh, does your computer talk to you?”
“Yes,” I replied.
The driver proceeded to edify me with a ten-minute monologue about why screen reading technology and other access software like voice activation shouldn’t just be available for the blind and disabled because it would make life so much easier for everyone. According to his logic, “it would be so great to just say to the computer, ‘Do this,’ and then sit back and wait.’ It would save a lot of time.”
‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘Your life is already so difficult because you have to read everything on your computer screen with your working eyes. How do you get out of bed every morning knowing the hardships you have to face?’ (If there were a sarcasm font, it would go here). Of course, because my life epitomizes staircase wit and I still had to depend on my driver to reach my destination, I kept my comments to myself for the time being.
I love the freedom that my adaptive technology gives me, from the ability to write for a living to reading reviews of the latest Colin Firth movie. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t wish every day that I didn’t need to rely on such technology. Sometimes I wish we lived in a world where the people who make such off-hand statements were forced to spend a day relying on the tools that they see as a convenience rather than a necessity. On a particularly bad day, the Sheldon Cooper suggestion of implanting chips into people’s brains that explode when they say something stupid is also appealing. People would sing a different tune if they had to ask someone for help every time they encountered an inaccessible captcha on the internet or couldn’t read a PDF that wasn’t properly formatted to work with a screen reader.
As if this weren’t enough, I had to deal with my other pet peeve: the lady who wished her dog was like mine. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t appreciate it when someone compliments my dog, the way I handle him, or his guide work. Most service animal handlers invite questions about the training process and how our dogs do their jobs.
That being said, whenever a non-disabled person, however innocently, asks how they can “turn their dog into a service dog,” they think they’re just observing how cool it would be to be able to take their dog everywhere, but This question essentially translates to: how can I take my dog to Starbucks? There’s only one way to legally have and travel with a service animal, and pay very close attention to this: you have to have a disability or other health condition that requires a dog—a medically, legally documented one. I’m not sure you “want” that. Actually, I’m pretty sure you don’t. Trust me.
I’ve had several friends over the years with multiple disabilities who have trained their dogs to perform tasks ranging from guiding to retrieving medication and picking up dropped objects from the floor. At first, it’s tempting to say “I wish my dog could pick up my keys when I drop them,” but in order to understand why some service animal handlers find this remark irritating and even offensive, we need to appreciate the distinction between convenience and necessity. The tasks that the non-disabled person wants their dog to perform, some of us need our dogs to perform. The emails that the non-disabled person wants their computer to read to them, some of us need our computers to read to us. To marvel at the advancements of technology or the intelligence of service animals is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes my brain is still bent a bit sideways when I think about just how much my iPhone makes me feel as though I’ve got a pair of working eyes in my pocket. To desire the mobility aids and access tools that we use overlooks the fact that these aids do for us many of the things that the non-disabled do for themselves with little or no difficulty. I love the fact that, on nights when I’m too tired to cook, I can snap a picture of the back of a frozen pizza box and get the directions, but trust me when I tell you that I’d love it a lot more if I didn’t have to do it.