Transcripts of Living Blindfully are made possible by Pneuma Solutions, a global leader in accessible cloud technologies. On the web at http://PneumaSolutions.com.
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Voiceover: From Wellington, New Zealand, to the world, it’s the Living Blindfully podcast living your best life with blindness or low vision. Here is your host, Jonathan Mosen.
Hello! This week, feedback on the Oko app, and we hear what accessible traffic lights are like in Budapest, more on the nature of blindness and how we perceive it, and Bonnie Mosen’s doing the interviewing today. She has a wide-ranging discussion about guide dog issues with Melissa Allman from Seeing Eye.
Welcome to episode 237. Now we’ve got a bit of a dearth of North American area codes at the moment. There is no area code 237 in the North American numbering plan at the moment.
However, there is a country code 237, and it belongs to the Republic of Cameroon. They haven’t checked the population of Cameroon since 2020, at which point there were about 26 million people there.
I seem to remember that Cameroon has a pretty good soccer team. I must admit I’m not a soccer fan, and that gets people perplexed. And I have very vibrant, lively conversations with them.
But I don’t understand how you can play a game for, I mean, people say that cricket is boring, that you can play for 5 days and not get a result. But at least it’s kind of strategic and enthralling. And perhaps, that’s true with soccer as well, and that I just don’t know or understand the strategy. But it does seem strange to me that people can run around a field with a ball for 90 minutes, and no one scores a thing.
But we’re all different. And if soccer makes a lot of people happy, (which it does, it’s a very popular sport), then I’m happy for them, and I believe that soccer makes people in Cameroon extremely happy.
Bonnie and I are now at the National Federation of the Blinds convention in Houston, Texas.
It was fantastic to get that invitation not only to attend, but also to speak. I’ll be speaking at the general session at approximately [9:40] on the Thursday morning, July the 6th.
You’ll have the opportunity to tune into that on YouTube and other places as well if you would like to, and I’ll see if I can bring the audio back of that presentation, because it is my hope that some of the things I want to say will be the escalation of a very important conversation that the blind community needs to have.
I intend to make the most of the networking and interviewing opportunities at NFB. I’ve reached out to some people. Some people have reached out to me, and we do have some great interviews scheduled.
I’ve got my Zoom F3, which we’ve talked about on the podcast before, and the Zoom M2, which I recently acquired.
The Zoom M2 is just, in case you missed that episode, this little microphone. That’s all it is. It’s a microphone that records very high-quality recordings.
And that means that I can just keep the microphone with me because if I run into anybody interesting and I convince them and say, “Hey, you want to be on the podcast and be a mega star?” and they say yes, then we can just do the interview right there if that’s what it takes. Amazing, eh?
And the Zoom F3 will be there with, I’m taking a couple of Q2U mics and a couple of other mics so that when we’re doing long-form interviews, we’ll hopefully be able to get really good recordings of those.
So looking forward to catching up with a lot of people I haven’t seen for a while and making new acquaintances, and just being recharged and rejuvenated, which I often find is the case after attending one of these conventions.
In next week’s episode, we’re going to be featuring an extended look at the Drafts app. This app, I was a bit slow on the uptake, actually, because lots of people recommended it to me for years, and it took me a while to get into it.
Now I’m super into it, and it has supercharged my phone as a content creation tool. But it’s not just for the phone, it’s also for the Mac as well, and even the Apple Watch.
It’s going to be a longer episode than normal next week as we delve very deep into Drafts. That’s because I’ll be heading home when I would normally prepare the week after that. So by the time we get to episode 239, you will start to hear some of the audio that I was able to make at the NFB convention.
My sincere thanks to Pneuma Solutions for making transcripts of Living Blindfully possible.
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Some more feedback on the Oko app. Cathrine is writing in and says:
I enjoyed your interview with Willem, the creator of Oko. I’ve been using the app for a few weeks now.
I also had the pleasure of speaking with Willem myself. I used the Suggest an Action option in the menu to give the developers a couple of ideas, and Willem emailed me back and asked if we could chat.
My first suggestion was that the app should try to give the user hints on which direction they might have veered if the camera loses sight of the traffic signal. I found Oko very helpful when crossing wide intersections because if I hear it beeping and vibrating, I know I’m heading straight for the walk light on the other side. But if it stops beeping and vibrating, there’s currently no way to know which way I veered. I would imagine that the app could use camera data to extrapolate whether the user has veered right or left, and it could give us a hint to help us get back on track.
The other piece of feedback I had was that Oko could never seem to find the traffic signal at a couple of intersections in my neighborhood. When I spoke to Willem, he pulled them up on Google Street View and told me that these particular intersections did not have pedestrian walk signals at all, only red and green traffic lights for vehicles. The app isn’t designed to interpret those, and Willem told me there are a lot of problems with it trying to do this because it was misreading them a lot. So for Oko users, if you have an intersection where there’s no pedestrian signal, which you wouldn’t necessarily know if the signal is inaccessible, Oko unfortunately won’t work for that crossing.
But overall, I’m enjoying the app and finding it helpful. I also appreciate that the company reached out and is truly interested in user feedback.
Thanks as always for the great podcast.”
Voice message: Hi, Jonathan! This is Peter from Budapest, Hungary.
I have just stepped out of the courtyard of our apartment building. I’m walking on the sidewalk of Tábornok street.
What I’m going to do is try to demonstrate the working of the audible traffic light in Budapest.
This street, Tábornok street, which is mine, merges to a 6-lane boulevard, and there is a pedestrian crossing with audio traffic lights. That is our destination now.
By the way, this recording is made by my Blindshell Classic 1 phone.
So I’m just walking with my cane, as you may hear. I’m crossing the street now.
Now, I will pause the recording.
And one more thing, I will describe how it works. We can purchase in Hungary a remote control. It’s a tiny little box. You can put it in your pocket. And there are buttons on this remote control. Because the traffic lights normally are silent, so they Oops! Branches of trees. So it is silent normally. If I want to make it work, I have to activate it.
It’s easy. I just have to push this button and we will probably hear it will reply with a certain sound (a beeping sound), and then it starts working. Now I’m pausing the recording.
Okay. So we arrived. It’s a bit noisy here because of the six-lane boulevard that I mentioned.
What I’m going to do is push this button in order to make the audible traffic lights work.
So it gave this beeping sound. As I keep on pushing the button, it turns the volume up. So it rises the volume of the traffic lights, at least, in a short period. And then, it goes back to the lower volume level and starts to rise again.
But now, what we heard is the crossing became free. The traffic light became green. Exactly, that was announced.
So now, I’m crossing Tábornok street and I arrived. This is the other traffic light. I hope everyone can hear it. And it will stop making this sound when the crossing is not free anymore.
It is half past midnight now. But still, the traffic is quite dense here because it’s a central boulevard in Budapest. So the light is still green.
What we heard is the announcement that the traffic light turned to red. And now, it announces another direction.
Now, it is free to cross the big boulevard the 6-lane one that I mentioned.
So now we are waiting because Yes, that’s what I was waiting for because now, I can go back through, across my street, Tábornok street. The announcement said that we are free to go.
And yes. Now, I arrived and I will pause the recording again.
I am on my way back home. It’s a really really nice summer night. The temperature is 21 Celsius, according to the soup drinker, at least. And as I mentioned, it’s half past midnight so the streets are quiet, at least the smaller streets.
I hope this demonstration was understandable. I am approaching the building.
Caller: Hi, Jonathan! This is Wes from Des Moines, and I wanted to congratulate you on the switch to Living Blindfully. It is a unique name and I enjoy listening to the podcast each week, so glad that everything is still going on and doing well after the rebranding.
I want to respond to a few topics that have been covered on the podcast as of late.
Oko. I was skeptical when this first came out. I was intrigued by it.
But now that I use it on a regular basis, I really like it. I have to remind myself not to depend fully on it, but it is a confidence boost.
Here in Des Moines, we have a very short rush hour. And we have times where if you are downtown where we have a lot of one way streets and such, sometimes, you don’t get a good, reliable stream of parallel traffic.
The other thing you get is some of these really tall buildings around here that have fans and stuff. And with quieter cars, sometimes, it can be hard to hear them.
I was hit by a car about 7 years ago. And although that thing was not at a lighted intersection, I find myself sometimes needing a little bit of a confidence boost, especially if there is other noise around or if I don’t have a good surefire surge of parallel traffic. So I like having Oko to kind of confirm what is happening.
And if there is no traffic at all, I still like to walk when the walk signal is on because with all the distracted driving and stuff, obviously, if they are going to blow the light, Oko isn’t going to stop that from happening. But I feel a little safer walking when I know that it is my turn to cross.
It is a well done app.
One of the things I wish they would add is a bus stop sign detection. A lot of times, I use trip planners for our transit site so I know where I think the bus stop should be. But if you have a lot of grass and stuff between the sidewalk and the curb, it would be nice to be able to point the Oko in the direction you think the sign might be. And if it could at least recognize what it thinks is a sign, then you could go explore.
Because now, what I end up having to do is walk on and off the grass and the sidewalk to try to find the signs because if you are not standing at the bus stop sign, the bus will drive right by you.
I wanted to say a few words about Apple, too.
I manage the mobile device management of our phones at my employer, and we were going to switch to Apple’s Apple Business Essentials. But the site for that you would think with Apple Accessibility that they would have really done a lot to make it accessible, but they really didn’t. There’s buttons that don’t behave the way you think they should with a screen reader, stuff that’s not labeled, things that are a lot more cumbersome.
I do have to use Apple’s Apple Business Manager to actually buy apps for management and also, to move phones between servers and stuff. And while most of that’s doable, there are some things that you would think should work that don’t like transferring app licenses between server tokens and a bunch of stuff.
And it’s kind of a double-sided token because if they choose to do it correctly, they seem to do a really good job. But the things that they overlook or don’t plan for, you’re kind of stuck and you’re kind of surprised about what those things are because I really would have thought the web presence is iCloud, and then the aforementioned mobile device management stuff would work better.
But one thing that I have to give them credit for is they have a baseball product now TV Plus Friday Night Baseball. I was messing around with it the other day, and they’re using the home and visiting team’s radio broadcasts for their secondary audio.
I confirmed with my wife that the radio is synced with the pitches on screen. This is a game changer for if you have sighted baseball fans who are our friends and you want to watch the game together. Because sometimes, watching games on TV gets a little tricky because the TV people go off on a tangent, you don’t know what’s going on. And also, if you try to listen on the radio while someone else is watching on TV, you can have a hard time getting it synced up. So this is pretty neat to have a solution that you can both use.
Sometimes, I like watching baseball on TV if I just want to hear the ambiance of the games. But most of the time, I listen on the radio. So having that available is pretty neat.
Jonathan: [sings] Take me out to the ball.
Thank you very much for that contribution, and interesting to know that problems with Apple’s web properties persist reasonably widely.
Just a brief update on my experience with the Apple Podcast Connect website.
I did hear back from Apple Accessibility who said they’d filed a bug. I’m encouraged by this, but it does suggest that a bug had not been filed before. [laughs] You have got to be so persistent with this thing.
So we had a bit of a dialog. The bug’s been further clarified, and I guess I just wait now and see if anything ever happens to allow me, as a blind podcast creator, to use the service that I’m paying for and to do what everybody else is able to do.
Steven Cantoz is commenting on the Vision Pro. He says:
I’d just like to say that I think I’m not surprised that Apple, at first, hasn’t enabled access to the camera. They’re very likely trying to ensure as much security as possible, and looking at different ways to keep things private before actually giving third parties access to the cameras.
When Apple does something, it may take a long time, but they’ve usually got it done well and with actual thought in mind. So I’d be patient before being automatically negative about the Vision Pro, because it could still be a great accessibility aid if you can afford it.
Now I recognize for the majority of blind people, it ain’t going to be a thing we’re going to be able to buy. $3,500+, it is most definitely not an affordable price. And it’s likely more in other countries. So that’s certainly a consideration.
But let’s say it’s a better camera than the Envision glasses. If Apple gives third parties access to the camera in future updates, it could be worth getting for agencies who help blind people live more independent lives. And I think it would be a better platform for most of these kinds of apps like Aira and Envision to be on even with the current situation.”
Thanks for adding in, Steven.
It certainly is a lot of cash to put down. And it’s a massive gamble to put that cash down if you’re hoping that one day, Apple might just relax those third-party restrictions. Because at the moment really, Aira, Be My Eyes, and all of those apps can’t do anything of consequence with the headset because third-party apps can’t use the camera.
I absolutely agree with you. It is a far better camera system than anything else that’s out there at the moment.
And I also agree with you that in time, those restrictions will be lifted. This is a pretty consistent pattern for Apple. We’ve seen it with other products, so who knows when that will happen? It could be with the existing hardware. It could be with future hardware updates once it’s been out in the wild for a year or two.
I do, however, totally reject the assertion that pointing out that a product can’t do something that many blind people want it to do and expect it to do is automatically negative.
It’s not the job of this podcast to sell Apple products. One of the jobs of this podcast, however, is to look at tools that are out there and to provide commentary on how they fit into our lives.
Now, there was a lot of talk on Mastodon, and indeed on this podcast in our post-WWDC keynote wrap when the Vision Pro was announced, about the idea that third-party apps might make a huge difference on Vision Pro. So when it turns out that at least for the foreseeable future, those apps cannot use the camera, it is not being automatically negative to simply point that out to listeners. It would be irresponsible of me not to.
I did point out when we commented on this that there will be a number of accessibility things that the Vision Pro will do, and it may be that there’ll be a lot built in to Vision Pro that will be quite enticing to us. More on that will be available in the forthcoming weeks and months. The software development kit is out now, for example, and we will learn more about the accessibility features.
But the idea of Aira, Be My Eyes, Envision, SuperSense, similar apps being on the Vision Pro was a live topic. At least for now, that’s not possible. Pointing that out here on Living Blindfully is simply a statement of fact.
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Andrew Walker is in touch from the UK with a response to Beth’s email from episode 236. And he writes:
“While I personally did not agree substantially with her stance on blindness, I am aware that many people would agree with her. I feel this is a shame, as there would appear to be a deep-seated unhappiness and a yearning for something unobtainable, namely the restoration of sight.
I would say right away that I am not making judgements or attempting to tell others how to live their lives. In any event, even if I had some profound wisdom to tell, I think that anyone in despair with their lot would find what I have to say unreasonable, if not insanity. What I can say is what has worked for me, personally.
I have always had defects with my sight, but could see well enough until my teens. At which point, I lost total sight in one eye and substantial amounts in the other. I could still get about well. Had a bit of trouble reading, but could ride a bike and people passing me in the street would not have noticed too much to indicate that I was, at that point, partially sighted.
When I was 40 (that’s about 25 years ago), I lost all of my remaining sight within a few weeks.
I never went through a period of grief for the loss, and did not enter the protracted period of mourning as many people told me I would.
Total loss of sight, however, meant I had a whole lot of learning to do. I didn’t have a grand plan, but I tackled issues as they came up.
I learned how to use a cane in a few days. And 10 days after going blind, I returned to work, travelling by train on my own.
I would say that it took me about 5 years before I felt myself to be a “proper” blind person rather than someone just playing at it.
I continued my work with people with disabilities, including people exhibiting what could be termed challenging behaviours.
Strangely enough, I worked in an establishment with about 300 staff, and I was the person they called for when there was trouble. Fights, knives, and even axe-throwing were just some of the things which people called on me to sort out. So we have real issues with violence, so we’ll send for the totally blind guy to sort it out for us.
I’m retired now, and never really thought about it at the time. And it is only now that I look back and think that I had a remarkable work life.
To go back to Beth’s assertions about blind parenting, I would tentatively and respectfully suggest that sight loss is being seen through a lens of a deficit model. In other words, sight loss is a catastrophic life event which is 100% bad, as sight is required to live a happy and productive life.
This is of course, understandable since I always view sighted people as potential blind people in waiting. What I mean by this is that unless born blind, people live lives in a sighted way and blindness is often viewed with fear. Again, to put it another way, we end up with sighted people in blind bodies and this mismatch can cause profound dissatisfaction with life and deep unhappiness, not to mention low self-esteem and a feeling of uselessness.
Let’s have a look at the parenting issue. Clearly, sighted people should have their children taken from them since their puny, limited sight does not enable them to see through walls to supervise them in the next room. This is clearly dangerous, since they could be up to who knows what?
If there is a power cut in the middle of the night and the children need to be evacuated for some reason, how are the sighted parents going to evacuate the children? Surely, in this case, the sighted parent should have the children taken from them and put in the hands of blind people who would be much better able to accomplish this task in the darkness.
This is the problem with the deficit model. It always finds problems to which there are unlikely to be completely satisfactory solutions.
There is also the issue of where the line is drawn. Let’s see. What other groups should not care for children? Perhaps people with diabetes, epilepsy, wheelchair users, people with heart complaints, those with learning difficulties, autistic traits, those with arthritis, and the list could go on. From a deficit point of view, you could make out cases for all of these people to have their children taken from them as they might present various dangers to their children.
On the balance of probability, however, it would be unlikely that harm would come to the children of such people. Blind people are not stupid. They know they are blind and act accordingly. If this were not so, droves of blind people would be killed crossing roads every year, and hospitals would be full of blind people who have injuries from the use of sharp kitchen tools.
Beth has, however, helped me to understand something.
I do not like the Living Blindfully branding. I’ve not liked it since I first heard it.
But I thought this might be simply because it was a change. I think now, it might be because Living Blindfully could be interpreted in a negative way namely that it is impossible for blind people to live full lives, and all that they can do is live as full a life as second-rate citizens can. Alternatively speaking, the poor, wretched blind people will just be making the best of a bad job.
Now I know that this isn’t the ethos behind the name change, but I itch a little every time I hear the new name.
I personally love being blind, have learned so much from the experience, and wouldn’t thank a surgeon for a sight-restoring procedure. I have lived a rich and productive life as a blind person, and have achieved some things which I could not have done as a sighted person.
I get it. Living Blindfully can fit the bill. But to me, it is also ambiguous.
I’m not trying to persuade you to change the name. I’m just expressing my humble, (well, not so humble, really) view on the back of Beth’s contribution, which I found somewhat moving.”
Thanks very much for the email, Andrew.
Regarding Beth’s contribution, Beth, to my knowledge, is born blind. She makes reference to retinopathy of prematurity and the fact that she’s been investigating that and researching it. And I believe, that is the cause of her blindness.
So she’s not dealing with grieving for something she’s lost. Perhaps regretting something she has never had would be a good description of her situation based on the email that she sent in.
And certainly, the question of spatial awareness and links to certain causes of blindness is a really interesting subject. And that’s one of the things that she raised in episode 236.
Regarding the name Living Blindfully, well, I’m glad you’re not trying to persuade me to change it because I’ve got to tell you, nothing in this world would persuade me to change this name. I’m really proud of it. I think it speaks to the philosophy of this podcast and that I’ve been trying to impart, that it is absolutely possible to live a great life when you’re a blind person or somebody with low vision.
I think it resonates in two ways.
First, it’s a portmanteau word blind and fully. And when you take those two apart, it’s pretty clear what we’re driving at here on this podcast.
But also, what makes it resonate is that there is a lot of talk about living mindfully these days living a more mindful life, being more conscious of what you’re doing. And so, it taps into that very positive discussion that’s going on about living a more mindful life. Mindfulness is a positive thing. Living Blindfully is equally positive.
We’ve commented on this podcast many times about the hijacking of the word blind the fact that we were obviously here first. And then, sighted people, because of their perceptions of blind people, interpreted blind to mean ignorant, stupid, inept, all those things all the ablest language things that keep coming up on this podcast for very good reason because they are really important.
So I think the only way that you could interpret Living Blindfully as somehow a negative is if you bought into that pejorative negative use of the word blind. And for those who buy into that notion, then nothing we call this podcast would make a difference.
What I’m finding is that a lot of people are already discovering the podcast who haven’t met me before, even though I’ve been around a wee while in the, I guess, established online blind community.
But the name Living Blindfully is speaking to them. It’s resonating with them, and they’re giving the podcast a listen. Whereas they wouldn’t have listened to a podcast called Mosen at Larch before because they had no idea what it was about.
So it’s working. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Although so many people misquote that saying, and they say the proof is in the pudding.
But that’s another linguistic pet peeve. [laughs] We won’t go into that now.
But Living Blindfully is unique. When you search on it, there’s only one thing that comes up, and that’s pretty important for branding.
So you know, you can never find a brand that satisfies everybody, I suppose. But this brand is most definitely here to stay.
I’m glad you’re sticking with it, despite not liking the name. And thank you very much for your Living Blindfully plus subscription as well, by the way.
George McDermith writes:
“I live in Colorado. And as an avid hiker, the All Terrain cane sounds like a wonderful tool.
I ordered one back in April and unfortunately, have not yet received it. I hope to get my hands on one shortly, and will let you know what I make of it.
Regarding being proud of being blind, I think it makes sense. We who are blind have much to be proud of, and provide a unique contribution to our communities. If one knows Braille, how to travel with a cane, and accessible technology, one has the tools to be independent and contribute to those around them. This, in my mind, allows us to stand tall and say, “I am proud to be blind.”
Thanks for your great work on the show. I am a Living Blindfully plus member, and appreciate all your hard work.
Any word on merch for the podcast, by the way? Still waiting for my own Living Blindfully cane.”
Thank you, George. I got to get on with the merch. There’s just so much going on. I really appreciate your Living Blindfully plus subscription, and I promise we will get round to the merch.
Voice message: Greetings, Jonathan and Living Blindfully listeners. I’m asking this question from an airport. I seem to make a habit of that, Jonathan.
But it’s to do with Lire. I use Lire a lot for keeping up with news and other information, etc.
I’m finding that every time I open Lire, it goes back in my feeds, sometimes up to a month with articles prior to the date when I am expecting to read the articles.
I’m wondering if that is a change in my settings, or whether I should contact the app provider about it, or whether in fact, it’s just to do with the people who have the feeds on Lire and I can’t fix it.
Hopefully, you can give me an answer.
Jonathan: Well, I will do my best, Graeme.
That is Graeme Innes coming in from another airport in Australia. Good to hear from you.
I also use Lire a lot. It is a great app. And of course, we interviewed the developer a long time ago now on the podcast.
I suspect what’s happened is that you’ve changed your filter by accident. If we go to the bottom of the screen,
And I just happened to have my handy dandy Lire app open. I’ll touch the bottom.
VoiceOver: Toolbar. All articles button, 1 of 4.
Jonathan: That may be selected. I suspect that’s the issue where you’ve got all articles selected.
If we flick right,
VoiceOver: Selected. Unread button, 2 of 4.
Jonathan: I’ve got my unread selected. And that means that I’m only shown unread articles.
And what I do is I skim through my news items. I obviously double tap and read the ones that I’m interested in.
And when I’m finished, I double tap in each feed the mark all as read button. That means that when I go in, having marked all as read, I’m only going to see new content that may interest me.
So if you follow that workflow and make sure that the second option (that you’re only seeing unread at the bottom of the screen) is selected, and then you mark all your content as read as you go, then you should be OK and only seeing new content.
I haven’t seen any change in behavior from the app in recent times.
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Bonnie: I have the pleasure today of interviewing Melissa Allman, who is the Advocacy and Government Relations Specialist for the Seeing Eye, Incorporated, which is the oldest guide dog school in the world located in Morristown, New Jersey. They have been providing specially trained guide dogs for blind and visually impaired people since 1929. And I am also a very proud graduate of the school.
And today, we’re going to talk to Melissa about a few things, most importantly, the access issues that are going on for guide dog and service dog handlers particularly in the United States.
We’re also, of course, going to be focusing on the Seeing Eye’s advocacy app which was dropped just a few weeks ago, and delve into that.
So first, I’m going to talk.
Melissa, why don’t you give us a brief bio of yourself?
Melissa: I was actually born in Ohio, and I lived there, you know, until I went off to college, pretty much. And then, went to graduate school after that.
I am a lawyer by training, and I practiced law for 12 years.
Most of what I did was fair housing work. I represented people who were experiencing discrimination in housing situations. Sometimes, it was because of their race, or gender, or the fact that they had kids. Other times, it was because of their disability. And many of my clients were under-resourced, low-income, and were just in desperate need of housing, so it was really meaningful work to me. And hopefully, I was able to help some people.
I practiced law in Delaware at a legal aid organization for 10 years. And then, I went and worked in Chicago at a fair housing legal clinic for 2 years and a quarter. And during all of that time, I actually was matched with my wonderful, awesome Seeing-Eye dog Luna while I was living and working in Chicago.
So the way that happened is that I realized how many amazing opportunities there were in Chicago for traveling around more efficiently, more independently, and with more confidence. And I kind of thought, “Okay. This is the time. This is the time and the place for me to finally brush up my travel skills in the way that I need to, and apply for a dog.”
But while I was doing that and working at the fair housing clinic, I would often encounter cases where people were trying to access housing with a service animal, or in some cases, an emotional support animal, which is allowed in housing. Or maybe, they were already there and it was recommended, or they received training with a service animal and they were having challenges with respect to access.
And so that area had already started to become a passion for me. And that really solidified while I was working at the fair housing clinic.
And then one night, I was sitting on my couch, and I don’t think it was 109,000 degrees that day, but it was a nice, cool day in Chicago.
And I was sitting there thinking, “All right. Well, I see this email from the Seeing Eye about a graduate call that’s coming up, and I would like to attend that.”
I wasn’t actually going to even scroll all the way down to the end of the email at that moment. But then, I did. And I saw this amazing job opportunity, which was the job that I currently do. And I almost felt like someone said, “What would you like to do? write up a job description.” and that’s what I felt like I was reading.
So then, I applied to the Seeing Eye for that job, and was extremely honored when I was selected for the position. I’ve now been working here in that role for, it will be 5 years on, I think it’s going to be April 18th.
So there you go. And today is Luna’s birthday. So all kinds of great!
Bonnie: Oh well, happy birthday, Luna! And Luna is a yellow lab, correct?
Melissa: Yes. She’s a yellow lab (golden cross), and she is lying on the floor behind me, sleeping peacefully.
Bonnie: Oh, that’s good. I think Eclipse is here, too.
I met Melissa actually 4 years ago, when I was getting Eclipse. And Eclipse would often follow Luna down the hall as we were heading to the dining room for lunch. So we had a Luna Eclipse.
Melissa: Yes, we did. [laughs]
Bonnie: So happy birthday, Luna, and congratulations on your 5 years at Seeing Eye. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. But then you know, throw the pandemic in there and time just sort of goes out the window, I think.
Melissa: It really does. It really does.
Bonnie: You had a lot of access experience before you even joined the Seeing Eye and saw it from the other side, particularly with the way service animals trying to access things just in the Fair Housing Act. So were you surprised when you got your first Seeing eye dog and saw the access issues that other handlers were experiencing? Did that surprise you?
Melissa: No, it didn’t surprise me, but it just incensed me. It just, it really upset and frustrated me at that time because I was seeing my clients go through so many things. And again, as you rightly pointed out, it was mostly in the housing context. But I knew that if they were experiencing it in housing, if it wasn’t an emotional support animal and it was a service animal that was tasked trained to be in public places, I knew they were going to be encountering that stuff out in public. And I also knew from other guide dog handlers that I had spoken to as I very seriously considered my decision to work with a dog that this was going to be a significant issue.
I know that you’re probably aware of the Zoe the Seeing Eye Dog Facebook page that Kristin Fleschner did.
Bonnie: Yes, yes.
Melissa: And so I was in contact with her. And I was sort of following all of that. I was really, really frustrated to know that those issues would be coming and that other people were experiencing that. But I would say that I was not surprised.
Bonnie: I think before we go on, (because this is a question that a lot of people get confused, whether it be service dog handlers themselves or the general public), what is the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal?
Melissa: Well, that’s an excellent question. And I’m glad you’re asking it because you’re right, there is a lot of confusion.
So the Americans with Disabilities Act is the law that protects our right to be accompanied by our service animals. Here in the US, guide dogs are considered to be service animals. That law gives us the right to be accompanied in public by our dogs. And the reason for that is because a service animal is a dog (sometimes, it’s a miniature horse but usually, it’s a dog) that is individually trained to perform a task for the benefit of a person with a disability.
That individually trained aspect is very key, and the task part. So the dog has to have learned that it needs to respond to something recognition and response. You recognize something and you respond accordingly by performing a task. That is what the dog is trained to do.
So guide dogs are trained to respond to the commands we give them to go forward, left, right, whatever that may be. And they’re also trained to recognize when they see an obstacle that they are to guide us around it. When they see a landmark like a crosswalk, they are to stop.
So that’s an example of a task. And there are many other types of tasks like alerting that somebody is going to have a seizure, or perhaps pulling a wheelchair. I know that that’s become a little bit controversial, but that’s a task that the regs do name. So these are examples of tasks that dogs can perform.
Now, emotional support animal, (and I’m going to use the word animal very explicitly here) because it does not have to be a dog. It does not have to be trained to perform a task. All it has to do is be there to mitigate the symptoms or the manifestations of a disability.
And emotional support animals under the federal law are covered in housing. They’re protected. They have a right to be in housing.
They used to have the right to fly. but the definition of service animal with the new air transportation regulations, the DOT regs, that definition has been more closely aligned with the definition under the ADA.
And therefore, when you fly, the Air Carrier Access Act is the law that controls. In those implementing regulations, a service animal is a dog that is trained to perform a task for the benefit of a person with a disability. Just pretty much almost exactly with a few word variations like the DOJ, the Department of Justice definition.
Bonnie: And a lot of people really get those confused. And there’s only a few questions that a business or entity can ask about a service animal. Correct?
Melissa: Yes, and it depends on the circumstances. So as far as guide dogs are concerned, it is obvious what task our dog is performing. The regulations do say that if it’s known or obvious, or if it’s readily observed or readily apparent that the dog is performing a task for the benefit of a person with a disability, right? The disability is also obvious, then really, there should be absolutely no questions.
But if it isn’t obvious, and there are many, many types of service animals now, and there are times when people are not also well-educated about service animals, and it’s understandable. So when it’s not obvious, the two questions that are allowed are, is this a service animal that’s necessary because of a disability? And what task is it trained to perform?
Now, what I tell people is, “Look. In our case, really, the questions shouldn’t be asked.”
But if someone does, this is my own personal choice. If someone were to ask me those questions, rather than get upset with them, I would just assume that maybe it wasn’t obvious to them. Or maybe they’d had some training, but they forgot that little part about it being obvious. So I would just say, “Yep, she’s a Seeing Eye dog. She guides me.”, or, “She’s a guide dog, and I’m blind.” And you know, we’ll move forward and keep moving.
Bonnie: I think a lot of the things that have happened is a service dog in a public establishment still has to behave, and a business is allowed to ask you to leave if the animal is causing a disruption, but that rarely ever happens, right?
Melissa: Well, yeah, because businesses (and this is the really unfortunate part), is that businesses, not only are they often not aware of their obligations with respect to people with service animals. They’re also not aware of their own rights. They’re so fearful, I think, of being sued or of being called on the carpet, that they don’t avail themselves of the right to ask a person to remove their service animal if it is behaving inappropriately.
The handler has got to have control over the service animal. And if the handler is not able to effectively control the animal, then the business can ask them to remove it. They do have to let them come back without the dog, but they can ask them to remove it in those circumstances. You know, things like growling, lunging, barking, being aggressive, you know, grabbing food off of restaurant tables. These are things that are not acceptable.
Bonnie: So with rights comes responsibilities.
Melissa: Always, yes.
Bonnie: Always, yes. And going back a little bit and talking about, Because you mentioned there are 3 federal laws in the US. and probably, similar laws in Canada as well, and we’ll go into kind of international stuff later. But there are 3 laws that cover the rights of service animals. And can you, you mentioned the ADA and you mentioned the Fair Housing Act. And then, there’s the third one. And you also mentioned the Air Carrier Act. And a lot of people seem to really kind of get those intertwine them, I guess. So can you talk a little bit about how each one is a bit different?
So the Americans with Disabilities Act titles 2 and 3, they focus on public entities. Title 2 is going to be more like state and local governmental entities. Think things like libraries, for example. And title 3 is going to be businesses and other entities that may be privately owned, but they’re open to the public. And that is the law that says you can bring a dog, and in rare cases, a miniature horse, but let’s focus on dogs. You can bring in a dog that is trained, yes, to perform a task. Okay?
And the Air Carrier Access Act applies to the airline itself, like the air carrier. But just to make things confusing, (although less so than before), the airport itself, like the shops in the airport and other areas of the airport, those places are covered under the ADA.
But once you go into the airline, once you get on the plane or you’re at the gate and you’re standing at the counter waiting to board, whatever the situation may be, that’s where you’ve got the Air Carrier Access Act that comes into play.
What are some differences? Well, one difference that went away, and I don’t want to confuse people, but since emotional support animals used to be allowed on airlines, you could literally, like, fly with your emotional support cat, but it wasn’t necessarily protected when you were walking through the airport. So if you brought it into the Chili’s, right, they could tell you to leave with it.
So now, with the definitions being more aligned, that part is a little clearer. But one of the things that’s different is that if you go into a public place, For example, so we’re talking about the ADA again. You’re going to a restaurant, a store, a bank, a hotel, a hair salon, the theater, you know, all these places that I like to go, that is a situation where really, you should just be allowed to go in with your service animal.
And as we discussed, you know, if it’s not obvious, the two questions can be asked. If it is, then they shouldn’t be asked.
And you don’t have to disclose when you’re going to a public place, you can just go. You don’t have to disclose ahead of time that you’re going to be bringing your service animal.
However, one of the things that is very different with respect to air travel is that under the Air Carrier Access Act, (new regulations for service animals), they are allowed to, (and all airlines are doing it), ask you to complete an Air Trans service animal air transportation form that attests to your dog’s training, health, and behavior. And there are all sorts of issues associated with that. But you do have to now, and you didn’t use to have to. But you do now have to disclose ahead of time that you’re going to be flying with your dog.
The Fair Housing Act protects both service animals that are covered by the ADA, which is the less restrictive standard. And it also protects emotional support animals, which don’t have to be dogs.
They don’t have to be task trained, but the landlord is allowed to ask for as much documentation as they need to evaluate a reasonable accommodation request to have that dog or that animal there, dog, cat, ferret, whatever it may be, within reason.
So the landlord can ask whether or not you have a disability, and they can ask for information about your need for the animal. They’re not allowed to go into details about your diagnosis, but they’re allowed to ask about the need for the animal and what the animal, how it helps you with your disability. So you’ve got to establish that you have a disability, the accommodation that you’re requesting, which in this case is a service animal, and what the legalese term is, is the nexus, right? The connection between those two things, the need for the animal.
So landlords are allowed to ask for documentation from your doctor or other medical provider if you’re asking to be able to be there with an emotional support animal.
And they’re also allowed to ask for some documentation if it’s not obvious what task the animal is performing. If it’s a service animal that is allowed in public, but they don’t know what it does. Maybe it’s a PTSD assist dog, and they don’t understand, and it’s not obvious when you see the team working. So that’s information a landlord can ask for.
But again, back to situations like ours. If it’s obvious what the dog is doing, and it’s already a service animal covered by the ADA, then they’re not allowed to ask those kinds of questions. Really, no documentation is required. Its best practice is to say, “I need this animal as a reasonable accommodation, so I’m asking you to waive all fees and deposits that you would normally charge for animals. And also, by the way, to allow me to have an animal here if you don’t allow them.” So that’s really the more nuanced look at it.
I like to think of the Fair Housing Act scenario as an umbrella of assistance animals. And under that assistance animal umbrella are service animals covered by the ADA like Luna and Eclipse, and then emotional support animals, which do not have to be dogs and do not have to be trained.
Bonnie: And we won’t dive into the whole national identification for service animals. But this protects all animals, whether they be program-trained or owner-trained, correct?
Melissa: Absolutely. And thank you for bringing that up.
The ADA does not specify that a dog has to be trained by a certain school. You can be owner-trained. It just says individually trained, and that really can mean anything.
And also, since you brought up IDs, there is no requirement under the ADA that we show an ID to prove that our dog is a service animal or paperwork. Everybody likes to talk about paperwork, certifications, and all that.
Bonnie: Yes, yes.
Melissa: But that’s because of what the internet and the people who like to sell those things and make money have perpetuated out there, because anybody can get anything online. It doesn’t make something a service animal and doesn’t mean it’s trained.
Bonnie: And a lot of business, unfortunately, or a lot of public places are asking for that kind of identification.
Melissa: Yes, because of that misconception that’s been perpetuated.
Bonnie: That misconception.
Bonnie: Going back to when you first started at the Seeing Eye, what was the reason the school decided that they needed an advocacy person? Was there kind of a, you know, watershed moment they decided, or was this something that they had been considering for a while? Or was it something that graduates requested?
Melissa: Well, based on my knowledge of it, because of course, you know, this predates me a bit.
My understanding, so we had a very dedicated volunteer who, (and you know, that word doesn’t really cover it), somebody who was volunteering and working many, many hours a week to do the advocacy work here at the Seeing Eye, even before I had a dog.
But I think, there was a decision at some point that a full-time employee was needed to do this work, and that there was an actual position that needed to be created because there were so many other issues, so many advocacy issues that were arising and new ones that kept coming up.
And I think in large part that that is because more and more people are benefiting, and this is a positive thing, right? Like more and more people, not just guide dog handlers, but others with disabilities are benefiting from service animals.
So that’s great, but that’s also opened up areas for potential abuse and confusion.
Melissa: The Department of Justice regulations that were implemented in 2010 for the ADA are not as nuanced as they could be, and probably didn’t anticipate all that we’d be seeing.
And another really positive thing is that we guide dog handlers are continuing to travel, and do things more and more and more. And that’s really what we want to see, right?
Melissa: So I know we’re talking to other handlers from other schools here, too. But the Seeing Eye’s mission is independence and dignity. And that was a mission that was created many, many years ago. And obviously, that was what was in Morris Frank’s mind back in 1929 and Dorothy Harrison Eustis, but the implications for that have just become broader and broader because of all of the things that we’re getting out there and doing.
And you know what that means? More and more access challenges.
Bonnie: And we’ll talk a little bit more about the DOT regs in a little bit.
But sadly, I have seen comments on social media where people who have considered getting a guide dog are not considering anymore because of the access issues that are cropping up now. And others that may be waiting to get a guide dog are like, “I don’t know that I want to deal with this stress now.”, which is extremely sad. And we all go through that when we get an Uber denial or have to fill out these regs, but it’s really a sad commentary.
And do you think the access issues are getting worse, or are we just hearing about them more?
Melissa: I think both are true. One of the things that we have to keep in mind about social media and our ways of communicating nowadays is that we hear about all kinds of things that we didn’t hear about before, and couldn’t have heard about before, right?
Melissa: Because it was harder or more cumbersome. Phone calls were more expensive.
So I think that what we are hearing about has increased significantly over time because of all the ways that are available to us to communicate now.
But I also do think that there’s significant possibility things are getting worse because of, for example, the ride share situation, which I know we’re going to talk about. Ride shares didn’t really exist, I want to say 10, 15, 20 years ago. You know, that’s been a very recent development.
And back a number of years ago, there was a lot less known about service animals. So guide dogs were really the first service animals. So there were fewer people benefiting from service animals, but there was also less room for confusion and abuse. So I think that both of those things are true.
I think that things have probably gotten worse. But I also think that people can be heard, and we can be influenced a lot more by what we hear and see on social media, through texting, through emailing, and all of that than we used to be able to.
Bonnie: And also, we tend to also hear the bad things.
Bonnie: I mean, as we’re talking, there are many guide dog service dog handlers who are getting in Ubers, getting in ride shares, getting on planes, going into restaurants with no problem.
Melissa: Yes. And they’re not going to write about that. They’re not going to say, “I ran 5 errands today, and I got into every place I went.” They’re just going to run their errands.
Melissa: It’s just part of their daily life.
If they post about a restaurant that they ate at recently, they’re not going to say, “I got in with no problems.” They’re going to say, “This was the best Greek restaurant I have been to ever in my life.”.
Because there’s an expectation in this country. There’s a general fundamental expectation that our rights will be protected, that they won’t be violated. I know that that’s challenged a lot, but we take things for granted is what I’m saying.
But it’s when the bad stuff happens that you hear about it. I mean yes, I think that does pop up occasionally on social media about people saying they don’t think they want to deal with it. But I hear more stories and more conversations from people about this is what happened to me with my dog. What can I do and what do I do now? Not, “Okay, I don’t think I want to have a guide dog anymore.”
Bonnie: That’s encouraging because as we both know, it can be frustrating. It can be demoralizing. It can be humiliating. But at the end of the day, we know how much independence our dogs bring us and how much joy they bring us as well.
Melissa: Well, absolutely. And all of those things are true, right, and horribly anxiety-producing. You know, I think that we’re in a society today where people are more comfortable talking about their anxiety and ways that they feel about things. And again, social media has made that much more possible. So, you know, people might have been anxious about these things and felt demoralized and humiliated 20 years ago. But again, we didn’t have ways to hear about it as much.
Bonnie: But going back to the pandemic. And we’re still in the new normal now, I guess is what we’re calling it, because the pandemic is still kind of here. But what sort of access issues, if any, came up during the pandemic? And do you think that after now, as we’re going through this (or not coming back out into the world maybe is the best way to put it), have they changed? Do you think it’s different now? Has it gotten worse since the pandemic?
Melissa: Well, here’s what I would say. I would say that in the depths of the deep dark lockdown days, you know, where we were all washing our groceries and no one really knew what was happening, there were some definitely new access-related issues that were coming up that none of us had ever seen before. And one of them was this issue of social distancing and this reality that we who work with guide dogs, Our dogs are not trained to social distance. That’s not something that we want to train them to do because we don’t want them stopping 6 feet short of something or someone that they need to go around so that they can safely and successfully guide. And that was really alarming, I think, for a lot of the public who didn’t understand why this person with a guide dog is getting so close to them.
We heard about that, definitely, here in Morristown. So that’s something that was coming up a lot. How do I social distance?
And another thing that would come up is that, people didn’t realize that we still have something actually on our access page about this that I haven’t asked to have taken down yet because as soon as we do, it’ll come up again. But we put something up there about the fact that you’re not going to catch COVID from a dog, right?
Bonnie: Oh dear, yes. [laughs]
Melissa: So the fact that our dogs would come in places and wouldn’t be masked (because you can’t, really. That just does not work very well.) [laughs] That did not mean you were going to catch COVID from the dog.
Another issue that was really interesting, problematic, and frustrating is the sidewalk dining sprawl that happened. And so what that meant was that restaurant owners were creating these not very well designed barriers and directional signs or structures so that you would have to go around the sidewalk dining area. And sometimes, you have to go out into the street, which really was not safe for us. And these were not barriers or setups that were such that our dogs would recognize them for what they were, right? So if there were cones set up in a certain way to indicate this is a barrier for the sidewalk dining, well, if it wasn’t set up right, our dogs would just walk through them.
And the other thing is having you walk out into the street is absolutely not safe. So the pedestrian rights of way access guidelines, That’s a mouthful, so I just call it PROWAG, and I’m prowagging.
Bonnie: Prowagging? [laughs] I like that.
Melissa: Yeah. And they are guidelines. They’re not law. And we’re still waiting on the access board to do something with that. And we might hear something this spring is my understanding.
But those guidelines have a lot of good information about how to make pedestrian paths accessible and safe for people with disabilities. And a lot of these entities had never heard of it before. They didn’t know about that.
So those are the huge issues that we saw popping up during the really darker part of the pandemic, and I’m not hearing about those things so much anymore. I think the sidewalk dining has gotten a little bit more under control, and nobody seems to be social distancing anymore. So that’s not as much of an issue. And I haven’t heard anybody lately say that people are worried they’re going to catch COVID from their guide dogs.
Bonnie: That’s good. Yeah. It was definitely an interesting time, you know, for us here in New Zealand, where we were really locked down for months at a time a very, very strict lockdown regimen. It was quite interesting.
And we’ve just, probably in the last year, started to really open our borders and come out.
I know I was in Europe in September, and it was like the pandemic had never happened. So, you know, it was definitely an interesting time, and a really interesting time for service animal handlers. [laughs]
Going back to just talking about your role a little bit. Is Seeing Eye the only school in the country that has a full time advocacy person that you know of?
Melissa: To my knowledge, yes, there is another school that has someone who is the director of outreach and advocacy. So they oversee some specific people who are focused on, you know, going out and doing some recruiting and promoting the school’s mission, and that sort of situation. And that person also does advocacy work. And those two things are under one umbrella.
And then, there’s us. And to my knowledge, that is it for how that role is defined.
And I do, you know, I do a few things, right? So I provide support and assistance to graduates and students who either have questions or have experienced access barriers concerning their rights as guide dog handlers.
Even though I’m a lawyer, I’m not practicing law. So I have to be careful not to actually give legal advice, like in terms of this is what you should do, that you have a good case, you don’t have a good case. For that, I have to direct them to places where they may be able to get that.
But as far as I can provide information about the law, I can tell them what the law says. And I do that at the federal level. But we also have lots of information about state laws that I can provide people.
I also do education and outreach sort of trainings for different entities about service animal-related issues. And I do some spokesperson work with our donor and public relations department, which is one of the reasons I get to do fun things like what we’re doing today.
I also support graduates who want to do work on legislative initiatives. Like we had a graduate who worked very hard to get a guide dog protection law passed in Maryland a couple of years ago. So we were able to provide some informational testimony to support that. So that’s kind of what I do here.
Bonnie: So you’re a very busy lady. And of course, the Seeing Eye has worked on several education programs the one that they did about the airport a few years ago with one of the other schools, and then recently, with the article in the Journal of Vision Impairment.
Melissa: Yes, yes. That was due to the willingness of our graduates to complete a survey that we rolled out in 2019. Because we really wanted to learn, there was a survey conducted in 2011 by Ginger Kutch. And that survey was instrumental as well because it was really a good baseline study of this issue. I don’t really think it had been well studied before. And so that was an important foundation for us.
And then, we focus this survey more specifically on just our graduates and not only aggressive interference from dogs, but all types. And also, interference from other people. So we really wanted to know what people were experiencing, so that we could work on ways to make our program better, so that we could better equip our graduates.
And one of the things that came out of that was that people were really not getting the support they needed from law enforcement at all.
Melissa: And so what we did then is we created a law, and this recently also rolled out. We created a law enforcement education campaign for New Jersey police. And we’re still waiting for feedback on that, whether the police officers have found it effective, whether how many of them have utilized it, because you know, the police departments get to decide which trainings their officers are going to take. It’s also available to other first responders.
So it’s focused on access and interference issues. And it has a federal component, but it then has a very New Jersey-specific module.
And so what we would like to do, as we wait and see how this one is received and what changes we need to make, we’d like to develop these in many other states as well.
Bonnie: And just because we have such a huge, broad audience that will be listening to this interview from people who are guide dog handlers, to people who aren’t, and even non-visually impaired people, describe a little bit about what you mean by interference with the team, and how that’s so dangerous.
Melissa: Interference is dangerous.
To start with that, before I even talk about what it is, anything that distracts the dog from its work is detrimental to the safety of the handler, right?
So an interference comes in a lot of forms. Interference can be aggressive physical contact from another dog, where a dog bites your dog, or tries to bite your dog, or does something that is so aggressive and terrifies your dog like growling, lunging, all kinds of things.
It could also be non-aggressive interference, where maybe you’re walking down the sidewalk and somebody has a ridiculously long (not that I have an opinion about this), flexi-lead or something. [laughs[
Bonnie: I think we all do. [laughs]
Melissa: Yes. And they’re talking on their phone, and their dog is just out there in the middle of the sidewalk and maybe, just wants to play with Luna.
Bonnie: Yeah, yeah.
Melissa: But really, I can’t get past. I don’t know what’s going on. and she is trying to get past. And every time she does, the dog play bows at her.
Or it can be interference from people who say, “I know I’m not supposed to pet you, but
Bonnie: “But I just can’t help it.” [laughs]
Melissa: “I just can’t help myself.” Well, you know what? You got to learn to help yourself. We’re adults here. Although I sometimes think children are better behaved than adults.
Bonnie: A lot of times, they are, because they’ve gotten good education. [laughs]
Melissa: Good education, yes.
Bonnie: from the donor and public relations department, yes. [laughs]
Melissa: But also, it could be a situation where somebody is making noises at a dog. And you know what? People underestimate (and this is something that we really found in our survey results and in the article), is that just really subtle types of interference can be very distracting like somebody making eye contact or gestures at a dog that might not be audible at all.
Melissa: And so, you know, this is the kind of stuff that if you’re standing at an intersection and you’re trying to safely get across the street and somebody has bent down on the other side of your dog, and is visiting with your dog, and playing with your dog, and maybe they’re not making any sound, that’s the kind of stuff that can make your dog not see that car that’s turning in front of you, or cause you to wonder what the heck is going on and how you’re going to get safely across the street. You know, maybe somebody distracts your dog so your dog Makes a clearance error, or something. So that’s kind of like if somebody’s driving and somebody grabs the steering wheel, that’s very, very, very dangerous. And that’s how interference is a problem.
Bonnie: And what I always like to add, my little PSA in here is you really shouldn’t do this with any dog, especially a service animal. But you don’t know any dog, and you shouldn’t do this, period. [laughs]
Melissa: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, I have a friend who teaches her children, “You do not want to make assumptions, just because you see a dog and you think it’s cute, or you think it looks nice and friendly. Don’t make assumptions. Ask if you can pet the dog, ask questions, make sure that the situation is safe.” And a lot of times, people don’t do that.
Bonnie: And talking about law enforcement, it’s great that there’s been more training in this area. But as you alluded to earlier, there is a lot of difference between jurisdictions. And I know I experienced an aggressive dog attack 10 years ago, when my Lizzie, my retired dog, was attacked by 2 pit bulls in Boston, and law enforcement and animal control did absolutely nothing about it. And that is an issue.
Just talk about how there’s so much difference between law enforcement and animal control. What does someone do in that situation? Do you think it will get better?
Melissa: What you do in that situation if your dog has been attacked, you should call the police immediately. But before you do that, before you’re even in that situation, you want to know what the law is in your jurisdiction.
And when we talk a little bit about the app, we’re going to talk about how easy we’ve got to make that for you.
You may not have it memorized, but just know as much as you can about the law. Have a copy of it either with you, or have it on your phone. Have it somewhere so that if you do call and the police say, “Well, we’re not going to get involved in this. It’s a civil matter.”, or “Call animal control.” And you may live in an area where there might be an on-call animal control officer, but that’s not going to get you the immediate help you need. You might be feeling unsafe. You might be injured. You might be completely disoriented because of the dog attack. You might not have any idea how seriously your dog is injured.
We have 47 states that have guide dog protection laws of some sort. And for that reason, they impose criminal penalties, right?
So the laws vary in terms of scope and strength. We’ve got states like New Jersey that has Dusty’s Law, and it’s a pretty comprehensive law with the standard of recklessness, which is not a high standard. It can be anything from if the dog is killed or injured, it’s a 4th degree crime, which is a felony in New Jersey, to a petty disorderly person’s offense. If you intimidate or obstruct the dog or harass it in some way that’s not physically injurious, those are things that can be a petty disorderly person’s offense.
But you have other states where the conduct has to be willful and malicious, which is a really high standard. Then that means that the reckless person, or the negligent person, doesn’t even That law may not even come into play. So it’s important to know these things.
But I think whether you live or are traveling or working in a state where the law is strong or not, you still can call the police because a police report needs to be taken. It’s an issue of a potential criminal offense.
But if the person is found to have committed a violation of the law, many times there’s a restitution component, right?
Melissa: So they may have to pay for medical expenses for the dog, for the handler, potentially for the cost of the person going back for training with another dog, or to rehabilitate that one. And different schools have different ways of handling that, and people might have different costs. Maybe they have lost wages because they’re hourly, or they can’t get time off and they have to take unpaid time to go back and train to work with another dog.
So that’s why we need to be availing ourselves of these laws. We can’t make the police act upon them, but they’re not going to if we don’t at least try.
Melissa: And we can’t make prosecutors press charges against somebody or act on those charges, but nothing will happen if we do nothing.
Animal control has a role to play, right? They are good at investigating animal cases, assessing, “Okay, let’s see. Well, this was a bite. What kinds of things need to happen?”
I mean, they’re definitely good, and they have value in terms of their role. But they don’t have the same authority that the police are going to have necessarily.
And also, like I said before, you may not be able to get an animal control officer out there quickly if it’s a strange time of day. Okay? So these are the reasons why it’s important to know that law enforcement is supposed to be helping.
Now, there could be a situation, (and I’ve seen a situation like this) where you have a state law that is unhelpful.
Let’s just say there’s a guide dog protection law And this happened. It was a state where the conduct had to be willful and intentional. It wasn’t even malicious. It was willful and intentional. And the owner of the attacking dog had no reason to know that this was going to happen because their yard had been vandalized while their dog was in the yard, and the dog got out and attacked a guide dog. And they didn’t know that the dog had any propensity to do this.
Now, should they have been more attentive when their dog was out in the yard? Probably, and all sorts of questions can be asked there.
But the bottom line was in this situation, the guide dog protection law said willful, and intentional. And that standard was absolutely not met. These people had no idea, and they felt absolutely horrible.
So in that situation, animal control and the police worked together to cite the owner of the aggressive dog under some helpful local ordinances.
So never underestimate the value of your local ordinances, and know your leash laws. Know what your leash laws are. Know if you live in a jurisdiction where there isn’t a leash law so that you can be aware of that, and think about other strategies for communicating with, and negotiating with neighbors or people who might have loose dogs, or dogs that are not well-controlled.
Bonnie: That’s great advice because, as we know, particularly in animal control, a lot of jurisdictions, particularly in the South, the rural areas, are very under-resourced. And knowing all the different players, if you will, the police, local laws is really a good thing, is staying informed with what works in your county or your jurisdictions. Glad you touched on that.
Melissa: And there’s nothing, I mean, these are very difficult situations, and there are no perfect answers.
And when these things happen to us, you know, many times we are going to walk away. Sometimes, we are going to walk away not feeling that we got everything that we deserved or desired out of it.
But all we can do is the absolute best that we can do inform ourselves. Many times, we’re the ones that have to inform law enforcement. I had a law enforcement officer tell me very recently, a retired law enforcement officer, say to me, “The police don’t know anything about this stuff.” It’s just not on their radar, and they’re not told about it.
Bonnie: And it’s like with a lot of things, they go through so much training. You know, even restaurant owners who don’t know that animals are allowed, they’ve probably been told by the health department, “You can’t have animals in your restaurant.” They just don’t know.
Melissa: Yeah. And so if you don’t get training in something and you don’t get educated about something, that doesn’t mean that you’re trying to be mean. It just means you don’t have the information. It’s not the guide dog handler’s fault, but that information does need to be provided.
Bonnie: That kind of segues into another question handling access denials. And we could, I’m sure, have a conversation for days on this subject because it is frustrating, it’s demoralizing, and every scenario is so different. So I don’t think there’s one size that fits all.
But when you’re faced with a denial, what advice, I guess, would you give somebody?
Melissa: I would say, and this is the hardest thing, the thing I would say first is the thing that is hardest. And I include myself in this, stay calm.
Melissa: Or at least, try to stay calm. And if you don’t feel calm, try to project calm. I’m giving that advice to myself over here first because I struggle with this.
The other piece of advice I would give is to remember that it does run down the leash. As somebody said to me once, your dog has a PhD in you.
Bonnie: [laughs] I like that.
Melissa: And they know when stuff’s running down the leash, and they do not get a vote in this.
So those are the things you got to do first.
And then I think the other important thing to remember is to stay focused on what do you want to see happen here out of this situation? Do you want just be able to go in and do what you have to do and never go back to this place? Do you want to frequent it and be able to go in on a regular basis, and so therefore, maybe you really want to educate them about this issue? Do you feel safe enough to pursue it in that moment? And if you don’t, what are your other options?
So I guess those are the things that I would say, like try to stay calm. Remember, it runs down the leash. And figure out what you want to see happen out of the situation, and try to act from there.
It gets defined a little bit differently in some places, which is why I’m saying it that way, because some people consider it to be an infraction that’s finable, and some states it’s a misdemeanor. But access denial is a criminal offense of some type in the majority of states, but not all. And New Jersey is one of the states where it is not. It is strictly a civil matter.
But in the 37 or 38 states where it is at some level of criminal offense, it’s a low level criminal offense, like a misdemeanor. So you know, you can call the police as well, but you want to make sure that you are actually working, traveling, living, existing, whatever, in one of those states where it is. Because again, this is something that you’re, regardless of whether it’s fair or not, the burden does fall on us. And so this is something you’re going to want to know about before you contact the police.
Bonnie: What kind of access issues, What are your most common questions that you get from grads or the public?
Melissa: I would say right now, the most common issues we’re dealing with for our grads are ride share and air travel.
So folks may know that a while back, the National Federation of the Blind sued Uber and Lyft over access denials. And there were some settlement agreements in place which had monitoring periods. And so there was a level of accountability during those monitoring periods for Uber and Lyft that no longer exists since those monitoring periods.
Bonnie: Oh, I did not know that.
Melissa: Yes. When I say no longer exists, I just mean in terms of that closed monitoring, right? So the law, the ADA, and also Canadian laws too, by the way, do protect our right to use ride shares with our service animals. And the rationale for that under the ADA is, yes, it might be your private car, but you have opened it up to the public and you don’t get to discriminate against other people based on other laws. So you don’t get to discriminate against people with disabilities, and that includes refusing service animals.
And also, Uber and Lyft have policies in place that make it a violation of their policies to deny service animals.
But of course, now that those monitoring periods have ended, there is, unfortunately, (and it wasn’t perfect even during that time, it was bad then too), but now, there’s a lot of regulation. Now, there’s less enforcement, rigorous, appropriate enforcement of those policies by the ride share companies against drivers. So that’s a really biggie.
And as far as the air travel piece, it really comes down to the issues with the forms that I referenced earlier as a result of the new regulations. And I think the biggest problems people are having is airlines have all kinds of interfaces for how you access and submit those forms to them. The regulations don’t restrict them from having that, but they do require the forms to be accessible. And although the DOT has made that form accessible, some people are not tech savvy and they don’t realize that.
But also, there are a couple of airlines out there that are not doing things in as fully accessible a way as the regulations would require. And they have very confusing processes because there are about 4 airlines that are now using a third-party company to screen service animals. And it’s created a ton of confusion to screen those service animal forms. So I am just in the thick of it with people calling about air travel issues right now because of that.
As far as the general public that are not handlers, what they really want to talk about are the fake service animals, and how you know if something’s a service animal, and why are animals riding in shopping carts, and is that little dog really a service animal? By the way, service animals are not allowed to ride in shopping carts, according to the regs.
But these are the kinds of things that the general public
Bonnie: So they’re wanting to kind of educate themselves.
Going back to ride shares. And then, we’ll do a dive into the DOT forms.
Do you think things will ever change? I mean, it seems like that you can sue them, you can complain about them, and not much is done with the drivers. You know, there’s very little response from Uber. “Oh, we’ll give you a $10 credit.”, or something like that.
So does complaining actually work? And are the schools or yourself in contact with some of the bigwigs at Uber and Lyft?
Melissa: So what I would say is that I am hopeful (because there’s nothing wrong with being hopeful, right?) that things will change and that things will get better.
But the only way that’s going to happen is as we become more and more and more vocal and active at the grassroots level. We, blind and low vision folks, are not going away. And so where we are right now is that this is a problem that’s getting worse, and our community has never been one, in my experience, to take things lying down.
So one of the challenges we face right now is that, at least in the US, Uber and Lyft have these terms and conditions. And one of the terms is arbitration, right? So if you want to settle a claim, you’ve got to go to arbitration. And we’ve got the Federal Arbitration Act and the courts take that really seriously. So that’s one of the challenges for people who want to get legal representation and sue Uber and Lyft.
The other issue is, and I say this with no disrespect to my community of lawyers because people have to have livelihoods. They do this for a living. But unfortunately, a lot of times, there isn’t a lot of money in these Uber and Lyft denial cases, especially in states where there aren’t good damages statutes, right?
So we talked about the federal law not being as helpful as it is. And the ADA, right? You can get injunctive relief, which is basically, “Hey, do the right thing.”, but the damages piece just isn’t really there. So that makes it a challenge.
But with state laws, there are some states that do have good laws that if your rights are violated and you’re discriminated against based on your disability, and the presence of a service animal, you can get damages and all of that. But you’ve got to find a lawyer who’s comfortable pursuing a claim like that and has the expertise to do it.
One of the things we find with every state, and US territory has a mandated protection and advocacy agency that represents people with disabilities and legal issues related to the disability. But the trouble we have there too is that there’s a great deal of under-resourced-ness.
People can do a couple of things.
Obviously, you can file a complaint in the app and presumably get your $10 credit, even though you might’ve missed your appointment and so on and so forth.
There also still is the NFB ride share survey that is there. I think they are still collecting data as they consider their next strategy. And I think that survey remains open for them to still collect data.
But one thing that people are doing right now, (and I’ve made sure to kind of tell people to recommend that they try it, but also to manage their expectations as well), is to file complaints with the Department of Justice. And the process is fully accessible and not super complicated.
But when you file a complaint with the Department of Justice against one of these ride share companies, you will inevitably get a letter. It’s a form letter that you’ll get back from DOJ that says that they’re not taking action on your individual case.
And rather than be discouraged by that, it’s important to remember that what the community is trying to do at this point is to create evidence, because we are the data, guys. We’re the data trying to create evidence that there is actually a pattern and practice of discrimination, right, by the employees of these ride share companies.
Because I think the belief was that until recently, DOJ thought that there really wasn’t this pattern, that they hadn’t been hearing from any guide dog handlers. Because DOJ doesn’t, they’re not going to take your individual case.
But if they think there’s a systemic issue, then they will investigate. We are trying to show them that there is a systemic issue. And that’s really happening at the grassroots level. And that was not happening before.
So I think that a lot of good advocacy work has been done by lots of dedicated, long-time guide dog handlers who have encouraged people to do that and have done their homework contacting the Department of Justice and saying, “Why aren’t you doing anything?”, and being told, “Well, we’re not hearing about guide dog handlers and service animal handlers being denied.” Well now, you’re going to hear about it.
You know, because they did take action against Uber. At least, the DOJ did for the wait time fees not being waived for people with disabilities. And that’s a separate issue from what we’re talking about. But they did find a pattern. There were enough people that were experiencing that that did complain.
And then of course, if you have been repeatedly denied and denied and denied and denied, you know, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out and getting some legal counsel to learn whether or not your state has a good damages statute, and whether or not there is a lawyer that would be willing to bring a claim on your behalf.
So there are things that we can do, but we’re going to have to keep plugging away.
To your question about what the schools are doing, you know, I can’t speak for other schools. But I do know, you know, we are engaging with these companies where we can. And what I will say is that I think it remains to be seen how committed the companies are as a whole to change. I do know for a fact that there are individuals within these companies that are committed to change.
Bonnie: And how powerful with any of these accesses is the media? Is it a good idea to get them involved? Does that help?
Melissa: You know, I’ll tell you what, I don’t think it hurts, as long as you do it in the right way. You know, as long as you do it in a way that is appropriate and respectful, and try to be a good, whether you’re owner-trained or not.
I mean, remember, we are a community. So as you contact the media, try to remember that we are representing the guide dog community. We are representing potentially a school when we do that, whether we want to be or not, we are. So I don’t think that there is anything wrong with bringing this to the attention of the media because the more exposure and interest we get around this, the better. But it’s about how you do it. And I know that there has been a lot of more recent media attention to service animal-related denials by ride share companies.
Bonnie: Yes. And now, let’s move on to the topic of the hour, the DOT forms, which I’m sure everyone is waiting to hear this part. I’m sure. These are pain.
Maybe go back and talk a little bit about why these were created and the best way to kind of deal with them. Because my understanding (and maybe I’m wrong) is that each airline is kind of different in what they want. So is there like an umbrella of everything?
Melissa: Yes. So back a little bit. The reason these regulations were changed because, you know, we had Air Carrier Access Act regulations before this, pertaining to service animals, right? And you didn’t have to disclose ahead of time that you were traveling with a service animal. You could fly with your emotional support animal, didn’t have to be a dog.
And so what I think when those initial regulations came out, I think that the department and the public and the airlines really didn’t realize just how many people were going to be working with animals of various types. Whether they were going to be working with service animals, or whether their disability would be mitigated by emotional support animals. Because the definition of service animal under the Air Carrier Access Act encompassed emotional support animals. So it was a broader definition.
So what was happening, as we all know in the media is that people were flying with their emotional support turkeys, and people were being injured by animals, and peacocks, and all sorts of things were happening and things did get out of control, but they also became very confusing and scary for traditional service animal handlers like us.
Like we’re the ones that originally gained access to the airlines with our dogs back in the 30s, when Morris Frank first did it with United. It was making it travel very difficult for everybody, and difficult for the airlines.
And so that’s when there was a decision to work on new regulations. And so there was an advance notice proposed. Well, there was a lot of negotiations that went on among representatives of different stakeholders and I was not working at the Seeing Eye at the time that as people say, the reg neg, the regulation negotiations were going on.
But when I arrived here, the department had put out the advance notice of proposed rule-making looking for public comment on things to be included in the regulations. And then, they put out the actual notice of proposed rule-making with proposed regulations, and asked for public comment.
And one of the reasons that they were really putting these new regulations in place was to do a couple of things. One was to more closely align the definition of service animal under the Air Carrier Access Act with the definition under the ADA. And also, to eliminate some of this confusion about service animals and animals that were allowed to fly, and to deal with some of this abuse that was happening.
So the Seeing Eye, Because that’s one of the things that I do here. And obviously, had input from others who had lots of in the organization. When we saw the proposed regulations, there were things in it that are worse than what we actually ended up with.
There was stuff about no online check-in for those of us with service animals having to get to the airport extra extra early to do it, things that we were very vocal about how that was just unequal treatment, unduly burdensome and just unacceptable and unconscionable for all sorts of reasons.
The forms were in there. They referenced the DOT forms, and that they were going to have that be in the final rule.
And we opposed that as well in our public comments. We felt that it was placing an unfair burden on people who shouldn’t be having to do that because our disabilities were obvious, and our need for the animals were obvious, and we were kind of the gold standard. And also, we had serious concerns about whether accessibility issues were going to be well understood.
So then the final rule comes out, and we do have to do the form.
Now the airlines are only allowed to require, So that the DOT form that we talked about attesting to health training and behavior.
But there’s also a form that if you’re flying, And I think Bonnie, you’ve probably experienced this already. If you’re flying for 8 hours or more, you have to do the relief attestation form, attesting that your dog either won’t go on flight, or that if they do, you have a way of managing it.
Melissa: Now the thing that is good about these forms, (if there’s anything good about them), is that they are standardized in that the airlines are not allowed to make up their own forms. They have to use these. But where they do have latitude is how they do it.
So the airlines are allowed to require that you complete the form, and submit it up to 48 hours in advance of your flight. If you made the flight 48 hours in advance, the reservation, right? So if you have a funeral or something that you’re attending and you didn’t, or somebody had a family emergency and you didn’t find out about it until a day ago, that’s a different thing. But the airlines are allowed to require it that way.
And they have to make it available in an accessible format, which all that means is it has to meet the web content accessibility guidelines that require that they can have a fillable PDF, and that’s enough to make it accessible. It doesn’t have to be available in an app. It doesn’t have to be an HTML version.
And I can’t tell you how many conversations I had after making this mistake myself with our graduates about, “No, you can’t open up the form in your browser. It won’t be fillable. You have to open up in Adobe.”
But what has happened is that airlines have different strategies for tying the form to the reservation. If you go on Delta’s website, how they want you to upload the form and the information that they need from you, or how it’s processed, the user interface can be different than it is for say, United.
Like United now has a thing where they’ve created an HTML, they’ve taken the information, put it into an HTML format that you could fill out. And then, that generates a PDF that you then upload into your profile. And then it just stays there until you need to update it.
Whereas other airlines are now using a third party service called Open Doors oOrganization. Well, that’s the main company, but it has a subsidiary. And so what they’re doing is they are using that service and there’s a portal that people have to now put their service animal information into, and that organization clears it or verifies it and then submits it back to the airline.
So sometimes, what we’re seeing right now with the 4 airlines that have decided to use this process is that there’s a lot of confusion with the airlines about how they use the service. And also, there are issues where, of course, service to animal handlers are getting trapped in the vacuum or the vortex between the airline and the third-party, where something’s not getting approved and they’re being told by that company, contact the airline, and they’re being told by the airline contact that other company. So that’s a really big issue right now.
And as far as what we’re doing about it, I am a member of the Assistance Dogs International Legislative and Advocacy Committee, and we are doing a number of things. But our primary focus this year especially is dealing with the fallout, which continues to change and more from these new regulations and from how airlines have decided to apply them, because the regs are very specific about certain things, but they give airlines latitude on other areas. And that is where we’re running into lots of issues.
So we are working with the airlines to try to get them to streamline the process as much as possible. We are in close communication with DOT about the issues we are seeing, and we’re continuing to engage.
And one of the things that I say is if you’re experiencing an issue where you feel like the airline has discriminated against you and you’ve been to the airport, you asked for a CRO (a complaint resolution official), and you either didn’t get anywhere, you’re not satisfied with the result, file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. There’s information on our website about how to do that. The Department of Transportation has made that very clear and accessible. If you go to SeeingEye.org/access, you will find a lot of information there about various types of access issues. But one of them is air transportation, and we have a link there where you can go to file a complaint.
And so what I would also say about that is that if you don’t file a complaint, DOT isn’t going to know about it and they can’t officially take action. I can say things to DOT all day long about issues we are seeing and they will consider them, but they can’t really do anything unless people file complaints.
Bonnie: And this is with all the airlines, correct?
Let’s say I’m flying to New Jersey on United. And then, I’m switching over to Delta to fly to Los Angeles. So I have to file two different forms with the two different airlines?
Melissa: Yup. It’s per reservation.
Bonnie: Per reservation. Because a lot of times, you do go through travel agencies or online travel things like Expedia, Orbits. They’re considered separate reservations, even if I’m flying United from the whole way, I’m going to have to change flights.
Melissa: Yes. Well, I mean, if it’s one reservation. But if you’re flying on, say they’ve booked, it might be one Expedia reservation or Expedia confirmation number, but you’ve got different airlines that you’re flying and that was the cheapest way to do it. And that’s why you used Expedia, but it’s a United reservation and a Delta reservation. You might have flown there on United, you’re flying back on Delta. Yeah, you’re going to have to do it for both airlines.
Bonnie: And how does it work for the airlines? Because there’s so much conglomeration these days where it’s United, but continental and, you know, that sort of thing. Is that still kind of an issue as well?
Melissa: Well I think it’s pretty clear who the major airlines are, right? I mean, you know, if you book your flight on that, that really should matter. So like United Express, right? Or Republic, or whatever it is, that’s a subsidiary of United. If you’re still going to the United website to book your flight, it’s still through United.
Melissa: There are a couple of really small little airlines. And if your destination is not in the United States, but you’re flying out of the United States or vice versa, you still have to do the form.
Bonnie: Good, good information because we have these co-shares here, a lot with Air New Zealand, with other airlines. You can fly Air New Zealand the whole way to the US, but you can also co-share. And we do have US carriers, American and Delta, that are flying out of here now. So you would still have to deal with them on an international basis.
Melissa: Yes. And what I would strongly recommend that people do, because you know, we can be frustrated, but we still want to travel and we got to do something. So what are we going to do?
What I suggest is that when you’re planning a trip and you think you know which airline you’re going to fly, you can Google United service animal policy or traveling with service animals on Delta and look at the information on their website about how they are doing it and applying this, so that you are informed as much as you can be ahead of time. That’s one thing that I strongly encourage people to do. Don’t wait until that 48 hours right before to even look at this stuff.
Bonnie: No. [laughs]
Bonnie: And is it better to carry a print copy with you, to print everything out?
Melissa: I would recommend it because there’s always room for something to go haywire where somebody just doesn’t understand. They don’t see the reservation. They don’t get it.
I carry one. I would definitely recommend that.
I mean, I’m going to have to eat my words because I’m flying in a couple of weeks. But I’ve not really been asked for my form when I’m flying United because it’s in the system. I haven’t been questioned. But that doesn’t mean that one time I don’t have it printed out that it couldn’t happen.
Bonnie: And there’s been, and I’m sure you have been contacted about this because I’ve seen it on some of the Facebook pages, is doing a webinar on the subject or just even doing… We have the wonderful graduate calls every quarter, but doing kind of a separate webinar about these access issues, particularly in your language.
Melissa: I am very, very focused on, and committed to making that happen. That’s something that I really want to do, is do some webinars that are available that are topical, that focus and that aren’t People have limited attention spans, so length is going to matter, but that are topically based on a specific access issue for that quarter, or for that every other month, or whatever the situation may be, to have some specific webinars on these topics and have it beyond topics that people are dealing with that seem to be the ones that we’re hearing about the most.
And then over time, talk about some other things that maybe people might know, but we may need a refresher on. So that’s something that I really want to do.
Melissa: Our thought was to have it be focused on our graduates. We can certainly explore the possibility of opening that up to other handlers as well.
If you have ideas though for things that you want to see in a webinar, topics that you want to have covered, I encourage people to email advocacy@SeeingEye.org because ideas will be welcome.
Bonnie: And that is a great place for us to talk about the amazing Seeing Eye app, which I have right on my little phone here.
Melissa: [laughs] On your little phone.
Bonnie: Yes. So tell us a little bit about
Melissa: It’s a very new app.
Bonnie: Tell us a little bit about what’s in it, where you can get it, and why you guys decided to do it.
Melissa: It is really a reference resource. It is a compilation of information about federal, state, and provincial laws in the US and Canada. And also, some educational materials that the Seeing Eye has created so that people can use them to educate themselves, and also to educate the public.
It’s topically organized where possible. So for example, under the federal section, we’ve got air travel, we’ve got public spaces, and we’ve got transportation. And under there, we have policy and regulation documents. And sometimes, just information that’s summarized well and better than we could have done it on government websites about what the laws are. Because these federal laws are so lengthy. If you just had to read the whole thing, it would be daunting.
Bonnie: Yes. [laughs]
Melissa: And then, yeah, and so we have that for Canada. We have the ride share policies as well for both the US and Canada.
And then at the state and provincial level, we have it organized by state and province.
It’s been a little easier to do this for the US to organize it topically. But we have topics like access, protection from interference, housing, legal assistance, pedestrian safety under maybe a specific state.
And under Canada, for a province, we might have the 2 specific laws that pertain to guide dogs. It’s a little bit different for Canada because the provincial laws are really what control. But the human rights, the overarching human rights legislation, like the Canadian Human Rights Act applies everywhere. So it’s different than it is in the US in terms of you have the federal law, and then you have state laws that have to at least be as protective as that, but might be more specific and have broader, more specific protections.
So it’s just a different organization of laws.
In the educational materials, we have our taxi and ride share flyer. We have the guide dog at work campaign, which is something that I think is very important for getting the word out about interference.
One of the things that we’ve tried to do is make it searchable. So there is a search bar and you can type in. We’re limited a little bit by how the search function can work in Apple and iOS. So if you’re at the high level, you might just type in New Jersey and see what documents come up for New Jersey.
If you’re inside of a document though, and these are PDF documents, and we did that for a number of reasons. One of them is it being easier to push out updates on this.
But let’s just say you’ve opened up the New Jersey access law and you’ve opened that document, but you want to see if it says anything about hotels. You can use the item chooser by a 2-finger tap 3 times, open up the item chooser, and search within that document for a specific word. So that’s how you might do some searches.
But what I will also say about this is right now, you know, this is our first version and we’re going to be releasing a new version in the next few weeks that has incorporated some of the feedbacks that we’ve received about accessibility and how we can make things better.
And then hopefully, in the very near future, we’re going to be releasing, well, I need to be careful with that. The very near near future is the later version of the app on iOS.
Hopefully, sooner than later, we will be doing the Android app. That’s going to take a little bit more time. People are very interested in that. We have not forgotten our Android users. But you know, we had to focus on one thing at a time and we wanted to make sure we did it well. And we knew that we couldn’t do both of them at the same time in terms of resources and capacity. So we will be working on that next.
And the reason we did this is what we wanted was for the information to be as easy to find as possible. People carry their phones everywhere. They don’t always carry their computers everywhere. And we wanted people to be able to think about a topic that they wanted to know about with their specific state, and to be able to go there easily.
One of the things we’ve also done with the documents about the laws at the state level and the provincial level is we provided a very brief summary of what the law does, so that if you just want to access it but you don’t want to read the whole thing, you can do that.
We have links to our original sources in there because it’s very important to credit your original sources, and people might want to see more information on the website where we got it.
And then at the bottom of each document, there’s a share button, so that you can, if you want to, share that document with someone like you do in other websites. You know, you can text it, you can email it, and that’s a way that you can disseminate it.
Bonnie: And this same information is available at SeeingEye.org/access for those who don’t have smartphones?
Melissa: I would say that a lot of that information is on our website is organized differently, but we definitely have a very dynamic portfolio of content on our website of access information. And there are some areas that we’re able to go into more detail than we can on the app because of we want it to be easy to navigate for people who are on the go. So I would say that you can find much of the same information, but it is organized differently.
Bonnie: And looking at international laws (because each country is different), do you know of any databases for guide dogs that they can check laws in different countries?
Melissa: You know, that’s a really, really great question. It is a dream of mine for there to be someday, a compendium of international guide dog-related laws. And a few years ago, I did a webinar to the IGDF on this topic. We were supposed to be in Prague. We were on Zoom because of the pandemic. But yeah, that’s a conversation that I tried to start at the International Guide Dog Federation, and I hope that that conversation will continue. And I want to find ways to do that.
We have the International Guide Dog Conference coming up in Vancouver. So you know, that’ll be an opportunity.
Melissa: But also, the Guide Dogs UK school does have an app that they have created. It has information about their guide dog-related laws. And it also has templates of letters that you can send to businesses that you think have violated the laws. But it also sets you up to contact Guide Dogs UK to help intervene on your behalf.
It’s a different model, a different structure. But I think that it would be very interesting if there could be some sort of, and this is where we’re going to get out of my tech expertise.
Melissa: Well, I wouldn’t even call it tech, my tech knowledge, let’s just put it that way. Because I think it would be great if there could be some sort of interconnectedness between these various resources, whether it’s web-based or whether it’s on the app stores somehow. And I think that that’s a conversation that needs to continue.
Bonnie: Yes. And I’m sure there are handlers listening that would be more than happy to give you a hand with that. [laughs]
Melissa: Well you know what, advocacy@SeeingEye.org. There we are. That’s where you can send information.
Bonnie: [laughs] Will you be attending the International Guide Dog Federation?
Melissa: I will. I will. Yeah, I will be there.
Bonnie: Oh, fantastic.
Melissa: I know, I’m excited.
Bonnie: And again, how to contact you for all things advocacy with guide dogs?
Melissa: You can email advocacy@SeeingEye.org>. So that’s really the best way to do that.
And of course, if you want to check out the information on our website, you can go to SeeingEye.org/access.
And if you want to download the app, there are a couple of ways you can do this. If you go to SeeingEye.org/access, there’s a link on there for advocacy app. It’ll give you more information about it, and it’ll give you information about how to download it. But all you really have to do is go to the Apple App Store and type in Seeing Eye advocacy, and that will come up.
Bonnie: You can also ask (if she’s working), Siri, to do that on the app store. That’s how I found it.
Melissa: Really? I had no idea. That’s great! See, that’s another way.
Bonnie: You can find that search as Seeing Eye app on the App Store. So yeah.
Bonnie: Well Melissa, this has been a fantastic interview, and I really, really thank you for your time. I have learned a lot in our conversation, and you know, wanting that, hoping this conversation will continue because it is such an important and timely subject that is ever changing. And you have really enlightened me and our listeners on giving some great advice, and just giving a comprehensive explanation without the kind of the government speak on these laws and what we can do in advocacy. And I really want to thank you and Luna for your time today.
Melissa: Oh well, you know what? It’s been an honor and a privilege. When I saw the email that I was invited to speak on this podcast, I was really, really excited. And so I’ve appreciated it very much. And also, just getting to talk to you because we haven’t talked in a while. [laughs]
Bonnie: We haven’t. We need to really change that. And hopefully, with all government regulations on both sides of the ocean, I will be over there later this year. [laughs]
Melissa: That is definitely the hope. So that’ll be awesome.
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Thank you, Melissa, and thank you, Bonnie! Didn’t she do well?
And it’s time for me to be out of here. If you are traveling at the moment to conventions or anywhere, safe travels to you.
Remember that when you’re out there with your guide dog, you’ve harnessed success. And with your cane, you’re able.
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