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Raising Puppies for the Seeing Eye

August 18, 200829 CommentsPosted in blindness, book tour, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized, Writing for Children

Our Friday flight from O’Hare had been delayed four hours. By the time Hanni, Mike and I got to Morristown, I was ready for a glass of wine. Or two. Or three.  “Will Merlot do?” Jim Kutsch asked. “If not, just let me know — we have a wine cellar in the basement.”

Yeesh! Jim and his wife Ginger both are blind, they’d held a myriad of major     

Ginger Bennett (L) and Jim Kutsch (R), great hosts and great guides to Morristown, NJ. (That's me and Hanni bringing up the rear.)

Ginger Bennett (L) and Jim Kutsch (R), great hosts and great guides to Morristown, NJ. (That

big-time jobs between them, they manage a household on their own, they both have Seeing Eye dogs, he’s now the President of the Seeing Eye. Isn’t that cool enough? They are wine connoisseurs, too?!

“We’re not collectors,” Jim explained. Our dogs were scrambling at his feet, acquainting themselves with each other. ” The cellar came with the house.” Keeping track of the wine in the cellar had been difficult at first. “I was feeling through all the shelves one day and it dawned on me,” he said. “The wines were arranged in a sort of grid.” And so, of course, he did what any other blind computer geek would do. He used his talking computer to create an excel spreadsheet of the cellar.

Other Reminders Our Hosts Were Both Blind

1. Ginger would pet a dog, then ask aloud, “Which one are you?” She’d feel for their necks (each of the three had different sorts of collars) and then she’d know for sure.

2. Jim set a talking timer when he put our burgers on the gas grill outside. When it chirped, he knew to turn the burgers over.

3. Ginger poured my first glass of wine and set it in front of me. She had no way of knowing where I might have set that glass after that, though. So when I ask for a second Merlot, she set the bottle near me and tapped it with her fingertips. I heard where the bottle was and could pour that second glass myself.

4. I heard Jim flip a switch as he led us into the room we’d be sleeping in. Then he asked Mike, just to make sure. “Is the light on?” The next morning we paraded to the Kutsches’ favorite coffeeshop for breakfast – Colby leading Jim, Peyton leading Ginger, Hanni and me bringing up the rear. Poor Mike had to walk alone.

After breakfast we spent a glorious day at the Seeing Eye’s Family day for Puppy Raisers — a day of dogs, demonstrations, videos, free lunch and ice cream to help puppy raisers realize the rewards of their dedication. Nearly 2000 volunteers showed up for the fun, and the Seeing Eye ordered caseloads of special copies of Safe & Sound for the event. Puppy raisers lined up to have me sign (and Braille) my name into each book. Hanni’s pawprint was rubber stamped on each copy, too, of course. Ramona, the wonderful Seeing Eye staff member who’d been tracking our flight delay the day before, was assigned to help with the signing. “I’m glad you guys made it!” she said with relief in her voice. “Those O’Hare-Newark flights are notorious for being late.”

She led me to a signing table and we got started. A few minutes later she was already so busy opening containers of books that she couldn’t help me rubber-stamp Hanni’s pawprint. Mike was called to action and was a good partner — he had no trouble hurrying me on if the line got too long. Anyone who has been to one of my book signings knows how I LOVE to chat with everyone who comes to the table.

A Surprising Thing Mike & I Learned from the Puppy Raisers

I thought puppy raisers might secretly hope that in the end their puppies wouldn’t make it into class. Dogs removed from consideration as a guide are offered to the volunteer who raised the dog as a puppy. If the puppy raiser cannot take the dog, the dog becomes adoptable to others. But as the puppy raisers counted off the number of puppies they’d raised, I could hear their voices fill with disappointment when naming the ones who hadn’t made it. “He had toileting issues,” one little girl told me. Another dog was too protective. One lab suffered from chronic ear infections. As the event was drawing to a close, I asked a member of the Puppy Placement Department what the hardest part of her job was. I expected her to say it was taking the dogs away from the families to start training. “Oh, yes, that’s hard,” she acknowledged. “But the families all know that is going to happen.” The hardest part, she said, was phoning the families whose dog had been removed from the training program. “They take it hard,” she said.

One of Many, Many Examples of Nice New Yorkers

Booksigning over, we were whisked to the train station in Morristown for an overnight in New York City. Hard to imagine where NYC got the reputation of being rude — everyone was so kind to us. When Hanni, Mike and I exited Penn Station, Mike told a transit cop the address of our hotel. “Is it possible to walk there?”

“Too far,” the cop said. We headed to the taxi cue. All of a sudden we heard that same cop calling out to us. “Over here!” he said. He had hailed a cab four us himself.

The whole weekend was fab, from staying at the home of the Seeing Eye president and his wife in Morristown on Friday night to hanging out with Ramona and meeting all those dedicated puppy raisers during the day Saturday to our night at the “Desmond Tutu Hotel” in Chelsea. When I emailed Ramona today to thank her for all her hard work, I told her the good news about our flight back: it actually left Newark on time. “You oughta buy a lottery ticket,” she said in her email message back to me. “You’re awfully lucky.”

She’s right.

Odd Man Out

August 12, 20086 CommentsPosted in blindness, book tour, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized, Writing for Children

Hanni is not particularly fond of baths!Hanni heads off to Doggie Bath House again this Thursday. She needs to look – and smell! – good for our trip To New Jersey. We’ve been invited to the Seeing Eye’s annual “Family Fun Day on Saturday –it’s a day to honor the puppy raisers and other volunteers who do so much to make our guide dog partnerships possible. The Seeing Eye ordered FIVE HUNDRED special copies of Safe & Sound for the volunteers, and Hanni and I will be on hand to sign my name (plus rubber stamp Hanni’s pawprint) inside each one.

A car will meet us at Newark Friday to drive us to the home of Jim and Ginger Kutsch. Jim – or perhaps I should say, ahem, Dr. James A. Kutsch, Jr. – is the first blind person to be named president of the Seeing Eye. I learned a lot about Jim while writing a profile of him for the Illinois Alumni Magazine. Jim lost his sight when he was 16 years old, then ended up getting a PhD in computer science from the University of Illinois.

Jim Kutsch hoped the chemistry experiment would impress his high school buddies. When his homemade explosives backfired in a fiery blast, however, the explosion not only left the 16-year-old totally blind, but also resulted in the amputation of half his right hand.

Thanks to friends leading him through school hallways and relatives and neighbors reading textbooks to him at night, the determined teenager from Wheeling,
W. Va., managed to graduate from high school on time. After finishing his first year at West Virginia University, Kutsch traveled to Morristown, N.J. to train with his first Seeing Eye dog, a German shepherd named Sheba.

Thirty-six years, three college degrees and five dogs later, Dr. James A. Kutsch, Jr. doesn’t need outlandish science experiments to impress his friends. A career that has taken him from academic professor to the high-tech business world does his bidding for him. This year another achievement has been added to his list: In September, Kutsch became the first blind person to be named president of the Seeing Eye.

Jim’s wife Ginger Bennett Kutsch was the Associate Manager of Development at the Seeing Eye before Jim took his position there. Ginger is blind, too — the pair met while training with new Seeing Eye dogs. Jim’s German Sheppard Anthony couldn’t keep his eyes off Peyton, Ginger’s yellow Lab/golden
Retriever cross. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mike is coming along with Hanni and me on the trip. Poor guy, I’m afraid he might feel left out Friday night. After all, he’ll be the only one at the Kutsch’s house without a guide dog!

Sit Stay Read! on NBC TV

August 7, 20086 CommentsPosted in Uncategorized, Writing for Children

A literacy organization Hanni and I volunteer with in Chicago was featured on the What Works segment of NBC Nightly news Monday evening.

Hanni and I got involved with Sit Stay Read! (SSR) after meeting the Executive Director and co-founder at a book signing last Fall. She keeps a blog about SSR and reports that their mailbox is flooded with good wishes and inquiries from folks all over the WORLD (hello Melbourne!) who saw the feature and are eager now to bring Sit Stay Read programs to kids in their cities.

The Sit Stay Read! web site explains the program like this:

Reading aloud is a critical component of early childhood literacy. Children who have difficulty reading have an especially hard time reading aloud in front of peers and adults. SIT STAY READ programs allow children to read aloud to specially trained therapy dogs. The dogs increase confidence and generate excitement.

The SSR director asked if Hanni and I might want to be Guest Readers/listeners at a Sit Stay Read school program in the Chicago Public Schools sometime. “Our kids would be thrilled to hear you, “she said. They’ve had opera singers, firefighters, poets and other professionals as guests, she said. “You and Hanni would be a wonderful addition.”

Who could resist a pitch like that? We said yes, and in March Hanni and I visited Hendricks Elementary School on Chicago’s south side. Hanni and I had just been to a very wealthy school district in the Chicago suburbs the week before, and the contrast was striking. One thing that was similar in both schools, though: the kids had the same curiosity, and they asked similar questions. You know, things like “How do you know if it’s time to wake up?” and “Is it scary being blind?”

Beth and Hanni both enjoy watching the White Sox. Illustration from "Hanni and Beth, Safe & Sound."

Beth and Hanni both enjoy watching the White Sox. Illustration from "Hanni and Beth, Safe & Sound."

Hendricks is located near White Sox Park, and since Safe & Sound has an illustration of Hanni and me watching a ballgame, the kids had all sorts of questions about that. “What if you got hit by a ball?” I told them we try to sit under netting. “What if there’s a hole in the net?” I told them Mike usually comes with us to ballgames, so he warns me if a ball is coming. “What if he is going to get hot dogs so he isn’t there and the ball comes?” the ballgame questions went on and on. And it was really, really fun.

My publisher at Blue Marlin Publications watched the Sit Stay Read! segment on NBC from their home on Long Island. Her son Jude Tucker watched it with her, and he was sure the boy on the segment was reading Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound — even though he could only make out a blue back cover! Gotta love my supportive fans on Long Island!

Fear of Subways

August 2, 200810 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Uncategorized

Hanni and me at Chicago bus stop -- on solid ground.Last week I read an essay written by a reporter whose notebook fell into the New York City subway tracks.

Since one train had just left, it would probably be about seven minutes before the next one arrived. At the very least, it would be five minutes. Jumping down to the tracks and picking up the notebook would take no more than a few seconds. So that would leave four minutes to climb back.

The essay was written by Jim Dwyer, and it grabbed my attention. I live in Chicago and am proud (you could even say haughty) of how efficiently I get around the city with my Seeing Eye dog. Hanni and I walk long distances, jump into cabs, ride CTA buses…but we NEVER take the el by ourselves.

During the 1990’s, when I was working with my first Seeing Eye dog Dora, a number of blind people using guide dogs died after falling into subway tracks in Boston and new York City. They fell in, but couldn’t see to find the ladder to get out. This 1993 NY Times story explains how one woman perished:

A blind woman led by a guide dog was killed yesterday when she fell from a midtown subway platform and was struck by a train as she frantically tried to climb back over the platform edge, the transit police said.

“We don’t know how or why, but she apparently slipped over the edge, leaving her dog on the platform,” said Albert W. O’Leary, a transit police spokesman…

Ms. Schneider was killed at 9:18 A.M. after she fell onto the southbound express tracks along the Broadway line. Witnesses said Ms. Schneider got up and tried to find the edge of the platform with her hands as a southbound No. 3 express train roared into the station with its horn blasting.

I am not afraid of much. I am, however, afraid of the el. Plenty of people who use guide dogs take the subway safely back and forth to work every day. I, however, am not one of those courageous blind people.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) now requires subways to mark platforms with bumpy material to warn blind people away from the edge. But the image of those people stuck in the track still haunts me. Bumps on the platform edges aren’t enough. When it comes to getting around Chicago, Hanni and I keep our feet –and paws – on ground level.

PS: The New York Times reporter who dropped his notebook? He did not climb down to the tracks to retrieve it – he let subway officials do that for him. His essay is very appropriately titled, Celebrating Prudence and a Trip Not Taken.

Enter the Letters You See in this Box — If You Can See Them

July 28, 200820 CommentsPosted in blindness, book tour, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized

You know that box of distorted letters that shows up when you’re about to submit your comment to a blog post? Or when you are setting up afacebookaccount? Or when you are casting a vote to get your favoriteWhite Sox player onto the2008 Major League Baseball All Star team?

You have to read the text, then enter the characters you see into a form. Then, and only then, can you complete the transaction.

That's Alexis Reed (foreground, left) chatting with me at the AER conference.

That's Alexis Reed (foreground, left) chatting with me at the AER conference.

But if you’re blind, you can’t see a dang thing in that box. People with certain types of low vision can’t make sense of those distorted characters in the box, either. Same for some folks with cognitive disabilities — dyslexia, for example.

That box of distorted letters is called a CAPTCHA: Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. CAPTCHAs are meant to prevent robots from spamming or overvoting or whatever it is that computer robots do in their spare time.

Many sites using CAPTCHA have added an audio option. This probably makes them feel good about helping the blind. It might make sighted people who see that link feel good, too, to know those of us who can’t see have an option. Trouble is, those audio CAPTCHAs are impossible!

Wanna see, I mean, hear, for yourself? Go to the Gmail sign up page and click on “Listen and type the numbers you hear.” You’ll hear a woman’s voice speaking numbers, but creepy noises and voices talking backward in the background make it very difficult to figure out exactly what she is saying.

In fact, the next time you get nostalgic for those mysterious backward-talking “Paul is Dead” clues on Beatle albums, you don’t have to get out your turntable and old LPs. Just link to an audio CAPTCHA. A bonus: After the creepy voice reads the numbers out loud, she says, “Once again.” The numbers and nonsense background noises repeat, and you get to be freaked out one more time.

It’s not just gmail that has crazy noises on its audio CAPTCHA. ALL of the audio CAPTCHAs that I’ve linked to sound like this. The background noise is disturbing. It makes it nearly impossible to hear the numbers. To do this on my own, I drag out my tape recorder, record the creepy voice, then play it over and over to figure out what she’s saying. You know, the same way I used to listen for “Paul is Dead” clues on old Beatle albums!

But I’m not a teenager anymore. By the time I’ve listened to the CAPTCHA a half-dozen times, I feel frustrated by how much time I’ve wasted on this endeavor. I don’t leave many comments on blogs. I wasn’t able to set up a facebook account on my own. I wanted to vote for Jermaine Dye to play in the Major League All Star Baseball Game this year, but I couldn’t.

I use a blogging service called wordpress.com to publish these blog posts you read. Why did I decide to use wordpress for my Safe & Sound blog?? Because they don’t make users fill out a CAPTCHA form to sign up for an account. Folks who comment to my blog posts don’t have to pass through a CAPTCHA screen, either. Sure, I get spam from time to time, but the wordpress spam blockers usually weed them out. The few spams that make it past the blocker? I delete them.

Last week I gave a session called Blogging by Ear at the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) International Conference. Alexis Reed, a woman who has commented to this blog before, was in the audience. What fun it was to meet her – and her wonderful Seeing Eye dog Julia – face to face after knowing her virtually through this Safe & Sound blog. ! Alexis wrote a blog post about her time in Chicago –It was her Seeing Eye dog’s first time at a professional conference like this. After reading her post I was tempted to leave a comment. That’s when I found out I had toAt first I thought I’d have to sign up with LiveJournal to do that. But then Alexis commented to this post to let me know I could comment anonymously. Voila! Add LiveJournal to the list of accessible blog services. No CAPTCHA on the comment form , either.
I guess I’m lazy. Or maybe, just old?! I’m hesitant to sign up for all this stuff every time I want to leave a comment – especially knowing I might face a CAPTCHA afterwards anyway.

During the q&a part of my Blogging by Ear session last week, a majority of the comments were about CAPTCHA workarounds. It was reassuring, yet sad, to discover I am not alone in my frustration!