This piece, by disability rights advocate and LSC Alum Haben Girma, was published by the Washington Post on August 7, 2019. Girma is the author of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.
My guide dog crossed the street, then jerked to a halt. “Mylo, forward.” My left hand held the leather harness that wrapped around his shoulders. “Forward,” I repeated. The harness shifted, and I knew he was peering back at me. Some barrier, unseen and unheard by me, blocked our passage.
Cars created little earthquakes in the street on our left. Behind us ran the road we just crossed. I made the decision: “Mylo, right.” He turned and headed down the sidewalk. I directed him around the block to bypass whatever had stood in our way.
My dog never knows where I’m going. He has his theories, of course. You went to this cafe yesterday, so clearly you’re going there again, right? Or he’ll veer toward an open door. Seriously, Haben, we need to step in here for a sniff.
People assume guide dogs lead blind people, and once upon a time, I thought so, too. My senior year of high school, I fretted about navigating college as a Deafblind student. Perhaps I would get a guide dog to ferry me wherever I needed to go. A companion would give me the confidence I needed.
“You want to depend on a dog for confidence?” a blind friend asked over instant messenger.
“It sounds funny when you put it that way,” I typed.
“If a blind person doesn’t have confidence, then the dog and person both end up lost. Don’t depend on a dog for confidence. Build up your own.”
So instead of training alongside a service animal at guide dog school, I spent my pre-college summer honing my blindness skills at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I learned nonvisual techniques for crossing busy streets with a white cane, baking banana cream pie, even using electric saws.
I tapped my way through college with confidence. My self-assurance didn’t come from the cane but from my hard-earned orientation and mobility skills. How could I have thought that would be different with a four-legged guide?
Still, confident as I was, something felt missing from my life. My heart ached for a travel partner whose eyes and ears would share more of the world I navigated.
Maxine the Seeing Eye dog joined me for my last year at Lewis & Clark College and all three at Harvard Law. We glided around obstacles so much more smoothly than when I traveled with a cane — imagine switching from a bicycle to a Tesla.
I learned to read her body language, and together we strode with six legs. Her big, brown eyes and pointy ears opened new dimensions for me. Having a German shepherd at my side even curtailed the sexual harassment I faced. For nine years, she stood by my side.
In 2018, Maxine died of cancer. I missed her intensely, and the loss still pains me. I also knew I could not, would not, go back to life with only a cane. I was without my partner of nearly a decade, but I was not without direction.
The school that trained Maxine matched me with another dog. That summer, I joined Mylo for three weeks at the school’s campus in New Jersey. We lurched over curbs and crashed into chairs, but in each new experience, through gentle corrections and an abundance of praise, our teamwork improved.
Now, we wander as one. In the year we’ve spent together, we’ve traveled to 12 states and four countries. One morning during a trip to Park City, Utah, for a friend’s wedding, I woke to Mylo bounding onto my hotel bed, ready to start the day. After a few strokes of his puppy-soft ears and some tugging of his toy whale, we left our room.
Mylo beelined for the elevator, and then, reading the Braille labels, I pressed the button for the main level. The doors opened, and I directed Mylo across the lobby toward the front doors. “Right.” He turned down a hallway. “Right.” He turned into a room that felt empty. “Sorry, not this one. Mylo, left.” I gestured for him to go back to the hall. “Right.” He turned into the next room.
The delightful aroma of food and coffee at last wafted over from the far wall. “Here it is! Forward.” After I ordered my hard-earned breakfast, another wedding guest approached us.
“Haben, hi! It’s Michael. Who brought you here?”
I passed the credit to Mylo; constantly confronting ableism is tiring work. But someday the world will recognize that a Deafblind person charts her own path through the unknown. For now, I know it — and so does Mylo. He takes his lead from me.