Poet Stephen Kuusisto, born legally blind, got his first guide dog in midlife, after years of what he describes as internalized “disability prejudices” that kept him tethered to a very restricted context. Corky, a yellow Lab from Guiding Eyes, gave Kuusisto the freedom to explore new places, and it proved to be a life-changing partnership. The poet recently discussed his new book, Have Dog, Will Travel (Simon & Schuster), with The Bark’s Claudia Kawczynska.
Bark: There’s so much joy in Have Dog, Will Travel, and so many revelations. For example, it’s a misconception that guide dogs control their humans’ movements; tell us a little more about how guide dogs really work with their people.
Stephen Kuusisto: It’s useful to think of a guide dog as an assistant. As you say, there’s a misconception that the dog is in control; there’s even a guide-dog school called Pilot Dogs—their name tends to give that impression. But the dog assistant is cueing on her human partner. She’s asking, “What do we do now? Where are we going next?” And this is what makes a guide-dog team so interesting. The blind must study the world and know where they want to go, then provide clear instructions to their dogs. In turn, the doggies say, “Ah! Got it! Let’s go!” I never cease to think of this as amazing.
B: Clearly, pet dogs should be leashed around guide dogs, and they should not be allowed to interfere with dogs on duty. Any other guide-dog-related “do not’s” you’d like to share?
SK: You can really get guide-dog users going when you ask questions like this, since there are so many people we encounter who insist on petting a working dog (which in fact the dogs don’t like) or who talk to our dogs (baby talk) or, as you suggest, let their pet dogs rubberneck with a guide. Off-leash dogs are the worst, but let’s face it, plenty of people will encourage their leashed dogs to “say hello.” I once purchased a sign for Corky’s harness that said, “Don’t Pet Me, I’m Working” but no one paid any attention to it. Most well-trained guide dogs can manage these nuisances, but it’s true: you shouldn’t distract or interrupt a working dog.
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B: I loved that you were told to shower Corky with praise. Seems a good lesson for all dog people, don’t you think?
SK: Yes. As I say in the book, I realized when the guide-dog trainers were instructing me about using lots of praise—using it all day, every day—that I didn’t know much about praise. We’re taught next to nothing about it. Most of us are taught competitiveness and snippiness instead of enthusiastic kindness. Telling your dog every hour that she’s a really good dog makes you realize that goodness is a thing to be honored.
SK: This is a really interesting subject. Many people don’t realize that no two blind people are alike. We tend to see a disability and think it’s static, that everyone is the same. But when you think about it, a disability—any disability—is no more definitive than any other arbitrary label. Take taxi drivers in New York City: There are roughly 12,000 cab drivers in NYC and they’re all fantastically unique.
So guide dog schools have to pair individual dogs with the person, not the disability. In my case, I’m a very, very fast walker and I travel a lot. Corky was a super-fast walker, and she didn’t mind going to unusual or strange places. One of my favorite photographs of her shows her sitting in the bow of a Venetian gondola, looking out over the city. She was always up for adventure. Unflappable.
My other guide dogs have also been speedy and exceptional travelers but again, just like people, they all have different personalities. Corky was loving, but also regal. When we got home after a long day, she’d sometimes find her own corner of the house and have a good nap. My third guide dog was named Nira and, believe it or not, she was actually Corky’s half-sister because their mutual father’s sperm was preserved at the Guiding Eyes’ breeding program. Nira was very much like Corky, but with this one difference: she loved swimming and retrieving sticks. Corky thought that was kid stuff. My current guide dog is named Caitlyn and she wants to be beside me whatever I’m doing. So she follows me from room to room in our house.
B: Since starting out with your first guide dog at the age of 38, have you seen changes in the way society views the blind and their service dogs?
SK: Unfortunately, no. I think that blindness is a low-incidence disability and in addition to that, there aren’t many guide-dog teams in the United States. We think the number of active guide-dog teams is somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand. We’re a genuine minority, us guide dog users. Every month, I read a story about a blind person and her dog being hassled or turned away from a business, and one would think that after all these years, we’d be further along. On the other hand, it remains a daily truism that people smile like crazy when they see a guide dog.
B: What’s your position on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) —basically, does it serve the needs of the disabled the way it ought to?
SK: The ADA is the widest-ranging and most comprehensive piece of civil-rights legislation ever passed in the United States, and it has become the model for disability-based laws around the world. At the time of this interview, there are politicians and lobbyists in Washington who are working hard to make the ADA less effective, largely at the behest of organizations like the Better Business Bureau; many businesses resent having to become disability-compliant and are looking for ways to opt out of the ADA’s penalties. Resistance to the rights of the disabled isn’t over by a long shot.
B: Any ideas on how to control the misuse of the guide- and service-dog designations?
SK: In terms of the ADA and guide dogs, the law takes a broad view of service dogs—in effect, if a dog serves a demonstrated purpose helping a disabled person, it’s a service dog. You can’t ask for an identification card or proof of a disability if you’re a business or airline. That’s good, because no one would want to disclose their medical history to strangers. The downside of this is that unscrupulous people who simply want to take their pet dogs on airplanes can easily game the system by faking Fido as a service dog. Truthfully, I don’t know what to do about this.
B: You teach disabilities studies courses. Tell us a little more about this discipline, and what these courses cover.
SK: My friends Brenda Brueggemann and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who are terrific scholars in the field, describe it this way: “Disability Studies is an interdisciplinary grassroots scholarly movement that has emerged from the academic turn toward identity studies, an awareness of the need for diversity in scholarly topics, and the recognition that disability is a political rights and integration issue. … This view defines ‘disability’ not as a physical defect inherent in bodies (just as gender is not simply a matter of genitals, nor race a matter of skin pigmentation), but rather, as a way of interpreting human differences. In other words, this critical perspective considers ‘disability’ as a way of thinking about bodies rather than as something that is wrong with bodies.” That’s the best initial definition of what we aim to study. If you think about it, disability is all around us—from Moby Dick to architecture, from Shakespeare to sociology. It’s an exciting time to be teaching about disability. This semester, I’m teaching a graduate course at Syracuse University on disability in global literature. We’re looking at how disability is featured in novels from Europe, Africa, South America and so forth. Next fall, I’ll be teaching a course on the role of service animals in disability culture. What fun!