Have you ever tried to buy a dress you can’t see? I have as I’m blind, so I would shop with friends. Unfortunately, this ritual ended after I learned to be more discriminating about their tastes. Happily bringing home a dress that a friend helped me choose, my husband, Don, offered a surprising observation: “The fit is great, but do you like all those huge fish?” The dress went back.
I now rely on Don—and my guide dog Misty—as my shopping partners. We enter the store and make a beeline for the dress department. Don sees two or three salespeople scatter. The aisles empty, as if a bomber is on the scene. I realize I’m holding the reason. Although she is better behaved than most children, a 65-pound German Shepherd is imposing.
On one recent shopping trip a brave saleswoman approached us. “Can I help you?” she said to my husband.
“Yes, I’m looking for a dress,” I replied (since I will wear it, not him). “Maybe something in red or white.”
“Red or white,” she said, very slow and loud (though my hearing is fine). I manage not to fall when Misty jumped back on my feet, frightened by the woman’s booming voice. Don was distracted, too. I heard him rustling through hangers on a nearby rack. I called his name softly to get his attention. Another man answered my call. What were the chances of two Dons being in ear shot?
“This is great!” Don said holding up a treasure. I swept my hand over the dress to examine it. It had a neckline that plunged to the hemline. Hmm, I walk 3 miles daily with Misty, and stay current with fashion, but I’m positive this costume would look best on Jennifer Lopez.
Finally, I choose three dresses to try on. Another shopper distracts Misty, even though the harness sign reads: Please do not pet. I’m working. “Your dog reminds me of my Max, who I recently put to sleep,” she says. I am sympathetic.
Don is back. He tells me the route to travel to the dressing room. I command Misty: right, left, right and straight ahead. We wove our way past several small voices: “Mom, why is that dog in the store?” “Mom, is that a dog or a wolf?” My personal favorite is, “But, that lady’s eyes are open.” I trust these parents to explain, “The lady is giving her guide dog commands. Her dog is a helping dog. They’re partners.” I questioned whether this positive message has been communicated when I heard an adult say, “Oh, there’s one of those blind dogs.”
Other people, though well-intentioned, can interfere with my effective use of Misty. Guide dogs are highly trained and very dependable, but occasionally make potentially dangerous mistakes. On my way through the aisles, Misty bumped me into a pointed rack, requiring my quick action. I used a firm tone to correct her, and she dived to the ground like a dying actress. Witnessing this performance, another shopper chastised me for being cruel. I was shocked. Misty’s pride was hurt, but I needed to point out the error in order to avoid future mistakes. If I did not discipline her, what would prevent Misty from walking me off the curb into traffic?
Composing myself, I was delighted by the salesperson’s suggestion: “Can I take you to your dressing room?” I was less delighted when she grabbed me and pushed me ahead while Misty trailed us on a leash. I wriggled out of the woman’s wrestling hold. Gently pushing her ahead, I lightly held her elbow in sighted guide technique (called so because the person who sees goes first).
“This is better. Please put my hand on the doorknob. I’ll take it from here,” I say. In the room, Misty plopped down and sighed with boredom. I sighed with relief that she was still with me. Once, I was so preoccupied with trying on clothes that Misty sneaked out beneath the dressing room doors. I heard her tags jingling as she left, but was half-dressed and couldn’t retrieve her. Fortunately, Don was outside the door and snagged her leash.
I modeled the dresses for Don and, feeling numb, bought all three. Leaving the store, Misty’s magnetism, like the Pied Piper, attracted a toddler who draped himself over her. She remained calm as he tried to ride her. The boy’s fun was soon foiled by his frantic mother.
When we returned to our car, I give Misty a treat and lots of praise. A good day’s work deserves a good day’s pay for both of us. “Shop till you drop” or “retail therapy” could never be my motto. To me, “charge” means going into battle.
Carol Fleischman’s essays have appeared in Buffalo News, Chicken Soup books and Guideposts publications, among others. Nadine, My Funny and Trusty Guide Dog, her first children’s book, was released in 2015 by Pelican Publishing. Carol lives with her current Seeing Eye dog, Tino.
RULES OF COURTESY
When you meet a blind person:
Don’t assume the person needs assistance. Instead, ask: “Can I help?” or “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Address questions and comments directly to the blind person, not their companion. Don’t raise your voice or talk more slowly than usual. The person can’t see, but he or she can hear.
Do not pet or distract a working dog in harness. Dogs must concentrate on the owner’s commands and safety.
As a companion, assist with mobility by offering your elbow in “sighted guide” fashion (called so because the person who sees goes first).
Guide the blind person’s hand to a seat, placing it on the back of a chair.
Feel free to say, “See you later” or “You should have seen that.”
If you are leaving the room, let the blind person know. For example, please say, “I’m going to …” or “I’m leaving now.”
When placing a dish of food in front of a blind person, use the face of a clock as a reference. For example, say, “Your chicken is at 12 o’clock, rice is at 6 o’clock, and peas are at 3 o’clock.”