As a blind traveler who uses a guide dog, I’ve visited 47 U.S. states and four foreign countries. It’s not easy to convey to sighted people the freedom and joy of guide dog travel. One of my most treasured photographs, which my wife described to me, shows my first guide dog, a yellow Labrador named Corky, sitting in the bow of a Venetian gondola, watching the oncoming boats.
When I was first paired with Corky, I ventured to Manhattan from my home in Ithaca, New York, just to walk around, if not quite “solo,” then the next best thing. I had the freedom to decide where we wanted to go and then just go there. I’d never had that experience in New York before. We went places on a whim. We walked up Park Avenue and entered the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The doorman bade us welcome, and I could hear notes of optimism in his voice. In the past, strange places had often seemed forbidding.
“Welcome to the Waldorf, sir,” said the doorman, adding, “What a sharp dog!” I replied, “Thank you.” Corky and I luxuriated side by side on the carpet in the foyer. The rug was soft as a cloud under my sneakered feet. There was a general fragrance of lilies.
“We can come to places like this ― we can find our way. We’re New Yorkers!” I said to Corky, though not loudly. And as I would do so many times over the coming years, I got down on one knee and hugged my dog. Men and women passed us, headed for the Park Avenue exit. “Wow,” said a woman, apparently spotting us. I heard the smile in her voice.
I heard an elevator open. I remembered learning that in the 1930s a train platform was constructed under the Waldorf for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He could exit the train in privacy — the Secret Service would raise him from his wheelchair and help him into an open sedan. The car would then be lifted to the street in a customized elevator. I thought of FDR and the stagecraft required to conceal his disability from voters. Now I was visible with my disability and more pleased about it than I’d ever thought possible.
When I travel, my professionally trained dog lies at my feet and never stirs, no matter how long the flight. I’ve had four such dogs, and all of them were trained by a top-notch school in New York called Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Although going places with a disability isn’t always easy, it’s achievable because protective laws guarantee the disabled rights of passage. In the United States, states “white cane laws” and federal laws that include the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act have made it possible for blind people and their exemplary dogs to go anywhere the rest of the public goes.
“Delta imagines additional paperwork might solve the problem of people feigning disabilities so they can bring their untrained dogs on planes for free.”
In the world of service animals, guide dogs are the gold standard. They are trained to guide the blind through heavy traffic, watch for low-hanging branches, take evasive measures when cars or bicycles run red lights, watch for stairs and even prevent their partners from stepping off subway platforms. Yes, they’re also trained to stay quiet and unobtrusive in restaurants and on public transportation. This professionalism is possible because guide dog schools spend tens of thousands of dollars breeding, raising and training each dog.
The guide dog has been a fixture in the U.S. since 1929, when a blind man named Morris Frank stepped off an ocean liner in New York with Buddy, a German shepherd trained in Switzerland. Frank and Buddy became instant celebrities as they showed the press how Buddy could navigate across what is now the West Side Highway. In the years to come, Frank and thousands of blind men and women would lead the fight for accessibility, ensuring that dogs for the blind were welcomed everywhere. Guide dog teams ― as we call a person paired with a guide dog ― were commonplace in public by the 1960s.
Earlier this month, in an effort to curtail the appearance of fake service and support animals on airplanes, Delta Air Lines issued a new requirement that actually hurts the blind. Delta is demanding that service or support animal users upload veterinary health records to its website at least 48 hours prior to flying. The service animal policy applies to those with “visual impairment, deafness or hard of hearing, diabetes, seizures, mobility limitations or other needs,” according to Delta’s website. (Emotional support or psychiatric service animals call for two additional forms.)
This new requirement, set to take effect March 1, is an obstacle that impedes the blind while probably doing very little to halt phony service dogs from boarding flights. Delta imagines additional paperwork might solve the problem of people putting vests on their pets and feigning disabilities so they can bring their untrained dogs on planes for free.
Does Delta think disability fakers will be unable to upload rabies vaccination certificates on a website? For sighted people, this is a snap. As a blind person who uses a talking computer, I can tell you that navigating websites and uploading documents isn’t easy. In fact, it’s often ridiculously hard. And now other airlines are reviewing their own policies for service and support animals.
Although there are no definitive numbers, Guiding Eyes for the Blind estimates there are 10,000 guide dog teams in the U.S. We’re not a powerful lobby, but we are speaking out. All guide dog users already carry ID cards issued by schools certifying the team pictured is legitimate, and this should be enough.
Delta should leave the blind alone. We’ve earned our passage.
Stephen Kuusisto teaches at Syracuse University and is the author of the forthcoming memoir Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey from Simon & Schuster.