In a way the title says it all: There is more to me than my guide dog. Please don’t get me wrong, I love Lassie. She is the most amazing animal and has done so much for me. There are things I couldn’t have done without her. She has become an intricate part of my life and I can’t imagine being without a guide dog ever again.
However, sometimes I feel like the side show. This is particularly frustrating and irritating when I attend academic conferences. I really noticed the difference with virtual conferences where Lassie might be in the background but not in the focus of people’s attention. However, now that we are back to in-person events, my experiences are back to what it was like pre-pandemic: I give a presentation and afterwards people come up to me and what do they say? Nothing about my research, good or bad, constructive or destructive. No, they tell me how amazingly quiet Lassie was, ask me questions about how old she is, how long she was trained and – I never really know why people keep asking it -when I have to retire her and give her back.
I fully appreciate that everyone else has never had a guide dog at a conference they attend – which BTW says a lot about ableism in academia. I know she’s cute and loving and always (really ALWAYS) wags her tail and is just exuberantly happy. However, she is not why I am at the conference. She is how I got there. I really wish fellow researchers would just treat me like everyone else. Ask questions about my research, which university I work at, stuff like that, the typical academic small talk. Honestly, I would rather have people tell me what I presented was utter nonsense. But only talking about my guide dog or maybe how long I’ve lived with my sight loss is frustrating. It makes me feel as if the only interesting thing about me is having a guide dog because I am registered blind. I am proud to be blind and happy to talk about guide dogs, living with blindness and things but NOT when I am at an academic conference.
I don’t like to be reduced to simply my eyes and their inability to see. There is more to me and I wish colleagues would appreciate that. I wish they would consider how it makes me feel before starting a topic of conversation. Yes, it might be an exciting, novel and interesting thing for you to have a guide dog at a conference but for me that’s just normal and not the thing I want to endlessly talk about. I’m a researcher just like you.
So, in the future, if you see me or other guide or assistance dog users at any professional event, do what their harnesses say: Ignore them and focus on the person, their skills, their expertise, and yes, also their shortcomings—the things they need to improve on. In short: talk to them like you would to any other participant.
PS: And if you want me to talk to you or your colleagues about guide dogs, their training, what they do, living with sight loss or general disability awareness, simply get in touch. I am a volunteer speaker for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association UK and always happy to engage with audiences of all ages. I also serve on multiple committees of Disabled People’s Organisations, am the co-chair of my Uni’s Disability and Mental Health Staff Network, a staff representative on the Disabled staff and Student Working Group, and am the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Director of the School of Business and Management. Yes, I am an advocate and activist but sometimes, I just want to be “simply” a researcher like you.