BEBCRF Support Group Meeting – Toronto, April 25, 2010

    Randy Firth, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

John Walmsley chaired the meeting on Sunday, April 25, 2010. John introduced our guest speaker Randy Firth, a director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

Randy has more than 20 years experience with CNIB in a variety of roles, covering program management, communications, public education, accessibility and advocacy. He has coordinated CNIB's Speakers Bureau and Toronto Advocacy Committee since 1995. Currently he represents CNIB on the City of Toronto's Accessible Pedestrian Signal and Disability (ADPD) issues committees.

Randy has been facilitating vision loss sensitivity workshops since 2005. He is a highly approachable and adept trainer who makes all participants feel welcome. As someone who lives with vision loss himself, he is an expert, both professionally and personally, in etiquette and sensitivity issues.

Randy Firth:

CNIB was founded after the First World War in 1918 as a result of blinded veterans returning home and finding that there was nothing in Canada in the way of assistance. In fact, our founder and first president, Edward Baker, was shot in the head by a sniper in Belgium and as a result became blind. He received some rudimentary training in England which consisted of 'white cane' training and the ability to read his Braille watch. When he returned to Canada he found that there was nothing available to him or others in the same condition.

CNIB consists of many volunteers gathered together and received its charitable status on March 30, 1918. Back in those days we were running workshops and residences for people afflicted with blindness and/or partially sighted. We are not into any of that anymore. Today we offer a variety of services that are designed to keep people, who have experienced vision loss, both safe and independent in the home and in the community. So who do we serve? Anyone whose vision loss is causing them difficulty with any activity and whose vision cannot be corrected by ordinary lenses.

We re-branded a few years ago and we are no longer called the Canadian National Institute for the Blind because research has shown that most people know that we serve the blind but are unaware of the fact that the majority we serve have partial vision. In other words, you don't have to be totally blind to avail yourself our services. Over the past years don't know how many times I've heard "CNIB - I am not that bad because I can still see a little bit". Yet these people can barely make it down the street so how bad to you have to be before you reach out for help.

So how do people become clients of CNIB? You can pick up the phone and self refer or any family member can do the same. Most commonly it is the person's ophthalmologist that sends in a request for service along with a current eye report. Now, we do not need a medical report for the majority of our services save and except for one.

Once a referral has been received one of our Inpatient or Registration workers will contact the person via telephone to assess the areas in which the applicant has difficulties; be it in the kitchen, going from room to room, reading, or, with travel outside of the home. Based on the assessment of the worker the information is given to the other members of the team who will provide the appropriate assistance and training. Most of the proposed services take place out in the community, people's homes, or neighbourhoods where they will need the skills. But here in Toronto most people come to 1929 Bayview because the geographies here in Toronto allow for that.

We are a national organization. We have more clients registered with us here in Toronto, because of the population, than there are in some provinces, but when you get outside Toronto you have district offices serving smaller numbers of clients spread out over a much larger area, so the teams are travelling in different communities and setting up service aid and so on, and, providing service while they are there.

Some other statistics worth mentioning. Just over 80% of our clients are seniors, with the leading cause of vision loss being age-related macular degeneration. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD or ARMD) is a medical condition which usually affects older adults that results in a loss of vision in the center of the visual field (the macula) because of damage to the retina. It occurs in 'dry' and 'wet' forms. Macular degeneration can make it difficult or impossible to read or recognize faces, although enough peripheral vision remains to allow other activities of daily life. So, one may be able to walk down the hallway or sidewalk, and, see large objects like other pedestrians, but would walk right by a friend or family member and not recognize the face. And in fact about 65% of our new clients have Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD)..

So many times over the years I've heard seniors say "I knew ageing could mean a lot of things, but I never imagined this" and this meaning not being able to see the faces of their grandchildren anymore, not being able to pick up a newspaper anymore and ultimately having to give up their driver's licence. So, such services as, independent living skills, that's anything you would do in the home, full and personal management, marking stove dials for accessibility, teaching safe cooking techniques, clothing identification, money identification, keyboarding, Braille if required, and, these services typically take place out at the people's home.

I was heating something up on my microwave just before coming here today, and you know everything today is 'flat panel', you can't distinguish one button from another by feeling it, so what I have is stick-bumps that you would buy at a dollar store or hardware store, things that you might put on a kitchen cupboard door to keep it from banging and, with Donna's help, we've marked the 'cook' button along with the '2', '5', '8', '0' and, also the 'start' and 'reset'buttons. Then I know that the top one in the middle is '2', to the right of that is '3' and so on. Therefore, I can access the microwave myself just by that simple adaptation.

Independent travel skills, we call orientation and ability instruction and, that's working with individuals on safe travel around the city. All of our programs adhere to the goals and the vision level of each individual. So, if it's a senior with partial sight that wants to learn to go to the bank and the corner store, it might entail one major street crossing and a couple of quiet ones. Obviously that's going to be a much shorter program than it would be for someone who's younger and has experienced total vision loss. He or she needs to rely solely on the white cane, to use buses and subways, and have the ability to cross major intersections for the rest of his or her life.

It is about developing those listening skills so that you know when it's safe to cross the street. It involves mapping out routes in your head so you know which way to turn when you reach a certain intersection, and it is being comfortable asking for assistance; all of these things.

The service that we perform requires a Current Eye Report 4 from the ophthalmologist. It is called low vision: where it is a functional eye test designed to maximize whatever remaining sight people have through the use of special reading devices; high powered magnifiers. It is typical, at least in Toronto, that the service takes place in our clinics at 1929 Bayview because of the amount of equipment involved in doing the assessment. If someone is bedridden, we'll take a variety of things and see what will work but, ideally we like to have them come in simply because it's a functional eye test. The medical information tells our staff what the person's eye condition is, what their acuities are, what their fields of vision are, and that is a helpful starting point for our staff.

Consumer products are a big starting point. We have a store at 1929 Bayview where we carry between 300 to 400 items of approximately 1,200: 300-400 of the most popular items that assist with daily living. So anything from large print clocks, talking clocks, Braille watches, large print playing cards, large print bingo cards, games, board games, colour identifiers that are about the size of a pen and you can hold it up to a garment and it will say "bright red", "dark blue": all those kinds of things. All of these products are available online through our website, or through a 1-800 number and, for the cost of the product and the cost of 'Canada Post', they can be shipped right to your house.

But, people naturally like to be able to check things out close by them, so in the larger centres, such as Toronto, we do have stores and we do have the more popular items in the stores, so you can go in and actually check out the item and make sure you really like it before you buy it.

Hi-tech: in Toronto we have one of four assessment centres in the Province of Ontario where we are assessing people on hi-tech technology. So screening synthesized speech programs for people like myself with no sight, screen magnification programs for people with partial vision, closed circuit television (CTV) that looks like a TV monitor but they have a camera in the bottom of a tray underneath and you put the print on the tray and it can be enlarged up to 72x the size on the screen.

For many people, and I've met seniors who thought they would never knit again, they now have a full circuit television or CTV and they are knitting under the camera and watching what their hands are doing up on the screen. Our staff are ADP authorizers, we are very fortunate in the Province of Ontario to have the Assistive Devices Program or ADP, which will fund up to 75% of the cost of these items if they are being used for personal use, and, if it is employment-related it is up to the employer to make the accommodation. Our staff are accepting people, obviously we want people to get the product that is going to work best for them, but also you are only eligible for funding once every five years in that category, so all the more reason to get it right the first time.

Intensive programs - I mentioned that independent living and independent travels, training which is community-based, typically it lasts a week or so, with your own practice time in between. If someone needs more intensive training we have, in Toronto, our Intensive Rehabilitation Training Centre (IRTC), which has a 7-12 week program. People are in Monday to Thursday and they are getting training in independent living, travel and boarding skills including Braille as required, everyday. In addition, they have the benefit of peer support from other people on the program that are going through similar things at the same time.


If your neurologist wrote to CNIB and said you had Blepharospasm and at times you were functioning blind, would you still have to go through an inside assessment?

Randy Firth:

Yes, for any new clients, no matter what the eye condition may be; that is the starting point where it is a quick assessment; giving a sense of when and where you are having difficulties.

A low vision assessment is not really going to help you because your eyes are fine; it is your lids that are the problem. But for the independent living and travel skills, some people might have, for example, retinitis pigmentosa, these people will have difficulty with tunnel vision and/or they have difficulty with night vision, so, we provide training at night, or, if their vision is some other eye condition where they have enough to get around with but in certain situations, changing light, they might have difficulty.

They might carry a small identification cane, it's not a big bold one like you would see if you swept in an arc in front of you. It may be one that would fold up small enough to go into a purse and, then, suddenly, if you are having difficulty, you can unfold it and use it to alert pedestrians and motorists to the fact that you can't see so well. You may use it to locate the edge of the curb or step. You would be trained on how to use such a device. In other words, trained to suit your needs.

The key thing is CNIB does not have anything to do with the training of dogs, they are trained in schools that operate independently of us but, it's not either or. You do not choose to use a white cane or a dog and away you go. In order to move up to the level where you are able to work with a dog, the skills that we teach in terms of independent travel with white canes, listening to traffic and mapping out all those things I mentioned earlier, the ability to do that is essential to enable one to walk with dogs.

In fact, any reputable guide dog school will want a written report from, say, a CNIB Orientation- Mobility specialist, outlining how confident a traveller or someone is with a cane before accepting them into the guide dog class. It's not good enough that they can stand up and have a heartbeat; you need to be able to get around on your own, because I can't just say McDonalds to him and expect him to take me there, obviously.

In Toronto, again unique to this city, we have an ESL or English as a Secondary Language class. It is actually two classes because Toronto being the multicultural centre that it is and, many newcomers, that are blind or partially sighted, can also benefit from the ESL. The morning class is in partnership with the Catholic and District School Board, the afternoon class is linked, to the Funded Language Instruction for Newcomers of Canada class. And they are both multi-level up to level 5 and beyond that, if people want to carry on then you get to 'grade out' in the community.

Employment services for people who have gone through their own independent living and travel and want to get back into the work force, we are currently partnered with the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation of Work (CCRW). This is unique to Toronto and York Region through the Workplace Essential Skills Partnership (WESP). They work with people with other disabilities as well as on resume writing, jobs search and a few skills. They actually have staff based in our facility at 1929 Bayview. So for people that have gone through their independent living and their travel and they're ready to get back out there, we refer to these services.

Library service encompasses a variety of things. Talking books to start with, which now are books on disk: it is the international visual standard that we moved through a few years ago, moving away from cassette tapes, it's called DAISY; it stands for Digital Accessible Information System. With the old cassette tapes they were recorded at half regular speed and a four track system, so you got four sides out of a regular cassette instead of two. But even at that a regular novel could be anywhere from two to six tapes long or more.

Today, one book equals one disk and, the sound quality is much better. For students in particular, the more advanced playback units allow navigational capabilities within the book that simply were not possible with tapes. You can do bookmarks, 'hop-around's', go from chapter to chapter, page to page, or, recently, continue from where you left off. The literature for the blind goes free in the mail, in Canada, and in most other parts of the world; so, you can sign up if you are a pleasure reader, like I was up until the time we had kids, and, simply select general categories.

Personally, I like Canadian history and science fiction. The library will choose books and they will come to you free of charge in the mail. To return the 'books' simply put the self-addressed card on the package, put it back into the mail, and back to the CNIB, all free of charge. You can choose specific titles as well, but even with all of that it is estimated that about 5% of the print material that is available to the sighted people in the world is available for us in all different formats.

Text online, you can access as well, as part of the library services. We loan ‘describe videos' and DVDs that have the descriptive feature built in, so if there is something visual going on, on the screen, a voice is inserted when there is a lull in the dialogue and then it describes, a women wearing a black dress has just entered the room carrying a briefcase and sat down at the table, so you can follow along. Children's discovery portal that kids can access online, all of those things E-books, and other text online. All of the services that I am describing are offered at no cost. All the training is all free. If you buy products it's up to you to pay for them, and I mentioned more the hi-tech stuff, visual devices program. So, any questions at this point?


The DAISY articles, etc. Do you require certain types of players though?

Randy Firth:

Yes, they won't play on regular CD or MP3, but the DAISY players are covered under ADC.

I lost my sight in a car crash when I was 20. I was fully sighted 20/20 vision, driving a car, a hit a patch of ice outside of Uxbridge on Thursday night in November approaching a stop sign and couldn't make the stop sign, so rather than shooting through the intersection, I tried to take the ditch to the right and avoid shooting straight through. I slid wide, hit a van coming eastbound, and I was trying to skid into the westbound position and I hit him corner-to-corner head on and the last thing that I saw was his headlights, and my windshield shattered, and I know a thought or a voice went through my head saying your eyes, duck, and I know I closed my eyes and turned my head, but I was not wearing a seat belt and doctors feel that on impact, I flew up and hit my head on the underside of the roof and glass showered into my face.

So I literally had 20/20 vision one minute and nothing the next and I was conscious, I had a friend in the car with me, he was wearing a seat belt and he was fine, he required a few stitches above one eyebrow and he had a sprained wrist. The fellow in the van I understand was fine too. I just wanted to get out of the car because I was worried about fire, so my buddy says "are you alright", I said "I can't see but let's get out of here" and you just think at the time well doctors will fix that, whatever it is, and I could feel fluid and stuff on my face, of course and I was blinking. And he came around to my side of the car and ironically I took his arm and he guided me over to the shoulder of the road where we waited for police and ambulance to arrive.

I was shifted to Uxbridge County hospital, and they tried to keep me awake for most of that, but I must have blacked out at one point, or some point, because I remember waking up swearing because they were messing around with my face at Uxbridge County Hospital on the gurney. So the next thing I knew I was at Centenary Hospital and I was talking to my parents a little bit and the next thing I knew I woke up and I was on a gurney somewhere, I didn't know where, and I woke up to the sound of a priest praying over me.

And what had happened, they discovered that I had a fractured skull at Scarborough Centenary Hospital so they shipped me down to St. Michael's Hospital because of the head injury. So I am very fortunate, but what I didn't know when I was in intensive care, is that in addition to the eye injuries, the head injury, they were worried about spinal meningitis, brain injury, death, all kinds of things. I just knew that they would wake me up from time to time, and I was so doped up that I just wanted to go back to sleep, but every time they woke me up they were asking me to tell them my name and address so they poked me and jabbed me to get me to tell them if they were sharp or dull. And so, it got to the point that whenever somebody woke me up I automatically just starting saying Randy Firth, 449 etc. and go back to sleep.

So, originally they thought it would be one, four hour operation to patch up my head and my eyes, my eyes ended up taking over four hours alone, and so the head operation was put off for a few days and that was another four plus hour operation. So I am unfortunate, although Donna might disagree, that there is no permanent brain injury, and, fortunate that I'm still walking and talking. It was ten months after the accident before I learned that I would not be gaining some usable sight in one of my eyes for sure. I actually went to Massachusetts Ear and Eye Infirmary in Boston because they discovered six to eight months after my accident that the retina in my left eye was starting to detach as well. But by the time I got down to Massachusetts Ear and Eye it was a 363 detachment and the ophthalmologist made it clear that it wasn't a 50/50 chance that he would be able to do anything with it but, rather 1%.

So, of course, you take that chance or you would wonder the rest of your life; but, he wasn't able to do anything. So fortunately my ophthalmologist had referred me to CNIB early on, once I had regained some of my strength, and the staff from CNIB were coming out and I had already started to learn Braille. I was able to label the records and tapes that I had and I was then able to keep things in alphabetical order and choose things for myself. I learned to Braille down addresses or phone numbers, and had some training with the white cane, which I hated. I guess. if there was another upside to being 20 when I lost my sight, it would be that my friends from high school were still a pretty tight group, not married with children and living all over the place like we are today. They continued to include me, and drag me out to things, and I think that was an important part of the adjustment for me. But I literally started my life all over again at age 20, reading books that children would read in kindergarten or grade 1, as you are developing the skills in Braille. I understood that when I would meet somebody with a cane or a dog I would have this horrible and uncomfortable feeling. I still had my whole life ahead of me and what kind of a life would I have as a blind person. I didn't want people to treat me any differently just because I had a white cane in my hand or a dog. I specifically remember thinking, now, keep in mind I was 20 years old, that if half the women I meet are going to feel as uptight around blind people as I did, maybe I'd never get a date.

Donna worked at CNIB once upon a time too. She gave new staff tours and, she gave me a tour that has lasted so far for a lifetime.. But, and I would say that whether I worked there or not, if it weren't for the skills of CNIB the fact of the matter is I would never have imagined 30 years ago that I'd be in all the places I have been today. CNIB also provides training to other agencies, usually for a fee, on accessibility, senior's facilities, working with people with partial sight, how to assist, how to guide, all of those things. Are there any other questions at this point? Then I will talk a bit about the dog if you want to.


Just tell us his name.

Randy Firth:

Only, if you do not use it. The school instructs us to never tell people your dog's name because, if I tell you the name and I should be walking down the street one day and you call out "Oh look there's ~.." and the dog will turn toward you and it could be a critical moment with the result that I could bump into you or ....

His name is Hilton. All right I'll do the dog thing and then if you think of any questions related to CNIB or my personal experiences, we won't let Donna answer any questions.

Hilton is my third dog, I've been working dogs for 28 years as well as that intensive training program that I mentioned earlier. I have actually packed in the white cane because I love practicing. So every time the trainer came out from one week to the next, I was still at square one; steering all of the sidewalk and wasn't practicing because I was worried about my neighbours seeing me fumble around with a white cane.

So I eventually added my name to that intensive training program of three months, and by the time I completed it, and, I was really only there for the intensive travel skills, I had already finished Braille and home personal management. I was fine but I wasn't really getting out and doing anything. By the time I completed the three months, I was crossing major intersections, travelling on buses and subways and moving more quickly and confidently with a white cane than I ever imagined possible, but I still knew it wasn't the be all to end all, for me. So I started applying to different guide dog schools early on in that program and it worked out that I finished the program and was at home for maybe four or five days, before I flew off and got my first dog and have been moving ever since. In 1982 when I got my first dog, the Canadian schools were not open yet or were just getting started, so I chose to go to a school that was already established. My first two dogs were from a school in New York, I changed schools when I got Hilton, not because I had poor service or poor dogs from the first school, but because the previous school still had shared accommodation and, at age 43 or whatever I was when I went and got Hilton, I just couldn't face sharing a bedroom and a bathroom with a stranger for 3 weeks.

Both schools have multi-million dollar kennels and their own breeding programs: that isn't the case from all guide dog schools. So their own breeding program has allowed them to keep track of blood lines, watch for congenital problems like hip dysplasia, heart disease, or anything that can potentially limit the working life of the dogs. Once the pups are old enough to leave their mother, at about eight weeks or so, they are adopted-out to individual families in the community. Families just like yours, who take a puppy and keep it for, depending on the school, anywhere until the dog is 12-18 months old. No training in guiding during that time, but it's still an important part of the overall training for the dog because it's the puppy raising responsibility to go on lots of walks exposing to crowds, noisy traffic, bus rides, all the things you're going to need to be comfortable around. when they are working as guides later on and do basic obedience with them every day. Once the dogs hit that magic point, in Hilton's case it was 18 months; they are brought back into the school. Hilton was trained for four months with a trainer before he was ready to be matched up with a student. If you have never had a guide dog before, you, the student, are at the school for four weeks training with the dog. You start off on quiet residential routes, just like CNIB teaching somebody to get around independently with a white cane. Quiet residential routes and gradually build up to busier and busier situations until you reach the point where you are doing solo trips to malls, doing buses and subways, all the things you would probably be doing with your dog when you get home. If you've had guide dogs before, you get to do a three week program rather than a four week, but the school reserves the right to keep you the fourth week if they are not totally satisfied.

So what does Hilton do? With a white cane you can tap an obstacle and then you have to decide, OK do I go to the right or the left, which is the safe route. With a dog I don't really want to detect something and then have to figure things out, his job is to take me around people, trash bins, whatever, anything that I might bump into or trip over. If he can't take me around an obstacle, he will stop and then it's up to me to figure out what the problem is. Usually I can feel through the harness if he's looking down or off to the side. Maybe it's a narrow space or people jutting out over the sidewalk: whatever, and then we work through it and carry on. When he gets to the curb he stops, it's up to me to listen to traffic just like I would if I were using a white cane. When I think it's safe to go I say "forward" and then it's then his job to take me straight across the street and pause at the curb on the other side.

I need to tell him forward on a red light and if it's safe to go he would take me across. They are not trained to watch the lights in any way. They are almost colour-blind. When I got my first dog they believed that dogs were totally colour-blind but now I got Hilton I'm thinking that maybe dogs see a little bit of colour but not the way we do. The other advantage to the dog, aside from the fact that it's golden opportunity for public awareness, is that animal lovers come out of the woodwork. You could be out on a date and having dinner and somebody would stop and talk to you all about their dog and you get the impression that their dog is just like your dog until your find out it's a Chihuahua. However, you know that nobody is going to come up to you and say "gee that's a nice white cane you have there". You would think that they were strange but, people talk to you about your dog and then it's an opportunity to engage and maybe have some company, for example, when you are sitting on a bus.

The other real advantage is the dog's memory. My first dog Freddy, I worked him for 11 years, Eight to 10 years of work is average because they are about a year and a half to two years old when you get them. I worked him in their eleventh year because I got a promotion at the time that our tenth anniversary rolled around, and, it wasn't a good time for me to disappear for three weeks. Also, most of my commuting time was sitting on a subway. But during that eleven years of work I took Freddy to Florida with me five times and, at least, on two of those times we stayed at the same hotel in Clearwater. It would be best described as a Spanish-style building. If you're on the lower level you can step right out from your room onto the beach or the courtyard. If you're on the upper level there is a balcony that runs around the exterior of the building and you go upstairs and access your room from that balcony.

Second time down I was in the lead and to get to the stairs I wasn't even thinking about what end of the building I was in compared to a year ago but, to get to the stairs to go to our room we had to pass the door to the room we stayed at a year earlier. And out of a whole row of doors and a whole year later that dog stopped at the door we had before. Every time I came back from the beach I had to pass that door to get to the stairs to go to my room. Each time that dog would pause and indicate, "OK I know Randy didn't want it the last time but he used it a year ago so he might want it now; so if you're going ..." That is how he went from being good to being great.

The first time you go somewhere, whether you are a cane-user or a dog-user, it is always the most challenging. I get clear directions. "Ok your store is on the east side of Yonge to the south of Eglinton. Get the bus down to Yonge and Eglinton; then two crossings up". Somewhere in there I'm going to have to ask for assistance. But with a guide dog, once I've been there, and this guy (Hilton) is really over the top with the indicator, he really wants to make sure I get to where I am going… I come in the front door of the CNIB all the time. The store is on the left. I know people that work in there. I go in there once in a while but, I can't just fly in the front door without him pausing and looking," you sure?" - "yes, go".

Hilton is nine. I've had him for seven years. I got him two months before my youngest daughter was born. The second dog I had was a big black lab named LT and he was named after a retired football star Lawrence Taylor who had his name in the papers a few times while I had that dog for being involved in things he shouldn't have been involved in. But the black lab was big and muscular and he went to Florida with us a couple of times and with me and Donna on our honeymoon to Aruba. Now with the kids and the mortgage, not to mention everything else, Hilton hasn't been anywhere. Reality is what reality is....


What happens to dogs after their working life?

Randy Firth:

My understanding is that, once upon a time, the school didn't want you to have the old dog in the house when you had a new one because they were worried about the old dog feeling left out: being jealous and all that stuff. They wanted you to focus on the new one.

I have been able to keep all my dogs in retirement. You have to be able to look after them. If you are in a situation where you lived alone, or, everybody in the home worked and couldn't be there to keep an eye on them, then it would not be practical. Option two is you give the dog to a friend or family member and, that way, you still get to visit the dog. Option three is that, if neither one of those work for you, the school would take it back and find it a home.

But the whole thing is part of the training, you don't want to work your dog and, heaven forbid, you are in an emergency situation and need a new dog right away, because that is not going to happen. I applied for Hilton in September and I got into a class in March. You need to plan for that transition when you realize that your dog is slowing down: maybe having difficulty climbing stairs. My previous dog became very nervous of thunder and even the sight of a balloon would send him to the tremors because of different past events where balloons were popping for the United Way or CNIB.


That happened to my dog, she was terrified of thunderstorms and skate boards and things like that. I think they might have said that her hearing was going and hearing that sound close to the end of her life became even worse, scaring her.

Randy Firth:

Well that is what they explained to me when I got Hilton. We have black leather furniture, and in the beginning the Black Lab would sneak up on the couch and Donna wouldn't always notice him. He would be snoring right through a thunderstorm when he was younger. However, as he aged, they're just like people, he become more sensitive and very nervous.


Do the people who are looking after the dogs have to do special things, like you said they have to take them out in traffic and get used to crowds and things like that? So do they have a schedule of things that they have to do when looking after the guide dog?

Randy Firth:

Yes but I am not too detailed on how deep that goes. I just know my previous dog was raised on a 180 acre farm in Connecticut and I met the puppy raiser and that dog could run like the wind. He said at the end of the day he go out into a cut field and just hit a ball over and over again out into the field and this dog would just keeping bringing it back. He was nuts, he would take him up to a lake, he could throw the ball all day off the end of the dock, he'd think oh it's hot he better chill out, he stopped throwing it and he bring the ball and drop it at your feet. I made the mistake of taking the ball and putting it between my legs when I was sitting down in the chair, well he took the ball from there. He never wanted to stop.


Do you have to go back and retrain with a new dog?

Randy Firth:

It's a three week stint every time you get a new dog. Every new dog is a new beginning, so it really doesn't matter how many dogs you've had before, the school wants to be certain that you take theme when return you can work well. I mean all three of my classes there has been two or three students who it was obvious within the first day or two that it wasn't a good match, the dog wasn't working well with the person, not listening or whatever. And they'd switch the dog out right away and give the person another one so they would have pretty much the whole program with the dog.


When you're with your dog on the streets, and I've notice like at an intersection, do you want other pedestrians to help you or just leave you and your dog to think things out.

Randy Firth:

The best thing to do is ask. I do etiquette training and supplementary training for new staff and working with people who are blind or partially sighted. One example that I give is from the early days before I had our first dog. I was standing on the street corner waiting to meet a friend and I had deliberately stepped well back from the intersection because I didn't want it to look like I was waiting to cross the street. A Good Samaritan came along and must have thought "Oh, blind guy", and, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me across the road. I didn't even want to go there and now can I go back to where I was.

It's so basic. I know people want to be helpful and they don't want to do the wrong thing: nor do they want to embarrass themselves or upset anybody. Basically, ask first. If the person does want your help then ask how you may help. Maybe they just want to know for sure that the light has just turned green and their happy to go on their own. If they do want assistance, the correct technique is to crook your arm in a downward-fashion with your hand parallel to your waist so that the blind person may trail up the arm and work himself into a comfortable position where he can follow your lead. The blind person is a step behind so, if you pause for a curb or anything he has that protective reaction that he or she might comfortably follow. Nobody likes to be grabbed and pulled. Your immediate reaction is to pull away. With this method the blind person has the control of being able to let go when he or she wants to.

I am holding Donna just on the back of her arm. If it is a narrow space that you're guiding somebody through, suddenly we are now the width of two, the guide swings their arm in and puts their hand into the small of their back, I will automatically fall in behind and extend my arm so we are going single file. All the while we can just carry on a conversation: we don't have to get too uptight about it. As soon as we're back into open space, just relax and bring your arm back up to the side. Where, when you get people when they're nervous they are moving their arm continuously and they are looking around and are tense to the point that they can point out insignificant things such as "Oh there's a leaf coming up ahead...". In other words, they can go overboard.


When you are on your own, do you have a trust problem with others? There is all kinds of creeps out there.

Randy Firth:

Yes. It is funny you bring that up. I had a situation, in certain weather conditions it hard to hear what's going on around you. If it is windy and there are leaves blowing around it kind of drowns out other sounds, or, if it is raining and there's a lot of traffic then the sound of the wheels and the water drown out other things that you might be listening for. Somebody asked me something similar to this recently, and, I was out late a very long time ago when I had my first dog. I was living at my parent's home when I missed the last Bellamy bus and had a long walk from Eglinton Ave. I'm walking and I hear footsteps behind me and with the first dog I could hustle into a run. The school probably wouldn't have been too happy to see that, but that's how much trust I had in him. He would slow down well in advance, if there was reason too. And so I pick up the pace a bit, and I slow down and the feet are still the same distance behind me. I get the dog into a gallop and I slow down and the feet are still there. I have had enough of this and, eventually I slow the dog down. I turned and said something to the person who replies "You're Randy, right?" I answered in the affirmative and he continues "oh I just live up the street from you."

Well why didn't you say something to me and avoid all the scary cat and mouse stuff on the street. Then, ironically a car pulls up not long after we had started walking and chatting together and, it was one of the waitresses that worked in a local restaurant, and she asks, "Hey, you guys need a ride?"


Would your dog come to your defence?

Randy Firth:

No, if they show any signs of being protective or aggressive in class they'll fail. For example, let us say a little old lady bumps into you on the street and if the dog interprets that as a form of aggression he can cause her serious harm. You are out in the public with them all the time so they have to be neutral.

Now if push comes to shove, and fortunately I've never been in the situation, you know you've had a dog seven years, nine years, would its natural instincts kick in if I was really being harmed?


They are not trained to use the "sic" command or anything like that?

Randy Firth:

No, not at all. That is why the school in California has just stopped using the German Sheppard all together. They are just too reactive. There is a fellow that is a volunteer with CNIB and he got one of the last of the German Sheppard from that school and every time he's in the building that dog is growling and barking and doing things that the dog should not do.


Have you found any hotels or restaurants that do not want you to go in because of the dog?

Randy Firth:

It is against the law and I have all kinds of photo ID saying that Hilton is what he is, but it happens. It will be two weeks ago on Tuesday, I was downtown for a meeting and I went into a Swiss Chalet at Simcoe and King and the host said, "you'll have to leave the dog outside " I said, "do you realize what you are trying to do is illegal" as I'm reaching for my ID. Meanwhile, the people behind me are saying, "you have to let him in with that dog".

So then he tries to say well here, take the table right here by the door. I was with another CNIB staff who was the driver guide for the day and she said, "No, no, we want a table in there". We ended up with a booth, and, since we got there before noon, the restaurant was fairly empty. The dog went way under the table, curled up, and had a sleep, like he's doing now. When I got up to leave, there were people there that had not seen me come in, Hilton comes out from under the table and, even the people at the table just across the aisle, all remarked "Oh look at him, I didn't even know he was here". Donna and I have people all the time say "Gee I wish my kids were that well behaved".


What about on a plane, where does the dog go? With you?

Randy Firth:

No I only got tripped up with this once, but usually if you request the bulkhead seat, at least on a 737, there is more legroom at the front of the plane, and the dog just lays right on the floor. I requested the bulkhead and it was not a 737, it was some other kind of plane, and there was less of legroom than anywhere else. So when they did go up, the pilot said "Look don't tell anybody I did this". He took me back to the emergency exit where there was one less seat and said "I'm not supposed to seat you here because you need assistance. Right? But, here the dog can sit here and you sit there. We're good." And fortunately I got the same pilot on the way back and he did the same thing.

Most people are excellent. I've had good experiences most of the time. It's so rare that somebody tries to deny me access that it always kind of catches me off guard. It happened in a Golden Griddle a few years ago. Donna and I went in and, I don't know if just had two of the girls then, but I heard somebody mumbling around the corner. Then the hostess came out and started to say "Oh I'm sorry you're not allowed to bring that dog in here. Well both Donna and I, at the same time, pulled out the necessary ID. The hostess immediately exclaimed "Oh I'm sorry."

It was the manager around the corner telling her that she would have to refuse, that I had overheard. "Oh we didn't know, we didn't know." Well you are in the business and you should probably be aware of the laws that affect you. So they bring us in and, at the time, I had the black Lab that was afraid of loud noises. They are feeling badly about what happened; so, what do they do, they bring us balloons and inevitably one of the children let the balloon loose and it floated up and hit the light bulb. BANG. The dog jumped up, the table almost went right over: the whole thing was just going from bad to worse.

Now I have had somebody assist me and I don't know whether it was this dog or another dog. When you get them and they're new, they are a handful. They are not a machine. They are a dog first and, as such, they are still strong and very interested in other dogs on the street; albeit on a friendly basis. I've had people say to me, "Oh, a guide dog. I thought they were better than that". Well in my job at CNIB I'm meeting people at the front desk all the time. It's all "Hi Randy and I'm Mr. Bump". It is all bubbly and friendly and shaking hands and, with Hilton, he'd be getting so excited, in the early days, that would want to jump into the middle of a handshake. You are constantly reinforcing the rules and acting officially until you end up with a dog like this: that's mostly not interested, or shouldn't be, but still likes to give you the sad eyes. But when he's out of harness then he can be a regular dog.


It sounds like CNIB is very active. I didn't know you were involved in as many things as you are. In terms of your wish list, what would you like the government or the medical community to be doing more of from your list of things to do in terms of support, etc.?

Randy Firth:

Well, let's bring back more funding for more regular eye exams for people that are not children or seniors. There are so many things that can be prevented, if they are caught early. Particularly with glaucoma. By the time you realize there is something not quite right with your vision, the damage is done and it is irreversible, but, if it's caught early enough it can often be controlled with drops or minor surgery.


You said you were involved with evaluating the stop announcements.

Randy Firth:

They reached out to us. I'll tell you the history of the TTC. All those yellow walking lines on subway platforms, I think they are yellow and their bumpy, those came as a result of a blind woman who got off a train on a centre platform on the Yonge line, I believe it was, became disoriented and went off the platform and was killed by a train.

The TTC, going back to the late eighties, early nineties, became very involved with us and those tiles were tested with different people: cane users, dog users, and everything else. They even put the wait-line tiles in the centre platforms that lead you to the escalators. They are not for guide dogs since they won't pay attention to them, but rather for a cane user who can detect them.

What you are referring to is when the TTC was being pushed, in a human rights case, launched against them by David Lepofsky, the blind lawyer, to have automated stop announcements. The TTC was piloting them on the subway, the Sheppard line, and they reached out to the CNIB and I recruited a number of people that would go for a ride and evaluate different voices.

The buses, it used to be that you would be trained to get a seat close to the driver so he could still see you: maybe right behind him. That's what I always liked so I could lean around and talk to him. It was the driver's responsibility to call out stops. Well some would call out every little stop, some would call out just the major ones, which was fine with me, I could keep track and then we had to follow the streets that the route took me.

Some would call out nothing. Then you'd start wondering, well maybe they didn't remember to call my stop. It wouldn't be the first time that they would drive right through the intersection I want when I'm going into work and I've got a meeting or something. Now I've got to run back. Now with these automated ones you don't have to worry about it.


Are you working with any other municipalities to get the traffic walking signal on, or even some of the other local transits? I live in Mississauga and I don't see some of these things happening.

Randy Firth:

They are coming. I know the orientation and mobility specialist in Durham and she is being called on all the time. They are trying to put CNIB in the position of being the one to decide ‘one or two sides' and, which intersection should have them. That is not our role. The same is happening in Mississauga.

I'm connecting right now with my contact within the City of Toronto. In the early days, they had an Accessible Pedestrian Signal (APS) decision being made by the Committee I was on simply because the City's budget only allowed for 15 installations a year. Well we're getting all kinds of requests and it's creating a backlog. The committee's role was to say OK, why make this one a priority over that one? Well that intersection has another APS just up the street. With this one here there is a senior's home and there is nothing else around so maybe that should be a priority. Early in 2008, there was a backlog of fifty some odd waiting to be installed, so without any new requests in Toronto it would take three years plus just to catch up on the backlog. Somebody filed a Human Rights complaint against the TTC because he had been waiting three plus years and nothing had gone in this intersection. Consequently, City Council voted to double the budget for APS installation in Toronto.

So the Committee did not meet last fall like we normally do because, now any time a new light is installed in Toronto where there wasn't one before, it is automatically equipped with the accessible features. They are working their way through the list as they now have double the budget.

I'm done. Thanks for having me.

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