Sendero Group Travel Blog

Follow Sendero travelers on their adventures using accessible GPS.

Friday, August 15, 1997

 

Ambassador Josh

Add a little Samba to the words "que lindo, que lindo" and you embody the Brazilian experience with a Seeing Eye dog. This means "how beautiful" in Spanish and Portuguese and this is what I heard from almost everyone I past or encountered during my 5 day visit to Sao Paulo Brazil for the International Conference on Education of the Visually Impaired. The public reaction and that of the conference attendees was nothing short of phenomenal!

Mike and Josh at a picnic benchThere was over 650 mostly teachers attending this conference, (59 countries) a large percentage being from Brazil and South America. Few had ever met a dog guide and its owner even though they work in the blindness field. Based on their astonishment and gasps as I wound my way through crowded streets and packed reception halls, they were unaccustomed to seeing a blind person walk quickly and independently. For that matter, there were few if any cane users walking by themselves.

In the exhibit hall and at the large receptions which had 500 to 1000 people in attendance, I could not stop without being surrounded within seconds by blind and sighted people who wanted to know about the dog. It was the volume of people and having to give explanations in Spanish which made this experience an order of magnitude greater than anything I have ever experienced. The blind people wanted to see the dog, the harness and to feel how he worked. Their Brazilian exuberance added even more color to the situation.

The blind teachers wanted to not only feel the dog and harness but sometimes to experience walking with the dog. Josh has now been exposed to various forms of simulation. the person holding my arm, the person walking on the opposite side of Josh at the same time as me and me walking backwards holding the leash while they held the harness. There were so many people around that I had no fear of crashing into anything and we only walked a few paces but it gave them the idea. Oh yes, and then there was the picture taking.

It is difficult to communicate how struck these people were by what a dog guide can do. One example might be when a blind professor, Paulo, and his sighted girlfriend asked about the dog. After explaining at length about how the dog works on the streets, in crowds, etc., I had Paulo take my arm, explaining that Josh would lead us toward the stairs to demonstrate what he could do. As we approached the steps at a fast pace, Paulo's girlfriend started to grab us but she was a pace to far behind to reach us. As Josh halted and we stopped abruptly at the top of the staircase, she broke into tears - actually seeing Josh in action.

I could talk to a group, explaining how the dog worked and it would seem that they understood. However, it wasn't until I took my leave and worked Josh through the crowds that they really got the picture. Until then, I think they saw the dog as some kind of fancy ornament or cuddly companion. And you know, I walked with pride and amazement too for the blessing of being able to have such independence made even more significant in contrast to the thousands of blind people around the world who don't have access to a dog guide, a job and the freedom of movement.

The more challenging component of my Seeing Eye ambassadorial duties came with every restaurant, taxi and hotel I attempted to enter in Sao Paulo. In the face of a city of 15 million people and some 5000 restaurants, it was nothing less than daunting especially because I was on business and not pleasure. My first responsibility was to my business clients and it could definitely disrupt an evening to have a battle over the dog not to mention having to find an alternate restaurant in a city where walking the streets to find a restaurant aimlessly is not recommended for one's longevity.

After a short discussion, we were accepted at our hotel which I had not informed before arriving knowing that because of the language barrier that I would likely be rejected. I wasn't so fortunate at their classy hotel restaurant. I was told by the Maitre De that I was welcome to eat at the "other" restaurant down stairs. As it turned out, the menu downstairs was the same and the prices were less but it was the idea of being sent to the back of the bus which is so hard to take. It did shake my confidence in my strategy of persistence, patience, politeness and performance.

A bit querulous, the next evening, I called to make reservations at a restaurant which had been highly recommended for a business dinner. The Brazilian proprietor was unconvinced after I struggled over the phone to give my best pitch in Spanish for bringing Josh into his restaurant. After some initial frustration, I called a Brazilian guy who is heading the effort to start a dog guide school in Brazil. I thought it would be useful for him to get a dose of what blind users will be up against in his country. He had given me his home and cell numbers to call if I "needed anything." I asked him to call the restaurant proprietor to explain in Portuguese about the dog. There are no laws in Brazil about dog guides and no one I met knew of a dog guide owner in this vast country of 100 million people.
I must say, I cheered after receiving a call back from my new Brazilian friend with the news that there would be no problem. He convinced the proprietor that the dog guide was okay. One down, 4999 restaurants to go.

The next evening, I did not call ahead but instead arrived with 8 Brazilian guests at a restaurant some of them frequent customers, ironically called the Laughing Cat. I think the proprietor finally let us in because we were clogging the entry. He literally moved a wall to give us access to a table in the front. He did not want me walking past the other tables with the dog.

After a pleasant uneventful meal, I was considering how I should make my way to the rest room. I really didn't feel like waiting until I got back to the hotel. It became obvious what direction the rest rooms were in after my guests took their turns walking to the facilities at the back of the restaurant and past many crowded tables.

The restaurant staff had forgotten Josh was there until I pushed back my chair and he quickly guided me through the tables and into the rest rooms at the rear. When I returned to the table, the Brazilians were all chattering and the Portuguese word for dog, Cachorro, was prevalent. (pronounced Cashoho) The staff did not have time to stop me but they complained to my colleagues. "Wait, how will he find the rest room? How will he find the toilet? How will he find his way back?" Within a matter of minutes, there questions were moot and my colleagues, half of whom were blind Brazilians, were thrilled by the example I set. Hale to independent travel.

Now for the coup de gras. I had been at the hotel for 5 days and the staff was extremely friendly and solicitous. When the downstairs restaurant was closed for renovation I calmly walked into the fancy upstairs restaurant for breakfast where I had been rejected merely 5 days before and I received nothing but excellent service. This was the one restaurant to which I had been denied access to before. The 4 Ps paid off, especially the Performance, the example we set via our various comings and goings while staying at the hotel.

I decided to take advantage of my new found Seeing Eye dog converts at my hotel by asking them not only to make dinner reservations for me on my last night but to explain about the dog to boot to the restaurant. This strategy worked, we had our best meal of the week, I signed the largest client ever and prepared to leave Brazil for Chile batting a thousand. Five down, 4,995 restaurants to go.

A footnote about the taxis. By and large they were very good about accepting the dog, probably no worse than in the states; I just couldn't force the issue if they refused without the laws to back me up. The drivers I rode with were extremely helpful in making sure I found my final destination even to the point once of staying with me for nearly a half an hour at a convention center in search of a meeting.

Upon arriving in my next destination in Chile at an international Sonesta Hotel, I was a bit perturbed when I was told that the hotel policy did not permit pets. I had run out of patience. I thought that just maybe at an international hotel I wouldn't have to do the dance yet again.

I gave all the standard explanations and the Chief of Reception said he would speak with the General Manager. I am not sure if he actually did but he returned to tell me it would be impossible to accommodate me with the dog. "You mean to tell me that the Sonesta intends to discriminate against me and inconvenience me by having to move to another hotel? I would like to speak to the General Manager myself."

It turns out that although there is not a dog guide rule in Chile that a human rights law had been passed just 2 months ago so the General Manager was a bit sensitive to the word "discrimination." I guess they realized I was not going to leave without a fuss. By the time the General Manager appeared, they had changed their tune radically. As it turned out, I received not only admittance to the hotel but VIP treatment for my next weeks stay.

The bottom line is that persistence, politeness, patience and performance pays off whether in countries which have the benefit of dog guide laws and especially in those which do not. Common human dignity dictates that blind people trying to travel independently with their dog guides should receive professional customer service not resistance every step of the way.

These episodes continued throughout my stay in Chile although it was somewhat easier being in a place where I could communicate better. It sure makes me appreciate the public awareness of dog guides in the United States as well as the laws which back us up. Nonetheless, I would like to see blind people in places like Brazil and Chile have the option of a dog guide and the opportunity to travel independently and without resistance. There has to be a more effective way to create public awareness than me eating my way through the continent.

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