2015 in Review

Let me start by saying 2015 wasn’t overly eventful, but it was a great year, one that i will look back fondly on for years to come.

This past year, I have continued to push myself to do things that i would not have ordinarily done. I took up running with Achilles Brooklyn, a chapter of Achilles International, a group which focuses on running, pairing individuals with and without disabilities to come together and get fit. I ran my first 5k and made some great friends through this group. I took up tandem biking, with InTandem, who makes cycling possible for individuals who are blind or visually impaired by pairing them with volunteers who are sighted. I met great people through this group too, and completed my first long distance bike tour, the Gran Fondo NJ, in September, where i rode 43 miles. I also did a smaller long distance ride, the Tour De Bronx, with my husband, which was really fun,

I’ve been on a lot of adventures with Jingles. I took my first bus trip to Boston with Jingles to see my folks, who had moved to MA a few months before. I took to the streets of NYC with only Jingles and my GPS and discovered some great restaurants, attended seminars for work, and continued to challenge my comfort zone. Jingles and I even took a trip to Cambridge to visit a friend who was a classmate of mine in guide dog school. This required us to plot our route and take MA’s public transit system without any previous experience, and we rocked it.

Speaking of Jingles, I’ve had the honor to speak for Guiding Eyes for the Blind on several occasions this past year. I was interviewed by USA Today, and my story was published in their spring/summer Pet Guide, I spoke at GEB’s Annual Golf Classic fundraiser, where Adam and I shared a table with Eli Manning – and all the football folks are jealous of me haha, and most recently, i got to speak at the Yale Club a couple of weeks ago.

I’ve grown professionally. Staff transitions at my job stretched me and gave me opportunities to develop my abilities. This past fall, I landed a new job that i love at a non-profit much closer to home, which has continued to push me to grow professionally.

Adam and I are better than ever. We’ve supported each other through challenging situations, enjoyed each other’s company all year, and spent plenty of time at the beach. In November, we celebrated 6 years of marriage, and I couldn’t ask for a better mate.

So, that’s my year in a nutshell. There’s a ton more that i could say, but those are some major highlights. Nothing crazy, nothing extraordinary, but all good.

Looking back, I haven’t accomplished everything i wanted to when 2015 started, there’s so much more i could’ve done, but that is what new years are for. I wonder what 2016 will bring? I certainly have my resolutions. I want to continue to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone and do new things. I want to stay in touch with family and friends better than i have before. I want to put new experiences under my belt with Jingles. And, of course, I want to lose a few pounds, haha.

What are your resolutions?

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Ride, Ride, Ride…Hitchin’ a Ride

So, I have been noticeably absent in my blog posts for the past…5 months??? Oh boy. In my Happy Anniversary post about Jingles, I mentioned some of my new pastimes – running and tandem biking – and now I have three favorite causes: Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Achilles International, and InTandem.

Today, I’d like to share with you a little about InTandem. As you all are well aware of now, I didn’t grow up as “the blind girl.” I loved doing all sorts of visual things – one of those being riding my bike. My family and I used to ride for miles on the Rails to Trails (converted railroad tracks turned biking / walking paths). I loved feeling the wind hitting my face, whizzing through the countryside through small towns, and watching the miles rack up.

Then, I began losing more vision. The last time I tried to ride a bike; I was around 20 with some college friends. After riding a few hundred yards, I realized how little I could see, and the cliff to my right seemed precariously close. I walked the rest of the way. And that was the last time I picked up a bike.

Until InTandem. This past spring I discovered an amazing organization that makes riding a bike accessible to people like me through tandem bike rides. . Enthusiastically, I signed up for my first ride, and Jingles and I headed to Central Park early one Saturday morning. And, did we ride! Wow, I couldn’t believe the amazing feeling, whizzing through the park, getting to know the person in the front seat. I smiled the entire time, and couldn’t wait for the next ride.

Even more fantastic – the opportunities to ride are completely free. To put it into perspective, a 1-hour tandem ride through the park will put you out a good $50 bucks, which is basically out of my price range for a leisurely hobby. But InTandem provides FREE rides on their own tandem bikes. The bikes are captained (steered) by kindhearted volunteers, and there are even people who give up their time to watch the guide dogs.

I’ve met great people, had great rides, and worked some muscles. Now, I’m going to ride 43 miles in the Gran Fondo NJ on September 13. I am doing this to raise money for this fantastic organization. I may not be able to move for a week afterward, but it will be totally worth it.

So, if you would like to help make my trip a triumph, please give a visit to my Crowdrise page and make a donation. If you can’t donate, I’d love some happy thoughts on race day: DDDD

Team InTandem Crowdrise | Rebekah Cross
THANKS!!!!

Happy Anniversary Jingles!

One year ago today, I received one of the greatest gifts of my life. I knew I was getting a guide dog as I sat nervously with my classmates in the lecture hall at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, but little did I know I would receive so much more. That day, I received a gift, which held many other gifts. I received independence, self-confidence, adventure, laughter, acceptance, and an unconditionally loving best friend. All these gifts came wrapped in a ball of yellow fur, brown eyes, and a black nose with a little pink in the center. My little yellow lab, just over 50 pounds, a little doll with a big job.

Ah my Jingle-Belle. During those first few weeks of having Jingles attached to me at all times, trying to learn all the commands, and wrap my mind around my sudden doubling in width, I had no idea just how much she would bring to my life. I don’t think it’s possible to understand what having a guide dog can truly mean until getting one and going through the process of bonding. Jingles and I have had so many adventures over the past year – from mundane (to most) activities like going to the hairdresser or visiting a coffee shop to taking up running and tandem biking to discovering new places in the city and traveling alone. We’ve laughed together (if a dog could laugh) when I do something embarrassing or after she very proudly shows me she’s found what I was looking for by wagging her tail until she nearly hops off the ground. We’ve cried together (at least I cried) over frustrations, confusions, and life in general. We’ve overcome challenges – from Jingles’ and Muffin’s (cat) less than amiable relationship for the first several months to sniffing episodes when presented with the boatloads of trash and doggie smells that come with the territory of living in Brooklyn to walking on ice for a solid month in -5 degree temperatures last winter. We’ve shared plenty of love and kisses, and every day I am truly amazed at her intelligence.

As I reflect on the last year, I realize how much I have changed. The Rebekah of August 2014 is completely different than the Rebekah of now. I was still going through the stages of grief regarding losing my much cherished sight. Halfway in denial, I would wander in and out of anger, bargaining, and depression. I’m not saying I was a miserable mess, but I certainly wasn’t in the place I am now. Today, I feel like I really have moved into acceptance. I rarely find myself angry at my condition, and only feel a twinge of sadness occasionally. Now, I even make jokes about myself, and laugh about the challenges I face and the peculiarities I exhibit as a result of my own journey through blindness. I know it was Jingles who helped me over this seemingly never ending hump. Having her by my side, guiding me through the obstacles of daily life inadvertently guided me through the emotional obstacles of grappling with the physical condition I never wanted to accept. She restored my confidence and made me more like, well, me.

Last Sunday, I was lounging on the bed petting Jingles when Adam remarked “that dog is your favorite thing in the world.” He pretty much hit the nail on the head. While I love Muffin from the bottom of my heart, there is just something extra special about the relationship one shares with their guide dog.

Happy Anniversary Jingles! Here’s hoping we have many, many more!

Why I Don’t Mind Being an Inspiration

Recently, I’ve seen a series of articles, posts, stories and the like circulating about people with disabilities and how they don’t want to be an inspiration to others. I’d like to speak to this, and relate to you why I, myself, don’t mind being an inspiration.
First, I’d like to clearly state that this post is not meant to offend any of my peers or the online community as a whole that feel otherwise. You are entitled to your opinion in the same way that I am entitled to mine, and I respect that.

So why don’t people want to be an inspiration? Based off my own observations, folks, especially those with a visible disability like myself, are already in the spotlight. I can’t hide that I have a guide dog, others can’t hide their canes, wheelchairs, walkers, and the like, and I guarantee that even though people with visible disabilities can’t help but stick out, all of us want to blend into the crowd just like the next person. People with disabilities are just trying to live normal lives, like the person next to them. It can be hard to rise above the low expectations that society generally places on the disabled population, and many times it’s annoying to be applauded for accomplishing a menial task, when you’d rather be applauded for accomplishing something big, like a job promotion, earning a degree, or inventing a breakthrough technology.

I’ve had my own share of these situations. For example, I’ll never forget the time I was at a holiday gathering, and an instance like this occurred. I had only recently moved to New York, and was just then starting to come to terms with the fact that I would have to start doing things in life differently than other people. Without a job for the first time since I was 16, I spent many of my days at home, depressed and restless. Well, everyone around the dinner table was relating recent adventures, world travels, big time jobs, and family raising, then the story was told about how I had recently taken my cane out, walked 2 blocks to the subway, and met my husband. Now, this was actually a really big deal for me, as I’d never had orientation and mobility training, and never really gone out with my cane before, but when everyone began applauding me for doing this, I replied with some snarky remark about how it wasn’t a big deal and why don’t we all congratulate me for being able to put on my pants in the morning? Truth is, it was embarrassing, and entirely frustrating to have fallen so far from the independent young business person to the woman that sat at home and omigosh! was able to walk 2 blocks on her own. So, I completely understand why people do not want to be an inspiration for living their lives.

That being said, here’s why I don’t mind.

First, let me ask you, who inspires you? I know we all have our heroes who changed the world in some way or another, but let’s take a step back and focus on who, on a local level, inspires you? Got someone? Great.

Maybe it’s your neighbor, who is dealing with stage 4 cancer, but still gets up every day with a smile. Maybe it’s the single mom who is working 2 jobs to feed her 4 kids. Maybe it’s the recent immigrant who speaks English as a second language, but is working long hours and going to school at night to achieve the American dream. Perhaps it’s someone who has intense social anxiety, but gets up in front of a classroom every day and shares their knowledge with their students. Or, maybe it’s the mother who gave up her own desires for a traditional career to stay home with her kids. Perhaps it’s the person who is living in deep poverty, but is always ready to give whatever they have to help someone else, or maybe it’s the person who sacrificed the comfort of home to go abroad and help people in a third world country.

Point is this – all those people I just listed, are just living their lives. They are doing what they have to do, in spite of their challenges. They are not trying to show off, but somehow, their existence inspires others to go further, to realize that the situation at hand isn’t so bad, or maybe it is, but it can be overcome, because others have proven it’s possible.

So, who has inspired me? Here’s a couple examples. My husband has a friend who just happens to be in a wheelchair. A couple of years ago, when I was really struggling with accepting the fact that I am now different than others and can’t always be truly independent and under the radar, he told my husband this: “I don’t need help a lot of times, but people offer to help, and I’ve found that if I let them help me, it helps them, and that is why I let them.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that statement really inspired me. I hated people asking if I needed help, hated needing help in the first place, but I often think of those words. At times, letting folks help me when I really don’t need it, helps them. They feel good, and that makes me feel good. Plus, being appreciative will perpetuate acts of kindness. Maybe they’ll offer help to someone who really needs it, instead of being burned by a sarcastic remark by me, or maybe someone else letting someone help them will help me in the future when I really need it.

I have several friends who are blind, and they do so much! I don’t know what their perspective is on being an inspiration, but I do know this: when I am scared, struggling, frustrated with something I have to do, talking to them, or reading their posts makes me want to do more. It makes me realize that, hey, I CAN do this- they did, why not me? Because of these people in my life, I limit myself less every day. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one out there dealing with what I deal with. There are doctors, lawyers, athletes, leaders, travelers, artists, motivational speakers, all who are blind – and that is the tip of the iceberg. So, why can’t I accomplish those same things? I can, and thanks to people like them, I will. (Well, maybe not the doctor or lawyer thing, that’s just too much school haha),

So, now back to my situation. I have had so many people tell me I am an inspiration to them. From people who struggle with intense pain every day and can’t walk, to people who are cancer survivors. Regular people with no visible problems (I say visible because everyone has challenges) to people going through tough divorces. Random people on the subway, who are going through things that I will never know. Immigrants from other countries working countless hours to get by. The list goes on. And for me, when one of these people, who have so much more to deal with than I do, tell me I’m an inspiration to them, it is the highest compliment I could receive. Because in me just living my life, I somehow encourage others to go further in theirs, or just as importantly, keep going in spite of their own challenges.

This is why I do not, and never will, mind being an inspiration.

What a Week – Part 1

Wow, if last week is any indication of the upcoming months, Jingles and I are in for some real adventures! We experienced so many out of the ordinary experiences that I believe the week deserves multiple blogs, so as not to bore my faithful readers to sleep… Okay, without further ado, the week in review (poet and know it: P)

My recent trip to the hair salon with Jingles, paired with melting snow and rumors of spring made me restless to try something new, face another fear, and put another guide dog experience under my belt. On Tuesday, I decided to return some clothes. Now, I know that the simple act of returning clothes is nothing, truly miniscule in the realm of errands, but for me, it was kind of a big deal. See, I like to go shopping with a sighted person…usually my husband, but sometimes another family member of the fairer sex. Since my favorite store is only a few blocks from my apartment, I have, up until now, left Jingles to enjoy some “her” time while I search for the season’s latest styles. So, it really hasn’t been necessary to bring her with me. I have contemplated bringing her many times, say, to find a black shirt or some other singular item, but usually don’t know what I’m searching for, so I haven’t tried it yet. Anyway, I had a few items I needed to return, so I figured what better way to try our first venture into the clothing store than to simply find the counter?

It was a super windy St. Patrick’s Day. Jingles and I navigated around a few drunken people hanging out in front of the local bars on our way to the store. Once we got to the block, we began to slowly walk down the street, searching for some sign of familiarity as to the location of the storefront. We didn’t have much luck because I had never paid attention to the details surrounding the store in walking with my husband. After a couple swipes of the block, I heard someone closing a store nearby and asked them where New York & Company was. He kindly showed me the way, and soon Jingles and I were inside. Once inside, we were faced with a new challenge. The many stocked racks of clothes were viewed as obstacles to the dog, so she would stop to show me what was blocking my path. A clerk noticed us and asked if we needed help. . I told her we were looking for the counter and she guided us there. The return process was easy. Jingles chilled out beside me like an angel. After we were finished, I asked the clerk to point out the path, and once Jingles found it, she navigated to the front door like a pro. That was fun, winding around the many clothes racks on the path out 

New adventures were ahead of me on Wednesday. First, in the morning, I had the opportunity to be interviewed by USA Today about life with Jingles! Can you believe it? I was able to represent Guiding Eyes for an upcoming spread about the Today Show raising Guiding Eyes puppy, Wrangler. There will be a whole piece about service animals in early may, and guess who will be nestled in a side column? Your favorite yellow lab and handler: D I am so incredibly excited!!!! It was quite the honor, and I hope I painted the school and life with Jingles in a way that truly reflects how awesome both are: D

Later, I had a meeting in the Upper West Side. This would require me to transfer at Times Square, which I am not at all familiar with (I avoid the station like the plague). Luckily, I was able to take an Uber Cab on the way to meet my colleagues. Meeting was fine, but on the way back I would have to take Times Square during rush hour. Aghhhh. My coworker was super sweet, however, and rode extra stops on her way home to transfer with me so I didn’t get lost. While I’m sure I would’ve found my train eventually, this really helped take the stress out of things. Jingles was overall okay, but was a little too interested in the garbage and smells around us. (We’re working on this little issue…no one’s perfect).

Fast forward to Friday. This day, Jingles got to visit a Juvenile Detention Center. Not an incredible lot to tell here, except that there was a little miscommunication, and a little hassle getting inside because of the dog. It was rather annoying at the time, but once things got sorted out, the staff tried to compensate by being extra nice to Jingles and I, so I guess I’ll let that one slide: P. It was irritating though…I don’t like to stand out, much less be an annoyance to someone. Oh, well.

And, so ends Part One. A little excitement, a little irritation, a little sniffing…a lot of love.

A Whole New Way to See a Movie

Recently, Adam and I went to see a movie. That is the most normal of phrases, except that I haven’t gone to see a movie in nearly five years, due to my not being able to enjoy it fully. Sure, blindness advocates will say don’t let your lack of sight keep you from seeing a movie, but in my opinion, paying $15 to sit in a theater and not exactly know what’s going on isn’t worth it. I’d rather just rent the movie when it comes out, and have Adam tell me the important visual portions of the film. And that’s where I stood for nearly half a decade.

Last year, I was doing some research about audio description for my job, and learned that some movie theaters were now offering the service. This intrigued me, but I never pursued it because I just figured it’d be a pain in the butt to even try to find a theater that offered audio description. Fast forward to last month. I started the book “Unbroken,” which is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read. Around the same time I learned that the film adaptation was playing in theaters. Adam and I decided that it would be fun to read the book, and then go see the movie together.

A friend that I “met” as a result of my job (we’ve never met in person) is a real movie buff, who also happens to be blind. He is a guest blogger for visionaware.org, and recently sent me a movie review about watching Unbroken with description. Upon remembering that, I asked if he ever went into the City to see movies (he lives about ½ hour outside of NYC), and if so, which were the best theaters for audio description. He wrote back that he didn’t often go into the city, but did a little research and sent me the info for Regal Theater in Union Square. He even called ahead to make sure the movie was still playing. My friend also gave me a step by step guide to getting the correct device.

Armed with my “insider” knowledge, Adam and I went to the cinema. It was a huge place, four floors I think, with a snaking line and escalators everywhere. I had chosen to leave Jingles behind for a few hours, so it was just the two of us. When it was our turn at the counter, I asked for the device knowing that I may have to educate them on what it is, or they may have to search dusty drawers or shelves for one. To my relief, the clerk actually knew what I was talking about! She handed me a small receiver and told me how to wear it. All I had to do was give her my photo ID so they could keep track of it.

Once inside the correct theater, I turned the device on and waited. Nothing played during the commercials (which I anticipated, thanks to my friend). Then, it was time for the main feature. The movie started, and I realized the device was set for the hearing impaired, and was just playing the sound louder through the headphones. This I had also anticipated, thanks to my friend. I told Adam, who went out to the lobby to find someone to help him switch the device from “H” to “V.” Adam returned a few minutes later, and voila! The device was perfectly synchronized to the movie with audio description.

I didn’t miss a detail. I knew exactly what was going on, and didn’t have to ask Adam anything. I know I enjoyed the movie as fully as Adam did, and it was so easy! While the movie was not nearly as good as the book, the description was everything I had hoped, and more. I am thrilled that movies are once again fully accessible to me, and can’t wait to see my next film!

Kudos to Regal Theater for making my experience so easy! I’d recommend their Union Square location for anyone who wants to see a movie with description.

Broadway Bound

On Thursday, Adam Jingles, and I went to the Broadway play “You Can’t Take it with You,” starring James Earl Jones. The play is based off the old movie featuring Jimmy Stewart (I believe it came out in 1938), and was a special audio described showing, made possible through HAI’s Describe! Program.

It was a frigid day, so I had Jingles sporting her blue winter sweater as we traveled. We met Adam at Grand Central Terminal, on the subway train platform. This is an easy way to meet up with someone, as finding each other in the huge abyss of Grand Central can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Since I had my husband-man, I heeled Jingles alongside of me. This is nice to do sometimes because I can still hold Adam’s hand and talk with him while keeping my pup with us. As a side note, I have found that going sighted guide with Adam has had no ill effects on Jingles’ performance, save for us not learning whatever route we are taking that day. She switches right back to work mode the moment I pick up the harness handle.

The first stop on our journey was the Shake Shack in Grand Central. In my opinion, Shake Shack makes the best burgers in NYC. Adam managed to find us a seat, and I tried to get Jingles into a down position under the table. This proved somewhat difficult, as the chair I was sitting in was a high seat, much like a bar stool, and she was fascinated with every smell and crumb around her. Eventually I got her settled, for the most part, and we ate our chow. After dinner, our little crowd headed to the theatre. We had to transfer trains at a different station, so we took the shuttle to Times Square, which I would never recommend to any blind person, as the trains arrive on 4 different tracks, and are only open for less than a minute. Because of this, Adam, Jingles and I would rush to a platform, only to find the doors closing in our face, turn around and repeat the process to a different track, ultimately catching the third shuttle to arrive. Finally, we made it to the theatre, picked up our tickets and my audio receiver from the HAI staffer in front of the theatre, and headed to our seats.

Jingles on escalator
Caption: Jingles rides the escalator in Grand Central. She is wearing her blue sweater and a sign that says “don’t pet me, I’m working.”

It was an interesting ordeal getting the dog settled in at our designated seats. The area was cramped (like all Broadway theaters), and there were several other guide dogs present, which required strategic placement of the dogs so they didn’t try to interact with one another. I wasn’t sure what to do about Jingles’ harness. Since she is small, and I am tall, we have the long handle, so it’s hard to fit her into small places because the harness handle is as long as she is, preventing her from curling up. I was a bit nervous after Jingles’ last theater experience (a story best not mentioned), so I chose to leave the harness on and wedge her between the seat in front of me and my legs. We sat next to a nice couple, with the wife also blind with a guide dog and the husband also sighted. After a little finagling, we managed to get our dogs settled, and got to know each other a bit before the show and during the intermissions.

The play was awesome, and the description was great. There were three acts. Jingles stayed down during the first act, groaning to let me know that she was not pleased with the arrangement. During the first intermission, she jumped into a sit and refused to lay back down. So, Jingles literally sat through the entire second act. I wouldn’t have minded, but the space between the seat and my legs did not allow her to sit straight, so she kept shifting her legs to get back into a sit, which was inching her toward the man to my left. I kept my hand on her collar, fearing that she might randomly bolt, but she didn’t. I figured she was rather uncomfortable, so I unclipped her harness so it would be loose on her. She proceeded to get it wedged, so I removed it completely. About 2/3 through the second act, I reached down to find that Jingles had somehow managed to shimmy out of her winter sweater and it was stuck around her legs and back. Since I knew it was really tight, I tried to remove it completely without disturbing those around me. Finally, the second act ended and I had a naked, unharnessed dog. Once the third act began, Jingles laid down and slept like a rock.

In hindsight, I figure Jingles was extremely hot in her sweater, and uncomfortable because of the harness, which is why she refused to lay down during the second act. While trying to behave for me, Jingles apparently decided to take matters in her own hands. Silly dog. All in all, great play, great day, and I learned some tricks for next time.