The Adventures of Guide Dog Sienna … the good, the bad and the ugly

If I utter the words denial of service, half of those in my life will think my computer was hacked and the other half would link this with accessibility. These two varied meanings illustrate the differences in perception across our society and show the value of knowledge and education.

This post covers multiple interrelated concepts, so first, I will give a little background information about myself for context. All my life, I’ve been an incredibly outgoing person who would give anything a go, from waterskiing to scuba-diving to rock climbing, skiing and many other non-team sports—going out with friends, travelling internationally and working on very demanding jobs. This was with around half of the vision that sighted people have.

I also revelled in proving the career advice at high school very wrong. I was advised to find a job as a secretary and that being a nurse and attending university was not attainable, mainly as my eyesight made me read extremely slowly.

In response, I went to live in another country, returning and entering university as an adult and later becoming a nurse and gaining a PhD in an Engineering, Computing and Mathematics School. I tell the story to give you an example of my tenacity to point out when I raise challenges, difficulty, defeat, fatigue or other associated things this isn’t said lightly.

There have been ups and downs with my vision over the years, one of which was having my retina reattached on my 21 st birthday for the third time. Throughout, I have managed to continue in jobs that I love, progress in my career, meet interesting people and live a fantastic life. I Achieved this by working Hard not to let people notice that I had In issues with my vision, and when it became a problem, work harder to make it less visible (in hindsight, perhaps not the best approach, but it was what society accepted at the time).

There was a point in time I had to change in 2019. I lost half of my remaining vision, leaving a quarter of the field of someone with an average field. Recently I have learned that we have about 5 degrees left (of 155-180 degrees) and we have exhausted all treatments available. In a nutshell, there is no more medicine and science can do to stop or slow deterioration.

Guide Dog Sienna arrived when we began the first three tests to confirm progression and that treatment wasn’t working. While this was amidst our training together and the news and training were incredibly fatiguing, the companionship, joy, freedom and responsibility this bought was unbelievable.

Guide a dog Sienna and I was having lunch in a friend’s office last week to celebrate his birthday. This photo shows the companionship we have when Sienna is out of the harness.

To give you an idea, I had not gone out for entertainment or leisure alone (without a friend) for about five years. I hadn’t realised that my world had become so small and that I was saying no to more outings with friends because they were challenging visually. With Guide Dog Sienna since May, I have been to a play, a movie, a tour of my favourite craft shop in Mt Wellington and many other places I would have usually avoided. Last week, one of my colleagues said you are so outgoing and do so much now, although they didn’t know me 5-10 years ago as a comparison.

On today’s adventure, I wanted to go to a different shopping centre to pick up something my local didn’t have. To achieve this, we went to a different bus stop on a different route. When we arrived, we checked to see how far away the bus we needed was only to find it cancelled and the next 45 minutes away. I had also booked an appointment, so 45 minutes plus a 30-minute bus ride for what would take 10 minutes in a car wasn’t going to get me there on time.

I looked on the taxi app and found a 30-minute estimated weight which was also cutting it fine. So switched to Uber. The closest Uber was 4 minutes away. The cost wasn’t too bad, so I booked.

I messaged the driver to say I was travelling with my guide dog and could they push the passenger seat in so she could sit in the footwell. I also ask them to yell out when they arrive as I can not read the number plate. This message has served me well with no issues in the past.

I got a reply from the driver about two minutes later asking me to cancel and rebook my ride. I answered no; if I cancelled, I would be charged and he would be paid. I suggested he cancel instead.

He didn’t cancel and I could see the car in the app getting closer as it used GPS. I got a message from Uber saying your driver is arriving. A vehicle with the right colour and shape pulled up about 5m away with no movement or opening of the window or verbal communication. The car then sped off. At the same time, I got a message saying the driver had cancelled the ride.

This made me wonder if the driver came in o the site to press cancel while he was at the start of the trip, as I understand there is an option to say they couldn’t find the person. I would completely understand if the driver cancelled with a message that he had a phobia of dogs or severe allergy, but no communication, just cancellation, is poor.

The app automatically assigned another driver six minutes away. I sent the same message about the guide dog and heard nothing back, but the app had told me that the driver had read the message, so I assumed all was good. I got another text saying that the driver was approaching and I could see it on the app. A car the right colour and shape pulled into a nearby driveway (carpark entrance), paused and drove away. At the same time, I got a message saying the driver had cancelled the ride. I wondered if they had seen Guide Dog Sienna and I waiting and cancelled.

The app automatically assigned a third driver 8 minutes away. I sent my message and got a reply saying “got it” and saw it was read. This driver did arrive, called out and moved the seat forward so Sienna could sit in the footwell. He provided fantastic service. Unfortunately I missed my appointment due to drivers cancelling and the appointment had both late and cancellation fees which is super frustrating.

I am left wondering why the first two drivers cancelled and drove away and suspect it was the Guide Dog. Guide Dog Sienna is highly trained before she became my guide and behaves beautifully in public transport, taxi and ride-share. Legally we can not be denied service based on the basis of her being a dog in these circumstances.

I want to raise awareness of these rules and regulations in New Zealand for those who are not aware.

I did send Uber a message hoping they could provide drivers with education around service animals and communication. I was impressed that my message to Uber help was answered with a phone call in less than an hour. The support person reassured me that their staff do have online training about service dogs and that the two drivers would be asked to complete this again and have their app restricted until this was achieved. They also gave me the 0800 phone number of the accessibility support team should this occur again.

The crux is that even though I missed out on an appointment and paid cancellation fees, the positive experiences and changes having a Guide Dog brings far outweigh the experiences like this.

This experience has strengthened my goal of educating this around me about access needs.

A mission for a separate day is related to educating bus drivers about needs – not just access requirements but considering everyone getting off a bus. The photo below shows the bus platform at a station near my house. I got off a bus here and the bus driver stopped so that one of the poles on the side of the platform was directly in the middle of the door.

As people were getting in as I was getting off, Sienna was watching the people and went around the pole and as it was so thin, I walked straight into it. Had the bus driver pulled forward 1 to 2 metres, this would not have been an issue. As it was, the pole is an issue for anyone, not just Guide Dog Teams.

Local bus station with poles on the edge of the platform. Interestingly none of the other stations I have these blocking the way.
This photo shows Sienna sitting at a different bus station waiting for a friend. Note no poles are blocking the platform!

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