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How do blind people pick up after dogs?

Three words in Cook County law reveal a bias of low expectations against people with disabilities.

A guide dog with its handler.
Cook County law exempts people using service dogs from picking up after them. But it shouldn’t.
Stock photo

Four times a day, Leslie takes her black Lab for a walk outside her home in the northwest suburbs. “Get busy,” she commands.

If you’re wondering why you’re reading a third column in a week about picking up after dogs, well, stick with me, and you’ll see there is no choice here. Some threads simply must be pulled.

If you recall, Monday’s column quotes the Cook County animal law, Sec. 10.8 (r): “No person shall fail to remove feces deposited by the person’s cat or dog, except service animals...”

This drew an email from former Sun-Times book editor, Henry Kisor.

“Your column today, with all the poop about designer poo bags ... was interesting — and shocking,” he wrote. “Shocking in your citation of the Cook County law about cleaning up after your dog. Why should handlers of service dogs be exempt from that? I use a service dog, and like all other service dog handlers I have ever known, I clean up after my dog.”

I replied that perhaps the clause is meant not for people who are deaf, like Henry, but for the blind. How could a blind person pick up after a dog?

“The way I pick up after my dog, first of all, feel for her movement,” said Leslie, who asked me not to use her last name. “I can tell she’s moving around in circles, or sniffing, through the leash.”

She also didn’t want me to use her dog’s name, lest someone read the article, see her on the street, and shout “Rover!” or whatever, and come over and pet the dog. You’re not supposed to do that. Service dogs are working.

“You don’t want to give someone a chance to distract the dog, for safety reasons,” she said.

Cleaning up after her dog requires the same sensitivity Leslie uses to navigate the world.

“You can definitely feel though the leash, the back and forth vibration, and when they stop spinning, you can tell through the leash the dog is staying in one place,” she said. “I trail down the leash and feel her back. If the back is in a C-shape, then she’s pooping. If her back is like a hill, she’s peeing.

“What I can do when my dog is going poop, feel back down toward her tail, plant one of my feet close to the tail, then use that as a marker. When she’s done, I have something tactile to help me go back to the place where she went.”

The 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act was Monday, so this is a good moment to remember that while the law can require accessible bathrooms, designated parking spaces and such, it can’t affect the bigotry of low expectations in the minds of those who simply assume that people facing physical challenges are limited in ways they’re not.

“This is important to me because many laws crafted to serve people with disabilities often sound as if we are incapable of participating in society, including obeying its laws,” wrote Kisor. “That’s just not true.”

Leslie concurs.

“He is absolutely correct,” she said. “All service dog owners should be picking up after their dogs. Any guide dog training school teaches you how to do it. Not only are you being a good citizen, picking up after your dog, you can also tell by the consistency of the dropping — maybe it’s a little softer — whether the dog is sick. We’re going to keep an eye on it a couple days, and if it continues, take the dog to a vet.”

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that cleaning up after her dog is the most notable activity Leslie does. Blind since birth, she also teaches cello, and plays the instrument in the Elmhurst Symphony, memorizing braille versions of the musical scores that other musicians sight read.

“I do a lot of listening, and I do a lot of counting,” she said, of playing in an orchestra without seeing the conductor’s cues.

About 70% of blind people are unemployed, reflecting not so much their abilities as the limited vision of potential employers.

“I find that people underestimate what all blind people can do,” she said. “With opportunity and training, we as blind people can be successful.”