Blind couple navigates Center City -- and skis

Sandy Smith and her dog Ivory and Kent Keever and his dog Cherish are heading out for a walk. They ride the elevator to the lobby, greet the staff at the front desk, exit through the automatic door and proceed down the ramp toward Locust Street. Smith says, “Ivory, right,” and Keever says, “Cherish, right,” and both dogs turn right. Each person rewards a dog with a pat and a compliment. 

At the curb at Broad Street, Ivory and Cherish stop and wait for instructions. When told, the dogs head right again, stop at the curb at Spruce and are praised for stopping. Before crossing the street, the humans wait to hear the motion of north-south cars and buses to their left, though that’s not the time to cross. Instead they let the north-south light finish and the westbound Spruce Street traffic run its course. 

At the moment they hear the Broad Street traffic begin, they quietly say, “Ivory, forward,” and “Cherish, forward,” and cross Spruce. “We need to cross at the beginning of a light,” Smith says. “Sighted people can cross a street halfway and run back if necessary. We can’t do that.

“We give the dogs simple commands, like left, right and forward. The dogs know to stop at curbs and steps. Many obstacles they can get around, so they don’t stop. This morning, for instance, we ran against some caution tape, so Ivory stopped,” she says. “If we say right and meant left, and they go right, we praise them because they did what we said, even though it’s not what we meant.”

“We listen for the parallel traffic to move,” says Keever, “and then give the forward command. The dogs do not even notice the traffic lights, or if they do they don’t know what they mean. The dogs are taught to listen to their handler for instructions and, if given an instruction that will put us in danger, to not follow our orders. If a car turns in front of us, and the dogs stop, we call it intelligent disobedience. 

“Ivory does not do my thinking for me. She’s wonderful, but she’s a dog, and she has good and bad days, like people. She makes mistakes, like people,” Smith says.

“When we’re walking together, Sandy and I take turns leading and following,” Keever says. 

Smith, 50, a Delaware native who has been blind since infancy, is a social worker with Action AIDS. She grew up in an athletic family who didn’t know how to involve her in sports. Her father taught her to love sports by introducing her to the Phillies. She’s the more loquacious of the couple.

Keever, 43, originally from Colorado, played football, basketball and baseball; ran track and skied cross-country. Illness overtook him at age 17, dashing his plans to enroll at the Coast Guard Academy. Complications of a bone-marrow transplant stole his vision. “I’ve been legally blind for 26 years and totally blind for 10.” He was studying in Tucson when the couple met at guide-dog school in New York. 

Now he teaches GED classes at the Library for the Blind. Since he works part-time, he assumes responsibility for shopping and errand-running. “Being blind from childhood,” he says, “Sandy is very well oriented. But I am much better oriented for the fact that I had perfect sight at one time.”

Keever and Smith are always looking for new adventures. Smith learned cross-country skiing two seasons ago in Green Bay, Wisc., at Ski for Light, a program for skiers with visual limitations. Last January they spent a week in Granby, Colo., each one paired with a sighted skier. The course has two parallel sets of tracks, so two people can ski in close proximity, as the guide describes the terrain and upcoming turns. 

Skiing is cool, they agree. “I beat her in the race,” says Keever, “and I have to rub it in. Skiing lets me get back to sports. I’m deaf in one ear, and I have two fingers on one hand, but skiing helps me feel I can accomplish something.” Besides beating his companion, Keever won the award for most enthusiastic, best personality and best skier. The prize: skis, boots and poles. 

One wonderful aspect of cross-country, Smith says, is that the guides come because they love to ski. “They pay their own way, as we do, so it’s not sighted people trying to help the poor blind people. Some have been guides for 25 years.” Next year, Anchorage. 

This year Smith arrived in Granby ahead of Keever and went alone to the hotel. It’s a mile-long building with the lobby in the center, dividing two half-mile corridors. “Since I got there early,” Smith says, “I got oriented. I found the bedside table, I found the phone and the bathroom but I couldn’t find the bed. I found a sofa and thought maybe it was a sleep-sofa, but I couldn’t find the bed. 

“Maybe I had a suite, so I went methodically around the perimeter of the room. I found the closet, but I couldn’t find a door to another room. So I retraced my steps to the front desk, a half-mile away. When I told the desk clerk the problem, she laughed and said she was sorry, they had given us a Murphy bed. 

“It’s harder for me than for you to become oriented to a new place, but we can do it,” Smith says. “You have to be able to cope, or you can’t ever leave home. It just takes me more energy, time and concentration than it takes you. We need a map in our heads. It’s an art.” 

Cooking takes a mental map, too. In their kitchen, the pots are here, the salt is there, the cinnamon and cilantro here. Every time Smith removes a spice from the shelf, she replaces it precisely, even if she might need it again for the same dish. They’re both adamant about putting everything in its place.

Nor do restaurants pose a particular problem. Ivory and Cherish, accustomed to restaurants, often nap invisibly as their people partake of new cuisines. Smith tells the server that she prefers vegetarian dishes and Keever favors chicken. They ask for a reading of the listings, narrow their choices and then request a complete explanation of the dishes and prices. 

Ivory and Cherish are always top-of-mind for Smith and Keever. Ivory is a yellow Labrador retriever, and Cherish is a Goldador, a mix of golden retriever and Lab. Most people understand the rules about not petting guide dogs, but the people who get the owners’ goats are those who say, “I know I’m not supposed to pet the dog” and then reach down and pet it.’”

When Smith or Keever picks up the mail, the front desk staff pronounce each envelope “junk” or “real mail.” They read the return address on each piece, so it can be scanned upstairs if necessary. Keever has installed kitchen-drawer handles, a kitchen faucet, a garbage disposer, water filter, hooks for the dogs’ harnesses, a bi-fold closet door and three electric outlets. 

In their daily lives, Smith and Keever continually encounter new situations, new barriers, new challenges, as does everyone. When e-mail arrives, a disembodied voice reads it aloud. Both of them are so adept at understanding the vocal device, they listen at the speed of a 33-r.p.m. record being played at 78-r.p.m. – times three. A visitor thinks the sound is a monotonic version of the Chipmunks singing Christmas carols. Smith sews plastic Braille labels into their clothes, indicating color. Occasionally she rings a neighbor’s bell to ask if what she’s wearing matches. 

In a pinch, in a jam, in a quandary, Smith has clear, concise advice: “Deal with it.”

This article appeared in the newsletter of a Center City high-rise.