Natalie McCarthy was able to get a feel for rowing the Charles River without sight. But the construction-filled streets of Seattle? Those pose a challenge for her and her service dog, Vidal.
It was a path Natalie McCarthy had taken many times on her way to work.
But overnight, it went from smooth to gravel. A sure, straight path to a bumpy, worrisome way to, well, nowhere.
“There was no sidewalk anymore,” McCarthy, 29, said of the route near her home on Queen Anne. “Someone in a wheelchair would have a heck of a time.”
Don’t get her wrong: McCarthy had a heck of a time, too.
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She’s blind; lost her sight when she was 10 years old.
And while the rest of us complain about the lane closures and detours that have overtaken our ever-growing city, people with disabilities endure an acute frustration, feeling like the city has turned on them just when they have learned to navigate it.
Paths that are familiar to them — and their service animals — have been broken up and carted away. Bus stops are moved. Sidewalks are blocked and they stand there, not sure what to do.
“To them it’s no big deal,” McCarthy said of sighted commuters. “But it takes me some time to decipher what the change is. It can be frustrating.
“The cues are changing all the time. All the time.”
Ten months ago, McCarthy was partnered with a Labrador retriever named Vidal, and together, the two were trained by and graduated from Guide Dogs for the Blind. The nonprofit agency supplies its clients their dogs, and training, free of charge.
Vidal is just 2 years old, and “is very food motivated,” McCarthy said. “So he doesn’t take long to train.”
But she is having to find new routes on a near-weekly basis as she makes her way to work as a mediation case manager at the Dispute Resolution Center of King County.
“There is a lot of construction going on, which is great,” she said. “It’s wonderful when they’re improving sidewalks and adding new housing.
“But when they’re closing sidewalks or creating barriers, that can impact a visually impaired person’s route,” she said. “Downtown, there is always something new, or some sort of closure.
“I feel like every week is a new beginning. And if I only have one way to get to something, my dog and I need to work through it.”
McCarthy is used to overcoming challenges.
A native of Steilacoom, McCarthy was 10 when doctors found a brain tumor resting on her optic nerve. When the tumor was removed, the nerve was damaged, and she lost her sight.
“It was literally overnight,” McCarthy said of going from sighted to blind. “I was diagnosed one day and in surgery the next.
“It was certainly a challenge,” she continued, “but in some ways, I’m glad because it left no room for feeling hopeless or sad. You knew it was forward progress from day one. Your next steps, and how to move forward.”
She went to college at Pacific Lutheran University, where she studied biology. It was there where she started a rowing career that would turn her into an elite athlete.
McCarthy had run track in high school, and loved being part of a sport: the teamwork, the exercise, the fitness. But she wasn’t competitive enough to run in college, and needed a sport that didn’t require vision.
Her father suggested rowing, so McCarthy went to the first day of the PLU crew team’s practice. The coach knew there would be some challenges, but he was open, she said.
“It was a very small, supportive environment.”
McCarthy started by familiarizing herself with the equipment on the boat: the seats, the slides, the length of the oars and width of the blades.
The first time she got into the water, “It was a circus,” she said with a laugh.
“It was scary,” she said. “It was kind of unnerving. I felt like my timing was just disastrous, and without the visual aspect, it was quite the learning experience.”
With time, though, the challenges smoothed out, McCarthy said. She learned to trust her teammates and the feel of the water.
After training and competing on bodies of water all over the country, she won the gold medal at the prestigious Head of the Charles regatta in October.
She rowed in the Inclusion category, which put two able-bodied rowers (in this case, two former national teams members) and two para-rowers in a boat, competing against four other teams.
“It was great and I have to say, I got really lucky with my teammates,” she said. “When I first started rowing, I didn’t have this luxury, but now I feel like I know the Charles River.”
And yet, she can’t get a feel for the streets of Seattle, where the routes she takes from her home to work, and just to run errands, are changing all the time.
Consider what goes into a short walk from her house or office to the bus:
Is it a curb or is it a ramp? Is it a step up, or an incline? Is there a crosswalk, and if so, does it have an audible signal? If it has a button, how to tell Vidal how to get to it?
“If they spent just a bit more effort in letting the public, and particularly local residents, know what is going on with land use,” McCarthy said. “What roads and sidewalks are closed. That would be great.”
The city is filled with app developers, she said. They could think up something to put on a smartphone or tablet with a voice feature — just as they did with the One Bus Away application.
“Even for sighted and fully able-bodied residents who are feeling surprised by the changes, or lots and walkways being closed.”
One major improvement came a few years ago, when buses were equipped with an automated voice, announcing their route numbers. Until then, bus drivers would announce the bus number when they opened the door, but McCarthy wasn’t always able to hear it over the din.
“Not that I feel entitled,” she clarified. “But there’s an element of, ‘We need a little space, we need a little notice.’
“We need a little time to reconfigure things.”