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Traveling With Vision Loss & My Guide Dog Named Jewel

Beyond Sight Magazine Cover is described in the body of the post.

Editor’s Note:

Last year at the Daring To Own Your StoryTM women’s retreat I met some of the most amazing women. Through our shared experience of sight loss/blindness, the connections we made with one another were even more special. “Courage is contagious.” Courage is also unselfishly giving to enhance the lives of others. In my circle of friends, I’m surrounded by many courageous and resilient people one of whom is Marsha Bukala.

I met Marsha, and her beautiful guide dog Jewel at last year’s retreat in Park City, Utah. While Marsha credits Jewel with regaining her independence after losing her sight, make no mistake, this woman is a courageous activist. A wealth of knowledge, Marsha is constantly working on special community projects to make life better for those living with sight loss. Marsha is one of those rare gems who gives unconditionally and with Jewel by her side she is unstoppable!

Constantly on the go, Marsha enjoys many activities around leisure, volunteerism, and travel with her faithful companion Jewel. In today’s post, Marsha shares helpful travel advice for people with disabilities flying with and without guide dogs. To learn more about Marsha and Jewel’s story check out: “Guide dog leads to friendship.”

Preparing For Travel

Two years ago I went to Guide Dogs for the Blind to train with my first guide dog. Jewel and I have traveled to many places in the US since returning home on March 24, 2018. Here are some tips and tricks I have learned when traveling with her.  

  • Book Non-Stop: First, when traveling by air I try to book a nonstop flight if possible. The connection flight I took last year was a fiasco requiring an overnight stay to catch an early flight the next morning. It all worked out in the end but this reminds one to always make sure you have extra food for your guide dog.
  • Airline Accessibility Line: After booking a flight, I typically call the airline accessibility line to reserve my window seat. I have found the airlines to be quite accommodating to give us a seat with a little extra legroom if available.  
  • TSA Cares: Next, I call TSA Cares with my flight information. Guide Dogs for the Blind Travel Agency recommended this service when I flew to training and I have used the service ever since. Here is more info on this service: www.tsa.gov/videos/tsa-cares-traveling-guide-dog-0
  • Precheck: Also, I would recommend either Global Entry or TSA Precheck depending on your travel schedule. I have Global Entry which also includes TSA Precheck which speeds up getting through security. This is especially convenient at large international airports.
Jewel's image is described in the body of the post.

Facilities & Luggage

Marsha & Jewel Image is described in the body of the post.
Marsha & Jewel

Finding relief areas for our guide dogs is another area where I try to get as much information as I can before a trip. Some airports only have relief areas outside and they are typically by baggage claim areas. Other airports have indoor relief areas past the security checkpoints, however, Jewel refuses to them because of the smell of disinfectant. Here is an app I have used to locate relief areas in the airport: Working Like Dogs – Where to Go.

Depending on the length of my trip I either pack one suitcase for both of us or two individual bags. If Jewel’s items are in a separate bag it can be checked for free per the ADA regulations. However, Jewel’s bag cannot contain any of my personal items only her food, bed, toys, etc. I have found you have to go inside the airport to the counter for this fee to be waived. Some airlines are better trained in knowing this regulation and it can take a while to get them to check your bags. So I would recommend you allow for a little extra time. I typically pay for my other checked bag in advance online if that is available. This makes it easier than having to take out my state ID and a credit card.  

Also, if I am staying with family or friends on a longer trip I ship Jewel’s food to their home. That way, I only need to pack a couple of cups of food in my carry-on bag.    

Jewel’s Travel Necessities

Now for my backpack that I carry on the aircraft with me. Here is a list of items I typically carry on each flight for Jewel:

  1. Empty water bottle to fill after security
  2. High-value Treats
  3. A few bags of her food measured out in 1/2 cup bags (this makes it easier for me to track how much food she’s had that day).
  4. Nylabone
  5. Half of a yoga mat cut into two pieces (I put this on the floor space at my seat)
  6. Mat to put on top of the yoga mats (this is for Jewel’s comfort and familiarity as I use it at the gym and other places we go)
  7. Collapsible bowl 
  8. Poop bags

I limit Jewel’s food and water intake either the night before a flight if it is the next morning or the morning of the flight. It also depends on the length of the flight how much I cut back on her food. In addition, I try to take her on a long walk either the day before or the morning of a flight. The pre-flight exercise makes her settle in her floor space on the aircraft a lot easier and she’s become such a good traveler. Initially, she would not settle down until after take-off and again during landing, she was unsettled. Now she sometimes does not even want to get up once we land! However, a piece of kibble will get her moving! 

Arriving At The Airport

Once I get to the airport the TSA Cares agent helps me get through security. Since I typically always travel by myself, I ask them to also help me get to my gate. Along the way, I’ll ask the agent where I can fill up my water bottle, or if there’s a family bathroom. In my experience, TSA Cares have been very helpful every time. You can ask them if they have a comment card to complete on the service they provided. If they do not carry the form they will sometimes come back with one for you to complete. I typically have them read the questions and fill them out for me.

Once at the gate I find a seat as close to the gate agent as possible. I do this for a couple of reasons.

  • First, if there are any gate changes announced I cannot always hear the announcement clearly and I cannot read the monitors. So I can just ask the agent.
  • Also, I like to ask the agent if there are any other animals that will be on the flight. This brings up another concern of mine I will mention in closing.  
Jewel image is described in the body of the post.
Jewel

Boarding The Flight

I do early boarding and ask the flight attendant to give me a quick safety briefing before the main boarding starts. This also gives me time to get Jewel’s space set up and remove her harness handle so she is only wearing the leather vest. Then I put the handle and my backpack in the overhead compartment. Once we land I’ll ask one of the passengers in my row if they would get it down for me. I always sit in a window seat as I feel this is the safest place for us to be. 

When flying into an unfamiliar airport, I’ll ask the passenger sitting next to me if they are going to baggage claim. If so, I ask if I can follow them to pick up my checked bag. In a familiar airport, especially Orlando, Jewel can get me to baggage claim no matter which terminal we are in. I find this so incredibly amazing how she can remember such things along with where our hotel room is or a house we are staying at after going on a walk!  

Air Carrier Access Act

It takes extensive preparations to make air travel a positive experience for myself, Jewel, passengers, airport/airline staff. With this in mind, I’m concerned with proposed changes by the U.S. DOT (department of transportation) to the Air Carrier Access Act. The changes are an attempt to curtail people from bringing fake service dogs and emotional support animals on aircraft. However, in my opinion, the recommendations will not solve this problem.   

The proposed changes will add an undue burden to people with disabilities versus those who are traveling with illegitimate pets! I encourage guide dog handlers, their family and friends to voice their opinions. Comments need to be submitted by April 6, 2020. Here is a link to the proposed changes: transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2020-02/Service%20Animals%20-%20NPRM.pdf. Also for those with Guide Dogs please check with your school on how they are responding to this change. Guide Dogs for the Blind sent all handlers a survey so we could incorporate our concerns in their response. They will be sharing it with us in the near future. Also, The Seeing Eye published their response on their website. www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/02/05/2020-01546/traveling-by-air-with-service-animals

I do hope for safe travels for all especially during this time of uncertainty with the virus outbreak.

Image Descriptions:

  • Header: The Beyond Sight Magazine cover has a gray/white marbled background. The date & edition numbers are in the upper right corner in black ink. Marsha’s photo is aligned on the right margin with the background appearing on the top, bottom and left margin. Marsha is smiling and sitting next to Jewel with her left arm wrapped around her. Jewel is a gorgeous yellow lab with dark-rimmed eyes and an expressive face that always looks like she’s smiling. Marsha, wearing a hot pink tee, has shoulder-length blonde hair and has on eyeglasses. Both are on the patio with greenery in the background.
  • Solo photo of Jewel with her signature smile, facing the camera laying in front of the greenery.
  • Another photo of Marsha and Jewel posed similar to the header image, in an open area of the patio. In this picture, Jewel looks like she has something on her mind.
  • Close-up of Jewel’s face with a serious expression.
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Inclusive BBQ Cook-Off Mardi Gras Style

Beauty Buzz Page Header is described in the body of the post.

Each year, more than 800 scholarships are awarded to Texas students by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™. As one of the largest scholarship providers in the U.S., the Rodeo has presented more than 19,000 scholarships valued at $230 million since 1957. Currently, more than 2,300 students are on Rodeo scholarships, attending more than 80 different Texas colleges and universities. The value of these scholarships is more than $50 million.

~RodeoHouston.com
Image is described in the body of the post
5 Sense Tour Gang

Last week I returned home from a week-long trip to Houston, TX to experience the World Championship BBQ Cook-Off (WCBBQ). What made this event so special is how it came into existence 5 years ago through the vision of Advocate Extraordinaire Chelsea Nguyen.

A Little Background

Houston Chronicle Newspaper clipping is described in the body of the post.
Houston Chronicle Newspaper Clipping

My friend and business partner, Chelsea, is a professional stylist, makeup artist, bilingual educator, and business owner. Her involvement in the blind, visually impaired (B&VI) and the disabled community began with her volunteer work with Sight Into Sound in 2011. Chelsea’s company, CN Vision Image Consulting, offers one-on-one as well as group training that empowers B&VI or disabled individuals. With her client’s independence and self-confidence in mind, Chelsea provides them with the adaptive visual and non-visual life skills needed to enhance their lives. In addition to being an advocate for equal employment opportunities for the B&VI and Disabled Community Chelsea also serves on several boards:

Collage 1 described in body of the post.
Collage 1

The Birth Of WCBBQ 5-Sense Tour

Chelsea’s passion for the inclusion and accessibility of people with disabilities (PWDs) is extraordinary. This drive prompted her to connect with the WCBBQ Publicity Committee to strategize ways to enable PWDs and B&VI people to enjoy the event. As an invited guest I was able to do the pre-tour walk-through with Chelsea and Scott Arthur a Publicity Committee Volunteer who helps with Media Relations.

Collage 2 is described in the body of the post.
Collage 2

The day before the tour Chelsea and I were greeted by Scott, our golf cart-riding escort. Can I stop here a sec and say how giddy I was to ride on a golf cart for the first time? What can I say? I led a sheltered life. Anyhoo, I thought I understood how big the WCBBQ was gonna be but I.WAS.WRONG! Scott gave me a little history:

  • 2020 is the 47th year of the WCBBQ
  • This particular cook-off is one of the largest in the world
  • Money raised for the WCBBQ provides higher education scholarships for Texas students
  • There are over 1,100 volunteers
  • Over 250 teams compete
  • It takes about a week to build the pop-up tent city and 1 day to tear it down in preparation for the rodeo
  • The number of attendees is staggering and the event is similar to Mardi Gras
  • I can’t remember how many international teams there were but I do remember the Australian team. I could have listened to them talk for days.

The first stop after leaving the parking lot was the Volunteer’s Committee tent for lunch. Only volunteers and invited guests with wrist bands were cleared by security and allowed entry. The tent was massive and filled with tables, chairs, full bar, a stage for live entertainment, cafeteria-style setup offering (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), an all-day al la carte station that served hot dogs and such. Then they even had an outdoor courtyard with fancy facilities, not your average porta-potties.

After lunch, we visited 6 team’s tents to discuss logistics with the pit bosses in preparation for the next day. While we made good time riding in a golf cart, I didn’t realize the walking distance until the actual tour.

Paloma, Brandon & Steph Image is described in the body of the post.
Paloma, Brandon & Steph

It’s Go Time

The day of the WCBBQ was absolutely beautiful with temperatures rising near the 80s. Chelsea and I got an early start donned our cowgirl gear, packed equipment and headed to the meeting spot. We met up with the other invited guests then boarded shuttles to take us to the BBQ tour grounds.

Once we arrived on the grounds, we were taken to United Airlines’ tent for lunch. United kindly hosted our group for a tasty meal of brisket, sausage, hot potato salad, baked beans and more. During lunch, we were paired with volunteers to serve as sighted guides and audio describers. After we were done eating the United team took us on a tour of their tent which included a large Boeing 777 replica grill. Before our next stop, we had a photo op in front of United where we took turns sitting on a saddled wooden horse.

During our walks to each subsequent tent, Chelsea and the volunteers described everything along the way. A full sensory experience, it was wonderful to participate in an event that appealed to smells, tastes, touch, and sound. Each of the hosts was also extremely kind and accomodating to our group as they explained their particular barbeque technique. Aside from the care put into the event, what touched me the most about it were comments from fellow attendees. “I wasn’t expecting all of this,” said one person. “This is so much fun,” and “I’m so glad I came because it exceeded my expectations,” said others.

Since a few of us stayed after the tour we said our goodbyes to those who boarded the shuttles to go home.

Collage 3 is described in the body of the post
Collage 3

Did I Mention Mardi Gras AKA The Carnival?

So Chelsea told me there was a carnival after the tour and I should have known it’d be HUGE but again I was surprised. After all, they say “everything’s bigger in Texas” and it’s absolutely true. This carnival was like a full-fledged amusement park back home in Pittsburgh and did I mention all the people? It was so crowded for a heartbeat I thought I’d have a panic attack.

The highlight of the night for me was when I got to see a real-life mechanical bull. And yes, I even thought I might give it a go but there was a problem. If I were bold enough to ride the bull my cowgirl hat along with my wig would have flown off. Then there was the possibility of my body becoming a mangled mess cause I wouldn’t have lasted more than a second.🤣 But wow, it looked like a blast!

Mechanical Bull is described in the body of the post
Mechanical Bull

When In Rome…

When in Texas and especially when attending a huge shindig like the WCBBQ, western gear is a fashion essential. With this in mind, I ordered cowgirl boots online and broke them in prior to leaving for Houston. The day before the event Chelsea and I went thrifting and we couldn’t believe our great fortune. Our color palettes ended up being black and orange for Chelsea and for me, it was blue and beige. Chelsea snagged boots, top, vest, and a crossbody bag. Meanwhile, I scored a super cheap cowgirl hat, blinged-out belt, cross-body bag, and a gorgeous leather vest. Pairing these items with my jeans, chambray shirt, accessories, and boots, I felt fabulous.

Being a minimalist serves me well especially when traveling as I wear the biggest items that otherwise would take up space. So just in case, you were wondering how I got my boots to Houston, the answer is I wore them. Likewise, when flying home I wore the entire outfit because I didn’t want to crush my hat and vest.

Cowgirl Gear Collage is described in the body of the post.
Cowgirl Gear Collage

And The Winner is…

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™ 2020 World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest is a mouthful isn’t it? I must admit I was confused about the barbecue contest and how the rodeo fit into the scheme of things. It wasn’t until Scott explained that the contest and carnival launch the opening of the rodeo that I understood. So who won the barbecue contest? Drumroll, please…

Congratulations to The Overall Grand Champion Fayette County Go Texan! Full results can be accessed HERE.

Summary

My entire trip was so magnificent and I can barely wait to share some of the other things I did while in Houston. For now though I’ll be seein’ ya.

Image Descriptions:

  • Beauty Buzz Header Image: Background on the header is half black and half white. The words “Beauty” and “Buzz” are white on black and black on white text. At the end of the word, “Buzz” is a colorful bumblebee.
  • 5 Sense Tour Gang: 5 Sense Tour attendees, volunteers, and United Airlines Team are standing behind a wooden fence and in front of the 777 replica grill. A wagon wheel and the saddled wooden horse are in the foreground.
  • Houston Chronicle Newspaper Clipping: Photo of Brandon Munoz and Chelsea with a caption that says “Brandon Munoz of Missouri City feels an African sable head with Chelsea Nguyen, an advocate for the visually impaired and disabled, during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest on Friday.”
  • Collage 1: 5 photos clockwise top L. 1) BBQ Social Club tent pit boss holding a walkie talkie and telling us about the whole hog on the grill as the attendees and volunteers look on. 2) Attendees are lined up and touching the United 777 replica grill (only used as a warmer and safe to touch). 3) Chelsea is talking into a walkie talking as Scott and several volunteers look onward, an occupied golf cart is in the background. 4) Attendees, volunteers, and the Australian Team posing for the camera while standing. 5) Scott looking sharp in his black western outfit paired with the volunteer orange vest is helping to serve food to the attendees.
  • Collage 2: Two photos. Top) Steph, Brandon and Chelsea are posing with one of the funniest Texans I met. Bottom) At the carnival Steph, Chelsea and Brandon are each holding a yellow duckie from one of the games.
  • Paloma, Brandon & Steph: L to R Photo of my friends Paloma Marquez, Brandon, and me. We are all dressed in our western gear and while it wasn’t planned all of our outfits complement one another. Paloma’s beige top perfectly matched my vest & ‘cowgirl’ hat and my chambray shirt went great with Brandon’s blue flannel. All three of us are wearing shades. We are sitting at a round countertop table.
  • Collage 3: 6 photos clockwise top L. 1) Brandon and Chelsea are posing for the camera while sitting at a table in the volunteer committee tent. 2) Steph, Brandon, and Chelsea are standing in front of a huge Ferris Wheel at the carnival. 3) Brandon, Steph, and Chelsea are among a group of seven posing for the camera in the Volunteer Committee tent. 4) Selfie of Steph and Chelsea taken at the carnival. 5) Steph, Brandon, and Chelsea outside of the Volunteer Committee tent headed to the carnival. 6) Steph and Brandon standing in front of a very tall ride shaped like a palm tree with swings.
  • Mechanical Bull: A brown and white bull in the center of a red inflated ring.
  • Cowgirl Gear Collage: 5 photos clockwise top L. 1) A rhinestone-embellished fleur-de-lis black crossbody bag and a black western style belt covered in rhinestones. 2) Beige cowgirl hat with decorative brown thin leather stitching on the brim and around the crown. 3) Back of a beige leather vest with lacing detail at the bottom. 4) Front of the vest with a braided strip down each side. 5) Cowgirl boots – The bottom of the boots is olive/brownish. The shaft is cream with an olive embroidered design.