Most people have one thing they never leave home without when travelling, and for James Bennett, that’s his Guide Dog Kingsley. Over the last 15 years James has had three different Guide Dogs assist him to travel to every commercial airport in Australia. Although he’s confident and efficient in navigating the world as a man who is blind now, it was a steep learning curve in the beginning.
A mechanical engineer by trade, James lost the sight in his left eye in 1986 while working in his home workshop. A piece of metal shattered his safety glasses, with the glass cutting his eye. Despite it being a devastating injury, James says it could have been much worse. Without the safety glasses he would have died.
Losing his vision in one eye was difficult for James, particularly learning depth perception, but another blow was yet to come. In an incredible twist of fate, James suffered a cardiovascular event in 2004 which cut off the blood supply to the optic nerve in his right eye and at the age of 57 he became blind overnight in what he describes as Murphy’s Law.
Three years of rehabilitation helped James learn how to do basic tasks like standing up straight, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush and finding a way to pick out an outfit that matches. It took time for him to adjust and orientate himself with these tasks he’d previously completed without thinking twice.
Once comfortable with life at home, James became a long cane user, and his first challenge was getting from his house to the local swim centre, which was about a kilometre away. It took a while to accomplish but once he was feeling as confident as he could be, he decided to return to the workforce and started his own business working in quality management systems. This job didn’t require sight but would require him to travel around Australia.
A course at Vision Australia taught James Braille and computer literacy, both assisting with his independence.
Counting the steps for each section of his journey, from drop off at the railways station to his destination, was just part of his routine, but James admits it’s mentally exhausting. After a ‘nasty incident’ at a pedestrian crossing where a bus ran a red light, resulting in James being pinned between a signpost and a car, everything changed.
When the manager of Guide Dogs heard about the accident, he told him, “that’s it, you’re getting a guide dog!”.
James says the whole world opened up for him from the moment he was matched with Putu, his first Guide Dog. When I ask him how using a Guide Dog differed from using a cane, he laughs and says: “It was like hopping out of a Mac truck into an E Class Mercedes.” The need to count each step to his destination was obsolete, with Putu only needing a simple command to get him where he needed to go. Putu and James clocked up 288 flights together before Putu retired and Brogan took over as James’ Guide Dog.
Brogan became somewhat of a social media sensation and an unofficial Qantas ambassador in his time flying with James. He’s the only dog who has been granted Qantas Frequent Flyer status with 478 flights under his collar before his retirement. His frequent flyer number was appropriately, K9 and he racked up an enviable 500,000 frequent flyer points.
James says he’s always experienced great service with all the airlines but can’t speak highly enough of Qantas. Booking a flight is made easier with the airline creating a profile for his dog so all the information they need is on the system. Like many passengers with a disability, James and his Guide Dog are first to board the plane and last to disembark. A row of seats is blocked off for James and his Guide Dog at no additional charge and usually other passengers don’t even know there’s a dog on the flight.
Travelling as frequently as James does for business, he has stayed in hundreds of hotels and reports that hotel staff are generally aware service dogs can accompany him. If not, he politely lets them know and has only had positive experiences as a result. Where possible, he tries to stay in the same hotel and room to eliminate the need to find his way around a new property. When staying in a different hotel he asks staff to accompany him to the room to orientate him with the location of the bathroom, power points and ‘any low flying coffee tables or furniture’.
Seeing the visual delights of a destination is often what drives many of us to travel, so I was curious to know what James now enjoys. “I’m a foodie and enjoy human company”, was his reply.
Travelling as much as he does, he’s found that most hotels have a bar, and he says it doesn’t take long to make friends when you have a dog with you. James has found it fascinating meeting people from all walks of life. In his role visiting disability services, undertaking quality management reports, there’s little time for being a tourist but on one trip to Central Australia he found himself with the weekend free. James booked a bus tour to Uluru for himself and Brogan. On this trip James said he was engaged by the awe he could hear in the reactions of his fellow travellers to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Brogan needed to dress for the occasion with boots on his paws to save the pads of his feet from the hot ground with temperatures soaring to 41 degrees.
James was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2017 for services to the blind and low vision community. Throughout our interview I was impressed by not only his good humour and positive attitude but his willingness to assist others by sharing his life experiences adapting to being blind.
James Bennett’s Tips for Travellers with Vision Impairment
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Book in advance if you’d like a particular hotel or room.
Use technology to assist you. Some of the apps which are helpful to someone with low vision or who is blind include: JAWS (Job Active With Speech), a synthetic speech screen reader; an OCR program called Envision which uses the iPhone camera to pick convert printed restaurant menus to synthetic speech; and Money Reader, which uses the iPhone camera to photograph bank notes and reads out the denomination.
Did you know that it costs $50,000 to raise a Guide Dog puppy? Find out more at guidedogs.com.au
This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. You can subscribe here.