Making your mark in a city designed for others.

Cheri McGrath, a retired MPS teacher who lives at St. John’s On the Lake, has had her seeing-eye dog, Giselle, since the fall of 2015, but in some ways, she’s still breaking her in. A midnight-black lab and the latest dog in a line of several, Giselle is dutiful and hardworking but not oblivious to people and potential friends passing by, and can veer off course. McGrath held a birthday party for Giselle, whose popularity is rapidly approaching that of her owner. McGrath has been a magnetic force in the city for decades. Born blind, she spent 18 years teaching young blind children and even longer helping run local groups that serve the sight-impaired, especially the Braille and sound service ABLE.

How has riding the bus changed over the years? When I was a little girl, we grew up in Bay View, and when we got on the bus, you’d hear, “Mama, mama! She’s blind!” I’d hear that and feel like a spotlight was on me. You were so different. You don’t hear that or see that so much anymore. People also used to say, “Oh, that blind lady.” But now on the corner of Brady and Farwell, there are people who will say, “Oh, you’re going down to the library today? Isn’t your name Cheri?” You’re a person.

Tell me more about learning braille. I learned it as a little girl, in first grade. You learn it like print. You have blocks, and then you get into worksheets.

Not everyone who is sight-impaired knows it? Oh no. Braille is a very complicated system. It’s a shorthand system. Your fingers have to be pretty well-sensitized to it. And the older you are, probably the less successful you will be in reading Braille. It is a code.

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What’s missing from the way Milwaukee interacts with people who have disabilities? We have people who are disabled who are very well-educated, and we have some workshops for disabled people. But the employment figures for any disability are abysmal. Employers are afraid. They think it’s going to take too much money to get equipment. I was one of the lucky ones.

At what age did you get your first guide dog? Thirty-seven. I was a diehard cane user. Nobody wants a smelly dog, although I grew up with dogs. You’ve got to put them in your car. You’ve got to brush them. You’ve got to feed them. Come on, they’re going to stop in the middle of the street, they’re going to pull you out of the way? Give me a break. Well, in one of my former apartments, I was going to take my dog out for the last time at night. I went out to the elevator. I pressed the button, and the door opened. I said to the dog, “Forward, go forward into the elevator.” She wouldn’t go. The door had opened, and there was no elevator.

These sound like war stories. It’s just what you and your dog come into.

A camaraderie must develop. That’s why when a dog dies, or you retire a dog, oh, God. And then you start over with a new one. ◆

‘Positively Cheri’ appears in the February 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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