Commentary: Including More Characters with Disabilities in the Media

Ever since I can remember, I have been interested in shows and movies that feature characters with disabilities. As someone with a disability, I can identify with many of these characters and am naturally drawn to characters that are relatable to me. However, I rarely see characters with disabilities represented in popular media, and I think that is why in the few instances that Hollywood features them, I am curious to see how disability is represented in the media.

I am not the first person to notice the lack of characters or actors with disabilities in Hollywood. A recent study showed that between 2007 and 2015, only 2.4 percent of characters in the top 100 movies of that time period had disabilities. In contrast, the 2010 U.S. census shows that 56.7 million, or 18.7 percent, of Americans have disabilities. Even in the rare instances when characters with disabilities are featured, I have found that more often than not that they are portrayed as being helpless or having special super powers.

Whether we like it or not, society is influenced by how the media portrays people of different minority groups, and this is also true for those of us with disabilities. Unfortunately, most people have never met, let alone interacted with, a person with a disability. Someone who has only seen or read the Daredevil comics might come to believe that all people who are blind have a stronger sense of hearing and other “superhuman” powers. There are some TV series, however — like ABC’s detective show and NBC’s sitcom, Growing Up Fisher that I found to portray blindness and visual impairment more accurately. These shows had successful people with vision loss as the main characters, but both unfortunately lasted only one season.

Recently, there has been a lot of buzz and excitement among the disability community in the United States. ABC’s new sitcom,Speechless, will debut tomorrow, September 21, at 7:30 CST.Speechless is a sitcom about JJ, a child with a disability, and his family’s efforts to make him feel more welcome and included in his community and school. JJ is played by Micah Fowler, an actor who has cerebral palsy in real life. Shows like these have great potential for shedding light on some of the everyday issues that people with disabilities face. I look forward to watching this new sitcom, and hope it helps create more awareness about people with disabilities!

I am not saying that it is wrong to portray people with disabilities as having super human qualities – after all, everyone gets a good thrill from watching superhero movies! Hollywood and the media in general should include more characters and actors with disabilities in shows and movies. Society at large still remains unaware about the needs and obstacles faced by this population, and the media can go a long way in creating more awareness. The media has a great influence on how we interpret the world, and given that people with disabilities are considered the largest minority group in the United States, it is only fair for us to be more included in the entertainment industry.

How well do you think the media does portraying characters with disabilities in TV shows and movies? Please share your feedback and thoughts!

How Do People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired Read Printed Text?

How Do People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired Read Printed Text?

Reading is part of everyone’s life. From looking at bills and letters to enjoying magazines and books during our free time, we read every single day. Unfortunately, not everything is printed in Braille or audio format for people like me who cannot see. From assistive technology that scans and reads print out loud, to organizations that provide books, newspapers and magazines in audio or Braille formats free of charge, there are numerous ways of accessing print materials. The following are just a few of those methods people with vision loss use to access printed text.

Recorded Book Collections

People living in the United States can take advantage of The Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, or Learning Ally. Both services provide a collection of thousands of audio recorded books, magazines and periodicals to qualifying individuals with print disabilities. The BookShare websitealso provides a broad collection of books in different audio and electronic formats. Subscribers can listen by using special software and audio players, or on their smartphones and tablets by downloading the mobile apps offered by each provider (click on the links for more information.)

Assistive Technology

Tools like the BookPort and Victor Reader are portable devices that can serve many purposes. These often include an audio player, digital recorder, radio and can even read text files. Newer versions can also connect to the Internet, and users can listen to online radio stations or instantly download audio books onto the devices.

OCR, or optical character recognition, allows people to scan books, letters and other materials. Once a page is scanned, the OCR software or device begins reading the text out loud. To me, this technology comes in handy when reading letters or other literature I get in the mail, for example. Most OCR devices consist of a camera – which takes a picture of the text – and text to speech software. New tools like the OrCam allow users to instantly scan and read letters, books, etc. There are also Smartphone apps that can scan and read print materials out loud. You can see and purchase the latest in assistive technology in ourTools for Living Store.

EBook Readers

Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK are some of the most popular EBook readers in the market. Users can purchase books from the respective websites, and begin reading them in a matter of seconds. The accessibility of these devices for people with vision loss is constantly improving (previously, users with limited vision could not navigate through the various menus). Both devices also offer iOS and Android apps, which are accessible to people with visual impairments.

Other smartphone and tablet apps, like iOS’s iBooks and Android’s Google Play Books are also quite accessible. Users can easily navigate by page, chapter, etc. using their phone’s or tablet’s screen-reading software. These apps can come in handy when a book is not available in audio from other sources. There are numerous other accessible apps for reading books.

Accessing Newspapers and Magazines

Reading the day’s newspaper has now become easier for people with visual impairments thanks to modern technology and resources. The Chicago Lighthouse’s CRIS Radio provides daily readings of popular newspapers like The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Washington Post and New York Times. Users who are blind or otherwise cannot read print because of a disability can tune in via a special receiver, and by listening by phone or online.

The NFB NewsLine provides audio versions of daily newspapers and magazines to people who are blind or visually impaired throughout the United States. Publications range from daily magazines and newspapers to weekly sales circulars for various stores. Subscribers can listen to the publications online, with the NFB NewsLine app, by phone and on devices like the Victor Reader.

What other methods do you use to read and access print text as someone who is blind or visually impaired? We’d love to hear from you!

Commentary: Fashion and Inclusion Are Always A Good Trend!

New York Fashion Week is just about to end, but fashion season is far from over! Last year, we posted about how New York Fashion Week was including models with disabilities on the runway, and about a project The Lighthouse participated in to make clothing more accessible for people with visual impairments. I am happy to say that including people with disabilities in fashion continues to be a trend one year later, and clothes designers all over the world are working hard to do just that.

As the Rio Paralympics are taking place, a nearby fashion designer is working to make clothing inclusive and accessible to woman with disabilities. Christiano Krosh began designing accessible clothing while studying fashion design in college and realizing that there are no stores in Brazil where people with disabilities can buy clothing tailored to their needs. Here in the United States, Runway of Dreams founder Mindy Scheier began designing accessible children’s clothing after seeing how her son – who has a disability – struggled to put on and wear conventional clothing. This line of accessible and fashionable clothing is now sold by Tommy Hilfiger.

Truth be told, I had never given much thought to some of the struggles people with disabilities have when it comes to clothing. As someone who cannot see, I only knew I had to find ways of organizing my clothes.It wasn’t until I began studying at the University of Illinois that some of my classmates with physical disabilities told me about how they struggle to put on and fasten clothing independently. When we really stop to think about it, making clothing accessible for people with disabilities is not as hard as it might initially seem. Simple adjustments, like adding Velcro or magnets allow someone with a physical disability to dress independently. Tags with Braille or large print labels allow people with vision loss to know the color of their clothes. It all comes down to making simple and creative adjustments.

Accessible clothing does not have to be exclusively for people with disabilities. As a matter of fact, the beauty of fashion is that it can include everyone, and always makes for a great conversation among family and friends! Making clothing that is both fashionable and accessible to everyone is the right thing to do. For people with disabilities, it makes us feel more independent and confident about ourselves.

The Chicago Lighthouse will hold its annual Flair fashion show on Monday, October 17 at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. This popular event will feature fashions from Macy’s and Runway of Dreams, among others. Models will include adults and children, some of whom are blind, visually impaired or disabled. Proceeds from the event will support children’s and teen’s programs at The Chicago Lighthouse—helping children and adolescents who may be blind, visually impaired or disabled meet developmental and educational milestones, build supportive relationships, and fully participate in their communities. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit the event page.

Sandy is a blogger on the topic of blindness and vision impairment. She covers a variety of topics intended to educate people who are sighted on what it is to live life with any level of vision loss. She herself is blind and has had no vision since she was three months old. Sandy graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in public relations. She works in the Financial Development department and CRIS Radio at The Chicago Lighthouse.

Venezuela: An obscure chaos

Venezuela: An obscure chaos

Thanks to a large readership, Sandy’s View has become a popular blog followed by people from throughout the world! This week, we are introducing Axel Davila, a guest blogger and student at Georgetown University. Axel will be a contributor to Sandy’s View this semester. He is from Venezuela, and this week he discusses the current situation of people who are blind or visually impaired living in that country.

And now, I leave you with Axel’s first post!

For many years, Venezuela has been in the center of attention of international news for various reasons. Crimes, violence, inflation and shortages of food and other basic necessities have been the topics most often covered by the media. Nevertheless, one subject remains obscure: the situation of Venezuelans with disabilities, particularly that of those who are blind or visually impaired.

Unfortunately, there is still a lack of awareness about the needs and obstacles faced by people with vision loss, both in Venezuela and throughout the world. Although there are currently no official statistics regarding people with disabilities in Venezuela, a 2011 population census estimates that approximately 460,000 Venezuelans, or 1.7 percent of the population in that country, has a visual impairment.

The lack of accessibility of streets and the precarious situation in which visually impaired citizens live will unfortunately never be the center of Venezuelans conversations, as it has become a taboo subject. For this reason,  it is especially important to hear from those who work with people with vision loss, or the individuals who are blind or visually impaired themselves. Otto Tovar lives in Caracas, the country capital, and he has been visually impaired since he was 27. He is the director of Sociedad Amigos de los Ciegos (Blind Friends Society), and he says that Venezuela is not accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired.

“In the area of visual disability, there is neither accessibility nor adaptability,” Tovar says.

He explains that in Venezuela, people who are blind or visually impaired learn how to be independent, but given the amount of accessibility barriers, they become dependent on others. Lack of signage in Braille and large print, absence of ramps, narrow sidewalks obstructed with bulky materials, non-compliance with traffic lights by drivers, and excessive noise are the main challenges people with vision loss encounter. All those obstacles cause even more precarious conditions, as it represents extra expenses to have someone as an escort at all times.

The scarcity of food and other products has been the main focus and concern of Venezuelans during the last few months. This problem is worse for people with visual impairments, because they no longer have preferential treatment, and they too have to wait in long lines to try to purchase food or other goods. In many cases, this wait can be between 6 and 8 hours long.

Although Venezuela has taken actions to assist people with disabilities, such as passing a law in 2007 requiring private and public companies to hire at least 5 percent of workers with disabilities, society has not given the necessary attention to this population, and this assistance could be considered minimum at best. While the country has made some progress compared to many years ago, blindness and visual impairment continue to be an overlooked topic, accessibility, and universal design are nonexistent, and Venezuelans with vision loss remain in an obscure chaos.

Back to Sandy: If you have any topic suggestions for Axel, please comment or send us an email to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org.

Commentary: Making Brazil Accessible During the Rio 2016 Paralympics and Beyond

As someone with a disability, I have to constantly be on my feet and learn how accessible a place is even before I visit it the first time. I have to at least know the area’s layout, and have a general idea of where important places like restrooms, elevators, stairways and information desks are located. If going to the movies or a museum, it helps to know if these attractions have audio description or other accommodations for people with visual impairments.

Realizing the accessibility needs of people with disabilities just in time for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism launched a guide for tourists with disabilities. Over 35,000 of these informational booklets were distributed throughout places like hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Officials hope that by providing these booklets, businesses will be better prepared to assist people with all types of disabilities.

Providing adequate accommodations is important, and so is keeping business personnel informed about best practices on assisting and accommodating people with disabilities. Even in the United States, where thanks to the ADA most public businesses are accessible, I have experienced situations when staff is unaware about available accommodations. Once, for example, a waitress told me the restaurant did not have a Braille menu, when in fact it was available, and I had used it before. On the other hand, I have had staff at other restaurants offer me a Braille menu as soon as they see my white cane. This makes me feel welcome and more at ease.

Brazil has taken a great step in the right direction with the launch of this booklet. If businesses follow the suggestions outlined in the manual, tourists with disabilities will feel more welcome, and this is especially important now that the Paralympics are in full swing. I hope these practices are followed by businesses beyond the Paralympics, because people with disabilities that live in Brazil and future tourists will also benefit from accessible establishments. As people with disabilities, it is also important to know what accessibility accommodations are available, and I hope that one day Brazil – and other countries –will develop a similar manual directed toward us.

People with disabilities are also consumers, and we have the right to enjoy and go to different places. With a few adaptations and considerations from businesses and the general public, places can become accessible and inclusive for everyone. If followed by business and other establishments, the newly launched booklet about tourists with disabilities in Brazil can go a great way in sensitizing business owners and the general public during the Paralympics and beyond. I hope one day other countries follow Brazil’s example, and make their environments more accommodating to people with disabilities. This, I think, makes good business sense for everyone.

What countries or popular tourist attractions have you found accessible as someone with a disability?

Commentary: Is Blindness Really That Scary?

According to a recent survey, most Americans fear blindness. In fact, they fear it more than losing their hearing, speech, a limb or their memory. Nearly 88 percent of people surveyed considered having 20/20 vision vital to good overall health, while 47 percent believed that losing their sight would have the gravest effect on their daily lives. Loss of independence and quality of life were the top concerns for respondents. Over 60 percent were aware of common eye conditions like cataracts and glaucoma.

I have been blind practically all my life, so naturally, my first reaction would be to say that blindness is not as scary as it seems. Growing up as someone who is blind, I have no concept of what it is like to be able to see, and therefore I have successfully adapted to living without sight. Nevertheless, I realize how significant good vision is on people’s everyday lives – if anything, it is the sense used the most by human beings. I lost my sight as a toddler, but I am sure I would have had a much harder time adapting had I lost it as a teenager or adult, for instance.

I think the main reason why most people are so afraid of blindness is because of the tremendous lack of awareness about different ways to cope with vision loss. Today more than ever before, numerous resources and equipment are available to help individuals with vision loss live happy and rich lives. Organizations like The Chicago Lighthouse offer a wide array of programs, services and technologies that allow people with varying levels of vision loss to remain independent. Furthermore, research is constantly being done to both find cures for eye disease, and to help those affected by low vision to better live with their visual impairment.

These findings are not new or surprising – living in darkness is a natural fear humans have had for centuries. This survey only underscores the importance of doing further research on eye diseases, as well as providing more services and resources for people living with vision loss. Unfortunately, many individuals will have to confront this fear in the near future, because the number of people with vision loss in the United States is expected to double by 2050. Although not all forms of vision loss can be prevented or avoided, people can start by taking a few simple steps that will help them keep their eyes healthy in the long run.

For me, losing my memory or being diagnosed with cancer are my worst fears. As someone who has successfully adapted to vision loss, I know all too well that there are far worse things than being blind or having a disability for that matter. There’s no doubt that blindness can present challenges and inconveniences in our everyday lives, but thanks to the countless services and resources available in the United States, it is possible for people with vision loss – like me – to lead equally fulfilling lives. Most of the fears and misconceptions about blindness and visual impairments are surmountable, and we should all work to help people understand that losing one’s sight does not have to mean losing independence.

How Can People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Tell Different Things Apart?

How Can People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Tell Different Things Apart?

I recently came across an article about Braille labels being added to beer bottles in Japan. It brought up one of the questions I often get – how do people who are blind or visually impaired tell everyday things apart without being able to see. With most things having labels only in print, we have to come up with other tips and tricks to keep them organized. Labeling and organizing methods are endless, and these are just a few suggestions to get started.

Keeping things organized

More often than not, I can tell different items apart simply by keeping them organized and in different places. Of course, I first find out what they are  from someone else when grocery shopping. I know, for example, that the cereal boxes are on one shelf of the pantry, and crackers, canned food, etc. are on another. The shape and size of different packages also helps – a can of soup feels very different from a bottle of dressing. Simple things like listening to the sounds of each product also help. Shaking a box of uncooked pasta sounds very different from a box of cereal bars.

Labeling with easy to find household items

There are times when I inevitably have to label things that feel or look identical. Often, using things like tape, rubber bands, paper clips or safety pins helps. Food cans are often identical, and I have to label them as soon as I know what they are. By putting a rubber band around a can of soup, I can tell it apart from a can of vegetables. Using rubber bands on medication bottles is also very helpful when organizing them. Putting safety pins on clothing tags helps me know what color it is. This post gives more information about organizing and matching clothes as someone who can’t see.

Using Braille or large print labels

Labeling things like important documents, CDs, DVDs, etc. can be done with Braille and large print labels. The Chicago Lighthouse’s Tools for Living Store sells a variety of labeling materials ranging from special Braille labeling paper to large print stickers. Generally, I like to label things like folders, binders, CD and DVD cases in Braille. There are also other products for people who are unable to read Braille. The bump dot tactile stickers, also sold by the Tools for Living Store, are a great option for microwaves, stoves, computer keyboards and other electronics. These are sold in a variety of colors and sizes.

Assistive technology devices

There are a variety of “high tech” devices that can help people with vision loss label things and stay organized. The Talking RX Pill Bottle Recorder is a great tool for labeling medications. Other devices, like the PenFriend Voice Labeling System, can be a good alternative for organizing CD and DVD collections, medications, important documents and so on. Similar assistive devices and smartphone apps are constantly being developed.

You can see these and other products offered at the store here. For more tips on how to label and organize household items as someone with vision loss, visit this site from the American Foundation for the Blind. What other labeling methods have you found helpful as someone who is blind or visually impaired? Please share any suggestions with our readers!