Commentary: Making Online Review Websites for People with Disabilities

For people who are blind or severely visually impaired, Braille is the equivalent of print letters and numbers to those with sight. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of signs and literature that we interact with on a daily basis are available in Braille. Elevators and bathrooms with Braille signage helps me know I am at the right place when I am out and about. In the rare instance I come across a restaurant with Braille menus, I feel a sense of independence because I can read the different choices on my own. Braille not only allows me to read and write, it also helps me be more independent.

Recently, police officers in Ottawa began wearing laminated Braille badges so that they can be easily identified by residents with vision loss. The badges list the officer’s rank and main police phone number on a Braille overlay. According to the Ottawa Police Department, this initiative was not generated by an incident or public push. Instead, the idea came to them after seeing a presentation by members of the blind and visually impaired community. Thanks to these Braille badges, those with vision loss will be able to confirm that the person they are interacting with is, in fact, a police officer.

To me, this is a great step in the right direction for accessibility and inclusion. The reality is that as people with vision loss, many of us are at a disadvantage when interacting with public officials. Unless we recognize their voice or they identify themselves to us, we might not know if someone is truly a police officer or other authority. Although I realize that some people who are blind might prefer not to examine these badges (they might be uncomfortable or feel strange asking an officer for their badge), it is great to know this option is available, in case it is ever needed.

More businesses and public authorities should follow in these steps by providing accessible information to people who cannot see. Places like restaurants, banks, doctors’ offices and the like should have their literature in alternative formats. Having menus, forms, brochures, etc. in Braille, audio or electronic formats would give us more access to information. It would also greatly enhance the independence of people who are blind or visually impaired in public places.

Commentary: Making Online Review Websites for People with Disabilities

Today, most of us turn to the internet to search for reviews of products we want to buy or restaurants we will be visiting for the first time. Sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor provide us with these reviews and information at our fingertips, literally! While these sites help us decide what products to buy and services to use, they don’t always include information or resources relevant to people with disabilities.

A group of social workers in Australia is trying to change that with the launch of Clickability, a website compiling different resources and reviews of programs and services for people with disabilities. Although still a pilot project, its developers want this webpage to provide Australians with disabilities and their loved ones with valuable information and resources. Better yet, they hope that having access to this information in one place will empower people to be more independent and make the best decisions regarding disability care and services.

Other individuals are expanding the concept of providing information relevant to disabilities to everyday places and experiences. Today, several websites and apps give information on a venue’s accessibility, the service and helpfulness of the staff, etc. Note that these websites and apps are relatively new, and only provide information about places in specific regions.

Although this is a relatively new concept, developing more websites and mobile apps with helpful information and reviews for people with disabilities can benefit everyone. As someone who is blind, I would like to see a website similar to Yelp that would provide accessibility reviews of restaurants, museums, shopping centers and the like. It would be helpful to know, for example, if a restaurant offers Braille or online menus, or if a movie theater offers audio description. Although some businesses already have this information on their websites, it sure would be nice to see it all in one place.

As someone who constantly looks at user reviews of businesses on the internet, I would be thrilled at having more webpages with information related to accessibility. Like anyone else, I want to visit places that are welcoming and offer the things and services I am looking for. I also have to consider other factors related to disability accessibility and accommodations, and having it compiled in one website would be of great help for myself and millions of individuals with disabilities and their loved ones. I hope that more people realize the importance of having websites similar to Yelp and Trip Advisor that cater to people with disabilities. This is something everyone – whether disabled or not – could benefit from.

Sandy’s View Turns Two Years Old!

Sandy’s View Turns Two Years Old!

It is hard to believe that our Sandy’s View blog turns two years old this month! This blog, which is written for the Chicago Lighthouse, was launched in March of 2015 in an effort to inform the general public about blindness and visual impairment. To date, we have written 186 posts covering a wide range of topics related to vision loss. In 2016 alone, the blog had 20,000 views from all over the world.

Initially, the main focus of Sandy’s View was to answer some of the common questions those of us with vision loss get. We have explained things like how people who are blind watch TV and tell time. We soon realized that Sandy’s View was also becoming popular among those who are blind or visually impaired, and began blogging about even more topics, including assistive technology, reviews of audio described movies and theatre productions, and commentaries on current events and news relevant to those with vision loss. In fact, famous jazz singer and pianist Henry Butler also made an appearance on the blog! Of course, we also inform our readers about what’s new at The Chicago Lighthouse.

Writing Sandy’s View for two years has been a great experience for myself and all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse. I enjoy blogging about different topics, but without a doubt the one that interests me the most is assistive technology. Writing about new technology developments gives me the unique opportunity to learn about revolutionary products that will help those of us who are blind or visually impaired become more independent. Thanks to working at The Chicago Lighthouse and writing Sandy’s View, I can test and learn about devices and products that are still under development.

Thanks so much to our readers across the globe for supporting Sandy’s View for the last two years. We have received wonderful feedback from people all over the world, and we could not be more grateful for your loyalty and readership! I also want to send a big thank you to The Chicago Lighthouse community for your continued support of this blog. Sandy’s View has grown tremendously over this period, and I sure am excited to see what the future has in store for us!

We always love hearing from our readers! If you have any feedback or would like to suggest other topics, please leave us a comment, or email us at sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Happy Second Anniversary, Sandy’s View!

 

Commentary: Helping Students with Disabilities Succeed

Like anyone else, college students with disabilities are concerned about getting good grades, making new friends, and fitting in with the rest of their classmates. Nevertheless, there are other aspects those of us who are blind or visually impaired have to consider, and even plan ahead for, in order to have a positive college experience. Thinking back to my years in college, I remember wondering not only if science and other courses with highly visual content would be too hard, but also if my professors would be understanding and accommodate my needs. More often than not, I was the first and only student with a visual impairment in my classes. It was also the first time my professors had ever had someone without sight in their class.

Although I was always assertive and advised my professors on how best to make their class accessible, I would still wonder if they would take my needs into consideration. Recently, I read an article that reminded me of just how some college professors go above and beyond to accommodate students with disabilities. Gladys Malave, a biology professor at Northwest Vista College strives to make sure Olivia and Katy Shaw have what they need to succeed in class. Both sisters are legally blind as a result of Retinopathy of Prematurity, and require certain classroom adaptations. To help them succeed in her course, Professor Malave designed tactile models and labeled microscopes in Braille. She even learned Braille in less than a month just to help her students!

I too remember having similar experiences throughout high school and college. While in high school, my Spanish teacher learned how to use a special Braille printer to print out worksheets and other class materials for me. A couple of my journalism professors in college made sure that at least one computer in the computer lab was accessible so I could complete all my assignments alongside my peers. My history, economics and meteorology professors would also spend countless hours after class with me describing the different pictures and concepts they showed my classmates earlier that day. Thanks to this, I was able to pass their courses with As and Bs.

I will always appreciate the extra time and effort my teachers put into helping me succeed in the classroom. I could immediately tell they had a genuine interest in helping me and the entire class learn. Without their accommodations, I simply would not have had a positive and successful college experience. Succeeding in college as a student with a disability is a team endeavor. As individuals with disabilities, college students know best how and what type of assistance they need to succeed in school. Professors, on the other hand, can go a long way in making their classes accessible by taking their students’ needs into consideration.

Kudos to all of the teachers who constantly go above and beyond to make their courses accessible to everyone. This is a commendable effort that benefits everyone, and deserves recognition.

Guest Commentary: On Why Requiring Licensing of Service Animals is Impractical

Guest Commentary: On Why Requiring Licensing of Service Animals is Impractical
Today’s guest post is from Wayne Scace, who comments on a proposed bill in Illinois that would require service dogs to be licensed by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR). Readers might remember Wayne’s previous commentary about fake service animals.

I am writing today, in response to the proposed bill HB3162 sponsored by Illinois Rep. Natalie A. Manley. This is representative Manley’s second attempt to pass a service animal licensing law in Illinois. HB3162 is identical to HB5807 from 2016. I am writing as a service dog owner, owner trainer, and a concerned Illinois citizen who would be negatively impacted should this bill become law.

The majority of the provisions of this bill run counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), by requiring licensure of Service dogs. Provisions within this bill propose a gross invasion of the right to privacy of Illinois citizens, and discriminate against a protected class. Last year after HB5807 did not make it out of the Rules Committee, Ms. Manley received input from myself, other service dog owners, and Heartland Service Dogs, Inc. one of the few service dog training organizations in Illinois. Yet, Ms. Manley has cavalierly chosen to ignore the preponderance of that input and inflicted HB3162 upon the state. The provisions in HB3162 that run counter to those of the ADA would be unenforceable for the following reasons.

The provision requiring that a service dog be licensed, in a vest, cape or wear a harness or that an Identification card be carried is directly against the ADA, as per the service animal FAQ issued in 2015 by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ):

“Q8: Do service animals have to wear a vest or patch or special harness identifying them as service animals?

A: No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or special harness.”

The provision requiring that a service dog behave in the home, is problematic as it is an invasion of privacy. Mandating proof that a service dog be trained to perform three tasks is also counter to the ADA, given that it only sets a minimum of one task. Besides, service animals, such as guide dogs, seizure response dogs, or diabetic alert dogs only perform one task. Again from the DOJ 2015 service animal FAQs:

“Q1: What is a service animal?

A: Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

Q2: What does “do work or perform tasks” mean? A: The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”….

This bill appears to be a clear attempt to legislate away the right of the disabled citizens of Illinois to choose to train their own service dog. Which is allowed under the ADA. From Question five from the service dog FAQs:

“Q5: Does the ADA require service animals to be professionally trained?

A: No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.”

Additionally, some states, including Illinois, permit service dogs in training into public places under the Illinois White Cane Law. (775 ILCS 30/3) (From Ch. 23, par. 3363):

“Every totally or partially blind or hearing impaired person, person who is subject to epilepsy or other seizure disorders, or person who has any other physical disability or a trainer of support dogs, guide dogs, seizure-alert dogs, seizure-response dogs, or hearing dogs shall have the right to be accompanied by a support dog or guide dog especially trained for the purpose, or a dog that is being trained to be a support dog, guide dog, seizure-alert dog, seizure-response dog, or hearing dog, in any of the places listed in this Section without being required to pay an extra charge for the guide, support, seizure-alert, seizure-response, or hearing dog; provided that he shall be liable for any damage done to the premises or facilities by such dog. (Source: P.A. 99-143, eff. 7-27-15.)”

In conclusion, this bill is unnecessary, as the ADA and Illinois laws are already adequate. Some folks may suggest that getting a license for a service dog is analogous to getting a driver’s license or a handicapped placard, but that is erroneous. Getting a driver’s license or handicapped parking placard are privileges. Being accompanied in public by our service dogs, which are legally classed as durable medical equipment, is a civil right.

Help Us Raise The Stakes for Vision!

Help Us Raise The Stakes for Vision!

Last week in our post about playing games as someone with vision loss, we announced our first ever “Raising the Stakes for Vision Casino and Poker Night” event on Thursday, March 2, at Gibsons Steakhouse/Hugo’s Frog Bar, 1024 North Rush Street in Chicago. It will feature charitable casino games, Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament, premium cocktails, Gibsons signature dinner and desserts and over $20,000 in prizes and auction items!

The early bird pricing for casino and poker tickets has been extended until the day of the event! Tickets for casino guests are $150 and poker tickets cost $200. The grand prize is a $10,000 seat at The World Series Poker Main Event! All proceeds will support Chicago Lighthouse programs serving people who are blind, visually impaired, disabled and Veterans. You can find more information about the event and purchase tickets at this website. Note that accommodations are available for casino and poker players who are blind or visually impaired.

Please support this new and exciting event, either by attending or spreading the word to your friends and family. The Lighthouse provides critical world-class programs for people of all ages, from education services for children who are visually impaired and multi-disabled, to job training and employment opportunities for adults with disabilities and Veterans. This is only a handful of the 39 innovative Lighthouse programs and services that help us change lives! What better way to support The Chicago Lighthouse than by attending a fun event? That’s what I call a win-win situation! For more information, you can email Lindsay Inglis at Lindsay.inglis@chicagolighthouse.org, or call her at 312-447-3439. Thank you so much for your continued support of The Chicago Lighthouse!

Commentary: How Technology is Helping People with Low Vision “See”

February is recognized as Low Vision Awareness month by the National Eye Institute (NEI). The celebration aims to create more awareness about the services and programs available to individuals with low vision and their families. Low vision is defined as having a visual impairment that cannot be corrected with standard eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication or surgery. According to the NEI, 4.2 million Americans over 40 have low vision. It is projected that by 2030, 7.2 million adults, 65 or older in the United States, will be visually impaired or blind.

During recent years, technology has helped and drastically enabled individuals with low vision to be more independent and productive. Simple tools, like large print or talking watches, allow them to keep track of time. Magnifiers, CCTVs and other computer software help people read print materials for work, school or fun. Newer products, like the eSight and OrCam, have revolutionized the way those with low vision see and interact with their surroundings. This technology is only the tip of the iceberg, and the future promises new and exciting things to come!

In honor of Low Vision Awareness Month, the NEI is highlighting five technology innovations that will one day assist people who are blind or visually impaired with different daily tasks. These include a cane with built-in navigation for traveling indoors, a smartphone app that will help crossing streets without veering, and a tool for people with severe peripheral vision loss. These devices use what is known as computer vision, a technology that enables computers to recognize and interpret complex images. The research and development for these technologies is funded by the NEI.

I began using assistive technology as a child, and have witnessed firsthand how it has evolved over the years. Screen-readers have gone from software with limited capabilities and monotone synthesized speech, to programs that help those of us who cannot see browse the Internet and send and receive emails and text messages. Thanks to optical character recognition (OCR) technology, I can read print documents by simply scanning or taking a picture of the page with my smartphone.

Technology is becoming an additional pair of eyes of sorts for people without sight. Various smartphone apps and other devices allow us to “see” our surroundings with the push of a button. Prototypes like those being showcased by NEI may one day help those with low vision be more independent and lead richer lives. Of course, this technology is still under development, and only time will tell how useful it is for people with visual impairments. Then again, just as screen-readers and OCR technology have drastically improved over the years, so will computer vision technology enhance over time. As someone who is blind, I sure am excited to discover what technology has in store for the near future!