Roundup: Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities

Guest Blogger Tyler Bachelder

In light of the tragic and devastating results of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, we at The Chicago Lighthouse would like to offer our sincerest condolences to all who have been effected in the United States and across the world.

Disaster preparedness is important for everyone, but especially so for people with disabilities, as our needs vary so widely. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some resources to help in planning for events like these. Nobody can predict the future, but if we ask the right questions, we can be ready for it.

So what are the right questions, exactly? That’s determined by your own needs and situation. Most of the resources below will help you consider your needs and may shine a light on the unconsidered ones. Taking the time to think about those needs can mean the difference between panic and calm, and remaining calm is vital in an emergency. It is important for everyone to do a few very basic things. Prepare an emergency kit with first aid supplies, non-perishable food, water, backup batteries, flashlights, a radio or other means of getting the news, some basic tools, and other essentials.

As a person with a disability, your kit may be more extensive. Make sure you have access to your most important contacts in a format accessible to you, whether that be Braille, large print, an audio recording, or whatever suits your needs. Family and friends are the first and best means of support if you have a disability, as they know your needs better than emergency responders will. If you have a service animal, consider its needs. Do you have food, water, and the equipment needed to work with the animal? What about identification tags? Do you use any equipment that is necessary for you to live, such as a dialysis machine? If so, how will you power it in the event you lose access to electricity? If blind, do you have a spare cane? If in a powered wheelchair, do you have a lightweight manual one available to you? Is your environment easy for you to navigate quickly? Are emergency exits unobstructed?

As you can see, the needs of people with disabilities are quite complex. Although no one source can ask or answer every question, these tips are a good starting point.

Resources.

•The National Rehabilitation Information Center wrote a blog post to help Harvey survivors with disabilities find needed resources during the recovery process.

• The American Foundation for the Blind offers a general overview on emergency preparedness with further links to resources at the end of the article including those from the CDC, Red Cross, and more.

• Writing for the Vision Aware blog, Maureen Duffy discusses the importance of emergency preparedness with a focus on her harrowing personal experience with flooding.

• FEMA is required by law to provide accessible services at its disaster recovery centers so that people with disabilities can be made aware of the resources available to them. Here is an overview (pdf) of the services offered at their recovery sites for disabled people.

• Oregon’s Business Continuity Management Program, a division of the Department of Human Services, has a list of guides for businesses and organizations to better serve the disabled population in the event of an emergency, but they also feature guides for individuals as well.

We cannot stop emergencies from happening, as they are an inevitability of life. But with preparedness, we can mitigate their impact. Being prepared also means being calm and confident in a difficult situation, and a calm person is better able to take care of themselves and others. The more of us who can do that, the better off we are as a community. And when we move forward into the long and difficult rebuilding process, it’s the communities that matter the most.

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Commentary: Remembering Bill Jurek

 

This past weekend, members of The Chicago Lighthouse family were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Bill Jurek, director emeritus of The Lighthouse’s CRIS Radio. CRIS Radio is the oldest and largest reading and information service in Illinois for people with visual impairments or who have other disabilities, and broadcasts programming specifically targeted to these communities. Bill, who was himself totally blind, had been the station’s director since 2006. He was also the host of The Beacon, the country’s only advocacy radio show recorded for and by people with disabilities. Prior to joining The Lighthouse, Bill worked for many radio and television stations, including WLIT-FM, WGN, WIND, WLS-AM and NBC. He was also the voice talent for numerous companies. Bill lost his vision in 1995, and was a strong mentor and advocate for people with vision loss, especially those interested in the broadcast journalism field.

I first met Bill nearly four years ago, when I was looking for a job after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. My supervisor at the organization I was interning for at the time suggested I contact Bill Jurek. After all, Bill was also blind, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask him for some words of advice for my future career. Bill’s reply to my email was completely unexpected! He told me CRIS Radio could possibly offer me an internship, and asked me to call him right away. I began my internship with the station a few months later, where I helped schedule and record interviews for The Beacon. Little did I know that this internship would help launch my future career as a journalist! I now work full-time at The Lighthouse, both as an associate producer for CRIS Radio and development assistant.

I will always remember Bill’s kindness and great sense of humor. Ever since our first conversation over the phone, I could immediately tell he was a friendly and caring individual. I will always treasure the wonderful and fun memories of working with him. Whether discussing future segments for The Beacon, or recording the show, our conversations would inevitably turn into talking about food, some of the funny or embarrassing experiences we encountered as people who are blind or other random musings! I could always count on Bill to learn about good restaurants or other places I might want to check out.

The Sandy’s View team and The Chicago Lighthouse extend our deepest condolences to Bill Jurek’s family, friends and colleagues. We all lost a great friend and mentor who will always be remembered. Bill’s services will take place this upcoming Saturday, September 9. For more information and to read more about Bill’s work with CRIS Radio, please visit this page. Thank you Bill for being a great friend and mentor. Most importantly, thank you for giving me an opportunity and opening the path to a wonderful career for myself and countless others. The following is a video Bill and I recorded nearly two years ago for the Chicago Community Trust, where we talk about CRIS Radio, and the high unemployment rate faced by individuals with vision loss.

Commentary: Accessibility in Business Should Be More Than An Afterthought

Commentary written by guest writer Tyler Bachelder

Did you know that businesses are letting over $8 trillion slip right through their proverbial fingers? Me neither. But Caroline Casey, an Irish disability activist does, and she wants to show them the money. That sum is the estimated amount of disposable income possessed by approximately a billion people with disabilities worldwide. She believes that with the right insight and guidance, businesses can begin tapping that money for their own gain. But this isn’t just a naked appeal to greed. It’s also good citizenship. It starts with a consideration for disabled consumers in the boardroom. She wants companies to know that they need to do more than pay mere lip service to accessibility. To her, this is a win-win situation. Businesses cater to the needs of disabled people, and in return they get loyal customers who feel appreciated and valued, plus the wallets that come with them.

Take a look around and you can see this ethos already paying off. The go-to example that most blind people would likely jump to is Apple. Apple has, through the entirety of its design process, considered the needs of disabled people, and it’s been revolutionary for us. Their suite of accessibility tools is comprehensive. The iPhone has screen magnification, LED flash to notify deaf users of alerts, image recognition to describe photos, the ability to type in Braille on the phone, shaped buttons for color blind users, guided access to minimize distractions for users with cognitive disabilities, and so much more. And those tools are generally replicated on a Mac. Apple is something of a prestige brand. Consumers pay a premium for its products. Often, disabled people don’t have as much money individually, due to lack of inclusion in the workforce. But, limited income aside, blind people flock to Apple devices no matter the cost. Why? Because Apple cares about their needs. For a lot of us, Apple is the brand, not a brand. Imagine, for a moment, what that means for this segment of the market. Apple has it largely on lockdown.

And that leads us to Casey and her mission. She imagines a world in which companies consider accessibility at all levels of operation, from supply to design to service to the built environment. That sort of consideration can engender a lot of loyalty from a demographic that often feels underserved and neglected. It’s also a clear win for public relations. Search Google News for Apple Accessibility and you’ll witness journalists frothing over how thoughtful, how philanthropic, and how cool Apple is for doing this work. What company doesn’t want that kind of public goodwill?

Let’s also remember that accessibility can benefit everyone, not just disabled people. How many times have you taken an elevator when stairs would work? Be honest, I won’t tell. You’ve had a bear of a day at work, the commute home is a nightmare, your feet hurt, all you want is to, for a second, be at rest. So into the elevator you go, and you’re grateful right? That elevator is intended for wheelchair users, but I’ll bet what’s left of my eyesight that you’re thankful for those precious thirty seconds of stillness, aren’t you? That’s accessibility at work.

Casey wants companies to realize that the investment of time and money into accessible products and services pays dividends both financially and in the court of public opinion. Too often, due to a lack of education about what it means to be disabled or what it would take to improve the status quo, businesses neglect it altogether. If informed at all, they’re usually misinformed, mistakenly believing that these considerations would be prohibitively expensive. For instance, minor changes like high contrast colors in design, larger signage, appropriate lighting, products that feature tactile elements, websites built with screen readers in mind, digital versions of manuals, TTY phone numbers, most of these things are insignificant changes with very little cost attached. And it’s much less expensive to design while considering accessibility, rather than retrofitting something later, because often if you change one small feature, others must change to make way. I’m thinking here of buildings built before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, specifically, but the principle applies generally too.

So Casey plans to travel to Colombia and ride horseback across the country, all the while documenting her journey on social media. The #valuable campaign is meant to educate, rather than cajole. At the end of her journey, she will beseech over 500 companies to consider their lost money. Let’s hope this effort can create at least one more Apple in the world. The changes won’t happen overnight, but there is momentum. I’ll be in the elevator, waiting for the doors to open on a brighter future.

Blinded by the Light? Not With These Useful Resources for Enjoying the 2017 Solar Eclipse!

Today, we have a very special guest post from our very own Tyler Bachelder. He shares great tips and resources for enjoying the upcoming 2017 solar eclipse without sight!

This year, we are set to experience a total eclipse of the sun. From Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, a 70-mile wide band traces the path of totality in which the sun will appear to completely occlude the moon on Monday, August 21. You may assume that a blind person wouldn’t find anything to get excited about, but thanks to modern technology and some inventive methods, nothing could be further from the truth! Here are some resources for those who are blind or visually impaired to release their inner astronomer and enjoy this momentous occasion.

Sandysview_Eclipse 2017

  • Thanks to a collaboration between The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium (HEC), the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), and the National Park Service (NPS), blind and visually impaired people can download Soundscapes, a feature-rich app that allows them to experience the eclipse in a number of interactive ways. Find the app here.
  • The Hadley Institute for the Blind and NASA have teamed up to do an audio presentation on the eclipse with insight and context from NASA scientists. Register here.  The first thirty registrants will also receive tactile maps featuring the path of totality and more.
  • NASA generously donated 11 copies of these tactile books to The Chicago Lighthouse, thanks NASA! Drop by to take a look. Over 5,000 copies were also donated to schools for the blind, museums, and local library systems throughout the United States. Check with local library or museum to see if one is available. Learn about the project here.
  • There are a couple places to hear live audio descriptions of the event. The American Council of the Blind (ACB) is featuring an hour-long program through its Audio Description Project in partnership with The Mid-Tennessee Council of the Blind, the Tennessee School for the Blind and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The program will feature sun-themed music and a professionally described narration of the eclipse. Stream it here. A phone broadcast is also available by calling (605) 475-8130. Additionally, it can be streamed on iOS devices through the ACB Link app. The stream starts at 1p.m. CST on Monday.
  • MindsEye Radio is also featuring an audio description. Stream it on their website. Their stream starts at 1 CST as well.

Thanks to these and other resources, blindness need not be a barrier to appreciating one of the most phenomenal events that nature has to offer. On behalf of The Chicago Lighthouse, enjoy!

Commentary: Spreading Awareness through the Real Talk Campaign

Without a doubt, many misconceptions about people with disabilities or other health conditions still exist. Some think, for example, that individuals with vision loss cannot live independent lives. It’s not that people intentionally have these beliefs, but rather they simply have never learned about these subjects. For this reason, Vineet Aggarwal, a second year student at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine recently launched the Real Talk Campaign. The ultimate goal of this project is to shed light on topics affecting people from all walks of life who are facing different challenges.

The Real Talk Campaign is a series of videos about people living with various illnesses and experiences. Some of the topics covered thus far include the Syrian refugee crisis, and interviews with people living with AIDS, depression and vision loss. I was interviewed for the video about life as someone who is blind, and you can watch it here. Currently, this video series has approximately 3,500 viewers.

Vineet tells me that part of the reason he decided to launch this campaign is to create more awareness about those experiencing different situations and challenges. He discovered that although factual information – such as that seen in the news – is important, it is also vital for society to get a firsthand account of individuals who are currently facing different challenges and obstacles. He says that although this project is only a few months old, it has taught him and given him a great deal of personal growth.

As someone who is blind, I am particularly interested in debunking the myths and misconceptions about people with vision loss. For that reason, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be interviewed for this series. The internet and social media have revolutionized the way we obtain information, and they are without a doubt a great tool for enlightening others about disabilities. The Real Talk Campaign covers thought provoking topics many people might have never considered, and it provides us with a great opportunity to learn and gain greater understanding.

I invite everyone to take a look at the Real Talk Campaign stories. You can find the videos on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Vineet hopes to expand his project and cover even more topics in the near future, and he is open to suggestions! You can reach him by sending an email to realtalkcampaign@gmail.com, or commenting on any of the links mentioned above. Special thanks to Vineet for reaching out to The Lighthouse, we all wish you the best of luck with this exciting project!

Commentary: On Making Household Appliances Accessible

Most people who are blind or visually impaired have figured out how to manage household appliances, which might not be entirely accessible. We might use special Braille or tactile stickers on our microwave or oven to label the different settings, for example. Buttons on a telephone or remote control keypad are often distinguishable by touch, making it much easier for us to memorize and learn the layout and function of each one. Today’s appliances, like televisions, DVD players and laundry machines include various features, which can only be accessed via a menu. For someone who can’t see the screen, navigating through the menus can be challenging at best, and often even impossible.

Like with a lot of things, technology promises to make household appliances more accessible to people with vision loss. Devices like Apple TV and Comcast’s Xfinity accessibility options have allowed those of us with visual impairments to access and navigate through the different menu selections independently. Other newly developed gadgets promise to help tackle the challenge of inaccessible appliances.

Jack DuPlessis, a teenager from Kentucky, recently created a smart device which makes laundry appliances ‘talk’, thereby helping users who are blind or visually impaired. The Talking Laundry module is an apparatus about the size of an external hard drive and functions simply by connecting it to a wall outlet and the back of a recent GE laundry appliance. It gives users audio feedback, including the remaining time in a washing or drying cycle, spin level and color settings. The young developer and technology enthusiast worked with students from the Kentucky School for the Blind to test the smart device, which may be a game changer in the near future.

Making household items accessible to those of us with disabilities is not only good business practice for developers and manufacturers, it is also becoming crucial more than ever before. Many people, particularly senior citizens, will acquire visual impairments or other disabilities given the aging of the baby boomer generation. These individuals will require the assistance of accessible devices in order to continue living independent and productive lives. While it is true that special devices, like talking watches and telephones with large buttons already exist, many of us with vision loss would like to see a day when all mainstream devices are accessible.

Adaptations can be as simple as including buttons with large print labels or tactile markings. Better yet, making devices with audio feedback, like the Talking Laundry module, can go a long way in improving accessibility. Today’s technology has a great potential of allowing manufacturers to do this and much more. By incorporating accessibility in their products, developers can increase business, while allowing people with disabilities to live more independent lives. That’s what I call a win-win for everyone! Kudos to Jack DuPlessis for his work on the Laundry Talking module. Without a doubt, this is a device that will prove to be useful to millions of individuals with vision loss.

Guest Post: 2017 Summer in the City

Last month, The Lighthouse held its second annual Summer in the City program for teenagers who are blind or visually impaired. Our very own Tyler Bachelder, who is currently an intern in the public relations department, caught up with the participants. Tyler shares his reflections about this week-long program in today’s guest post. Now, let’s hear from Tyler!

On June 25, 10 teenagers from Chicago’s suburbs came to The Lighthouse to spend a week laughing, learning, and laying a foundation for future success. The Summer in the City program guides teens who are blind or visually impaired through a range of activities that will prepare them for a transition to independent adulthood. From a guided tour of Wrigley Field to lessons in self-defense, cooking classes to rock climbing, Summer in the City is a holistic crash course that helps develop confidence and breaks barriers. I spent some time with the kids, interns, instructors, and Shelle Hamer, the director of the program to get a sense of its impact.

Shelle has been in the disability field for the last 35 years, and has done everything from educating to administrating, all related to the needs of people who are blind or deaf blind. As the Manager of Children and Youth Enrichment Programs at The Lighthouse, she oversees Summer in the City. Her goals for the program are straightforward. She wants to establish confidence and independence in teens. The participants stay in dorms provided by the University of Illinois at Chicago, so they are residentially located for the duration. Mornings are spent in classes that teach concrete skills, like orientation and mobility, cooking, self-defense and technology. Afternoons are for adventure! A broad scope of activities take the kids out into Chicago to explore, play, and learn.

Shelle told me that the variety of activities is just as important as their content, because it allows the kids to be gently tested in as many situations as possible.

“If you don’t experience something, you don’t really understand it,” she says.

And this is true. Many of the participants have limited travel skills. In some cases, they may not have even traveled out of their home or neighborhood independently before. They toured Wrigley Field and Shedd Aquarium, climbed a 43-foot climbing wall, ate at restaurants, and more. The whole time, they traveled independently and used Chicago’s world-class public transit.

You might assume that these experiences intimidated the kids. Perhaps they did, initially. But in my time with them, I saw a bunch of enthusiastic, excited, exuberant teenagers thrilled to be somewhere new. They quibbled back and forth over lunch about Wifi problems, teased each other, talked about what they’d been learning, and laughed, a lot. In short, they acted like normal kids in the process of growing up.

I’ve been a self-sufficient blind person for a long time. In fact, sometimes I think it’s been long enough that I’ve lost touch with what it must be like to be wide-eyed and curious. What I saw with the kids over the course of the program was that wide-eyed curiosity, writ large.

This is exactly what Shelle desires for the program! She says that transitional programs for blind and visually impaired teenagers are vital. The skills they need to be successful adults don’t change from blind teenager to sighted, but the methods do. Summer in the City provides a structured and safe environment with just enough flexibility to let the kids explore and test those methods. It’s cane, not car, if you will. But it’s meant to demonstrate that independence is not only possible, but desirable.

One participant, Lucio Delgado, embodies this ideal in his personal story. He immigrated to the United States from Mexico four years ago. When he lived back home, he didn’t have or use a cane. He told me, grinning and laughing as he spoke, that he used to wait at street corners for the sounds of traffic to die down, whereupon he would sprint across the street in the intervening silence. To some this may seem harrowing, but to me it’s a person determined to find solutions rather than problems. With the help of The Lighthouse, his solutions will be much less dangerous.

Beyond confidence from within, the program also offers opportunities for the kids to witness it from without.

“I like having the kids interact with successful visually impaired people,” Shelle says. She refers to the opportunities the program offers for interacting with blind adults that have already achieved self-sufficiency. Seeing is believing, after all. Several of the instructors are blind or visually impaired themselves, and The Lighthouse is full of blind people working alongside sighted ones.

We’re grateful to have hosted these bright, inquisitive young students! The Lighthouse strives to promote independence, and by seeking us out, they’ve taken an important first step in that regard. Here’s to Summer in the City, and many more summers to come! If you or someone you know is interested in the program, you can find out more here.