Commentary: On Finding Accessible and Fashionable Clothing for People with Disabilities

People with disabilities now have a new alternative when shopping for adapted clothing. Online retail giant Zappos hopes to make it easier for those with physical disabilities and other special needs to shop for accessible clothing. The Zappos Adaptive section in the company’s website lists clothing and shoes that are accessible to individuals with physical and sensory disabilities. These include items without buttons and zippers, pieces that are soft to the touch, reversible clothing and slip-on or easy to fasten shoes. Zappos got the idea for this after hearing that one of their customers had to exchange a pair of shoes for her grandson who was unable to tie the shoelaces because of his disability.

A lot has been showcased in the news about inclusive design for those with disabilities. A couple years ago, Tommy Hilfiger developed a line of clothing that is both fashionable and accessible to those with disabilities. What’s more, the fashion industry has begun focusing on including models with disabilities on the runway. A group of fashion students from the School at the Art Institute of Chicago worked with Lighthouse staff and program participants to learn how to design clothing accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. In other words, the fashion industry is becoming more aware about the unique accessibility needs of those with disabilities.

Just as each disability has different challenges, so does accessible clothing need different adaptations. Those of us who are blind or visually impaired might only need Braille tags or a distinct texture to know the color of our clothes. Meanwhile, people with physical disabilities might find clothing with special buttons or zippers easier to put on independently. Regardless of our needs, people with disabilities still want to be able to easily find and shop for accessible clothing.

Zappos’s initiative of dedicating a section to adaptive clothing is commendable, and is an example other retailers should follow. For one, many people with disabilities nowadays shop online due to the convenience of getting items delivered to their doorstep. This initiative will also help shoppers find clothing and shoes more easily, who will not have to worry about whether or not they will be able to put them on by themselves. Finding and shopping for accessible and fashionable clothing will become even more important in the coming years with the aging of the baby boomers.

It is extremely important for more brands to consider people with disabilities in their clothing design. Moreover, retailers – both large and small – should strive to offer accessible clothing and help shoppers find it easily. This will give people with disabilities more choices and make us feel included. A special thanks to Zappos, Tommy Hilfiger and the countless other organizations and colleges that are working to make the clothing and fashion industries more inclusive of individuals with disabilities.

What Are Some Of The Sports Played By People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired?

What Are Some Of The Sports Played By People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired?

Spring is here, and with it comes the beginning of baseball season and other activities, including the Boston Marathon. In honor of this, we are highlighting some of the various sports that people with vision loss can partake in. Some sports like goalball and beep baseball are specifically played by people who are blind or visually impaired, while others like swimming and running are easily adapted for these individuals. People who are blind or visually impaired can enjoy many activities, both for leisure and to compete on professional teams.

  • Goalball: this is a team sport, and participants compete in teams of three. Players try to throw a ball which has bells inside (so it can be heard) into the opponent’s goal. The teams alternate throwing or rolling the ball from one end to the other, and players remain in the area of their own goal in both defense and attack. Many countries, including the United States, have a goalball team, which competes in the Paralympics.
  • Beep baseball: as the name suggests, this is an adapted version of baseball. With the exception of the batter and catcher, all team members are blind (those who are partially sighted wear blindfolds to be on an equal playing field with their teammates). The bases beep when activated so that players know in which direction to run. Many states, including Illinois, have beep baseball teams.
  • Swimming: this can be easily adapted for those who are blind or visually impaired and wish to do it as a hobby or on a professional team. Simple techniques – like dividing lanes with ropes to help someone without sight to stay oriented – can help. You can read more about this in my previous post about swimming as someone who is blind.
  • Running: like everyone else, people who are blind or visually impaired run in all types of events. These include track and field, marathons and races. Some athletes might be able to run the course independently, while others – particularly those who are totally blind – will use the assistance of sighted guides. Many people who are blind run in marathons, biathlons and triathlons. The United States Paralympics team also includes a track and field division for runners who are blind or visually impaired.
  • Other sports that can be adapted include cycling, skiing, rowing, sailing, archery, bowling and power-lifting. Judo, wrestling and rock climbing require little or no modifications for participants with vision loss. These activities also have dedicated teams or divisions for athletes who are blind or visually impaired.

This is only a handful of the sports played by individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Although some are specifically designed for this group, others can easily be adapted with special equipment and some creativity. Like our sighted counterparts, those of us who are blind enjoy participating in competitive sports and other activities. Not only is this good exercise, it is a great way to have fun and meet other people! You can get more information and resources about these and other sports from the International Blind Sports Federation website. In next week’s post, I will share the story of fellow Lighthouse colleague Tim Paul who is visually impaired, and will be running in the upcoming Boston Marathon.

Commentary: Recent Supreme Court Ruling Is a Victory for Students with Disabilities

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court made an important decision regarding the rights of students with disabilities in the United States. The ruling in the Endrew F. V. Douglas County School District case states that schools must provide more than a minimum education for a student with a disability. They instead must provide these students with an opportunity to make progress in line with the federal law. In other words, students with disabilities should be given realistic opportunities and challenges that will help them gain the skills they need to succeed, just like all other students.

Throughout my childhood, I was incredibly fortunate to have a robust and challenging education in the public school system. This was made possible by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which among other things, guarantees a “free and appropriate public education” to students with disabilities. Since its passage in 1975, IDEA has allowed thousands of individuals with disabilities like myself to receive a well-rounded education and ultimately realize our full potential.

As a student I received many helpful accommodations and tools to succeed in school. My teachers taught me Braille, how to use assistive technology and how to advocate for what I needed. My orientation and mobility instructors taught me how to travel independently with a white cane and how to navigate the public transportation system. I was able to succeed in classes alongside my sighted peers thanks to the Braille and audio textbooks and assignments, assistive technology devices and support I received from my teachers. All of this — coupled with my parents’ high expectations — helped me succeed at the University of Illinois, where I received my Bachelor’s degree in journalism. I strongly believe that all of this would not have been possible had it not been for the IDEA.

The recent ruling from the Supreme Court was a tremendous victory for students with disabilities and their families. By requiring public schools to provide students with optimal opportunities to succeed, this ruling will ultimately help pave the way for a better future and education for all students with disabilities. The overall goal for every child is to get an appropriate education which will help him or her become a successful adult, and children with disabilities also deserve this opportunity. As someone who benefited and succeeded thanks to the IDEA, I understand firsthand and appreciate the significance of this recent ruling to current and future generations of students with disabilities.

Commentary: Responding to People Who Call Those with Disabilities ‘Inspirational’

Commentary: Responding to People Who Call Those with Disabilities ‘Inspirational’

One of the remarks people with disabilities often get from the general public is that we are ‘inspirational’. I have noticed this happens more often to people with visual or physical disabilities, and is something that many of us dislike. While I do not like it when someone calls me an inspiration simply because they see me doing everyday things, I completely understand where they are coming from.

It’s not that people want to offend those of us with disabilities in any way, but rather they cannot imagine how it would be to live – in this case – without sight. In fact, a recent study showed that Americans fear blindness more than cancer or other life-threatening diseases. There is no doubt that out of all the senses, sight is the one used the most by human beings. It is no wonder then that many people are amazed when they encounter someone like me who can’t see doing everyday things.

I recently got asked how I respond to these comments from well-meaning individuals. Truth is, there is no specific answer, and it all depends on the situation at hand. There have been times when even acquaintances who have known me for a long time tell me I am an inspiration for doing things like going to work, taking public transportation, etc. I thank them, and politely try to educate them on the different tools and techniques that help me do these and other things. Thanks to assistive technology, for example, I can be as successful at work as my colleagues with sight.

Often, it is strangers who tell me I am their inspiration. Once, a college advisor whom I had just met told me I was his ‘hero’ simply because I showed up to class on my own. Rather than saying anything, I just smiled. He was my soon to be academic advisor, and I certainly did not want to start off our relationship on a bad note! Other times, people have randomly approached me on the street to tell me I am their inspiration. Since most of these times I am in a hurry and don’t have time to stop and talk, I simply thank them and move on.

This is not to say that people with disabilities cannot be an inspiration to us. Erik Weihenmayer, for instance, was the first person who is blind to reach the summit of Mount Everest. David Paterson, governor of New York from 2008-2010, was the first legally blind governor in the United States. There are countless other examples of blind people who have overcome their disability to achieve great things.  We’ve had blind musicians, judges, attorneys, astronomers, radio announcers and many other career categories.  To me, these individuals qualify as truly inspirational because they excelled in challenging occupations that are difficult for sighted people to succeed in, let alone those of us who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise disabled.

For many of us with disabilities, being called ‘inspirational’ is a common occurrence. While I appreciate that people have the best intentions in mind, individuals with disabilities do not want to be seen as courageous or inspirational simply because of doing everyday things. While it is true that many of us have had to overcome certain challenges, we have also learned to be independent in our everyday lives, just like anyone else. I hope that one day more people will say I am inspirational because of my talents and professional accomplishments, not because of my disability.

For more tips, read my previous post about language suggestions for referring to people with disabilities. Have you been called ‘inspirational’ because of your disability? How do you respond to these remarks? Special thanks to our reader who asked me this important and thought provoking question!

Commentary: How Research Can Help Us Better Understand and Address Vision Loss

A popular belief is that when people lose their sight, their other senses “kick in” and get stronger. New research suggests that this might actually be true. Researchers at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary recently discovered that enhanced neuronal connections are present in the brains of people who were born blind or lost their sight before the age of three. The study found that in the case of participants who were blind, there were significant differences in both the occipital cortex – the part of the brain that processes visual information – as well as in the areas involved in sensory, language and cognitive processing. In other words, the study suggests that the brains of individuals who are blind are able to adapt and compensate for their loss of sight.

Not only does this research shed light on a theory that has been around for many years, but it will also help us better understand how the brain of those without sight process information. While researchers still do not know exactly how or what causes this rewiring in the brain, these findings can pave the way to innovative forms of rehabilitation.

Without a doubt, good rehabilitation helps people who are blind learn to be more independent. Services like The Chicago Lighthouse’s Educational Programs, for example, teach children who are blind or visually impaired valuable skills that will help them become independent. Our Low Vision Rehabilitation Services teach adults with vision loss helpful techniques that allow them to regain their independence. New research – like that of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary – will enable The Chicago Lighthouse to develop additional rehabilitation techniques to help people who are blind or visually impaired. With the drastic increase in vision loss due to the aging of the baby boom generation, this will become even more crucial in the upcoming years.

Thanks to new technology and research methods, scientists are better able to understand the human brain and how people are affected by vision loss. This in turn will help organizations, such as The Chicago Lighthouse, devise innovative rehabilitation strategies and techniques that will help people who are blind or visually impaired gain greater independence. I occasionally get asked if it is true that when someone loses a sense – like sight –our other senses get stronger. After reading this research, I will have to tell them that they just might be right.

Review of The Dot, The World’s First Braille Smartwatch

Review of The Dot, The World’s First Braille Smartwatch

At The Chicago Lighthouse, we are constantly testing new assistive technology products. I recently had the opportunity to review the Dot Watch, the world’s first Braille smartwatch for people who are blind. Made by Dot Incorporation, a startup company in South Korea, the Dot Watch allows iPhone and Android smartphone users to receive and view notifications on the watch in Braille. Please note that the model we reviewed at The Chicago Lighthouse is a beta version, and subject to fine-tuning before the actual retail version is released.

The Dot Watch consists of a simple design. On the face of the watch is a Braille display which has four cells, and below that are two touch sensors that allow users to scroll through and read each notification. The right side of the watch has three controls: the “Select” button, the “Dot Crown” dial and the “Home” button. These controls are used to operate the watch’s different functions. The watch is charged via a USB charger which is included with the device.

The Dot Watch works by pairing it with a smartphone via Bluetooth. Users must first install the Dot Watch app, available in the iTunes and Google Play app stores. Next, they have to create an account by registering their email, name and creating a password. The watch can then be paired with the smartphone. Once paired, users can begin receiving notifications from their phone, tell the time and date, and use other features. From the app, individuals can configure the watch’s settings, check the battery status, set an alarm and use the “learn Braille” function, a feature which allows users to send a message to the watch in Braille. Aside from having a minor issue with pairing the watch to my phone (problem which was quickly resolved by technical support), the set up process and app were completely accessible on my iPhone, and I was able to do it without sighted assistance.

Once the watch is set up, it alerts users when they have received a new notification on their phone, such as a text message. They can then read it on the watch’s Braille display. The watch also alerts individuals when they get a call, and they can check caller information and answer or decline the call (note that the watch does not include speakers, so users should have their phone nearby when accepting a call). The watch also includes a stopwatch, timer and alarm. Currently, the alarm only consists of vibrations, and could be particularly handy for individuals who are deaf-blind.

For me, the main concern was how I would be able to read notifications given that the watch only displays four Braille cells – or four letters or numbers – at once. To make scrolling through notifications easier, the watch includes two touch sensors, which are activated and display the next characters when the user taps the lower part of the face. I found the touch sensors helpful, because I could easily navigate through the notifications. The watch also has an auto-scroll feature, where the next set of characters are automatically displayed while reading notifications. The auto-scroll speed can be adjusted to suit the user’s reading preference.

The Braille pins on the display are clear and easy to decipher. One issue I did have was that occasionally, some of the dots would not be raised, making for incorrect readings of time, date and notifications. This was more common when I was not wearing the watch. Also, since the watch will be worn in all sorts of environments, it would be helpful if it included a cover to protect the Braille display from dirt or other objects that might damage it. This is something that the company is already working on developing. Also, the watch currently only includes one type of adjustable wrist strap. More options – such as bands or straps of different colors or materials should also be offered. People would appreciate these options given today’s desire for style and fashion!

The user manual was very detailed, and I was especially happy to be able to access it on the Dot Watch app and on the company’s website. The quick start guide is available in Braille, and included with the watch. While this in itself was helpful, more specific details about the watch – such as including a description of the different parts – is suggested. Contacting support for help when pairing the watch to my phone was simple and straight forward. I got a prompt response, and the support staff was able to quickly help.

The Dot smartwatch is without a doubt an innovative device for people who are blind, who will now have a new option for accessing information on their smartphones. Kudos to Dot Incorporation for their work on this watch, and a special thank you from all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse for allowing us to test and review it in our blog. For more information and updates about the Dot Watch, visit Dot Incorporation’s website.

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.