Enjoying An Accessible Performance of “A Christmas Carol”

By guest blogger Brett Shishkoff

The holidays bring us ample opportunities to enjoy great performances and movies. Last weekend, my colleague at CRIS Radio, Brett Shishkoff, who is blind, enjoyed a touch tour and audio described performance of “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre. During a touch tour, people who are blind or visually impaired get to literally feel the different costumes and props that will be used in the performance. They will also hear a description of the stage layout, and in some cases, from some of the main actors themselves. Audio description is a narration of the different visual elements and scenes, which allows those who are blind or visually impaired to follow along. Now, let’s hear from Brett!

The Goodman has been one of my favorite theatres here in Chicago. Each year, they put on the popular holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.” I have been able to compare this from last year’s performance, and it continues to get better. The Casting of Scrooge is one of the best you’ll find in any version. They also try to throw in some surprises each year, and this time it is no different. Since last year, Fred Scrooge’s niece, Freda, has appears in the place of Scrooge’s nephew. This substitution continues to fit nicely in the show. Freda believes that anyone can change, even her uncle Scrooge who she will never give up on. The show is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for some Christmas Cheer!

As for the Touch Tour, the Goodman has one of the best in Chicago. They start off by showing us the costumes, props, and wigs in the lobby as we wait for the other patrons to arrive. We then move right into the theater, where we hear about the set and stage layout and some artistic feedback from the director. We even get to walk on the stage to get a better sense of its size. For me, the highlight of each Touch Tour is meeting the cast ahead of the show. They describe what they look like and what they are wearing, and perform a line from their characters.

The Audio Description was excellent. A great audio description of any play is easy to listen and understand – not to quiet or loud. One thing that I believe needs improvement are the headsets used to transmit the narration. Way too often, static or other noise is heard through the headsets used for these performances, which can be a bit distracting. This is hopefully something that can be easily fixed as new technology is developed for these devices. All in all, my experience at A Christmas Carol was a great one, and I am trying to turn this into a family tradition for many years to come. I left with warmth in my heart and a smile on my face. I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season filled with lots of joy!

The Goodman is holding an additional audio described performance of “A Christmas Carol” on Wednesday evening, December 13 at 7:30 pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, you can visit this page or call 312-443-3800.

This is Sandy again. In next week’s post, I will share my experience at the movies using Actiview, a new mobile app that provides audio description and closed captions for people with visual or hearing impairments. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

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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.

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.

Commentary: How Smart Homes Are Empowering People with Disabilities

Imagine being at home, when all of a sudden you hear your doorbell ring. Unless you were expecting someone, like a mail or food delivery, you might not know who it is if you cannot see. Similarly, unless someone who is blind or visually impaired has a talking thermostat, the majority of these appliances currently in the market are inaccessible. We therefore might require assistance from a sighted friend to change the thermostat, which is not always convenient.

The evolving concept of smart homes is becoming a game changer for people with disabilities, including individuals who are blind or visually impaired. This story from NBC News shows how Apple’s technology, along with smart home accessories, are transforming accessibility for people with disabilities. Todd Stabelfeldt is quadriplegic, and has no movement below his shoulders. Thanks to new technology, he can use an iPhone and Siri to open his garage door, turn the lights on and off, open and close the blinds, adjust the thermostat and monitor his security system independently. You can see Todd interacting with this technology in this video. These are all things that were impossible for him and other people with disabilities to do independently prior to the advent of smart home technology.

Just as smart home technology has allowed people with physical disabilities to be more independent, it can do the same for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. We can now change the temperature on the thermostat by using our smartphone or tablet. It is also possible for us to know who is at the door by asking them before even opening. Moreover, we can control our security system independently, something that was not always easy because of accessibility challenges. Turning our lights on and off and locking our doors is also easier, and all of this will give us more peace of mind knowing we are safe.

As with anything else, there are cons to this technology. One of the biggest concerns is the risk of getting information – including personal details and passwords – stolen. This is a valid concern, but is something that is already being addressed. Facial recognition technology, for example, allows computers to identify users by taking a photo of their face. It is therefore important to make smart home technology, like switches, cameras and mobile apps, secure and accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

There’s no doubt that smart homes are changing the way we control our household appliances. People without disabilities enjoy the convenience of controlling their homes with a smart phone or tablet. For people who can’t see or have other disabilities, it goes beyond convenience. This technology allows us to be more independent in our own homes, something that everyone wants and deserves.

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: 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: Facebook’s Accessibility Benefits Everyone

For a little over a year, Facebook has been working on a tool that will describe pictures to people who are blind or visually impaired. It consists of artificial intelligence, and automatically generates captions for the photos we or our friends post. There is no need to install software or take extra steps – the tool is available to anyone using a smartphone, tablet or computer. To get a better sense of how it works, read this Sandy’s View post. I also demonstrate how the technology works in this story from CBS 2 Chicago.

According to this article from CNET, Facebook’s technology promises to get even better! For one thing, photo captions are becoming more enhanced. Now, when I am reading through my newsfeed, some of the picture descriptions also include what people are doing. When this technology was introduced over a year ago, I would only hear something like “image may contain: two people, outdoor, beach, sunglasses.” Now, I might hear something like “image may contain: two people, people smiling, people sitting, outdoor, beach, sunglasses.” In other words, there are more details in the descriptions, and this allows me to better visualize the image. Using the same example, I can picture two people having a good time at the beach!

All people – whether blind or sighted – will also be able to search for specific pictures using these descriptions. So, if I want to find the picture of my friends at the beach, I can type some of the words from the caption in Facebook’s search box. As of the writing of this post, I have not tried out this new feature, but will review it in the near future. I can see this added enhancement helping anyone. Instead of scrolling through our newsfeed or friend’s wall, we can simply search for a particular picture and save ourselves some time that way. This technology currently doesn’t include detailed descriptions, like the color of the clothes someone is wearing, but I am sure it won’t be long before we start seeing them. This would make the new picture search feature much more useful.

Social media has become an important part of everyone’s lives, and thanks to accessibility efforts like those implemented by Facebook, people with vision loss can also be included. For almost a year, I have been using Facebook’s photo description feature, and it has given me a better picture (no pun intended!) of what my friends and family are sharing. Although this technology is still in its early stages, it has certainly come a long way and made a difference for people with vision loss. Better yet, it also includes features, like the picture search, that will one day be useful even to those with sight. I sure am excited to see what it has in store for us in the future!