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.

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Commentary: Making Gyms Accessible Benefits Everyone

A few years ago, I attended a seminar about the Americans with Disabilities Act at my local Center for Independent Living in an effort to learn more about what this legislation does and does not cover. Much to my surprise, I learned more than I expected, including the fact that the ADA covers fitness facilities. Gyms, for example, should have accessible exercise equipment, including accessible swimming pools.

These regulations for making fitness facilities accessible to customers with disabilities went into effect in 2012. Still, much more needs to be done to implement said requirements. Recently, LA Fitness modified its membership policy to accommodate patrons with disabilities in New York who need aids to accompany them into the health clubs. The membership fee for these assistants will be waved, and the policy will also require New York LA Fitness locations to train their staff on such policies.

Contrary to popular belief, people with all types of disabilities can and do need to exercise just like everyone else. Disabilities set aside, we have the same need to exercise in order to maintain good fitness and health. It is even more important considering that people with disabilities are less likely to participate in any form of exercise plan. Combined with a high unemployment rate and – in some cases – isolation from the community or other social activities, the sedentary lifestyle of many people with disabilities can lead to poor fitness, obesity and health complications like hypertension and diabetes.

Making gyms accessible is not as hard as it might seem. Simply moving equipment around to give someone in a wheelchair enough room to transfer might be all a customer with a physical disability needs to be able to access the exercise equipment. Someone who is blind or has low vision might benefit from one-on-one, hands-on instruction from a personal trainer, and large print and Braille labels will allow him or her to operate exercise machines independently. By adopting policies similar to that of LA Fitness, those with disabilities who require someone’s assistance will allow these individuals to partake in all the facility has to offer. To me, it is all a matter of finding creative, and often simple, accessibility solutions.

People with disabilities have the same right to exercise and be fit and healthy. Not only does working out help us obtain good health, but it also gives everyone a great opportunity to socialize and meet others. Gyms should create an accessible and welcoming environment for people with disabilities. By doing this, they will both comply with the law, and help an often overlooked community maintain good health and create more social opportunities. In what other ways can gyms be made more accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities? Please share your thoughts!

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?

XANADU: A Fun and Accessible Performance!

Sandy at Xanadu

Last Saturday, I, along with several colleagues from The Lighthouse, was treated to a performance of Xanadu at the American Theater Company on Chicago’s north side. We had all heard that the 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John was not successful, and honestly did not know what to expect from the musical. Truth be told, I was only interested in going after learning that we would take a touch tour of the stage before the performance. Not only did we get to be on stage to see and feel the different costumes and props beforehand, but we also heard from some of the cast members themselves!

Evan Hatfield is the Director of Audience Experience at Steppenwolf Theater Company, and works with many theaters across Chicago to make sure performances are accessible to people with disabilities. This was the American Theater’s first time putting on a touch tour for patrons with vision loss, so they consulted with Evan to learn how to make this possible. We were all pleased to find out that Evan and the staff at the American Theater Company had thought about every single detail, from providing assistance getting into the theater to anyone who requested it to describing in full detail the various costumes and props.

We arrived to the theater about 90 minutes before the performance got started. This allowed us to learn more about the musical from Evan and the theater director. They briefly discussed things like the time setting of the story, stage layout and some of the visual and sound effects that would be used in the play. Next came the part I was waiting for: feeling the different costumes and props! Theater staff members described each item and told us which character would be using it. Finally, some of the cast members introduced themselves and described the characters they would play.

Although I had attended performances with audio description, this was my very first touch tour in a theater. Not that I didn’t know there was such a thing – working at The Lighthouse has allowed me to learn of the many things Chicago theaters are doing to become accessible to people with vision loss.

This was also the first time taking a touch tour for a few of my colleagues. Brett Shishkoff is an intern at CRIS Radio, and he felt the touch tour and discussion with the director and cast members was invaluable. He – like me and many of our colleagues who attended – is completely blind. Hearing from the actors themselves and feeling the different objects helped us get a better sense of what was going on during the play, even though it did not include audio description.

“Having the touch tour bridged the gap enough for me to be able to still chuckle at some of the things that they were referencing and know why it was funny,” Brett says.

Although having audio description during the performance would have helped during the times when actors used gestures or other expressions we couldn’t see, my coworkers and I were still able to follow and understand the story.

“I was probably smiling and laughing for at least the first hour of the play,” Brett tells me.

Kudos to the American Theater Company for striving to make Xanadu an accessible performance for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. Keep up the great work, I hope this is the first of many accessible performances! As a fellow attendee put it, “Although they do not require the touch tour service, we can now say the American Theater Company is inclusive for all, disability or otherwise.”

I hope to continue attending more audio described and touch tour performances in the future, and so do my other colleagues.

“I always enjoyed the theater quite a bit before I lost my sight … We know now we can actually go to [performances] and enjoy them with our family and friends,” Brett said.

I can’t praise Evan and the American Theater Company enough for their outstanding service! Had I not known this was their first time putting on a touch tour, I would have never realized it – the tour and accommodations were extremely thorough and well thought out. Special thanks to Lighthouse board member Larry Broutman for generously donating the tickets for us to attend and enjoy the show. This sure was a fun and great opportunity for everyone!

Many theaters and museums throughout Chicago offer audio described performances and touch tours. The Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC) has a calendar of accessible cultural events, and the League of Chicago Theaters also has a calendar of accessible performances. You can find a link to subscribe to their monthly email that lists upcoming accessible performances.

Have you gone to performances with touch tours or audio description? Please share your experiences with us – we’d love to hear from you!

Commentary: Making Braille Affordable and Fun with Legos

Lately, developers are turning to legos to come up with new ways of making and teaching Braille. In 2014, 13 year old Shubham Banerjee created the Braigo, a light-weight and affordable Braille printer. While the printer is not actually made from Legos, Banerjee was inspired by the popular toy to create the concept. Now, designers from Lew’Lara\TBWA in Brazil have developed Braille Bricks, blocks similar to Legos with Braille letters and numbers. Besides learning the alphabet, blind children can use the blocks as toys to build things.

There’s no better time for the development of these and other innovations, which will hopefully increase the Braille literacy rate among people who are blind in the United States and elsewhere. It is estimated that only about 12 percent of children who are blind in the United States know Braille. This is a significant contrast to 50 years ago, when over 50 percent of children learned the system. While some might say that Braille is becoming obsolete with all of today’s technology innovations, I – and other advocates – are in complete disagreement. After all, it would be unacceptable if our sighted counterparts didn’t know how to read or write.

Both the Braigo printer and Braille Bricks have an enormous potential of increasing the literacy rate among blind individuals. A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the expensive nature of Braille embossers. It is expected that the new Braille printer being developed by Banerjee and his team will cost much less – around $300. I think this would greatly increase the access and affordability of these devices. As a result, more children and adults could have immediate access to Braille materials.

Currently, few toys and fun games exist for young Braille learners. Braille is typically learned by typing on a Perkins Braille writer – a machine similar to an old-fashioned typewriter but with less keys. Toys like the Braille Bricks would make learning Braille fun and exciting for children. Given that they are almost identical to Lego blocks, both children with and without sight can play together. This would promote integration and inclusion, something that should be instilled early on in life.

We are often lead to believe that technology is the only solution to today’s problems, but these two examples show us that sometimes the simplest of things can create innovative and far-reaching solutions. Both the Braigo printer and Braille Bricks can potentially change how people learn and access Braille all over the world. The low Braille literacy rate among children is an issue that should be taken seriously and which can be addressed by these new inventions. By using both old and new technologies, future generations of blind children and adults will have more access to Braille and therefore be fully integrated into society.