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!


Online vs. Traditional Higher Education: Which Is Better for Those With Disabilities?

Pursuing a college education has become much easier for everyone thanks to online courses. A study done by Walden University and the University of Phoenix suggests that many college students with disabilities prefer online courses over traditional classroom education to avoid stigmatization and because of several other positive aspects. Over half of the 35 study participants said their experiences with online courses far outweighed the isolation and stress they often experienced in classrooms.

There are many conveniences to taking online courses, regardless of whether or not a student is disabled. For one, they can complete these courses at their own time and pace – there’s no need to worry about whether or not they’ll make it to class on time! Students who live in rural areas or are not close to colleges have an even greater advantage because they can still obtain a higher education thanks to online classes. The Internet now makes it possible for them to go to college even if they are not near one.

These and other conveniences can be of even greater importance for students with disabilities. One of the biggest challenges I and others with disabilities encounter is finding adequate transportation. As a college student at Urbana-Champaign, I was extremely fortunate to live near a fairly accessible bus system, but many college towns aren’t as accommodating. By enrolling in online classes, students with disabilities don’t have to worry about this. Flexibility is probably the next most important consideration. In some cases, disabled students have to deal with situations that might be unpredictable or that might conflict with their schedules. If students have health or other concerns, then online courses give them the flexibility and opportunity to recover without having to worry about missing class.

I never considered enrolling in online courses as a college student. In fact, I was somewhat hesitant to give it a try for fear that they wouldn’t be accessible even with my assistive technology. Besides, I had always wanted to go to a four-year university to meet and socialize with other people. To me, a well rounded college experience should consist of both an academic and social life. I also knew that as a journalist I would do a great deal of interacting with others, so the social aspect of higher education was also important for that reason. Socializing can be as simple as exchanging thoughts and experiences with classmates, and this can eventually lead to networking and other opportunities. As those of us in the workforce now know, this is very important if we want to find and keep a job!

The feedback from my professors was equally important. I have always been a hands-on learner, so of course getting face to face feedback and instruction was critical to my success. While we can easily get feedback from professors and classmates through email, there are times when that simply isn’t enough. Meeting face to face with professors gives students the opportunity to exchange ideas and comments right then and there. In the professional world, we all have to be able to give and accept feedback and even constructive criticism from our co-workers and supervisors, and the college environment gives us the right opportunity to practice this very important skill.

Although my experience attending a four-year university was not perfect, it was very positive and worked out well. I would strongly recommend anyone who has the opportunity to pursue a traditional college education in the classroom setting to take advantage of it. Part of the beauty of attending college is the chance you get to socialize with others, and I think this is not always possible with online courses. That’s not to say that online education is isolating, however. Students and professors can interact easily thanks to instant video and messaging tools. I think that if colleges and universities find a good balance between the traditional and virtual classroom, everyone can benefit from both methods.

I also understand that not all situations are the same, particularly when disabilities come into play. Online courses can provide more convenience and flexibility to students with disabilities who would otherwise might not be able to pursue a higher education. I encourage current and future students to choose whatever method they are more comfortable with. After all, the ultimate goal for most of us is to learn and succeed in our chosen fields, and this means different things to different people.


Commentary: Accessible Air Travel for People with Disabilities

Navigating airports and flights can be daunting and hectic for everyone. Now imagine doing this as a blind or disabled passenger. The reality is that as people with disabilities, we often have to take additional factors into consideration. Service dog users will need to find out if and where the animal relief areas are located, while people with mobility impairments might need to request a wheelchair to get on and off the plane. The busy holiday season is just around the corner, and this is an especially good time to consider and respect the rights of travelers with disabilities.

When it comes to boarding or flying in a plane, blind and visually impaired passengers might have additional questions or concerns. Most sighted people can immediately point out the important locations such as bathrooms, emergency exits and so on. Not being able to see means that blind or visually impaired passengers won’t always be able to appreciate these details, unless we ask or someone points them out to us.

For three years, Alaska Airlines has held “mock” flights to help orient blind and visually impaired passengers to the different locations and features commonly found in airplanes. Staff and volunteers verbally describe and guide passengers through the cabin and cockpit. They also walk individuals through the different knobs and buttons above airplane seats.

I have certainly had my share of experiences as a blind traveler. For a reason still mysterious to me, flight attendants often assume my blindness affects my legs. They sometimes ask if I need a wheelchair, and I’m not the only one who gets this question according to fellow blind travelers. When I’m flying with someone else, they will direct the question to them. We’ve learned to simply smile and thank them politely. If I’m by myself, the staff sometimes immediately assumes I need a wheelchair. One time, the person who was going to escort me actually had a wheelchair when he met me at the TSA area and told me to sit down in it. I politely but assertively told him I could walk perfectly fine. After that he got the message, although I imagine he wasn’t too happy about rolling along an empty wheelchair while guiding me!

The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination from U.S. and foreign airlines traveling to, from or within the United States on the basis of physical or mental disability. To help enforce this policy, flight attendants and other personnel are trained on the rights of disabled passengers and how to provide assistance to this population. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that each year around 21 million travelers have a disability. In 2014, there were 27,556 discrimination complaints against domestic and foreign airlines. Of course, this is without taking into account any minor incidents, like the all too common wheelchair scenario I and countless other blind travelers have experienced!

Training like that held by Alaska Airlines should be done more frequently and by other air carriers. Not only does it benefit blind and visually impaired passengers, but it also helps airport and airline personnel become more aware about our specific needs. The training should also be tailored to those with physical, emotional or intellectual disabilities. After all, the assistance I might request is not necessarily the same as that of a wheelchair user.

Disability awareness orientation and training will become more important in the near future. Each day more and more baby boomers are becoming senior citizens, and the reality is that they might eventually acquire a disability. Naturally, this will lead to an increase of disabled air travelers, and it will become crucial for airlines to accommodate their needs. By providing this training, passengers will be more at ease and satisfied with the travel experience, and staff will comply with the law.

I have never met flight personnel that intentionally discriminate, and I strongly believe that education can go a long way in making them more aware about our desires and needs. In the end, we all want and expect the same thing: to be treated like everyone else. The busy holiday season is just around the corner, and this is an especially good time to consider and respect the rights of travelers with disabilities.

Call Centers Aim To Decrease Unemployment Rate Among Those with Disabilities

call centerSeveral organizations and companies throughout the United States are working to decrease the unemployment rate among people with disabilities by providing jobs. In an effort to meet this goal, the Chicago Lighthouse has contracts with several call centers, including the Illinois Tollway, Advocate Health, the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulations (IDFPR) and UI Health. All four call centers combined employ over 500 individuals.

The call centers employ people who are blind, visually impaired, multi disabled or veterans. Thanks to assistive technology such as screen reading or magnifying software and simple adaptations like adjustable desks and chairs, employees can carry out all of the job tasks. These include answering callers’ questions, updating electronic information and scheduling appointments.

Kimberly Duhart has been a call center agent since 2013. She was one of the first employees at the Illinois Tollway call center, which is housed at the University of Illinois Chicago campus. Thanks to her Department of Rehabilitation (DRS) Councilor, she found out about the Jobs Galore Fair, held by the Chicago Lighthouse in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities.

Although she had previously been employed, personal factors had kept Duhart out of the workforce for some time. After going to the job fair, Duhart applied online and was hired. She currently works for the UI Health call center, located at the Chicago Lighthouse’s main facility on 1850 West Roosevelt Road.

While her previous employers were very understanding and accommodating, Duhart often encountered skepticism from others. She felt rushed during interviews by prospective employers as soon as they realized she had a physical disability. Duhart believes that this skepticism may be because employers might be afraid of having to adjust to working with people with disabilities.

Kathy Stoeberl, Vice President of Call Center Enterprises at the Chicago Lighthouse believes that rather than being skeptical about job applicants with disabilities, employers should have an open mind and be willing to find ways to best accommodate them. While she had heard about the Lighthouse, Kathy was unfamiliar with the scope of programs and services offered by the organization. Working with visually impaired and disabled employees has allowed her to learn more about assistive technology and how this can help them be as productive and efficient as everyone else.

Stoeberl says that the aspect that strikes her the most is the effort and loyalty of her staff. One example that stands out is the time when there was a particularly bad snowstorm, and many of her sighted employees couldn’t make it to work. Fearing that there would not be enough employees, Kathy considered closing some of the centers that day. When she arrived, however, she realized that most of the employees who were there were those with disabilities.

“Because they’re used to taking a bus or a train and figuring out how to get here when the weather’s bad… we were able to then keep the call centers open, which obviously made the clients happy,” she says.

Another aspect that amazes Stoeberl is the intelligence and memory of her visually impaired and disabled employees. She is constantly amazed by how well these individuals learn and memorize the various rules and procedures involved in the call centers.

“We’re very proud of them,” she says.

Both Duhart and Stoeberl think that prospective employers should be more willing to learn from and accommodate disabled employees.

“Give that person a chance to prove that they qualify for the position, and don’t judge them based on their appearance,” Duhart says.

Stoeberl hopes that one day more employers will believe in the potential of visually impaired and disabled employees.

“I hope that we can reach as many people as we can to help them understand that [visually impaired and disabled individuals] are the most loyal employees we have.”

Commentary: Braille Transcription by Prisoners

For many years, prisons and correctional facilities have given inmates a job these individuals probably never considered doing when they were free. After all, not many people know what Braille is, let alone how to read or write this alphabet. Several inmates at Oshkosh Correctional Institution in Wisconsin spend many hours a day transcribing textbooks into Braille for blind students, and they evidently take pride on helping others.

Technology has made it easier to transcribe print materials into Braille. One can easily type or scan printed textbooks, and special software translates it into Braille. The problem comes when transcribing materials like music, math or foreign languages. This is the part where humans come into play. While computers might do most of the job, it is up to the transcriber – who will hopefully have good knowledge about Braille – to catch and correct any translation errors.

Ironically, very few people and organizations have the skills and resources to perform this painstakingly slow task. After all, they must be willing to proofread every single Braille dot found in, for example, a 400 page geometry textbook. A lot of the inmates involved in this project take great pride in the work they do. By learning to transcribe Braille, these inmates will be productive while serving their sentence and learn a skill that might lead to employment when they are released.

But will someone actually read the books they spend so much time and effort transcribing? According to the National Federation of the Blind, only about 10 percent of blind children in the United States read and write Braille. Numerous budget cuts have caused a shortage of Braille teachers, and it is often easier to give a blind child an iPad or audio textbook than to spend the time and resources teaching them Braille. However, I strongly believe that blind children will have poor grammar and punctuation skills as adults if they learn to “read” by simply listening to their textbooks and homework assignments. I hope that more prisons will incorporate Braille transcription programs in their institutions. Better yet, I hope that when school districts see that there are resources to produce and obtain Braille textbooks, Braille instruction for children will be encouraged and provided.

The Braille transcription program at Oshkosh Correctional Institution should be an example for other prisons that want to help their inmates succeed. This is a perfect scenario of a win-win situation for all. It helps two groups to become productive members of society. We need to create more programs that have this type of societal impact.

Free Event: NAPVI Conference 2015!!

In today’s day and age there are many resources for children with visual impairments, but where do parents and teachers lighthouse pic sandystart? Every two years, the National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI) hosts a conference to gather all these resources into one place. This event is geared toward parents, family members, friends and professionals working with children who are blind, visually impaired or who may have additional disabilities.

As we’ve mentioned before, the NAPVI family conference will be hosted at the Chicago Lighthouse’s main location at 1850 West Roosevelt Road from Friday, July 10 – Sunday, July 12. This conference promises to be an event full of information, entertainment and fun for the entire family! Although the conference will start in less than a day, it is not too late for interested individuals to register!! Oh, and did I mention that it will be completely free of charge to all friends of the Lighthouse?

The event will kick off this Friday evening at 7 p.m. with a reception at the Chicago Medical District Marriott hotel located between Ashland and Harrison. Several speakers will share their experiences growing up visually impaired. The reception will conclude with a panel of young Lighthouse employees, who will also share their experiences. Thanks go out to NAPVI and the Chicago Lighthouse for extending their invitation and choosing me as one of the panelists!

Various sport activities for children and information sessions will begin the morning of Saturday July 11 and last throughout the day. Here’s a handful of the information sessions taking place on Saturday:

  • Various eye condition sessions
  • Unified English Braille: What Is It and Why Is It Important?
  • An Occupational Therapist’s Perspective on Early Literacy for Students with Visual Impairment and Multiple Disabilities
  • Dealing with Negative Comments Inside-Out

While adults are absorbing all of this information, kids will enjoy several adaptive sport activities. These include goalball, beep baseball, beep kickball and paralympic judo. We will end the day with an ice-cream social and a performance from VisionQuest, the Chicago Lighthouse’s very own rhythm and blues band.

Sunday will be filled with even more information sessions and activities for children! The little ones will enjoy adaptive yoga and track and field. Meanwhile, adults can take part in information sessions including the following:

  • After School Sports and Recreation for Everyone
  • Psychological Aspects for Adapting to Being Blind
  • Fun in the Kitchen, Skills for a Lifetime: How to Teach Children Who Are Blind to Safely Help Out!
  • Ending keynote session featuring Kevin O’Connor and Matt Simpson – parent of a blind child and paralympic athlete, respectively.

This is just a small “preview” of the NAPVI National Family Conference. To see more information about the various events and sessions go to http://www.lighthouseguild.org/programs-services/education/napvi/workshops-conferences/program. We understand that some readers cannot come because of distance or other circumstances. For this reason several of the sessions will be recorded and posted online. Additionally people can follow the event on Twitter. Those of you in or near Chicago who would like to come or find out more information can call Rana Marks at 312-997-3651 or email her at rana.marks@chicagolighthouse.org. Just tell her you’re my guest!

Thanks for reading, and as always feel free to comment on the blog or email your questions to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Have a great weekend!