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.

Commentary: Making Online Review Websites for People with Disabilities

Today, most of us turn to the internet to search for reviews of products we want to buy or restaurants we will be visiting for the first time. Sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor provide us with these reviews and information at our fingertips, literally! While these sites help us decide what products to buy and services to use, they don’t always include information or resources relevant to people with disabilities.

A group of social workers in Australia is trying to change that with the launch of Clickability, a website compiling different resources and reviews of programs and services for people with disabilities. Although still a pilot project, its developers want this webpage to provide Australians with disabilities and their loved ones with valuable information and resources. Better yet, they hope that having access to this information in one place will empower people to be more independent and make the best decisions regarding disability care and services.

Other individuals are expanding the concept of providing information relevant to disabilities to everyday places and experiences. Today, several websites and apps give information on a venue’s accessibility, the service and helpfulness of the staff, etc. Note that these websites and apps are relatively new, and only provide information about places in specific regions.

Although this is a relatively new concept, developing more websites and mobile apps with helpful information and reviews for people with disabilities can benefit everyone. As someone who is blind, I would like to see a website similar to Yelp that would provide accessibility reviews of restaurants, museums, shopping centers and the like. It would be helpful to know, for example, if a restaurant offers Braille or online menus, or if a movie theater offers audio description. Although some businesses already have this information on their websites, it sure would be nice to see it all in one place.

As someone who constantly looks at user reviews of businesses on the internet, I would be thrilled at having more webpages with information related to accessibility. Like anyone else, I want to visit places that are welcoming and offer the things and services I am looking for. I also have to consider other factors related to disability accessibility and accommodations, and having it compiled in one website would be of great help for myself and millions of individuals with disabilities and their loved ones. I hope that more people realize the importance of having websites similar to Yelp and Trip Advisor that cater to people with disabilities. This is something everyone – whether disabled or not – could benefit from.

Sandy’s View Turns Two Years Old!

Sandy’s View Turns Two Years Old!

It is hard to believe that our Sandy’s View blog turns two years old this month! This blog, which is written for the Chicago Lighthouse, was launched in March of 2015 in an effort to inform the general public about blindness and visual impairment. To date, we have written 186 posts covering a wide range of topics related to vision loss. In 2016 alone, the blog had 20,000 views from all over the world.

Initially, the main focus of Sandy’s View was to answer some of the common questions those of us with vision loss get. We have explained things like how people who are blind watch TV and tell time. We soon realized that Sandy’s View was also becoming popular among those who are blind or visually impaired, and began blogging about even more topics, including assistive technology, reviews of audio described movies and theatre productions, and commentaries on current events and news relevant to those with vision loss. In fact, famous jazz singer and pianist Henry Butler also made an appearance on the blog! Of course, we also inform our readers about what’s new at The Chicago Lighthouse.

Writing Sandy’s View for two years has been a great experience for myself and all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse. I enjoy blogging about different topics, but without a doubt the one that interests me the most is assistive technology. Writing about new technology developments gives me the unique opportunity to learn about revolutionary products that will help those of us who are blind or visually impaired become more independent. Thanks to working at The Chicago Lighthouse and writing Sandy’s View, I can test and learn about devices and products that are still under development.

Thanks so much to our readers across the globe for supporting Sandy’s View for the last two years. We have received wonderful feedback from people all over the world, and we could not be more grateful for your loyalty and readership! I also want to send a big thank you to The Chicago Lighthouse community for your continued support of this blog. Sandy’s View has grown tremendously over this period, and I sure am excited to see what the future has in store for us!

We always love hearing from our readers! If you have any feedback or would like to suggest other topics, please leave us a comment, or email us at sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Happy Second Anniversary, Sandy’s View!

 

Commentary: Helping Students with Disabilities Succeed

Like anyone else, college students with disabilities are concerned about getting good grades, making new friends, and fitting in with the rest of their classmates. Nevertheless, there are other aspects those of us who are blind or visually impaired have to consider, and even plan ahead for, in order to have a positive college experience. Thinking back to my years in college, I remember wondering not only if science and other courses with highly visual content would be too hard, but also if my professors would be understanding and accommodate my needs. More often than not, I was the first and only student with a visual impairment in my classes. It was also the first time my professors had ever had someone without sight in their class.

Although I was always assertive and advised my professors on how best to make their class accessible, I would still wonder if they would take my needs into consideration. Recently, I read an article that reminded me of just how some college professors go above and beyond to accommodate students with disabilities. Gladys Malave, a biology professor at Northwest Vista College strives to make sure Olivia and Katy Shaw have what they need to succeed in class. Both sisters are legally blind as a result of Retinopathy of Prematurity, and require certain classroom adaptations. To help them succeed in her course, Professor Malave designed tactile models and labeled microscopes in Braille. She even learned Braille in less than a month just to help her students!

I too remember having similar experiences throughout high school and college. While in high school, my Spanish teacher learned how to use a special Braille printer to print out worksheets and other class materials for me. A couple of my journalism professors in college made sure that at least one computer in the computer lab was accessible so I could complete all my assignments alongside my peers. My history, economics and meteorology professors would also spend countless hours after class with me describing the different pictures and concepts they showed my classmates earlier that day. Thanks to this, I was able to pass their courses with As and Bs.

I will always appreciate the extra time and effort my teachers put into helping me succeed in the classroom. I could immediately tell they had a genuine interest in helping me and the entire class learn. Without their accommodations, I simply would not have had a positive and successful college experience. Succeeding in college as a student with a disability is a team endeavor. As individuals with disabilities, college students know best how and what type of assistance they need to succeed in school. Professors, on the other hand, can go a long way in making their classes accessible by taking their students’ needs into consideration.

Kudos to all of the teachers who constantly go above and beyond to make their courses accessible to everyone. This is a commendable effort that benefits everyone, and deserves recognition.

Guest Commentary: On Why Requiring Licensing of Service Animals is Impractical

Guest Commentary: On Why Requiring Licensing of Service Animals is Impractical
Today’s guest post is from Wayne Scace, who comments on a proposed bill in Illinois that would require service dogs to be licensed by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR). Readers might remember Wayne’s previous commentary about fake service animals.

I am writing today, in response to the proposed bill HB3162 sponsored by Illinois Rep. Natalie A. Manley. This is representative Manley’s second attempt to pass a service animal licensing law in Illinois. HB3162 is identical to HB5807 from 2016. I am writing as a service dog owner, owner trainer, and a concerned Illinois citizen who would be negatively impacted should this bill become law.

The majority of the provisions of this bill run counter to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), by requiring licensure of Service dogs. Provisions within this bill propose a gross invasion of the right to privacy of Illinois citizens, and discriminate against a protected class. Last year after HB5807 did not make it out of the Rules Committee, Ms. Manley received input from myself, other service dog owners, and Heartland Service Dogs, Inc. one of the few service dog training organizations in Illinois. Yet, Ms. Manley has cavalierly chosen to ignore the preponderance of that input and inflicted HB3162 upon the state. The provisions in HB3162 that run counter to those of the ADA would be unenforceable for the following reasons.

The provision requiring that a service dog be licensed, in a vest, cape or wear a harness or that an Identification card be carried is directly against the ADA, as per the service animal FAQ issued in 2015 by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ):

“Q8: Do service animals have to wear a vest or patch or special harness identifying them as service animals?

A: No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or special harness.”

The provision requiring that a service dog behave in the home, is problematic as it is an invasion of privacy. Mandating proof that a service dog be trained to perform three tasks is also counter to the ADA, given that it only sets a minimum of one task. Besides, service animals, such as guide dogs, seizure response dogs, or diabetic alert dogs only perform one task. Again from the DOJ 2015 service animal FAQs:

“Q1: What is a service animal?

A: Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

Q2: What does “do work or perform tasks” mean? A: The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”….

This bill appears to be a clear attempt to legislate away the right of the disabled citizens of Illinois to choose to train their own service dog. Which is allowed under the ADA. From Question five from the service dog FAQs:

“Q5: Does the ADA require service animals to be professionally trained?

A: No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.”

Additionally, some states, including Illinois, permit service dogs in training into public places under the Illinois White Cane Law. (775 ILCS 30/3) (From Ch. 23, par. 3363):

“Every totally or partially blind or hearing impaired person, person who is subject to epilepsy or other seizure disorders, or person who has any other physical disability or a trainer of support dogs, guide dogs, seizure-alert dogs, seizure-response dogs, or hearing dogs shall have the right to be accompanied by a support dog or guide dog especially trained for the purpose, or a dog that is being trained to be a support dog, guide dog, seizure-alert dog, seizure-response dog, or hearing dog, in any of the places listed in this Section without being required to pay an extra charge for the guide, support, seizure-alert, seizure-response, or hearing dog; provided that he shall be liable for any damage done to the premises or facilities by such dog. (Source: P.A. 99-143, eff. 7-27-15.)”

In conclusion, this bill is unnecessary, as the ADA and Illinois laws are already adequate. Some folks may suggest that getting a license for a service dog is analogous to getting a driver’s license or a handicapped placard, but that is erroneous. Getting a driver’s license or handicapped parking placard are privileges. Being accompanied in public by our service dogs, which are legally classed as durable medical equipment, is a civil right.