Commentary: Spreading Awareness through the Real Talk Campaign

Without a doubt, many misconceptions about people with disabilities or other health conditions still exist. Some think, for example, that individuals with vision loss cannot live independent lives. It’s not that people intentionally have these beliefs, but rather they simply have never learned about these subjects. For this reason, Vineet Aggarwal, a second year student at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine recently launched the Real Talk Campaign. The ultimate goal of this project is to shed light on topics affecting people from all walks of life who are facing different challenges.

The Real Talk Campaign is a series of videos about people living with various illnesses and experiences. Some of the topics covered thus far include the Syrian refugee crisis, and interviews with people living with AIDS, depression and vision loss. I was interviewed for the video about life as someone who is blind, and you can watch it here. Currently, this video series has approximately 3,500 viewers.

Vineet tells me that part of the reason he decided to launch this campaign is to create more awareness about those experiencing different situations and challenges. He discovered that although factual information – such as that seen in the news – is important, it is also vital for society to get a firsthand account of individuals who are currently facing different challenges and obstacles. He says that although this project is only a few months old, it has taught him and given him a great deal of personal growth.

As someone who is blind, I am particularly interested in debunking the myths and misconceptions about people with vision loss. For that reason, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be interviewed for this series. The internet and social media have revolutionized the way we obtain information, and they are without a doubt a great tool for enlightening others about disabilities. The Real Talk Campaign covers thought provoking topics many people might have never considered, and it provides us with a great opportunity to learn and gain greater understanding.

I invite everyone to take a look at the Real Talk Campaign stories. You can find the videos on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Vineet hopes to expand his project and cover even more topics in the near future, and he is open to suggestions! You can reach him by sending an email to realtalkcampaign@gmail.com, or commenting on any of the links mentioned above. Special thanks to Vineet for reaching out to The Lighthouse, we all wish you the best of luck with this exciting project!

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Happy Mother’s Day: My Top Three Tips for Parents of Children with Disabilities

With Mother’s Day just around the corner and Father’s Day soon to follow, many of us are thinking about or already know how we will be celebrating those very special holidays. This is also a great opportunity to remind parents of children who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise disabled about the important role they have in their sons’ and daughters’ lives.

Growing up as someone who is blind, I understand firsthand how important it is for parents to support and give their children with vision loss or other disabilities the opportunity to explore and learn to be independent. These are my top three tips for parents of children with vision loss or other disabilities:

  • There are numerous resources for you and your child. These include support groups for families of children with disabilities. There are also websites offering message boards, links to other resources, blogs and groups on social media covering different disability topics. The FamilyConnect website from the American Foundation for the blind offers resources and information for parents of children who are blind, visually impaired or multi-disabled.
  • A good education program is critical for a child with a disability. For some, this might be a mainstream classroom in their home district, while other children might benefit more from a school or classroom specialized in students with disabilities. It might also be appropriate for a child to be in both types of settings. You can read more about the different school options for children who are blind, visually impaired or multi-disabled in my previous post. You can also read more about The Chicago Lighthouse’s Education Services for children of all ages with vision loss or additional disabilities.
  • Allow your children to be independent, and always find new learning opportunities. Independence means different things for each child. A child who is blind or visually impaired can learn how to travel and live independently, for example. No matter your child’s disability, always teach and encourage them to do as much as possible on their own. It is also important for children to learn to ask for assistance when needed. Teach your child that this is perfectly ok, and how to ask for help.

Providing the right support to a child with a disability is critical for their development and later success in life. Thanks to all the mothers, including mine, for your unwavering love and support! You can read this post from last year about my mom’s experience raising a child who is blind. If you want to see things from the perspective of a parent with vision loss, you can read Dawn Hale’s story. Happy Mother’s Day from all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse!

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.