2017 Holiday Gift Ideas

The holidays are upon us, and so is the time for gift giving! I am often asked by others for advice on what kinds of gifts to get their loved ones who are blind or visually impaired. I have always appreciated these kinds of questions, because they mean people really want to give us things we can appreciate and use! This week, Brett Shishkoff, my colleague at CRIS Radio who’s also totally blind, joins me in offering some suggestions.

Sandy’s Suggestions from the Tools for Living Store:

Photograph of two individuals looking at kitchen items at the Tools for Living Store.

The Lighthouse Tools for Living Store sells a wide variety of high-tech and low-tech products for individuals with varying degrees of vision loss. Independent living aids, like the Wilson Recorder, Bold Line Note Pad and the PenFriend 2 will help those with little or no vision stay organized and keep track of important things and events. The easy to see, giant 2018 wall calendar makes a perfect gift for the upcoming new year!

Cooking enthusiasts will enjoy products like large print and Braille measuring cups, contrast cutting boards, and talking timers and meat thermometers. Adapted games, including large print and Braille cards, dominos with raised dots, large print crossword puzzles and a tactile version of Connect 4 are sold. The store carries different tactile and auditory toys for children who are blind or visually impaired. In addition, other products, like Braille and talking watches, signature and check-writing guides, are very useful for those of us without sight.

Brett’s Suggestions:

There are also many mainstream products that are accessible and useful to people with vision loss. Popular video streaming services, like Netflix, Amazon and iTunes now offer hundreds of audio described movies and television programs. Best of all, set top boxes, like the Apple TV and Amazon TV are accessible to people with visual impairments, and can help them enjoy the videos they purchase through these services. Voice-controlled home assistance like Amazon ECHO and Google Home are also gaining popularity among people with vision loss or other disabilities. Users can begin listening to their favorite music, news updates, sports scores, and audio books in a matter of seconds. They can even search for recipes and find out the weather forecast by simply asking the device!

Technologically inclined individuals might also benefit tremendously from a smartphone or tablet. Devices like Apple’s iPhone or iPad and Android phones and tablets have many built-in accessibility features for people with vision loss. In addition, users can install various apps that will help with things like traveling, identifying money, and even reading print documents. Finally, if your friend or family member enjoys audio books or music, consider giving them a gift card for services like Audible or iTunes. This will be sure to provide hours of endless entertainment!

These are only a few of the many gift possibilities that people who are blind or visually impaired are sure to enjoy this holiday season. For more gift ideas, visit this page from the American Foundation for the Blind, which shares great suggestions for people of all ages. If you have other ideas you would like us to mention, you can email me at sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Thanks for reading, and happy holidays from all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse!

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Help Support a Job and Share The Vision This #GivingTuesday!

Giving Tuesday HOMEPAGE #1

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and so are Black Friday and Cyber Monday! All of this is followed by #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving observed by nonprofits all over the world. This year, #GivingTuesday will be on Tuesday, November 28, the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the United States.

For the third consecutive year, The Chicago Lighthouse is holding its #GivingTuesday campaign. Our theme this year is Support a Job, Share the Vision and our goal is to raise critical funds for The Lighthouse’s Endowment Campaign. Your support will ensure that future generations of people with disabilities and Veterans can continue receiving services from The Chicago Lighthouse for many years to come. Since its founding in 1906, the mission of The Chicago Lighthouse is to create jobs for people who are blind or visually impaired. We work tirelessly to provide individuals who have experienced vision loss with the tools and opportunities to become independent and productive members of society.

Now in its 40th year of operation, Chicago Lighthouse Industries  (which is a sister agency of The Chicago Lighthouse) has manufactured 6 million clocks! These clocks are sold to the federal government, as well as to state and municipal agencies. Recently, clocks also became available for purchase through Amazon and in select Target stores throughout the Chicago area. In addition to clocks, Chicago Lighthouse Industries also manufactures ergonomic products like footrests and monitor stands, as well as calendars, planners and thermometers. Approximately 85% of Chicago Lighthouse Industries employees are blind or visually impaired.

For years, people who are blind or visually impaired have experienced an extremely high unemployment rate of over 70 percent. Many companies are hesitant to hire workers with vision loss due to a lack of understanding and unfounded misconceptions.

“This number is not because people who are blind or visually impaired do not want to work or are lacking skills, but a lot of companies believe that if someone is blind or visually impaired, they are for some reason incapable of doing jobs other people can,” says Heidi Ashwell, director of operations at Chicago Lighthouse Industries.

For someone who is blind or visually impaired, having a job not only provides them with a sense of fulfillment, but it also gives them independence and confidence. This is something that everyone – whether blind or sighted – wants and deserves. Heidi also says that for Chicago Lighthouse Industries employees who are blind or visually impaired, working alongside others with vision loss provides them with a sense of camaraderie. Working at The Chicago Lighthouse has truly changed the lives of these individuals!

“Our workers really appreciate what they have, being able to have a job and being able to support their families,” Heidi says.

With your support this #GivingTuesday, The Chicago Lighthouse will be able to provide people who are blind or visually impaired with the necessary tools and skills that will allow them to become independent and self-sufficient. Our talented employees like Mike and Nick can continue to find, obtain and keep meaningful employment now and in the future. Please click under their names to access their #GivingTuesday testimonials.

Best of all, your generous gift will have double the impact this year thanks to a generous challenge from Chicago Lighthouse Board Member Larry and Susanne Broutman and long-time donors Fred and Sarah. They will match every donated dollar up to $75,000.

Please help us change lives by supporting The Chicago Lighthouse this #GivingTuesday! There are three ways to donate:

  • Donate online at www.chicagolighthouse.org/giving-tuesday
  • By mail: send donations payable to The Chicago Lighthouse at 1850 W. Roosevelt Rd. Chicago, IL 60608. Mark to the attention of #GivingTuesday.
  • Call 312-997-3668.

You can also find out more about The Chicago Lighthouse and our #GivingTuesday campaign by following and liking us on FacebookTwitterInstagram and LinkedIn. On behalf of the Sandy’s View team and everyone at The Chicago Lighthouse, thank you so much for your generosity!

We also wish you all a very happy holiday season!

Commentary: Preparing College Students with Disabilities for Success

Going to college is by far one of the fondest time periods in my life. Meeting new friends, having fun on weekends after particularly busy weekdays and even the countless sleepless nights I spent preparing for final exams are some of the memories I will always cherish from my time at the University of Illinois. Looking back to these years, I also realize that attending college and obtaining my degree in journalism was one of my greatest challenges. College is difficult for anyone, and people like myself with disabilities have additional barriers to overcome.

recent report highlights some of the difficulties perspective and current college students with disabilities face while pursuing higher education. Some of the challenges for these students include not having adequate time management, organization and advocacy skills. The statistics are especially alarming. Only about a third of students with disabilities obtain a college degree. It’s not that students with disabilities cannot handle rigorous college schedules or the academic assignments, but rather they are ill-equipped to take on these challenges. Often, students do not receive sufficient training or information about available resources while in high school.

As someone who is blind, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. During high school, my teacher of the visually impaired made sure I learned to advocate for my needs. By my junior and senior years, it was up to me to inform my mainstream teachers about how they could best help me. I would obtain the class handouts or other materials from them, and my vision teacher would then transcribe them into Braille. During this time period, I also began learning about resources that would assist me once I started college. These included the state’s department of rehabilitation services, as well as the office of disability services at the University of Illinois. This was in addition to learning about assistive technology, scholarships and transportation resources that could make my life easier in college.

Regardless of the disability, it is critical for all students who are about to graduate from high school to learn the important skills they will need to succeed in college. They should be taught – both in high school and at home – how to manage their time, advocate for their particular needs, and about other organizations or resources that will help them throughout college. In the case of students with vision loss, learning about such things as assistive technology and orientation and mobility is also vital. Services like the Youth Transition and College Scholarship programs at The Chicago Lighthouse are a wonderful resource for high school students with vision loss, their teachers and families. These programs help students learn important independent living skills and obtain other resources that will help them better prepare and succeed in college. Best of all, they allow them to network and get advice from fellow students with visual impairments.

College students with disabilities have the same dreams and aspirations as their non-disabled peers. Unfortunately, many of these students are ill-prepared to undertake higher education, and may even struggle to obtain a degree. It is extremely important for high schools and other individuals working with students with disabilities to teach them college readiness skills prior to them entering higher education. In the end, this will allow students to be better prepared for college and ultimately for their future careers. This will also ensure that their college experience will be something they cherish for the rest of their lives!

Why Teachers for Students with Visual Impairments Are So Important

Throughout my childhood, I attended mainstream classes in the public school system. This meant I could learn math, science and social studies alongside my peers who could see. At the same time, I received services from teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialists. They taught me how to read and write Braille, use special technology for my classes and travel with a white cane. These teachers would also order my textbooks and transcribe class handouts into Braille, so I could participate in my mainstream classes.

During my years in elementary and junior high, I received this specialized instruction in a vision resource room with other blind and visually impaired children. Without a doubt, this allowed me to receive the individualized, one-on-one assistance I needed from my teachers to learn these critical skills. Learning alongside other students with visual impairments also gave me a sense of camaraderie because our vision loss meant we could all relate to each other’s challenges and successes. By the time I entered high school, I received these services from an itinerant teacher, who would go to my school several times a week to work with me and other visually impaired students.

Recently, I read this article about the ongoing shortage of teachers for the visually impaired in Illinois. Over the years, the number of these professionals has significantly decreased, thereby causing this shortage. If this trend continues, current and future generations of students who are blind or visually impaired will no doubt be negatively impacted. Many argue that students with disabilities should be fully mainstreamed and included in their home districts. As someone who benefited from mainstream education, I think this is a valid point. Going to classes with sighted peers provided me with invaluable social skills and the incredible opportunity to educate others about disabilities (I was the only blind student in my classes, so naturally my peers were curious to learn about Braille and the special technology I use.) However, I believe that having the support of a teacher of the visually impaired is imperative for students with vision loss.

Michael Hansen, who is blind and now works as a call center agent at The Chicago Lighthouse, agrees. He attended his local elementary school for several years, but says he found it very difficult being the only blind student in the entire school. This all changed when he began attending a program which offered a resource classroom and services for students who are blind or visually impaired. Although his bus ride to and from the school was about an hour each way, he says he “wouldn’t have done it any other way.” Being in this program provided Michael with both a mainstream education, while receiving the supports and services he needed due to his visual impairment.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have received both the opportunity to attend classes with my sighted peers, while at the same time learning the skills necessary for me to become an independent and successful blind person. This was thanks to my teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility instructors. The assistance these professionals provide is invaluable to students with vision loss. I sincerely hope more educators will consider the field of blindness and visual impairment for their future careers. This is an extremely rewarding career that will enable blind and visually impaired individuals to live successful and independent lives.

What’s New with CRIS Radio?

CRIS logo_sandys view

For nearly 40 years, Chicagoland Reading and Information Service (CRIS) Radio has provided individuals who are blind, visually impaired or have other reading disabilities with important information and entertainment broadcasts. CRIS Radio is the largest and oldest radio reading service in Illinois, and has been housed at The Chicago Lighthouse since 2003. The station covers a variety of topics, including daily readings of newspapers and other entertainment broadcasts. Some of the newspapers include The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times, among others. Programming includes The Beacon, FAACT, On the Air, The No Look Pass and various audio described movies. CRIS broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Recently, many readers have asked how they can access CRIS Radio. Long-time listeners are familiar with the special receivers through which CRIS can be heard. While we are no longer distributing the receivers, listeners can still tune in to CRIS with this equipment. These are the other (and newer) ways individuals can listen to CRIS:

  • On your computer or mobile device: CRIS Radio is available on our website. There you can either listen to the livestream, or to podcasts of previous shows. CRIS can also be heard on the TuneIn app, available for both iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. While in the app, simply search for CRIS Chicago and start listening. Make sure to add us to your favorites! Users of the Victor Reader Stream device can also find CRIS on ooTunes. This app is also available for iOS devices.
  • By telephone: listeners who may not have access to the Internet can dial 712-832-2724 from anywhere in the United States. Please note that calls use mobile minutes, and long-distance rates may apply.
  • Listen to The Beacon on radio: recorded at CRIS, The Beacon is the nation’s only show for individuals with disabilities, senior citizens and Veterans. The weekly broadcast covers various topics of interest to these communities, including health and entertainment. Those of you in the Chicagoland area can catch The Beacon on WCPT 820-AM Sunday mornings at 7 am. You can also listen to the show’s podcasts on our website.

We would also love to get your feedback! In order to better serve our audience, CRIS is currently working on developing new programming. We invite you to please take this survey and tell us more about what you’d like to hear on CRIS Radio. You can also visit our Facebook page and stay connected and updated on the latest developments at CRIS Radio. Thank you for listening, and stay tuned!

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!

Guest Post: 2017 Summer in the City

Last month, The Lighthouse held its second annual Summer in the City program for teenagers who are blind or visually impaired. Our very own Tyler Bachelder, who is currently an intern in the public relations department, caught up with the participants. Tyler shares his reflections about this week-long program in today’s guest post. Now, let’s hear from Tyler!

On June 25, 10 teenagers from Chicago’s suburbs came to The Lighthouse to spend a week laughing, learning, and laying a foundation for future success. The Summer in the City program guides teens who are blind or visually impaired through a range of activities that will prepare them for a transition to independent adulthood. From a guided tour of Wrigley Field to lessons in self-defense, cooking classes to rock climbing, Summer in the City is a holistic crash course that helps develop confidence and breaks barriers. I spent some time with the kids, interns, instructors, and Shelle Hamer, the director of the program to get a sense of its impact.

Shelle has been in the disability field for the last 35 years, and has done everything from educating to administrating, all related to the needs of people who are blind or deaf blind. As the Manager of Children and Youth Enrichment Programs at The Lighthouse, she oversees Summer in the City. Her goals for the program are straightforward. She wants to establish confidence and independence in teens. The participants stay in dorms provided by the University of Illinois at Chicago, so they are residentially located for the duration. Mornings are spent in classes that teach concrete skills, like orientation and mobility, cooking, self-defense and technology. Afternoons are for adventure! A broad scope of activities take the kids out into Chicago to explore, play, and learn.

Shelle told me that the variety of activities is just as important as their content, because it allows the kids to be gently tested in as many situations as possible.

“If you don’t experience something, you don’t really understand it,” she says.

And this is true. Many of the participants have limited travel skills. In some cases, they may not have even traveled out of their home or neighborhood independently before. They toured Wrigley Field and Shedd Aquarium, climbed a 43-foot climbing wall, ate at restaurants, and more. The whole time, they traveled independently and used Chicago’s world-class public transit.

You might assume that these experiences intimidated the kids. Perhaps they did, initially. But in my time with them, I saw a bunch of enthusiastic, excited, exuberant teenagers thrilled to be somewhere new. They quibbled back and forth over lunch about Wifi problems, teased each other, talked about what they’d been learning, and laughed, a lot. In short, they acted like normal kids in the process of growing up.

I’ve been a self-sufficient blind person for a long time. In fact, sometimes I think it’s been long enough that I’ve lost touch with what it must be like to be wide-eyed and curious. What I saw with the kids over the course of the program was that wide-eyed curiosity, writ large.

This is exactly what Shelle desires for the program! She says that transitional programs for blind and visually impaired teenagers are vital. The skills they need to be successful adults don’t change from blind teenager to sighted, but the methods do. Summer in the City provides a structured and safe environment with just enough flexibility to let the kids explore and test those methods. It’s cane, not car, if you will. But it’s meant to demonstrate that independence is not only possible, but desirable.

One participant, Lucio Delgado, embodies this ideal in his personal story. He immigrated to the United States from Mexico four years ago. When he lived back home, he didn’t have or use a cane. He told me, grinning and laughing as he spoke, that he used to wait at street corners for the sounds of traffic to die down, whereupon he would sprint across the street in the intervening silence. To some this may seem harrowing, but to me it’s a person determined to find solutions rather than problems. With the help of The Lighthouse, his solutions will be much less dangerous.

Beyond confidence from within, the program also offers opportunities for the kids to witness it from without.

“I like having the kids interact with successful visually impaired people,” Shelle says. She refers to the opportunities the program offers for interacting with blind adults that have already achieved self-sufficiency. Seeing is believing, after all. Several of the instructors are blind or visually impaired themselves, and The Lighthouse is full of blind people working alongside sighted ones.

We’re grateful to have hosted these bright, inquisitive young students! The Lighthouse strives to promote independence, and by seeking us out, they’ve taken an important first step in that regard. Here’s to Summer in the City, and many more summers to come! If you or someone you know is interested in the program, you can find out more here.