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 President Obama’s Commitment to People with Disabilities

Since his inauguration as the 44th president of the United States in 2009, President Obama showed a strong commitment to Americans with Disabilities. He was the first president to appoint a disability advisor, Kareem Dale, who incidentally is a former Chicago Lighthouse program participant. Speaking of the Lighthouse, then Senator Obama toured the facility in 2005, and urged Congress and everyone in the federal government to continue purchasing clocks from The Lighthouse and similar organizations. In 2010, President Obama elected former Chicago Lighthouse President and CEO Jim Kesteloot to serve on the Ability One Commission, whose mission is to provide employment opportunities to people who are blind or have other severe disabilities in the manufacturing and delivery of products to the federal government.

President Obama’s efforts to work for and with Americans with disabilities went beyond Illinois and The Chicago Lighthouse. By signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010, people with disabilities gained access to healthcare, either through Medicaid, Medicare or other insurance. Also in 2010, President Obama marked the 20th anniversary of the ADA by signing Executive Order 13548, which calls for the recruiting, retention and hiring of more people with disabilities in the federal government. By October of last year, over 100,000 people with disabilities were working for the federal government.

In 2014, President Obama signed the Achieving a Better Life Experience, or ABLE Act, which will benefit millions of Americans with disabilities in the near future. Under this law, people with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can open special savings accounts where they can save up to $100,000 without risking their eligibility to Social Security and other benefits. Previously, those receiving these benefits could only have $2,000 or less in savings or other assets. During his administration, President Obama also signed into law the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which among other things will give greater access to media content with audio description and closed captions.

Throughout his eight years as president of the United States, President Obama demonstrated a strong commitment to Americans with disabilities. Social Security, better access to healthcare and more employment opportunities have always been pressing issues for those with disabilities, and President Obama’s administration worked hard to address these concerns. Still, a lot more needs to be done so that people with disabilities have more opportunities and equal access, and we hope that the new administration and members of Congress will work with us to make them a reality.

What Kinds of Jobs do People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Do?

What Kinds of Jobs do People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Do?

A common question the Lighthouse’s Employment Services Department gets is what types of jobs can people who are blind or visually impaired do? I too get this question from curious individuals, who are in awe when I tell them about my work at The Chicago Lighthouse as a radio producer and development assistant. Today’s technology, as well as using different adaptations, allows people with vision loss to do just about any job you can think of. The following list, although not exhaustive, is meant to give a general idea of the different careers and jobs done by people who are blind or visually impaired

  • Teachers, college professors and guidance counselors
  • Social workers and psychologists
  • Doctors, nurses and occupational and physical therapists
  • Masseuses and chiropractors
  • Rehabilitation teachers and counselors
  • Customer service representatives
  • Restaurant and store workers
  • Factory workers
  • Freelance writers, journalists and TV and radio broadcasters
  • DJs and musicians
  • Attorneys, judges and politicians
  • Executive directors and managers
  • Coaches and athletes
  • Authors and motivational speakers
  • Chefs
  • Architects
  • Researchers, engineers and scientists
  • Artists and photographers

Just like people with sight, individuals who are blind or visually impaired have different interests and skillsets. For a long time, the unemployment rate among people with vision loss has been over 70 percent, and it is due in large part to the numerous misconceptions that still exist. Thanks to equipment like screen-reading and magnifying software, Braille displays and various other tools, people with vision loss can hold different jobs. When employers have doubts about how we will accomplish a certain aspect of the job, chances are we have already given careful thought to it and come up with solutions.

If you would like to learn more about the different jobs done by people who are blind or visually impaired, visit the American Foundation for the Blind’s CareerConnect website. The site provides different resources and other information for job seekers with vision loss. It also includes blog posts from successful professionals who are blind or visually impaired. You can also read our popular post about the top 5 benefits of hiring employees who are blind or visually impaired.

Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

On January 9, 2007, the Apple iPhone was unveiled by the late Steve Jobs in front of thousands of curious spectators. The launch of this new and entirely touch-screen operated cell phone changed the way in which people across the globe interact with technology. For me and countless other individuals with vision loss or other disabilities, the iPhone and similar mobile devices not only gave us greater access to technology, but they also afforded us more independence that previously seemed impossible.

My brother and several friends were among the lucky ones to own that first iPhone from 2007. I always heard excited chatter from them about the cool features it had. “I can even check the weather,” my brother told my relatives in Mexico. At the time touch-screen devices like the iPhone were completely inaccessible to those of us with vision loss, so I could only dream of enjoying that technology. That all changed in 2009 with the launch of the iPhone 3GS, when Apple incorporated Voiceover, its screen-reading software into this and future versions of the iPhone.

Like most of my friends who were blind, I was skeptical and didn’t know if the iPhone would work for me. The thought of being able to use a touch-screen without sight seemed daunting and impossible. It was not until 2012 that I decided to switch to an iPhone after constantly hearing rave reviews from my friends, who were extremely pleased with the accessibility. Their feedback did not disappoint. For the first time in my life, I was able to send and receive text messages on my own thanks to the iPhone. I could also check the weather and email on the go, something that my family and friends took for granted.

Today, the iPhone not only helps me stay in touch with the world, it also gives me more independence. Apps like LookTell Money Reader and TapTapSee allow me to identify things without needing someone’s assistance. With the Bard Mobile and NFB NewsLine apps I can download books, newspapers and magazines in a matter of seconds to listen on my iPhone. The kNFBReader app quickly scans printed documents and reads them out loud to me. Thanks to Voiceover and the built-in accessibility of the camera, I can even take pictures! Finding last minute transportation has become easier thanks to apps like Lyft and Uber, and I can easily find my way to unfamiliar locations with the phone’s GPS.

Without a doubt, the iPhone and other mobile devices have dramatically enhanced the lives of everyone, but even more so for people with disabilities. Technology has changed significantly since 2007, the time when I and other people with vision loss could only dream of being able to use these devices. Kudos to Apple and other manufacturers who are constantly trying to make their devices accessible to everyone. The possibilities with technology are endless, and I am sure it will only continue to help people with and without disabilities connect to the world and live more independent lives.

Commentary: Is Blindness Really That Scary?

According to a recent survey, most Americans fear blindness. In fact, they fear it more than losing their hearing, speech, a limb or their memory. Nearly 88 percent of people surveyed considered having 20/20 vision vital to good overall health, while 47 percent believed that losing their sight would have the gravest effect on their daily lives. Loss of independence and quality of life were the top concerns for respondents. Over 60 percent were aware of common eye conditions like cataracts and glaucoma.

I have been blind practically all my life, so naturally, my first reaction would be to say that blindness is not as scary as it seems. Growing up as someone who is blind, I have no concept of what it is like to be able to see, and therefore I have successfully adapted to living without sight. Nevertheless, I realize how significant good vision is on people’s everyday lives – if anything, it is the sense used the most by human beings. I lost my sight as a toddler, but I am sure I would have had a much harder time adapting had I lost it as a teenager or adult, for instance.

I think the main reason why most people are so afraid of blindness is because of the tremendous lack of awareness about different ways to cope with vision loss. Today more than ever before, numerous resources and equipment are available to help individuals with vision loss live happy and rich lives. Organizations like The Chicago Lighthouse offer a wide array of programs, services and technologies that allow people with varying levels of vision loss to remain independent. Furthermore, research is constantly being done to both find cures for eye disease, and to help those affected by low vision to better live with their visual impairment.

These findings are not new or surprising – living in darkness is a natural fear humans have had for centuries. This survey only underscores the importance of doing further research on eye diseases, as well as providing more services and resources for people living with vision loss. Unfortunately, many individuals will have to confront this fear in the near future, because the number of people with vision loss in the United States is expected to double by 2050. Although not all forms of vision loss can be prevented or avoided, people can start by taking a few simple steps that will help them keep their eyes healthy in the long run.

For me, losing my memory or being diagnosed with cancer are my worst fears. As someone who has successfully adapted to vision loss, I know all too well that there are far worse things than being blind or having a disability for that matter. There’s no doubt that blindness can present challenges and inconveniences in our everyday lives, but thanks to the countless services and resources available in the United States, it is possible for people with vision loss – like me – to lead equally fulfilling lives. Most of the fears and misconceptions about blindness and visual impairments are surmountable, and we should all work to help people understand that losing one’s sight does not have to mean losing independence.

How Can People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Tell Different Things Apart?

How Can People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Tell Different Things Apart?

I recently came across an article about Braille labels being added to beer bottles in Japan. It brought up one of the questions I often get – how do people who are blind or visually impaired tell everyday things apart without being able to see. With most things having labels only in print, we have to come up with other tips and tricks to keep them organized. Labeling and organizing methods are endless, and these are just a few suggestions to get started.

Keeping things organized

More often than not, I can tell different items apart simply by keeping them organized and in different places. Of course, I first find out what they are  from someone else when grocery shopping. I know, for example, that the cereal boxes are on one shelf of the pantry, and crackers, canned food, etc. are on another. The shape and size of different packages also helps – a can of soup feels very different from a bottle of dressing. Simple things like listening to the sounds of each product also help. Shaking a box of uncooked pasta sounds very different from a box of cereal bars.

Labeling with easy to find household items

There are times when I inevitably have to label things that feel or look identical. Often, using things like tape, rubber bands, paper clips or safety pins helps. Food cans are often identical, and I have to label them as soon as I know what they are. By putting a rubber band around a can of soup, I can tell it apart from a can of vegetables. Using rubber bands on medication bottles is also very helpful when organizing them. Putting safety pins on clothing tags helps me know what color it is. This post gives more information about organizing and matching clothes as someone who can’t see.

Using Braille or large print labels

Labeling things like important documents, CDs, DVDs, etc. can be done with Braille and large print labels. The Chicago Lighthouse’s Tools for Living Store sells a variety of labeling materials ranging from special Braille labeling paper to large print stickers. Generally, I like to label things like folders, binders, CD and DVD cases in Braille. There are also other products for people who are unable to read Braille. The bump dot tactile stickers, also sold by the Tools for Living Store, are a great option for microwaves, stoves, computer keyboards and other electronics. These are sold in a variety of colors and sizes.

Assistive technology devices

There are a variety of “high tech” devices that can help people with vision loss label things and stay organized. The Talking RX Pill Bottle Recorder is a great tool for labeling medications. Other devices, like the PenFriend Voice Labeling System, can be a good alternative for organizing CD and DVD collections, medications, important documents and so on. Similar assistive devices and smartphone apps are constantly being developed.

You can see these and other products offered at the store here. For more tips on how to label and organize household items as someone with vision loss, visit this site from the American Foundation for the Blind. What other labeling methods have you found helpful as someone who is blind or visually impaired? Please share any suggestions with our readers!

Becoming ‘Aware’ of Your Surroundings Through Modern Technology

Becoming ‘Aware’ of Your Surroundings Through Modern Technology

Going on my own to unfamiliar places has always been one of my biggest challenges. People with sight can easily scope out an area and figure out where things are, but this is not always the case for someone who can’t see. New assistive technology is being developed that will make it easier for us to navigate independently when out and about. The Aware app, made by Sensible Innovations, is one such technology. We at The Chicago Lighthouse are currently involved in a pilot project testing the app, and I recently got a chance to see how it works!

Background

The Aware App was developed by Sensible Innovations of Springfield, IL. Rasha Said is the company’s founder and CEO, and she was inspired to develop the app by her son, who is legally blind. Said saw her son’s need to know what was around him in unfamiliar places, and realized that millions of individuals worldwide with vision loss could also benefit from the emerging technology.

How It Works

Using Apple’s iBeacon technology and the Aware iOS or Android mobile app, users get verbal information and directions to different locations in a building. The iBeacons, which are installed throughout different areas of a facility, transmit information via Bluetooth to a user’s phone. The app then announces the places as users approach them. It will also give directions and guide them to different locations.

The Aware app uses information and navigation beacons. Navigation beacons give directions to different places in a building. Users can choose a desired location in the app’s directory (a feature I particularly like,) and once selected, the app will guide the person there. At The Lighthouse, it can give me directions from the lobby to the cafeteria and vice versa. Information beacons give more specific details, such as the description of a room’s layout. When in The Lighthouse lobby, for example, the app announces where the information desk and seating areas are. These beacons can also read things like restaurant menus and items in vending machines.

Beacon information for each building is managed through an online portal. The website, which is also accessible to assistive technology users, allows those in charge of configuring the beacons to add or update information as needed. This can be useful when making a correction or updating the description of a room’s layout, for instance. The portal can be accessed at any time of day, and information can always be updated.

My Thoughts about the App

Aware is fully compatible and accessible with iOS’s voiceover screen-reader. After installing and opening it, the app automatically began searching for beacons around The Chicago Lighthouse. Seconds later, it announced that I was in the lobby. When I hit the “more information button on the upper right of the screen, it told me that the information desk is directly straight ahead from the entrance, and that there are seats all around the lobby. Beacons are also installed in three of The Lighthouse’s vending machines. After tapping the information button when I was near the drinks vending machine, the app read the different items and prices.

This app is an emerging technology that I believe has a lot of potential. It is easy to use, and very accessible to people with varying degrees of vision loss. Directions are clear and easy to understand, and the app constantly announces the areas users are approaching. This is of tremendous help for orientation purposes. I hope that one day more places will adopt this remarkable technology so that people with vision loss have the freedom to venture out and explore at their heart’s content. Kudos to Rasha Said and the entire Sensible Innovations team for their hard work. The possibilities for this technology are endless!