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.

Commentary: On Equal Access to Standardized Tests

The College Board recently made an announcement that will benefit students with disabilities who wish to take standardized tests for college admission. Starting in 2017, most students who receive test accommodations through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan will have those accommodations automatically approved for standardized exams from the College Board. These tests include the SAT, advanced placement college exams and more. In other words, students will receive the same accommodations they use in their day-to-day assignments to take these exams.

I believe this decision from the College Board will have a positive impact for students with disabilities. For one, it will eliminate unnecessary hassles for requesting disability related accommodations. I still remember all the hurdles my parents, teachers and I encountered when I was about to take the SAT. Fortunately, my teachers of the visually impaired knew about the paperwork to begin the process for requesting accommodations. Nevertheless, waiting to receive approval was a time consuming process, often taking a month or more. In the end, I always received accommodations, such as providing the exam in Braille and audio cassette, and extended time. These were accommodations that were already part of my IEP.

This new decision from the College Board will also help prospective college students with disabilities succeed. Standardized tests are hard for almost everyone, but even more so for students with disabilities who do not receive adequate accommodations. Back in high school, I knew several peers with physical disabilities who required extended time to complete the exam. While extended time was approved for them on the SAT, it was significantly less than what they ordinarily received through their IEP. This meant they would not have enough time to complete the entire exam, thus negatively affecting their score.

When given appropriate accommodations, students with disabilities can succeed in standardized tests. Accommodations do not make the exams easier or harder for them. They simply help them achieve their best performance possible, and I believe that is the overall goal of these exams for every student. By streamlining the process and allowing students with disabilities to use the accommodations already available to them, they will be able to do just that. Moreover, I hope this new practice will give more students with disabilities the opportunity to attend the college of their choice.

Commentary: Spreading Disability Awareness

Students across the nation are undertaking activities to promote acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. In Virginia, a group of students recently published a guide for creating inclusive environments for people with disabilities in schools. Here in Chicago, another student organized different disability awareness activities to show what people with disabilities are capable of, and how society can become more inclusive to this community. Both groups hope their projects will further create understanding about the needs of those with disabilities.

I’ve gone to speak at different elementary, junior high and high schools, and each time I am pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful questions students ask! Children wonder how I read, get around and cook without being able to see. Truth is, although adults also find these things intriguing, they might be hesitant to ask. Meanwhile, children will ask without hesitating, and will better understand and learn about disabilities from this experience.

To me, non-disabled children are also more understanding and willing to accept people with disabilities when given a chance to interact with them from a very young age. I experienced this firsthand at school, where more often than not, I was the only child who couldn’t see in my class. I remember going out to recess and playing on the playground equipment with my sighted peers, who didn’t seem to mind my blindness. To them, I was just another peer who happened to be blind, but other than that I was like anyone else. Teaching young children about disabilities will help them better empathize with people with disabilities. As a result, they will focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t.

Disability simulating activities can also go a long way in teaching people about various impairments when done properly. If students put on blindfolds and walk around or do other things without guidance, they will believe it is impossible or that blindness is frightening. On the other hand, if someone, preferably another person who is blind, teaches them about the different tools and techniques to do these things, they will learn that people who are blind or visually impaired can and do adapt successfully to their disability.

Kudos to the students in Chicago and Virginia for their initiatives of promoting disability awareness and inclusion. As individuals with disabilities, we are constantly trying to demonstrate our abilities to society in hopes that more people will look past what we cannot do. These and similar projects are perfect opportunities to show others how important it is to accept and include people with disabilities in the community, school and work. I’m sure these students and their fellow classmates will have a better understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities once they become adults, and this will go a long way in promoting inclusion and awareness.

Commentary: Making Gyms Accessible Benefits Everyone

A few years ago, I attended a seminar about the Americans with Disabilities Act at my local Center for Independent Living in an effort to learn more about what this legislation does and does not cover. Much to my surprise, I learned more than I expected, including the fact that the ADA covers fitness facilities. Gyms, for example, should have accessible exercise equipment, including accessible swimming pools.

These regulations for making fitness facilities accessible to customers with disabilities went into effect in 2012. Still, much more needs to be done to implement said requirements. Recently, LA Fitness modified its membership policy to accommodate patrons with disabilities in New York who need aids to accompany them into the health clubs. The membership fee for these assistants will be waved, and the policy will also require New York LA Fitness locations to train their staff on such policies.

Contrary to popular belief, people with all types of disabilities can and do need to exercise just like everyone else. Disabilities set aside, we have the same need to exercise in order to maintain good fitness and health. It is even more important considering that people with disabilities are less likely to participate in any form of exercise plan. Combined with a high unemployment rate and – in some cases – isolation from the community or other social activities, the sedentary lifestyle of many people with disabilities can lead to poor fitness, obesity and health complications like hypertension and diabetes.

Making gyms accessible is not as hard as it might seem. Simply moving equipment around to give someone in a wheelchair enough room to transfer might be all a customer with a physical disability needs to be able to access the exercise equipment. Someone who is blind or has low vision might benefit from one-on-one, hands-on instruction from a personal trainer, and large print and Braille labels will allow him or her to operate exercise machines independently. By adopting policies similar to that of LA Fitness, those with disabilities who require someone’s assistance will allow these individuals to partake in all the facility has to offer. To me, it is all a matter of finding creative, and often simple, accessibility solutions.

People with disabilities have the same right to exercise and be fit and healthy. Not only does working out help us obtain good health, but it also gives everyone a great opportunity to socialize and meet others. Gyms should create an accessible and welcoming environment for people with disabilities. By doing this, they will both comply with the law, and help an often overlooked community maintain good health and create more social opportunities. In what other ways can gyms be made more accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities? Please share your thoughts!

Argentina: Improvements That Can Be Seen But Not Felt

Argentina: Improvements That Can Be Seen But Not Felt

Axel Davila is a voluntary correspondent for Sandy’s View, and this week he discusses the current situation of people who are blind or visually impaired living in Argentina.

According to Fernando Galarraga, vice-president of the Argentina Federation of the Blind, the living situation of Argentinians who are blind or visually impaired has a major underlying problem. Legislation guaranteeing equal access exists and new construction is designed with this population in mind, however compliance of social norms and laws is scarce.

The country is divided in 23 provinces and the federal capital, Buenos Aires. This means that each region has different norms. For example, the educational system is decentralized and differs from province to province. This means that education is not consistent throughout the country. In some provinces, people with vision loss attend a special school, while in others they go to a school for people with all types of disabilities. Teachers of children who are blind often lack the necessary training to teach things like Braille and orientation and mobility.

According to Galarraga, although Argentina has made some progress in the education system, it has also regressed in certain aspects. Previously, people with disabilities had to go to large cities to receive an education. While they can now go to school in their local province, quality of the education is considerably worse. On another hand, production of textbooks and other materials in Braille and alternative formats has increased, and schools are provided with assistive technology and other equipment that can help students who are blind or visually impaired. Nevertheless, staff has not been given the necessary training on how to operate the various tools, making the equipment useless in the end.

Galarraga says that a continuous complaint of the visually impaired community is the lack of rehabilitation centers to assist those who are newly blind or visually impaired. “People do not receive even basic instruction to reintegrate themselves into society,” expresses Galarraga. On another hand, Galarraga says that on recent years, legislative measures, such as passing a law requiring restaurants to have menus in Braille, have been made. However, Galarraga states that while this is a good measure, there are more important problems that still need to be addressed. As one of his colleagues once said, “nowadays there is copious braille that can be seen but not felt.”

Regarding discrimination, Galarraga confidently expresses that the current situation is similar to that of other countries. However, he presents a new perspective, and points out that nowadays it is more complicated for others to see and acknowledge discrimination. “Sometimes when I am waiting for the bus, people ask me for directions, and I give them the information. However, when they realize that I am blind, they tell me ‘Oh sorry’ and maybe even ask another person instead,” Galarraga recalls. Another misconception according to Galarraga is that people tend to believe that an improvement for a specific disability helps people with all types of disabilities, but this is far from true.

For Galarraga, the challenges for people with vision loss in Argentina stem more from attitudes, rather than lack of legislation or access. Laws forbidding discrimination, and various services and types of equipment are available for those with vision loss. However, if cultural stereotypes do not disappear and adequate training is not given to this population, inclusion will be nonexistent, and Argentina will continue to have improvements that can be seen but not felt.

Commentary: On Being Poor and Disabled

Since it’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Sandy is sharing one of the most popular posts from 2015 on employment and disabilities. Enjoy!

The high poverty rate and lack of opportunities for people with disabilities throughout the world are clear indications that we have not done enough to help this community. I recently read an article about the Framing Perceptions Project, a set of portraits that aim to give us a glimpse into the lives of disabled individuals in India and Uganda. Reading the many stories made me realize how fortunate I am to live in a country where plenty of opportunities exist for people with disabilities.

The people with disabilities who have job and education opportunities in these countries are far few in between. Most of the pictures tell the stories of individuals who live in poverty and depression due to their blindness or other disabilities. The story that caught my eye (no pun intended) is the one of Shyam Sundar, a man from India who was blinded by Glaucoma. He spends most of the day at home and rarely goes out. “There is nothing to be happy about,” he says.

I consider myself extremely fortunate because unlike Sundar and countless other disabled individuals throughout the world, I was born and grew up in a country where there is an abundance of opportunities for us. As a child, I was able to go to school at no cost to me. I was integrated and included with my sighted peers while receiving Braille and other independent living training. Thanks to this, I was able to study and graduate from college, and am now successfully employed.

I often travel to Mexico to visit my extended family. Each time I go, I am reminded that not all people with disabilities are as fortunate as I have been. In Mexico and many other countries, it is still common to see individuals with disabilities in the streets begging for money. Those who are more fortunate and were able to attend special schools often struggle to be accepted into colleges and universities and even to find jobs.

Of course, the equally pressing issue is that of accessibility. Uneven pavement makes it difficult for those with physical disabilities to move around safely and independently. They are all too often excluded from stores, restaurants, movie theaters and the like, simply because no ramps exist. Even in those rare instances when ramps are available, they are either blocked by parked cars or too steep, making it difficult, even impossible for a wheelchair user to climb. Sidewalks are often blocked by parked cars, food stands, and bicycles, just to mention a few. This can make it extremely difficult for people with visual and physical disabilities to navigate independently and safely.

As a person who is blind, I think that these physical barriers are not the biggest challenge for those with disabilities in Mexico and other countries. The negative attitude that still exists about disabilities all over the world is the major stumbling block for countless individuals. Many cultures still believe that people with any type of disability are sick or helpless and that it is something to be ashamed of, which results in the shunning of this population by their family and friends.

Thanks to advocacy efforts, more awareness exists about disabilities in developing countries. However, there is still a long way to go before we can truly say that all people with disabilities have equal rights. Families, communities and political and religious leaders must begin believing in the potential of these individuals and giving them more education and job opportunities.

The United States is certainly not a paradise for people with disabilities, and a good proof of this is the extremely high unemployment rate that has persisted in this community for many decades. Still, when I read about and see firsthand the exclusion and poverty of people with disabilities, I sure do feel grateful to live in a country where I can be independent and not feel ashamed of my blindness.

Commentary: What I Want Others to Understand During Blindness Awareness Month

October is blindness awareness month, a celebration dedicated to understanding the realities of living without sight. We could say that the main focus of this month is to open the eyes to the general public about what it is like to live without being able to see. This month is alsodisability employment awareness month, and it is intended to educate the public, particularly employers, about the many talents workers with disabilities bring to the job.

Ever since I was in college, I have been a part of these celebrations, mostly by participating in blindness and disability awareness panels. Just yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking to graduate students at DePaul University about how assistive technology has helped me, as well as other challenges I have encountered as someone who is blind. The great questions I got from the students made me think about some of the things I wish more people understood about blindness, and these are my top three:

  1. Although I appreciate help from sighted people, sometimes it can be more of a hindrance.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it when someone comes up to me (particularly if I look lost or confused) and asks me if I would like assistance. If I happen to need help, I will gladly accept. However, please do not feel offended or insist if I decline. Often, I have had people who – in an attempt to help me – give me directions or begin guiding me even after I tell them I’m fine, and this unfortunately might make me become lost or confused.

  1. People who are blind are not “inspirational” simply because we are living our lives.

I won’t deny that those of us with vision loss often have to overcome challenges others do not have to think about. Navigating busy streets and not being able to instantly read things like restaurant menus are just a few of those obstacles we encounter in our daily lives. Without a doubt, these challenges can be scary and frustrating. Still, if you see someone who is blind out and about, chances are that he or she has had special training and practice to learn how to be independent without sight. If you want to compliment us, please do not focus on our blindness or how hard it must be to live without sight. Like anyone else, we like to hear compliments on more interesting things, such as what we’re wearing or any other characteristic unrelated to our disability.

  1. A high unemployment rate continues to be a problem in 2016.

If laws like the ADA forbid discrimination, then why is it that around 70 percent of people with vision loss are unemployed in the United States? Personally, I believe it is because of the negative attitudes and stereotypes employers still have about people with vision loss. The reason is simple: they have never hired someone who is blind, and are unwilling to give us a chance. Also, they are not aware about the various adaptive tools and techniques available that can help us on the job. I hope that one day more employers will give people with disabilities the chance to show them their talents.

What other things would you like people to understand about blindness? Stay tuned to Sandy’s View, where we will continue sharing information about blindness and disability and employment awareness month all throughout October.