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!

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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: 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.

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.

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.