Commentary: How Smart Homes Are Empowering People with Disabilities

Imagine being at home, when all of a sudden you hear your doorbell ring. Unless you were expecting someone, like a mail or food delivery, you might not know who it is if you cannot see. Similarly, unless someone who is blind or visually impaired has a talking thermostat, the majority of these appliances currently in the market are inaccessible. We therefore might require assistance from a sighted friend to change the thermostat, which is not always convenient.

The evolving concept of smart homes is becoming a game changer for people with disabilities, including individuals who are blind or visually impaired. This story from NBC News shows how Apple’s technology, along with smart home accessories, are transforming accessibility for people with disabilities. Todd Stabelfeldt is quadriplegic, and has no movement below his shoulders. Thanks to new technology, he can use an iPhone and Siri to open his garage door, turn the lights on and off, open and close the blinds, adjust the thermostat and monitor his security system independently. You can see Todd interacting with this technology in this video. These are all things that were impossible for him and other people with disabilities to do independently prior to the advent of smart home technology.

Just as smart home technology has allowed people with physical disabilities to be more independent, it can do the same for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. We can now change the temperature on the thermostat by using our smartphone or tablet. It is also possible for us to know who is at the door by asking them before even opening. Moreover, we can control our security system independently, something that was not always easy because of accessibility challenges. Turning our lights on and off and locking our doors is also easier, and all of this will give us more peace of mind knowing we are safe.

As with anything else, there are cons to this technology. One of the biggest concerns is the risk of getting information – including personal details and passwords – stolen. This is a valid concern, but is something that is already being addressed. Facial recognition technology, for example, allows computers to identify users by taking a photo of their face. It is therefore important to make smart home technology, like switches, cameras and mobile apps, secure and accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

There’s no doubt that smart homes are changing the way we control our household appliances. People without disabilities enjoy the convenience of controlling their homes with a smart phone or tablet. For people who can’t see or have other disabilities, it goes beyond convenience. This technology allows us to be more independent in our own homes, something that everyone wants and deserves.

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: 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.

Top Three Pressing Issues for Americans with Disabilities

Top Three Pressing Issues for Americans with Disabilities

The 2016 presidential and congressional elections are over, and by this point most of us know who will represent us in Washington next year. Without a doubt, this has been a very heated and contentious election season, and – like in previous years – Americans can only hope that all three branches of government will work together for the good of the nation. As the largest minority group in the United States, people with disabilities continue to face several pressing issues that we would like our elected representatives to address. These are the top three topics that are most important to people with disabilities all over the country.

Better Healthcare Access

Programs like Medicaid and Medicare are often the only type of health insurance people with disabilities have. Unfortunately, not all health providers accept these forms of insurance, particularly Medicaid, which is provided to people who are disabled, blind or older than 65 with limited incomes. Unfortunately, few hospitals and clinics accept this form of insurance, making it difficult for individuals with disabilities to have adequate and timely access to health care. This is especially pressing given the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities, who depend on programs like Social Security and Medicaid to get by.

Improvements to Social Security

This has been a longstanding topic of concern to people with disabilities. Most people are not aware, but individuals with disabilities who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) have set limits on what they can make on the job. Furthermore, SSI recipients can only have up to $2,000 in order to qualify for this program. In 2014, Congress passed the ABLE Act, which will allow Medicaid and SSI recipients to create special savings accounts where they can save money without jeopardizing their benefits. I and thousands of other individuals with disabilities and their families applaud this legislation, but feel much more needs to be done to improve the system.

Funding for Programs Supporting People with Disabilities

In Illinois as in many other states, recent budget cuts have affected, or even eliminated altogether programs and services for people with disabilities. These include day programs for those with developmental disabilities, vocational services and other programs providing information and resources to these individuals and their families. In Illinois, for example, centers for independent living throughout the state are being negatively impacted by the lack of funds. These centers are crucial for people with disabilities, as they help them find valuable information and resources on how to become more independent.

The government should work together with the disabled community to address these issues. They are topics often overlooked by the general public and politicians, but are extremely important to people with disabilities and their families. Until the government addresses these problems, people with disabilities will continue to experience the negative consequences. Finding solutions not only benefits this population, but also the community at large. What other disability related concerns should our newly elected government address?   Please share your thoughts!

Commentary: Making Classroom Technology Accessible for All

Last week, the Federal government and Miami University in Ohio reached an agreement to provide access and equal opportunity to activities and classes for students with disabilities. The lawsuit – which came from a student who is blind – accused Miami University of failing to provide accommodations to students with disabilities and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among other things, Miami University will make accessibility improvements in the technologies it currently uses, as well as meet with students with disabilities in order to develop a plan to make accommodations for each student.

Many people might wonder why there is still an accessibility problem in colleges and other facilities. After all, the ADA has been around for 26 years, so surely colleges and universities have all implemented changes to make buildings more accessible. This is accurate in the sense that many schools throughout the United States have installed ramps, elevators, Braille signs and wide entrances. Since the ADA was passed into law in 1990, it does not include accessibility standards for modern technology. Although independent organizations have developed standards to make websites more accessible, for example, few businesses or institutions adopt them, often because they are unaware they exist.

I know all too well about how inaccessible technology can present challenges to college students who are blind, because I myself experienced this situation in school. While my classmates could easily log on to computers in the library or computer lab, I would often show up just to find out that screen-reading technology was nonexistent on those machines. In other words, even finding an accessible computer can be difficult, often impossible, for students with disabilities. I was lucky to have my own accessible laptop, but there were still times when I desperately needed to do school work on another computer. The time when my laptop crashed right before finals is the first instance that comes to mind!

In today’s day and age, assistive technology helps people with disabilities be more independent and successful. Thanks to it, we can go to school, have jobs and be involved in social activities. Screen-reading and magnifying technology allows those of us with vision loss to use computers, smartphones and tablets just like everyone else. Technology is becoming more and more important in today’s world, and that is why schools should always consider the accessibility needs of its students with disabilities. Like anyone else, they want and deserve a positive experience while pursuing their education.

I hope that this agreement between Miami University and the Federal government will help create more awareness for other schools regarding the accessibility of their classes and other activities. This will in turn create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students.

Commentary: Fashion and Inclusion Are Always A Good Trend!

New York Fashion Week is just about to end, but fashion season is far from over! Last year, we posted about how New York Fashion Week was including models with disabilities on the runway, and about a project The Lighthouse participated in to make clothing more accessible for people with visual impairments. I am happy to say that including people with disabilities in fashion continues to be a trend one year later, and clothes designers all over the world are working hard to do just that.

As the Rio Paralympics are taking place, a nearby fashion designer is working to make clothing inclusive and accessible to woman with disabilities. Christiano Krosh began designing accessible clothing while studying fashion design in college and realizing that there are no stores in Brazil where people with disabilities can buy clothing tailored to their needs. Here in the United States, Runway of Dreams founder Mindy Scheier began designing accessible children’s clothing after seeing how her son – who has a disability – struggled to put on and wear conventional clothing. This line of accessible and fashionable clothing is now sold by Tommy Hilfiger.

Truth be told, I had never given much thought to some of the struggles people with disabilities have when it comes to clothing. As someone who cannot see, I only knew I had to find ways of organizing my clothes.It wasn’t until I began studying at the University of Illinois that some of my classmates with physical disabilities told me about how they struggle to put on and fasten clothing independently. When we really stop to think about it, making clothing accessible for people with disabilities is not as hard as it might initially seem. Simple adjustments, like adding Velcro or magnets allow someone with a physical disability to dress independently. Tags with Braille or large print labels allow people with vision loss to know the color of their clothes. It all comes down to making simple and creative adjustments.

Accessible clothing does not have to be exclusively for people with disabilities. As a matter of fact, the beauty of fashion is that it can include everyone, and always makes for a great conversation among family and friends! Making clothing that is both fashionable and accessible to everyone is the right thing to do. For people with disabilities, it makes us feel more independent and confident about ourselves.

The Chicago Lighthouse will hold its annual Flair fashion show on Monday, October 17 at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago. This popular event will feature fashions from Macy’s and Runway of Dreams, among others. Models will include adults and children, some of whom are blind, visually impaired or disabled. Proceeds from the event will support children’s and teen’s programs at The Chicago Lighthouse—helping children and adolescents who may be blind, visually impaired or disabled meet developmental and educational milestones, build supportive relationships, and fully participate in their communities. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit the event page.

Sandy is a blogger on the topic of blindness and vision impairment. She covers a variety of topics intended to educate people who are sighted on what it is to live life with any level of vision loss. She herself is blind and has had no vision since she was three months old. Sandy graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in public relations. She works in the Financial Development department and CRIS Radio at The Chicago Lighthouse.

Venezuela: An obscure chaos

Venezuela: An obscure chaos

Thanks to a large readership, Sandy’s View has become a popular blog followed by people from throughout the world! This week, we are introducing Axel Davila, a guest blogger and student at Georgetown University. Axel will be a contributor to Sandy’s View this semester. He is from Venezuela, and this week he discusses the current situation of people who are blind or visually impaired living in that country.

And now, I leave you with Axel’s first post!

For many years, Venezuela has been in the center of attention of international news for various reasons. Crimes, violence, inflation and shortages of food and other basic necessities have been the topics most often covered by the media. Nevertheless, one subject remains obscure: the situation of Venezuelans with disabilities, particularly that of those who are blind or visually impaired.

Unfortunately, there is still a lack of awareness about the needs and obstacles faced by people with vision loss, both in Venezuela and throughout the world. Although there are currently no official statistics regarding people with disabilities in Venezuela, a 2011 population census estimates that approximately 460,000 Venezuelans, or 1.7 percent of the population in that country, has a visual impairment.

The lack of accessibility of streets and the precarious situation in which visually impaired citizens live will unfortunately never be the center of Venezuelans conversations, as it has become a taboo subject. For this reason,  it is especially important to hear from those who work with people with vision loss, or the individuals who are blind or visually impaired themselves. Otto Tovar lives in Caracas, the country capital, and he has been visually impaired since he was 27. He is the director of Sociedad Amigos de los Ciegos (Blind Friends Society), and he says that Venezuela is not accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired.

“In the area of visual disability, there is neither accessibility nor adaptability,” Tovar says.

He explains that in Venezuela, people who are blind or visually impaired learn how to be independent, but given the amount of accessibility barriers, they become dependent on others. Lack of signage in Braille and large print, absence of ramps, narrow sidewalks obstructed with bulky materials, non-compliance with traffic lights by drivers, and excessive noise are the main challenges people with vision loss encounter. All those obstacles cause even more precarious conditions, as it represents extra expenses to have someone as an escort at all times.

The scarcity of food and other products has been the main focus and concern of Venezuelans during the last few months. This problem is worse for people with visual impairments, because they no longer have preferential treatment, and they too have to wait in long lines to try to purchase food or other goods. In many cases, this wait can be between 6 and 8 hours long.

Although Venezuela has taken actions to assist people with disabilities, such as passing a law in 2007 requiring private and public companies to hire at least 5 percent of workers with disabilities, society has not given the necessary attention to this population, and this assistance could be considered minimum at best. While the country has made some progress compared to many years ago, blindness and visual impairment continue to be an overlooked topic, accessibility, and universal design are nonexistent, and Venezuelans with vision loss remain in an obscure chaos.

Back to Sandy: If you have any topic suggestions for Axel, please comment or send us an email to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org.