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.

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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.

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.

Congratulations to the 2016 Chicago Lighthouse Scholarship Winners!

Scholarship Group 3_w Board and Management

Last Saturday, The Chicago Lighthouse held its annual scholarship ceremony. Scholarships were awarded to 38 outstanding college students who are blind, visually impaired or have multiple disabilities. Since it was established in 2004, The Lighthouse’s scholarship program has grown into the second largest of its kind in the U.S.  This year, scholarship recipients came from Illinois, Georgia, Minnesota, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Michigan. Students can use scholarship funds to cover tuition, housing, transportation, tutoring and adaptive technology expenses.

This year was my first time attending the ceremony, and like everyone else I was touched and inspired by the remarkable stories and journeys of the scholarship recipients. The keynote was given by Daniela Estrada, who simultaneously studied and worked at The Lighthouse’s UI Health call center to save money for college. She will be attending Cornell Law School this fall to pursue her goal of becoming a lawyer. In her speech, Daniela talked about the many challenges caused by her visual impairment, her mom’s high expectations for her to succeed in school, and her experience immigrating to the United States and getting help from The Lighthouse.

“Never regret searching for the truth and expanding your knowledge because it always pays off in the long run. Pursue your education as fiercely and persistently as you possibly can,” she told the audience.

Lighthouse President and CEO Dr. Janet Szlyk then talked about two innovative Lighthouse programs this summer for young people who are blind, visually impaired and disabled. The First Jobs program provided several teens, who were previously out-of-work, with meaningful employment and practical on-the-job experience at the Mariano’s store in Glenview.  The Summer in the City program brought together several youngsters who are visually impaired to learn more about independent living, orientation and mobility and other skills while experiencing aspects of Chicago’s rich cultural scene. They stayed at the nearby ICRE Wood facility and visited The Lighthouse to meet with key staff.  The teenagers also did such fun things as take a yacht cruise on Lake Michigan and attend a White Sox game.

Lighthouse intern Patrick Andrade spoke eloquently about how working with the Summer in the City teens opened his eyes to the capabilities of those who are blind or visually impaired. Meanwhile, First Jobs participant Elbra Jajou “rapped” about his experience applying for a job and how working at Mariano’s has changed his life.

Scholarship recipient Noel LaRosa agrees. Also in the First Jobs Program, Noel says that working at Mariano’s has been a fun experience that has given him the opportunity to strengthen his skills and independence. Having faced numerous trying circumstances as a child, in addition to his severe visual impairment, has never stopped Noel from pursuing his goals. He is currently a student at Oakton Community College, working towards an Associate’s degree in business. His ultimate goal is to become an architect. The Lighthouse scholarship will allow him to purchase assistive technology that will help him in class.

Noel says he is ready to face all of life’s challenges in college and beyond, and this is his advice to everyone:  “Keep trying, keep working hard and always keep moving forward.”

On behalf of everyone at The Lighthouse and the scholarship recipients and their families, I’d like to thank the generous donors who make the program possible each year. Affording a college education is challenging for many students, and it can become even more difficult for those who are visually impaired due to the additional expenses. Congratulations to the 2016 scholarship winners!  All of us at The Lighthouse wish you the best of luck! Those interested in applying for a scholarship in 2017 can find the application and instructions by visiting this page. Scholarship information is posted during the early spring of each year.

Commentary: On Celebrating 26 Years of the ADA

Today marks the 26th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, it forbids discrimination against people with disabilities in public places. This includes restaurants, stores, hotels, transportation and other public places. The commemoration of this anniversary is an opportunity for those of us with disabilities to reflect on how the ADA has helped us, and what still needs to be done. This week, I have compiled my list of top five ways the ADA has helped people with disabilities, and the work that is still left to do to achieve full equality.

  1. Accessible public transportation has made it easier for people with disabilities to travel independently. Audible announcements on buses and trains allow people like me with vision loss to know where we are and when we need to get on or off. Meanwhile, buses and trains equipped with ramps and accessible seating enable those with mobility impairments to use public transportation independently.
  1. Access to public places gives people with disabilities the freedom and independence to go wherever we please. Curb cuts and ramps allow individuals who use wheelchairs to be out and about on the street and enter places like restaurants, stores, school and their workplace. Braille signs on restrooms, elevators and other rooms allow people who are blind to know where we are in a building without needing much, if any, assistance.
  1. The general public is becoming more aware about the capabilities and needs of those of us with disabilities. Prior to the ADA, the lack of access prevented many people with disabilities from going out independently. The accessible environment established after the ADA allows us to be more integrated in our communities, thereby allowing non-disabled people to know us better.
  1. The unemployment rate for people with vision loss has constantly been between 70 and 75percent, and this is also true for people with other disabilities. The ADA prohibits job discrimination, but employers often have unfounded misconceptions about people with disabilities. Although I might be the most qualified candidate for a job, an employer simply might not hire me because I am blind. This is a situation which people with disabilities know all too well. It will take more than a piece of legislation to change these persisting attitudes.
  1. Today’s technologically driven world isn’t always easy for people with disabilities to navigate. ATMs, vending machines and other kiosks found in countless businesses can be difficult, if not impossible, for people with disabilities to use. Not all machines have audio or tactile accessibility features, so I and countless others cannot use them independently. Technology manufacturers can avoid this problem all together by incorporating accessibility into their products from the start.

There’s no doubt that the ADA has been instrumental in providing Americans with Disabilities with more access and countless opportunities. Thanks to this legislation, people like me can go out to events, school and work, just like everyone else. My hat goes off to all the politicians, advocates and persons with disabilities who fought tirelessly for the ADA to become law. There is still much more to do, and we should all continue fighting for a truly accessible and inclusive environment.

How has the ADA benefited you as a person with a disability? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us!

XANADU: A Fun and Accessible Performance!

Sandy at Xanadu

Last Saturday, I, along with several colleagues from The Lighthouse, was treated to a performance of Xanadu at the American Theater Company on Chicago’s north side. We had all heard that the 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John was not successful, and honestly did not know what to expect from the musical. Truth be told, I was only interested in going after learning that we would take a touch tour of the stage before the performance. Not only did we get to be on stage to see and feel the different costumes and props beforehand, but we also heard from some of the cast members themselves!

Evan Hatfield is the Director of Audience Experience at Steppenwolf Theater Company, and works with many theaters across Chicago to make sure performances are accessible to people with disabilities. This was the American Theater’s first time putting on a touch tour for patrons with vision loss, so they consulted with Evan to learn how to make this possible. We were all pleased to find out that Evan and the staff at the American Theater Company had thought about every single detail, from providing assistance getting into the theater to anyone who requested it to describing in full detail the various costumes and props.

We arrived to the theater about 90 minutes before the performance got started. This allowed us to learn more about the musical from Evan and the theater director. They briefly discussed things like the time setting of the story, stage layout and some of the visual and sound effects that would be used in the play. Next came the part I was waiting for: feeling the different costumes and props! Theater staff members described each item and told us which character would be using it. Finally, some of the cast members introduced themselves and described the characters they would play.

Although I had attended performances with audio description, this was my very first touch tour in a theater. Not that I didn’t know there was such a thing – working at The Lighthouse has allowed me to learn of the many things Chicago theaters are doing to become accessible to people with vision loss.

This was also the first time taking a touch tour for a few of my colleagues. Brett Shishkoff is an intern at CRIS Radio, and he felt the touch tour and discussion with the director and cast members was invaluable. He – like me and many of our colleagues who attended – is completely blind. Hearing from the actors themselves and feeling the different objects helped us get a better sense of what was going on during the play, even though it did not include audio description.

“Having the touch tour bridged the gap enough for me to be able to still chuckle at some of the things that they were referencing and know why it was funny,” Brett says.

Although having audio description during the performance would have helped during the times when actors used gestures or other expressions we couldn’t see, my coworkers and I were still able to follow and understand the story.

“I was probably smiling and laughing for at least the first hour of the play,” Brett tells me.

Kudos to the American Theater Company for striving to make Xanadu an accessible performance for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. Keep up the great work, I hope this is the first of many accessible performances! As a fellow attendee put it, “Although they do not require the touch tour service, we can now say the American Theater Company is inclusive for all, disability or otherwise.”

I hope to continue attending more audio described and touch tour performances in the future, and so do my other colleagues.

“I always enjoyed the theater quite a bit before I lost my sight … We know now we can actually go to [performances] and enjoy them with our family and friends,” Brett said.

I can’t praise Evan and the American Theater Company enough for their outstanding service! Had I not known this was their first time putting on a touch tour, I would have never realized it – the tour and accommodations were extremely thorough and well thought out. Special thanks to Lighthouse board member Larry Broutman for generously donating the tickets for us to attend and enjoy the show. This sure was a fun and great opportunity for everyone!

Many theaters and museums throughout Chicago offer audio described performances and touch tours. The Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC) has a calendar of accessible cultural events, and the League of Chicago Theaters also has a calendar of accessible performances. You can find a link to subscribe to their monthly email that lists upcoming accessible performances.

Have you gone to performances with touch tours or audio description? Please share your experiences with us – we’d love to hear from you!