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!

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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!

AccessChicago 2016 Highlights for People with Vision Loss

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Having resources and knowing where to look for help is of vital importance to people with disabilities and their families. Thousands gathered at Navy Pier yesterday for the biennial AccessChicago disability expo. Sponsored by the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, the event showcases the latest in accessibility services and resources for people with all types of disabilities. The daylong event included information booths, recreational activities, entertainment and seminars for people of all ages and abilities.

This was my first year attending AccessChicago – in fact, I had never heard about it until I began working at The Lighthouse two years ago. Several exhibitors, including The Chicago Lighthouse, shared information about resources available to individuals with vision loss. The following are some of the resources highlighted in the event. Please note that most of these organizations are not affiliated with The Lighthouse and are only meant to serve as resources for readers.

  • Hadley Institute for the Blind offers a variety of long-distance courses for people with vision loss and their families. Course subjects include Braille, technology, sports and recreation, reading and writing.
  • iCanConnect Deaf-Blind Program provides telecommunication services to qualifying individuals who are both deaf and blind throughout the United States free of charge. The program’s purpose is to help individuals who are deaf-blind stay connected with others. Currently, The Chicago Lighthouse is the only agency in Illinois that provides these services throughout the state.
  • RTA, CTA, Metra and Pace provides public transportation throughout the Chicagoland area. All trains and buses offer accessibility services for people with all types of disabilities. The paratransit program offers door-to-door transportation to qualifying riders with disabilities.
  • Illinois Division of Rehabilitation Services helps adults with disabilities receive training and services they need to go back to school, find employment and live independently. Individuals interested in receiving services must first apply through their local office.
  • Equip for Equality works to advance the civil rights of Illinoisans with disabilities. The organization also provides legal assistance and resources to individuals with disabilities and their families.
  • I See Music is an organization that provides access to music recording and production to individuals with vision loss. Located in Beecher, IL, it provides training in recording technology and resources for music producers and engineers who are blind or visually impaired.

AccessChicago was filled with information and activities for people of all ages, interests and abilities. Best of all, it was a one-stop place for people with disabilities and their families to learn about what is available throughout the Chicagoland area. As a native Chicagoan with a disability, I was fortunate to grow up among so many great resources that helped me as a child and beyond. It is great to know that events like AccessChicago can help everyone become better informed about the resources available to those of us with disabilities. This was just a brief listing of the nearly 100 exhibitors at the event. The full list can be found on this website.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by The Lighthouse’s booth, we enjoyed meeting all of you! It was great seeing many familiar faces and knowing that many attendees are familiar with our agency. We hope you can join us again in 2018!

Commentary: A Different Way of Seeing Museum Exhibits

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is commemorating the anniversary with Sight Unseen, an exhibit showcasing works from photographers who are blind. Patrons with vision loss can enjoy the exhibit thanks to 3DPhotoWorks, an organization that makes tactile renderings of pictures and paintings. They’ve also enhanced the experience by including special sensors on the photographs that will give users more detailed audio descriptions when they run their hands across the photos.

I often see news stories about things museums and other cultural institutions are doing to make their facilities accessible to people with vision loss. By providing audio description or tactile representations of artifacts, these places are striving to make sure everyone can enjoy and learn from the various exhibits. I am particularly impressed with the Sight Unseen exhibit because of the technological approach being used to make all aspects accessible.

I have gone to museums and art exhibits that claim to be accessible, only to find that accommodations are minimal at best. While I might get somewhat of a picture by tracing my hands around statues or sculptures, I still cannot fully appreciate all the details. Museum staff does their best at describing key features, but I would still love to have the freedom of exploring artifacts on my own like everyone else. The inclusive nature of the 3DPhotoWorks technology allows people who are blind to do just that.

If more museums adopt this or similar technology, it will benefit both patrons with and without disabilities. Those of us with visual impairments could enjoy and appreciate exhibits more fully thanks to the audio and tactile components. People with 20/20 vision might be able to appreciate previously overlooked details if they could feel paintings and sculptures. Simple things like feeling the smoothness of a marble sculpture could help them get a better picture through their other senses.

There is much more to the Sight Unseen exhibit than the accessibility features. The fact that it showcases work by blind and visually impaired photographers communicates a very important message to the general public. When people talk about photography, blindness or photographers with vision loss are rarely part of the conversation. I hope this exhibit will help demystify the persisting misconceptions about people with visual impairments.

It is very fitting that the exhibit is part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is a powerful way of conveying the important message that everyone has a right to equal access. It also gives the general public a better understanding of what can be done to make things accessible, and how everyone can benefit from it.

Kudos to 3DPhotoWorks for their innovative approach to making exhibits more inclusive and accessible. As someone who is blind, I believe this approach has a great potential in cultural institutions throughout the world. While people like me might not be able to appreciate visual details of paintings and statues, the audio and tactile enhancements will definitely allow us to see a better picture in our minds.

Commentary: Let’s All Be Included In Sports

May is National Physical Fitness and Sports month. Physical activity is important for everyone whether or not we are professional athletes. Exercise not only helps people have good health, but it can also provide various social and learning opportunities. Unfortunately, those of us with disabilities are often excluded from participating in meaningful physical activities. Persistent misconceptions about our capabilities are very common, and can lead to unintentional exclusion and other consequences.

Last week, I read an article about why it is important to include people with disabilities in sports. Besides reinforcing that important message, it reminded me of when I was unintentionally excluded from gym class in junior high and high school. While my sighted classmates were running laps around the track, doing gymnastics or lifting weights, I was either doing light exercise on a stationary bicycle alongside kids with other physical and intellectual disabilities or finishing up homework in the study hall classroom. Of course, at that age I didn’t mind having that study hall time – the less homework I had to do at home the better!

Now I realize that my teachers and classmates did not purposely put me on the sidelines. They – like most people – were afraid I would get hurt. Come to think of it, I too was afraid to a certain extent. Taking a semester of swimming class was a graduation requirement for all students, but an exception was made in my case. As a swimmer I was barely at the beginner level, and like many people felt fearful of even attempting to learn more advanced skills! Without a doubt, I was relieved that the school had waived this requirement.

Much to my chagrin, that all changed during my senior year when my teacher of the visually impaired persuaded the school to include me in swimming class! My parents also loved this idea, so I could no longer escape! I was the only student who is blind, and by working one-on-one with my coach I learned alongside my classmates with no problems – you can read about my experience as a blind swimmer here. Once the semester was over, I realized my fears were irrational, and that I enjoyed swimming very much. Of course, that leads me to wonder if there are other sports I’ve missed out on simply because I haven’t been willing to or given the chance to try out.

Sports and physical exercise are also important for people who are blind or have other disabilities. Although the statistics are not yet well known, it is estimated that these individuals are more likely to suffer from obesity because of lack of exercise. This is something we as a society can easily change by being inclusive and creating more sports opportunities. Let’s set our fears and misconceptions aside and focus on what individuals with disabilities can do. After all, sports are much more than about winning and losing!

Commentary: Teaching Future Professionals about Disability

Around 57 million people live with disabilities in the United States, making this the largest minority group in the country. We can only expect this number to grow as the baby boomer generation ages, and chances are that most – if not all – of us will at the very least encounter someone with a disability during our lifetime. Equally important is the fact that more Americans are pursuing higher education, and the variety of subject areas one can major in is very broad. Nevertheless, very few colleges emphasize the importance of teaching an important topic: how to interact with and respect people with disabilities.

 

A recent study from Oregon State University and Worcester State University found that most college psychology courses lack curriculum about people with disabilities. Researchers studied nearly 700 course descriptions from 98 colleges and universities with top ranking undergraduate psychology programs. While all 98 schools offered courses on psychiatric disability, only 8 offered instruction about physical disability. Furthermore, psychology courses tend to focus more on least common disabilities, rather than physical disabilities or chronic health conditions, which are more prevalent.

 

I can attest to the fact that none of the psychology courses I took in college covered physical disabilities whatsoever. To be honest, I did not expect this topic to be covered in any of the three psychology courses I took as an undergraduate. However, this research got me thinking of why it is important for more colleges to offer courses related to disabilities. Large institutions, such as the University of Illinois at Chicago, offer degrees in disability studies. I do not expect all colleges to offer these majors, but by offering introductory courses about disability or incorporating this subject area in psychology or other classes, both students and staff will benefit in the long run in many ways.

 

Most professionals will eventually encounter someone with a disability during their careers. An attorney, for example, might have a client who is blind or uses a wheelchair. Having basic knowledge about all types of disabilities can help professionals go a long way in interacting with and making people who have disabilities feel comfortable and at ease. I remember once being at the bank and in the process of opening a checking account. The employee who assisted me took the time to show me how to work the ATM, and offered to provide me my bank statements and other documents in Braille. Knowing that she was comfortable providing assistance and interacting with me made the whole process so much easier for both of us.

 

The United States is considered the most advanced nation in terms of disability rights. Still, more can be done to educate the public about disabilities. Colleges should take the initiative and teach our future workforce about this population. By teaching prospective professionals about how to interact with and assist people with all types of disabilities, a more friendly and inclusive environment will be created for everyone. Students will not only learn about the characteristics of disabilities, but will also receive important lessons about tolerance and respect toward others.

Seeing Pope Francis in Person: A True Blessing!

 

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Recently, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity of seeing Pope Francis in person during my vacation in Mexico. When my colleagues suggested I blog about my experience, I accepted for two reasons. Most people have probably seen news items about the Pope’s affection toward children, the elderly and people with disabilities. By this point, I am not surprised each time I see something in the news about those times when Pope Francis stops in the middle of his tracks to bless someone with a disability. I wanted to experience this for myself, even if he only saw and blessed me from a distance. Since this blog is about blindness and visual impairment, I also hope to describe what it is like to experience such a unique event as someone who is totally blind.

My parents and family are from Michoacan, a state in the western region of Mexico. Each year before the Ash Wednesday and Lent celebrations, Michoacan and many other states throughout Mexico have the Carnaval festivities. Simply put, Carnaval is the equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and the celebrations consist of parades, a lot of food, music and having a good time for five days! I have always enjoyed the Carnaval, and try to go whenever possible. When my parents and I found out that Pope Francis would be visiting Mexicoimmediately following these festivities, we knew right then and there that this would be the perfect opportunity to at the very least get a glimpse of him.

Morelia is the capitol city of Michoacan, and Pope Francis would be there on Tuesday, February 16. Admittedly I am not a very religious person, but I have always respected and admired this and former popes for all they do for the church and world peace in general. Ever since I was a child, I have always wanted to see and get a blessing from the pope. To me, a blessing is more than a sign of good luck. My parents and grandparents always taught me that blessings are meant to bring protection from God in all aspects of life.

I suppose my parents and I were blessed even before our papal encounter, as we somehow managed to book hotel rooms at the very last minute! Pope Francis would be visiting the Morelia Cathedral, and the hotel was across the street from the church. So even though we would not be able to attend any of the masses or events, we would still get a chance to see him in the Popemobile. The pope was scheduled to be in that area at around 3 in the afternoon, but my parents and I decided to save our spot at 5 in the morning – we were determined to be as close to Pope Francis as possible!

We were not the only ones waiting outside at the crack of dawn, however. The sidewalks were already filled with pilgrims and other people who camped outside all night long. Street venders could also be seen and heard selling a variety of foods and souvenirs. As the day progressed, more and more people began lining up on the streets. Between chatting with some of our fellow hotel guests, buying souvenirs and posting a ton of pictures on Facebook, those 10 hours flew by before we knew it!

The excitement among the crowd grew as 3 p.m. got closer. All throughout the streets thousands of people erupted in cheers and with phrases like “viva el papa”, or “long live the pope!” We all stood up from our seats as soon as we heard the roaring of helicopter engines – we knew that meant that the Pope was near! While everyone else got their cameras ready to take pictures, I unfolded my cane. I figured that I could possibly get Pope Francis’s attention by waving it in the air when he was nearby. Maybe that way I could actually get him to bless us!

The cheers and chants became even louder when the Popemobile was in sight. “He’s about to come near us right now,” my mom and dad both exclaimed. Before I knew it, I raised my cane in the air and waved at Pope Francis. “Wow,” my mom said. “He gave you a blessing and saw us,” she continued with excitement in her voice. “Really?” I could not believe my ears! The emotions I experienced were beyond words. To say that I was excited and thrilled is an understatement.

My mom and I were hugging each other and we both burst into tears. This was something we wanted to experience for a long time, and it seemed surreal that it had finally happened. Although I couldn’t physically see Pope Francis, knowing that he had actually been near me and given us a blessing was more than enough. I certainly did not need my eyes to experience the happiness and peace I felt during those few seconds. My mom was able to capture a picture of that unforgettable moment, and thanks to that I have a souvenir to show others as proof of that wonderful day.

I consider myself extremely privileged on being part of history for many reasons. Pope Francis is the first Latin American Pope, and this was his first visit to Mexico. Over 90 percent of Mexicans are Catholic, so it was fitting that he paid a visit to this country. A pope had never visited Michoacan, so the fact that I had the opportunity of seeing him during my vacation was very special. Best of all, I experienced this surrounded by my family and loved ones. This made the experience even more meaningful, and is without a doubt a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.