Making Movie Watching Accessible to Anyone

During a recent outing to the movies, I requested audio description service at the theater. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, audio description is the narration of what is happening in a movie, TV show or play. It can help those of us without sight keep up with what is going on, especially in movies and shows with little dialogue. I had done my research, and knew that the theater I was visiting offered a special headset, through which I could hear the audio description commentary without interrupting other moviegoers. The staff knew exactly what I was talking about, and handed me the headset. Much to my disappointment, however, I realized that the audio descriptions were not working as soon as I put the headset on.

This, unfortunately, is an all too common scenario for blind and visually impaired moviegoers throughout the United States. A new startup company is working to change the experience of people with disabilities. Actiview is a recently launched smartphone app which will provide audio descriptions and closed captions of movies for people who are blind or hearing impaired. Best of all, no extra or special equipment is required. Users simply install the Actiview app on their smartphone, and select audio descriptions or closed captions for the desired movie. The app was recently launched with the debut of Cars 3.

Other developers around the world have been working on similar technologies. Last year, the Disney Movies Anywhere app began providing audio description for some of its movies. Thanks to this app, I was able to fully enjoy Finding Dory at the movie theater last year. For the first time, I could watch a movie without having to worry about whether or not audio description was available at the theater. By using my iPhone and earbuds, I could listen to the audio description. If the Disney Movies Anywhere app is an indication of how Actiview will help those of us with disabilities in the near future, it is sure to become a game changer for moviegoers around the world!

We have seen time and time again how modern technology is providing equal access to people with disabilities. Thanks to apps like Actiview and Disney Movies Anywhere, individuals who are blind will have greater access to the movies. We will no longer have to scope out or be limited to movie theaters which offer audio description. Most importantly, I hope that more movie producers will take the needs of people who are blind or hearing impaired into consideration. By providing audio descriptions and closed captions for movies, everyone will be able to access and enjoy new releases. Going to the movies is an activity enjoyed by many, let’s make it more inclusive and accessible for everyone!

How Do Guide Dogs Work?

Most people have heard about and seen guide dogs when out and about. These service animals are carefully trained to lead their owners around other people and obstacles. Individuals with vision loss throughout the world use guide dogs (also called dog guides) to travel safely and independently to and from home, work, school and countless other places. Here are some of the frequently asked questions about guide dogs and how they work.

GuideDog

 

Q: How and where are guide dogs trained?

A: Guide dogs can either be trained at special schools, or by owners themselves. Regardless of the training method, the dogs must learn how to guide their owner safely around all types of obstacles. Owners also have to learn how to give the dog the different commands for when traveling out and about.

 

Q: What kind of breeds are used?

A: Guide dog breeds include Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Poodles and Labradoodles. These last two are primarily used for people who are allergic to dogs. All of these breeds are used because they have the necessary intelligence, temperament and health qualities to be a successful dog guide. Dogs are matched with their future owners based on his or her personality, walking speed and other characteristics.

 

Q: How do dog guides know where to go when traveling?

A: This is a team effort between the dog and its owner. The owner knows where and how he wants to get to a certain place, and he or she is responsible for telling the dog through verbal and hand signals. Directions include forward, left and right. When at a street crossing, the owner is responsible for judging when it is safe to cross based on the sound of the cars, and should then command the dog to begin crossing. Intelligent disobedience is when a dog refuses to cross the street because it is unsafe to do so, even when the owner has commanded it to go forward.

 

Q: Do people have to be totally blind to have a dog guide?

A: People who are legally blind but still have some usable vision may also qualify for a dog guide. Although these individuals might still have some sight, they can still benefit from the assistance from a dog.

 

Q: Why do some people use dogs and others use canes?

A: Only about 5 percent of people who are blind or severely visually impaired use dog guides. Like with anything else, this all depends on many factors, including a person’s lifestyle, travel skills and preferences. Some people prefer to travel with a white cane, while others are more comfortable using a dog. You can read this Sandy’s View post about different thoughts and experiences from various cane and dog guide users.

 

Q: Is it ok to pet or feed a dog guide while it is working?

A: If you see a dog guide wearing a harness, that means it is working and should not be pet, fed or distracted. Doing so can put its owner in great danger, because it is not focusing on guiding. Never come up to a dog guide and pet it without asking its owner! Always check if it is ok, and please do not feel offended if he or she says no. This Sandy’s View post explains more about why dog guides should never be distracted.

 

Q: Where can I find out more about guide dogs?

A: The International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) provides a wealth of information about dog guides, as well as other resources on dog guide schools and other websites from all over the world.

How Social Media is Promoting Disability Awareness

People of all ages have embraced technology and social media. Nowadays, we are constantly checking our profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to stay in touch with our family and friends, learn about the latest news and stay connected with what happens throughout the world. From seeing pictures of our family and friends, to viral videos of pets doing cute and silly things, there is always something everyone can enjoy! This has also created a great opportunity for people with disabilities to spread more awareness among the general public.

Molly Burke is a Canadian public speaker and YouTuber who happens to be completely blind. After struggling with and overcoming vision loss, bullying and mental illness as a teenager, Molly now works to educate others about the capabilities and challenges faced by people who are blind. Recently, I came across this video where Molly discusses the perceptions and realities of blindness, in an entertaining and engaging manner. Some of the situations she addresses are putting on makeup, using computers, pouring drinks and crossing the street. She also addressed the popular misconception of getting to know someone by touching their face – this was by far my favorite part of the video!

I found this video particularly interesting, because I can relate to all of the scenarios Molly addressed. In fact, I once had a college advisor assume that since I cannot see the computer screen, I dictated my emails and assignments to someone. After I explained how screen-readers and assistive technology work, he was more enlightened and fascinated by the topic! Most importantly, I educated him about what I and others with vision loss are capable of doing.

Molly is not the only public figure addressing the challenges faced by people with vision loss. Tommy Edison, better known as the blind film critic, has been blind since birth. He also uses social media and videos to educate viewers about blindness. Some of the topics he has covered over the years include using an ATM and crossing the street. Like Molly, Tommy uses humor to get his point across to his viewers. Tommy is recognized internationally, and many of his videos have become viral on social media.

As someone who is blind, a journalist and overall media enthusiast, I am thrilled at the unique opportunity today’s technology has given people with disabilities. Not only does it help us have more independent lives, but it also allows us to promote disability awareness all over the world. Long-time Sandy’s View readers know that the purpose of this blog is to inform and educate people about blindness and visual impairment.

Throughout my life, I have found that people are curious and eager to learn about how I and others with disabilities go about our lives. Thanks to social media and blogs, we are able to continue addressing misconceptions and breaking down the barriers faced by people with disabilities. This will one day help create a more accessible and inclusive society for everyone.

How Technology Can Increase Braille Literacy

It has long been known that children who are blind or severely visually impaired encounter many barriers for learning to read and write Braille. For one, a lack of resources such as not having the appropriate tools in developing countries prevents students with vision loss from ever learning the system. Youngsters who are blind in the United States also might not have sufficient instruction in the classroom, primarily due to not being able to spend enough time with a teacher of the visually impaired. This leads to Braille illiteracy and thereby numerous missed opportunities for blind students.

To address this alarming issue, T-Var EdTech, a Boston-based startup company developed an innovative tool. The Read Read is a special device that allows students to learn Braille without an instructor. It uses a combination of tactile and audio feedback to teach Braille. Students at the Perkins School for the Blind recently tested the device, and its developer, Alex Tavares, found that they were highly engaged with the Read Read. Tavares and her team are currently seeking funding and support, and they hope to distribute 400 units to 400 students. Individual devices can also be purchased for $495 each.

As a Braille reader myself, I know how important it is for children who are blind to learn braille at an early age. The fact that I was introduced to the system as a preschooler made it much easier for me to fully grasp the concept. Without a doubt, assistive technology, like smartphones and screen-reading software, have drastically enhanced my independence. However, I still believe that it is important for future generations of individuals who are blind to learn to read and right Braille in order to be successful and independent.

The Read Read is a perfect example of how technology can increase Braille literacy among people without sight. It can help students, instructors and parents alike. Teachers can assign Braille lessons to their students so they can practice independently. The parents and families of blind children can also learn Braille with this easy to use tool. Even adults who recently became blind could find the Read Read beneficial when learning Braille. In other words, the possibilities for this device are countless!

Literacy is important for people with and without vision loss. Devices like the Read Read can be true game changers for people who are blind, as they provide an alternative way of learning Braille. Without a doubt, technology has tremendously benefited people who are blind or visually impaired for many years and it sure is wonderful to see developers who want to use it to enhance and increase Braille literacy.

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.

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!

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.