Commentary: Recent Supreme Court Ruling Is a Victory for Students with Disabilities

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court made an important decision regarding the rights of students with disabilities in the United States. The ruling in the Endrew F. V. Douglas County School District case states that schools must provide more than a minimum education for a student with a disability. They instead must provide these students with an opportunity to make progress in line with the federal law. In other words, students with disabilities should be given realistic opportunities and challenges that will help them gain the skills they need to succeed, just like all other students.

Throughout my childhood, I was incredibly fortunate to have a robust and challenging education in the public school system. This was made possible by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which among other things, guarantees a “free and appropriate public education” to students with disabilities. Since its passage in 1975, IDEA has allowed thousands of individuals with disabilities like myself to receive a well-rounded education and ultimately realize our full potential.

As a student I received many helpful accommodations and tools to succeed in school. My teachers taught me Braille, how to use assistive technology and how to advocate for what I needed. My orientation and mobility instructors taught me how to travel independently with a white cane and how to navigate the public transportation system. I was able to succeed in classes alongside my sighted peers thanks to the Braille and audio textbooks and assignments, assistive technology devices and support I received from my teachers. All of this — coupled with my parents’ high expectations — helped me succeed at the University of Illinois, where I received my Bachelor’s degree in journalism. I strongly believe that all of this would not have been possible had it not been for the IDEA.

The recent ruling from the Supreme Court was a tremendous victory for students with disabilities and their families. By requiring public schools to provide students with optimal opportunities to succeed, this ruling will ultimately help pave the way for a better future and education for all students with disabilities. The overall goal for every child is to get an appropriate education which will help him or her become a successful adult, and children with disabilities also deserve this opportunity. As someone who benefited and succeeded thanks to the IDEA, I understand firsthand and appreciate the significance of this recent ruling to current and future generations of students with disabilities.

Commentary: Responding to People Who Call Those with Disabilities ‘Inspirational’

Commentary: Responding to People Who Call Those with Disabilities ‘Inspirational’

One of the remarks people with disabilities often get from the general public is that we are ‘inspirational’. I have noticed this happens more often to people with visual or physical disabilities, and is something that many of us dislike. While I do not like it when someone calls me an inspiration simply because they see me doing everyday things, I completely understand where they are coming from.

It’s not that people want to offend those of us with disabilities in any way, but rather they cannot imagine how it would be to live – in this case – without sight. In fact, a recent study showed that Americans fear blindness more than cancer or other life-threatening diseases. There is no doubt that out of all the senses, sight is the one used the most by human beings. It is no wonder then that many people are amazed when they encounter someone like me who can’t see doing everyday things.

I recently got asked how I respond to these comments from well-meaning individuals. Truth is, there is no specific answer, and it all depends on the situation at hand. There have been times when even acquaintances who have known me for a long time tell me I am an inspiration for doing things like going to work, taking public transportation, etc. I thank them, and politely try to educate them on the different tools and techniques that help me do these and other things. Thanks to assistive technology, for example, I can be as successful at work as my colleagues with sight.

Often, it is strangers who tell me I am their inspiration. Once, a college advisor whom I had just met told me I was his ‘hero’ simply because I showed up to class on my own. Rather than saying anything, I just smiled. He was my soon to be academic advisor, and I certainly did not want to start off our relationship on a bad note! Other times, people have randomly approached me on the street to tell me I am their inspiration. Since most of these times I am in a hurry and don’t have time to stop and talk, I simply thank them and move on.

This is not to say that people with disabilities cannot be an inspiration to us. Erik Weihenmayer, for instance, was the first person who is blind to reach the summit of Mount Everest. David Paterson, governor of New York from 2008-2010, was the first legally blind governor in the United States. There are countless other examples of blind people who have overcome their disability to achieve great things.  We’ve had blind musicians, judges, attorneys, astronomers, radio announcers and many other career categories.  To me, these individuals qualify as truly inspirational because they excelled in challenging occupations that are difficult for sighted people to succeed in, let alone those of us who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise disabled.

For many of us with disabilities, being called ‘inspirational’ is a common occurrence. While I appreciate that people have the best intentions in mind, individuals with disabilities do not want to be seen as courageous or inspirational simply because of doing everyday things. While it is true that many of us have had to overcome certain challenges, we have also learned to be independent in our everyday lives, just like anyone else. I hope that one day more people will say I am inspirational because of my talents and professional accomplishments, not because of my disability.

For more tips, read my previous post about language suggestions for referring to people with disabilities. Have you been called ‘inspirational’ because of your disability? How do you respond to these remarks? Special thanks to our reader who asked me this important and thought provoking question!

Commentary: How Research Can Help Us Better Understand and Address Vision Loss

A popular belief is that when people lose their sight, their other senses “kick in” and get stronger. New research suggests that this might actually be true. Researchers at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary recently discovered that enhanced neuronal connections are present in the brains of people who were born blind or lost their sight before the age of three. The study found that in the case of participants who were blind, there were significant differences in both the occipital cortex – the part of the brain that processes visual information – as well as in the areas involved in sensory, language and cognitive processing. In other words, the study suggests that the brains of individuals who are blind are able to adapt and compensate for their loss of sight.

Not only does this research shed light on a theory that has been around for many years, but it will also help us better understand how the brain of those without sight process information. While researchers still do not know exactly how or what causes this rewiring in the brain, these findings can pave the way to innovative forms of rehabilitation.

Without a doubt, good rehabilitation helps people who are blind learn to be more independent. Services like The Chicago Lighthouse’s Educational Programs, for example, teach children who are blind or visually impaired valuable skills that will help them become independent. Our Low Vision Rehabilitation Services teach adults with vision loss helpful techniques that allow them to regain their independence. New research – like that of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary – will enable The Chicago Lighthouse to develop additional rehabilitation techniques to help people who are blind or visually impaired. With the drastic increase in vision loss due to the aging of the baby boom generation, this will become even more crucial in the upcoming years.

Thanks to new technology and research methods, scientists are better able to understand the human brain and how people are affected by vision loss. This in turn will help organizations, such as The Chicago Lighthouse, devise innovative rehabilitation strategies and techniques that will help people who are blind or visually impaired gain greater independence. I occasionally get asked if it is true that when someone loses a sense – like sight –our other senses get stronger. After reading this research, I will have to tell them that they just might be right.

Review of The Dot, The World’s First Braille Smartwatch

Review of The Dot, The World’s First Braille Smartwatch

At The Chicago Lighthouse, we are constantly testing new assistive technology products. I recently had the opportunity to review the Dot Watch, the world’s first Braille smartwatch for people who are blind. Made by Dot Incorporation, a startup company in South Korea, the Dot Watch allows iPhone and Android smartphone users to receive and view notifications on the watch in Braille. Please note that the model we reviewed at The Chicago Lighthouse is a beta version, and subject to fine-tuning before the actual retail version is released.

The Dot Watch consists of a simple design. On the face of the watch is a Braille display which has four cells, and below that are two touch sensors that allow users to scroll through and read each notification. The right side of the watch has three controls: the “Select” button, the “Dot Crown” dial and the “Home” button. These controls are used to operate the watch’s different functions. The watch is charged via a USB charger which is included with the device.

The Dot Watch works by pairing it with a smartphone via Bluetooth. Users must first install the Dot Watch app, available in the iTunes and Google Play app stores. Next, they have to create an account by registering their email, name and creating a password. The watch can then be paired with the smartphone. Once paired, users can begin receiving notifications from their phone, tell the time and date, and use other features. From the app, individuals can configure the watch’s settings, check the battery status, set an alarm and use the “learn Braille” function, a feature which allows users to send a message to the watch in Braille. Aside from having a minor issue with pairing the watch to my phone (problem which was quickly resolved by technical support), the set up process and app were completely accessible on my iPhone, and I was able to do it without sighted assistance.

Once the watch is set up, it alerts users when they have received a new notification on their phone, such as a text message. They can then read it on the watch’s Braille display. The watch also alerts individuals when they get a call, and they can check caller information and answer or decline the call (note that the watch does not include speakers, so users should have their phone nearby when accepting a call). The watch also includes a stopwatch, timer and alarm. Currently, the alarm only consists of vibrations, and could be particularly handy for individuals who are deaf-blind.

For me, the main concern was how I would be able to read notifications given that the watch only displays four Braille cells – or four letters or numbers – at once. To make scrolling through notifications easier, the watch includes two touch sensors, which are activated and display the next characters when the user taps the lower part of the face. I found the touch sensors helpful, because I could easily navigate through the notifications. The watch also has an auto-scroll feature, where the next set of characters are automatically displayed while reading notifications. The auto-scroll speed can be adjusted to suit the user’s reading preference.

The Braille pins on the display are clear and easy to decipher. One issue I did have was that occasionally, some of the dots would not be raised, making for incorrect readings of time, date and notifications. This was more common when I was not wearing the watch. Also, since the watch will be worn in all sorts of environments, it would be helpful if it included a cover to protect the Braille display from dirt or other objects that might damage it. This is something that the company is already working on developing. Also, the watch currently only includes one type of adjustable wrist strap. More options – such as bands or straps of different colors or materials should also be offered. People would appreciate these options given today’s desire for style and fashion!

The user manual was very detailed, and I was especially happy to be able to access it on the Dot Watch app and on the company’s website. The quick start guide is available in Braille, and included with the watch. While this in itself was helpful, more specific details about the watch – such as including a description of the different parts – is suggested. Contacting support for help when pairing the watch to my phone was simple and straight forward. I got a prompt response, and the support staff was able to quickly help.

The Dot smartwatch is without a doubt an innovative device for people who are blind, who will now have a new option for accessing information on their smartphones. Kudos to Dot Incorporation for their work on this watch, and a special thank you from all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse for allowing us to test and review it in our blog. For more information and updates about the Dot Watch, visit Dot Incorporation’s website.

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.

Sandy’s View Turns Two Years Old!

Sandy’s View Turns Two Years Old!

It is hard to believe that our Sandy’s View blog turns two years old this month! This blog, which is written for the Chicago Lighthouse, was launched in March of 2015 in an effort to inform the general public about blindness and visual impairment. To date, we have written 186 posts covering a wide range of topics related to vision loss. In 2016 alone, the blog had 20,000 views from all over the world.

Initially, the main focus of Sandy’s View was to answer some of the common questions those of us with vision loss get. We have explained things like how people who are blind watch TV and tell time. We soon realized that Sandy’s View was also becoming popular among those who are blind or visually impaired, and began blogging about even more topics, including assistive technology, reviews of audio described movies and theatre productions, and commentaries on current events and news relevant to those with vision loss. In fact, famous jazz singer and pianist Henry Butler also made an appearance on the blog! Of course, we also inform our readers about what’s new at The Chicago Lighthouse.

Writing Sandy’s View for two years has been a great experience for myself and all of us at The Chicago Lighthouse. I enjoy blogging about different topics, but without a doubt the one that interests me the most is assistive technology. Writing about new technology developments gives me the unique opportunity to learn about revolutionary products that will help those of us who are blind or visually impaired become more independent. Thanks to working at The Chicago Lighthouse and writing Sandy’s View, I can test and learn about devices and products that are still under development.

Thanks so much to our readers across the globe for supporting Sandy’s View for the last two years. We have received wonderful feedback from people all over the world, and we could not be more grateful for your loyalty and readership! I also want to send a big thank you to The Chicago Lighthouse community for your continued support of this blog. Sandy’s View has grown tremendously over this period, and I sure am excited to see what the future has in store for us!

We always love hearing from our readers! If you have any feedback or would like to suggest other topics, please leave us a comment, or email us at sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org. Happy Second Anniversary, Sandy’s View!

 

Commentary: Helping Students with Disabilities Succeed

Like anyone else, college students with disabilities are concerned about getting good grades, making new friends, and fitting in with the rest of their classmates. Nevertheless, there are other aspects those of us who are blind or visually impaired have to consider, and even plan ahead for, in order to have a positive college experience. Thinking back to my years in college, I remember wondering not only if science and other courses with highly visual content would be too hard, but also if my professors would be understanding and accommodate my needs. More often than not, I was the first and only student with a visual impairment in my classes. It was also the first time my professors had ever had someone without sight in their class.

Although I was always assertive and advised my professors on how best to make their class accessible, I would still wonder if they would take my needs into consideration. Recently, I read an article that reminded me of just how some college professors go above and beyond to accommodate students with disabilities. Gladys Malave, a biology professor at Northwest Vista College strives to make sure Olivia and Katy Shaw have what they need to succeed in class. Both sisters are legally blind as a result of Retinopathy of Prematurity, and require certain classroom adaptations. To help them succeed in her course, Professor Malave designed tactile models and labeled microscopes in Braille. She even learned Braille in less than a month just to help her students!

I too remember having similar experiences throughout high school and college. While in high school, my Spanish teacher learned how to use a special Braille printer to print out worksheets and other class materials for me. A couple of my journalism professors in college made sure that at least one computer in the computer lab was accessible so I could complete all my assignments alongside my peers. My history, economics and meteorology professors would also spend countless hours after class with me describing the different pictures and concepts they showed my classmates earlier that day. Thanks to this, I was able to pass their courses with As and Bs.

I will always appreciate the extra time and effort my teachers put into helping me succeed in the classroom. I could immediately tell they had a genuine interest in helping me and the entire class learn. Without their accommodations, I simply would not have had a positive and successful college experience. Succeeding in college as a student with a disability is a team endeavor. As individuals with disabilities, college students know best how and what type of assistance they need to succeed in school. Professors, on the other hand, can go a long way in making their classes accessible by taking their students’ needs into consideration.

Kudos to all of the teachers who constantly go above and beyond to make their courses accessible to everyone. This is a commendable effort that benefits everyone, and deserves recognition.