Easterseals launches revitalized brand bringing renewed purpose

Randy Rutta

Easterseals CEO Randy Rutta

Easterseals CEO Randy Rutta this week talked about our new brand initiative on his Huffington Post blog.

“Our goal is largely two-fold: one, to capture and communicate the work Easterseals does for and with people with disabilities right now; and two, to introduce Easterseals to the millions of people who are experiencing disability today, but don’t yet know our history and expertise.”

Read the post in its entirety.


Lifelong memories from Camp Easter Seals circa 1980s

David Hamrick

David Hamrick

Today, guest blogger David Hamrick shares his memories of Easterseals camp in the 1980s.  Now an adult with autism, David has been a longtime friend of Easterseals, most recently participating in our social media series about love, dating, relationships and disability in February. We hope you enjoy his trip down memory lane as much as we did.

I had the privilege of attending Camp Easter Seals when I was a young kid back in the late 1980s.  Most of my visits were at the Eastern Virginia facility just northeast of Richmond, and these were either weekend stays during the school year or full-week stays during the summer.

Camp Easter Seals was the place for many important childhood memories.  One of the most important was coming to learn of my diagnosis of autism.  While I was at the eastern Virginia facility, I was wondering why everybody else there seemed to be either in a wheelchair or have some type of disability.  I asked why everyone there had a disability of some kind and I did not, and it was at this time that I was made aware that I have autism, and that is how I was eligible to attend Camp Easter Seals.  I then seemed to fit in better with the rest of the attendees.

During one of my week-long visits, I started becoming very homesick and wanted to talk to my parents back in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Since we were not permitted to use the office phones for this purpose, as an eight-year-old, I figured out how to use the pay phone and call my parents collect, which really impressed them.  The weekend visits were not as hard on me in that regard.

In addition to what I have described above, I have some additional fond memories of my trips there.  I remember really liking the camp counselor on my very first stay there, and I loved playing with her long hair.  She had this really large textbook that I wanted to read, and she was nice enough to let me read it.  She also took me outside at night to listen to the frogs chirping away in the woods.

Another thing I liked in addition to long hair, at the time, were shoulder blades. A couple of the camp counselors allowed me to rest my head on their upper back where the shoulder blades are.  If you are wondering, this was one of my autistic special interests at the time.

I also enjoyed all of the bonfires we had, the arts and crafts, and developing a good friendly relationship with the nurse there.

The thing I did not like was the mandatory rest period where we had to stay in our rooms for an hour during the middle of the day.  I got really bored since I did not take naps at that age.



A look inside Access Project: making theater open to all

This past week I attended two plays I would have never seen experienced otherwise.theater-curtains-down-morguestock

Let me explain.

Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater moved to its new location at Biograph Theater (yes, the landmark building where gangster John Dillinger was ambushed) in 2006. The refurbished building boasts an elevator, ramps, wide hallways, widened doorways. A perfect location for Access Project, a nationally-recognized outreach effort to involve people with disabilities in all aspects of theater. Access Project designates certain performances as “Access Nights” by offering additional accessibility services to Victory Garden patrons. But wait…there’s more! Access Project also teams up with smaller theater companies (some who usually perform in small inaccessible spaces in basements, above taverns, down narrow hallways) from time to time to sponsor a one-night-fits-all production in Victory Gardens’ very accessible space.

Both productions I went to this week were produced by smaller Chicago theater companies hosted by Victory Gardens at the refurbished Biograph Theater:

  1. Once in a Lifetime, a 1930 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, was performed by Straw Dog Theatre company at Victory Gardens last night. . Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones said the play is “seldom revived, and a lot of that has to do with the humongous cast of characters, featuring nearly 40 speaking parts.”
  2. Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go blind is a production by the Neo-Futurists that attempts to perform 30 skits in 60 minutes. They performed their “ever-changing menu” last Saturday night at Victory Gardens.

Dozens of characters. Actors playing multiple parts. Many, many scene changes. These particular two plays would have been recipes for blind disaster, but the thought put into the touch tours before each production — coupled with speedy Shayne Kennedy providing audio description in my headset for both plays — helped me take it all in.

Okay, maybe not all, but far more than I would have otherwise. Because, honestly, without this sort of special accommodation, I wouldn’t have considered attending these two complicated plays at all.
Audio touch tours are much more than just the tactile experience the name implies — a Touch Tour is a pre-performance program that gives those of us who are blind or have low vision an opportunity to:

  • participate in an artistic conversation about a production
  • experience a detailed description of the set, props and costumes
  • handle key props, set and costume pieces
  • tour the set with a sighted guide
  • meet the actors, hear the voices they’ll be using on stage, and learn about the characters they play

When the plays were about to start, I was offered an ear piece connected to a small device the size of an old-fashioned cell phone — it had a volume control dial so I could rev it up to hear the audio describer alert me to scene changes, character entrances/exits and other movements during the play. I usually can follow the play just fine and opt to go without the ear piece. Not this time, though. With one show offering 30 skits in 60 minutes, and the other featuring 40 speaking parts, trust me, I cherished those headphones — almost as much as I cherished the opportunity to seetake in these two fine productions.


Easterseals teacher recognized as an exceptional educator at the White House

Rockford’s Easterseals Autism Therapeutic School and Center teacher Stephen Szabo was recognized as an “exceptional educator” and invited by President Obama to the White House last week to participate in an event honoring the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and other great educators from across the country — like him! Here is Mr. Szabo with a guest post about the honor.


Stephen Szabo at the White House last week.

by Stephen Szabo

I never would have thought in my entire teaching career that I would be nominated for National Teacher of the Year and be invited to go to the White House to meet other outstanding teachers nominated for the award. What a great honor to have the opportunity to be celebrated as a Great Educator of the United States at the White House among hundreds of other educators. Just being in the same room in the White House with such great teachers as well as the President of the United States is an unforgettable moment in my life.

I have been working at Easterseals Therapeutic School and Center for Autism in Rockford Illinois for almost four years. When I finished my college education, several teachers in Illinois were getting laid off, or were unable to get a job. Before taking a job at Easterseals Therapeutic School and Center for Autism, I was subbing in school districts in the Northern Illinois region, and working in retail, which was not fulfilling for me. I wanted to be a teacher.

Nearby regional offices of education were not hiring.  Then, I happened to look on a CraigsList job posting, and I found that Easterseals was hiring! I had never worked in the special education field, but I was called in for an interview.

Easterseals Therapeutic School and Center for Autism hired me as a paraprofessional. Working with students who have disabilities expanded my skills and my understanding, and eventually I went back to school to get proper certification to teach students with special education needs.

My career as a teacher at Easterseals has given me the chance to be a teacher in a unique setting. The classrooms I teach in are ever-changing due to the needs of the students. I have received a great amount of training from colleagues, and their mentoring guided me in the right direction as a teacher, molding me into the teacher I am today.

Easterseals gave me the opportunity to work in a school environment when no other place had even called me in for an interview. Educating students is my passion, and I cannot thank Easterseals, my administrators, and all the support staff enough for giving me the opportunity to do what I love to do.


The small meaningful moments that make my wife an amazing mom

Mother's Day

My wife Rosa and our daughter Elena.

Our Saturday routine usually consists of breakfast, followed by a visit to the library to pick out one DVD and twelve books (one or two in Spanish). All that decision-making is punctuated by a trip to the grocery store.

At the grocery store, we meander through the aisles, look for what’s in season or on sale and conjure up recipes for the week. Our trip concludes in the refrigerated aisle where Elena gets to use her eyes to select what flavor yoghurt she would like for the week. Rosa always helps the cashier bag the groceries in her reusable plastic mercado bags from Mexico, and she is always thanked for her effort.

After we go out to the car, unload the groceries, get Elena seated, and put away the wheelchair, Rosa always makes a point of putting the shopping cart either back into the corral or in the hands of the attendant who is collecting shopping carts from the lot. We have a handicapped-parking placard, but Rosa has never left a cart in the extra space provided or in any other part of the lot.

I often tease my wife, accusing her of doing this because she likes things to be organized. That, or she’s a strict rule-follower. In reality, I see her insistence to help bag the groceries and put away the shopping carts as a selfless act that makes a stranger’s day better and easier. She wants to be helpful. I’ve always loved this about her.

When I began writing about my daughter in a public forum, I received several emails from people complimenting us on the work that we’ve done with Elena to ensure that she is progressing both academically and physically. My blog posts often illustrate a picture of parenting a child with a disability that is full of endless potential, hope, and inspiration. Parenting a child with a disability can also be an exercise in intense frustration, isolation and diminishing patience.

Rosa treats Elena with small acts of patience, care, and tenderness that soothe and calm our daughter. Just like lending a hand to bag the groceries and put away the shopping carts, the small and humble gestures Rosa uses when she’s with Elena are the actions that make the biggest impact.

A few months ago, Elena had to undergo general anesthesia to receive Botox injections in her legs to loosen up some of her muscle tone. Elena emerged from the anesthesia disoriented and confused. As she collected her thoughts, she realized that her legs hurt. She was very angry and upset, and she was unable to verbally communicate what was wrong. She wanted her mother.

Rosa cradled our five-year-old, compassionately held her, and began to patiently give her some apple juice. Elena calmed from terrified shrieking to barely audible whimpering. Again, it’s not public grandiose gestures that make my wife a good mother, it’s the small meaningful ones that do.

Happy mother’s day, Rosa.


Does Mother’s Day make you sad? You’re not the only one

Gus and Beth.

Gus and Beth

For years after our son Gus was born, I begged my husband Mike not to get me a gift for Mother’s Day. “I’m not your mother!” I told him.

Our son Gus has severe mental and physical disabilities — he doesn’t understand what Mother’s Day is. Gus wouldn’t be making me a card. He wouldn’t be presenting me with dandelions picked especially for me. I knew that. But I was determined not to let any of that bother me. I knew I was a good mother, and I knew my son loved me in his own special way.

And then one year — Gus must have been 5 or 6 — I burst into tears on Mother’s Day. “I’ll never get to celebrate like all the other mothers do!” I wailed. Poor Mike didn’t know what to do.

This article about Parental Grief and Adjustment to a Child with a Disability reassured me I am not alone when it comes to feeling a bit of sadness on Mother’s Day — in fact, Mother’s Day is one of the more common occasions of stress for families of a child with a disability. Ditto Father’s Day.

Ever since that outburst of mine, we’ve gone out of our way to celebrate Mother’s Day, and not always in traditional ways. This Sunday we’re heading to a White Sox game — it’s Family Sunday at White Sox Park. We’re proud of Gus, and I’m proud to be his mom. We’ll order hot dogs, clink our plastic cups at Sunday’s game, say “cheers” to Gus and hope for another White Sox win.


The fact of the matter is, “I am blind, and blindness takes extra”

LawnmowerI am pleased to introduce Jeff Flodin as a guest blogger today. Jeff is a social worker and a writer…and he’s blind.

…And I’m Blind

by Jeff Flodin

When the weed patch next door reached knee-high, I rapped on my neighbor’s front door. “You’ve got to do something,” I told him. He mumbled lame excuses about his lawn mower, his work hours, his wife and kids. I quoted city codes and cited civic duty. I appealed to his sense of pride. I finished with, “I keep up my yard,” and then, after a pause, “…and I’m blind.”

Had I really said that? Yes, and I was mortified. I had played blindness as my trump card — out of spite, with intent to injure. I felt mortified, yes, but justified as well because, damn it, things are harder blind than sighted. I’ve been both and I know.

With blindness, I’ve had to learn new ways to do old things. New ways require more time, effort and planning — if they’re doable at all.

But don’t call me superman because I water the flowers and cut the grass. I no more want to use blindness as a boast when I do one thing than use it as an excuse not to do something else. I neither wish to hear my neighbors say, “He keeps things tidy — for a blind man” nor, “No wonder things have gone to pot — the poor man’s blind.” I simply choose to put forth the time and effort. To me, it’s just the right thing to do.

I hope my “gotcha” didn’t cause my neighbor lasting harm. I suspect it was a product of anger, self-pity and my need to feel superior. This I own. But I like to think I was also stating a fact: I am blind, and blindness takes extra. And it’s OK to give myself a little credit.

This may be a rationalization and maybe I owe him an apology. Maybe I don’t. I’ll mull that over. Meanwhile, I just want him to cut his weeds.

This post originally appeared on Jalapeños in the Oatmeal, Jeff Flodin’s blog about digesting vision loss.


The next senator from Illinois will use a wheelchair

WheelchairThe presidential election and events like yesterday’s primaries get so much attention that some of the more interesting state and local races seem to be somewhat overlooked. The Senatorial race here in Illinois is a good example. Whatever the outcome, the next senator from Illinois will use a wheelchair.

Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Tammy Duckworth served in Iraq and lost both legs when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter she was co-piloting in 2004. Her Republican rival, incumbent Senator Mark S. Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012. He had to re-learn how to walk again after the stroke, and he, too, often uses a wheelchair.

An article in the Chicago  last week pointed out that running a Senate campaign involves lots of travel and complicated logistics, and for both candidates, that requires extra planning. From the article:

Duckworth said she and her staff have a pre-event checklist to make sure the site is up to their standards — and that means making sure even the bathrooms are wheelchair accessible.

“I don’t go to any place that isn’t accessible even though I have artificial legs that I can walk in; it’s on principle,” she said. “If someone in a wheelchair can’t get in it, I’m not going to do an event there because just because I can get in there doesn’t mean somebody else can.”

Kirk said it definitely takes longer to prepare, especially when traveling. “You always have to do really proper advance and make sure if there’s a stage [that] the railing is secure,” said his campaign manager, Kevin Artl. “You have to allocate time to arrive.”

The article said both candidates have heard from voters who question their ability to serve. “With a stroke, they wonder how much of you is ‘there,’” Kirk said. “With me, I’m all there.”

Duckworth said the question about using a wheelchair in public during the campaign came up when she first ran for Congress. “I’m not ashamed I’m in a wheelchair. I earned this wheelchair,” she said. “I’ve always insisted it’s not something that we hide.”


Challenges at the ballot box? Voters with disabilities, make your voice heard

Ballot BoxI am pleased to introduce James Charles Dixon, Co-Chair of the National Council on Independent Living’s Voting Rights Committee, as a guest blogger today.

By James Charles Dixon

People with disabilities: Have you ever experienced any issues when trying to cast your vote at your designated polling place? If so, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) needs to hear from you.

The EAC will be holding a public hearing this Wednesday, April 27.  If you have faced any sort of challenge whatsoever while casting your ballot, or trying to, you have the opportunity to inform the EAC, so that it can be addressed.

Please send an email to listen@eac.gov to share your experience, identifying your polling place and describing what happened.


Seeing Richard III in a whole new way

Michael Thornton in rehearsal for Richard III. Photo: Steppenwolf

Michael Thornton in rehearsal for Richard III. Photo: Steppenwolf

You might recall a post I wrote last year about Michael Patric Thornton, an actor who returned to Chicago after playing a doctor in the TV drama Private Practice. Michael suffered a spinal stroke when he was 23 years old that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He started a theater company in Chicago after that, and now has the lead in a new production of Gift Theater’s production of Richard III at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater in Chicago. I attended a special tour for people who have visual impairments before seeing, ahem, the play. It was one of the most well-thought-out audio touch tours I’ve been on – and I’ve been on a lot of them! Here’s how it went:

  1. The play’s director spoke to us about why she was drawn to the play, her decision to cast Michael Patrick Thornton in the lead, her decision to go minimalist with costumes and set design.
  2. Mike Thornton joined in and started his part of the pre-game show talking about his high school English teacher, the man responsible for turning Mike on to Shakespeare. That teacher went on to get a Ph.D., and he’s the Shakespeare scholar who adapted Richard III for the production we’d be seeing later that afternoon.
  3. The man who’d be sitting in the balcony describing scene changes, character entrances/exits and other movements into my headset during the performance took two or three minutes to describe the simple set design. Preparing to audio describe the play took much longer – he’d already been at two live performances and had been given permission by the cast to videotape one as well to practice at home.
  4. A friend had met me at Steppenwolf ahead of time to see (she can!) how these special tours work. My friend knows my Seeing Eye dog Whitney, so I took the dog’s harness off and handed her the leash to have both hands free to touch the few things on stage.
  5. Evan Hatfield, the Director of Audience Experience at Steppenwolf, led me onto the stage, but with so few things up there, he added a bonus….
  6. I got to feel some of the stuff on the prop table! The prop table is exactly what the name implies: props are carefully placed on this table offstage so actors can grab them efficiently on their way onstage. Aha! Something actors have in common with those of us who are blind: We like to keep important items in a particular spot so we can find them easily.
  7. Actors (I counted — I think there were 14!) lined up on stage, and one by one they were asked the same set of questions by Evan. Height? Skin tone? Hair color? Any facial hair? Make any physical decisions to convey character, help tell your character’s story? Answers to that last question were intriguing. One had decided his character would have a slight limp, and the woman playing one of the princes had the same answer that the woman playing Lady Anne had –both were playing characters who were unsure of themselves, so they shifted their weight from one foot to the other to signify feeling off-balance. Actors weren’t asked to describe their costumes — we’d been told earlier they’d all be in simple outfits in shades of black and grey, and each would wear pearl earrings and a ruffled collar.
  8. Each actor recited a line from the play so we’d recognize the voice later.
  9. Actors involved in the final fight scene stayed on stage then to review the choreography. Touch tour participants are usually ushered out of the theatre for this, but staff members who were concerned about Whitney’s reaction to the violence during the actual show wanted us to stay and check it out. She passed the audition.
  10. Cast members who love dogs came down to meet Whitney then, and I took her harness off so they could play with her. Pet therapy, both for Whit and for the actors!

I was not as lucky as Mike Thornton was in high school. My English teachers were not charismatic. None of them turned me on to Shakespeare. This performance of Richard III marked the first time I’d ever attended a live performance of a Shakespeare play.

I did a fair bit of research ahead of time. I read A Rose for the Crown, historical fiction set during the War of the Roses that led to Richard III’s coronation. I read the Richard III sections of A Theatergoers Guide to Shakespeare and Tales from Shakespeare, and even downloaded the play itself –although all I read there were the “explanatory notes.”

I read some reviews, too. The Chicago Tribune review of the Gift Theater production at Steppenwolf was helpful in explaining how Thornton, who uses a wheelchair, would also be using a walker and an exoskeleton device to portray King Richard. The exoskeleton is a state-of-the-art device called Rewalk. It was provided by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a sponsor of the production. When Mike was talking to us before the play, he was surprised he hadn’t heard much controversy over Gift’s decision to have him use a walker to stand up in order to seduce Lady Anne. Isn’t that blatant ablism?” he wondered. He credited the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for providing the robotic exoskeleton he uses in the coronation scene and did his best to explain how he makes the exoskeleton work.

“Do you look scary when you cross the stage in it?” I asked. “Or powerful?” When he didn’t answer, I turned around to ask Martin (the guy who’d be talking into our headsets). He didn’t hesitate to give his answer: “Powerful.”

The audio/touch tour had started two hours before the play. It was so stimulating that I wasn’t sure the play could live up to It.

It did.

The whole experience was so exhilarating, the dialogue so intense and dynamic, the stage so full of characters speaking in that unfamiliar, well, Shakespearian way, I guess, that by the time Act One was over, I was exhausted.

I left at intermission.

Let me be clear here. My leaving early had everything to do with my limitations, not the production. I routinely seek out plays with few characters and one act. That’s because, otherwise, it’s hard for me to keep up as well as I want to. And my previous experience with Shakespeare was nil — even in my sighted days, I’d struggled to understand the plays we were required to read in high school and college. All to say, given my history with a Shakespeare play? This Richard III production was a rousing success. It was my first, but not my last.

Gift Theatre’s production of Richard III runs through May 1 in Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St. in Chicago.Tickets available at 312.335.1650 and steppenwolf.org.