An Online Book Club That Features Disability in Literature

Easterseals Thrive Book Club bookmark, which features an image of a dandelion. It reads "Join the Easterseals Thrive Book Club each month to read, engage, and connect with others. Use the hashtag #ThriveBooks, or check us out on Facebook."

Download the official Easterseals Thrive Book Club bookmark!

In my youth, especially my teen years, I struggled to find books by disabled authors, or books featuring disability at all.

When I managed to read such novels, the authors often portrayed disability as negative — something not worth living for, a burden on society, or a character flaw. Discussing these tropes in a public forum is so important for the disability community, as we can dismantle the stereotypes by sharing our authentic experiences and opinions. We must also support authors with disabilities whenever possible, because we should be the ones telling our stories.

And that’s where Easterseals Thrive’s new book club comes in. Thrive is an online community that empowers young women with disabilities through support and pride. Our book club highlights reads that feature disability; we create a space for discussion, offer author Q&As, host live chats, and more. We even have our own bookmark you can print out and use! Some previous works we highlighted were:

Our next book is Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue, a YA novel following the journey of Kira, a young woman with a physical disability living in a community that shuns those with “imperfections.” When she’s called to the Council of Guardians, Kira is surprised to find they have an important job for her to undertake. This novel, set in a future both scary and relatable, brings forth topics of self-worth, determination, and the necessity of fighting for what is right.

The discussion starts now and lasts through the end of April. If you want to join in, visit the Thrive Book Club Hub for more info, and follow the #ThriveBooks hashtag on Twitter! We’d love for you to read along with us.

If you use the hashtag and tell us about your favorite book, we’ll even send you a fancy bookmark in the mail while supplies last.


What I Learned Teaching a Class for Seniors

Memoir writers from one of the Chicago classes I lead

Beth (pictured second from the right) with her memoir writing class.

In addition to my job moderating this blog for Easterseals, I also lead four different memoir-writing classes every week for senior citizens here in Chicago.

Each week I assign these writers a topic, they go home, write 500-word essays, and bring them back the next week to read aloud. After weeks, months, years of hearing each other’s stories, these writers have come to know each other very well. “It’s not a therapy session,” one of them told me with a laugh. “But it sure is therapeutic.”

Writers in those classes tell me that writing a story down on paper for class each week keeps their brains working. Sitting down to write provides a person with time to think, and then to search their brain for just the right word. If that fails, searching through the dictionary can solve the quandary and expose writers to new words, too.

Writing a story down on paper makes it feel more official, and because I have every writer read their story out loud in class, they think hard about what they write.

The cover of Beth's book, "Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors"

The cover of Beth’s upcoming memoir.

Writers in my classes tell me how important they think it is to stay active, both in body and in mind. One writer said she thinks about her brain as a muscle. She tells me, “The more you use your brain, the stronger it gets!”

These writers are such an inspiration to me that I’ve written a book about them, and now Golden Alley Press, an independent publisher outside of Philadelphia, will be publishing Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors next month.

It’s astonishing how comfortable Nancy Sayre, my editor there, has been with my blindness: together we’ve puzzled through ways to include me in decisions on everything from cover design to branding. During a meeting over the phone last week we thought hard about how many photographs to include in Writing Out Loud, and I was flattered when Nancy credited the “clear imagery” my writing creates. She wondered out loud whether it might be better to use very few photographs and let readers imagine what everything in Writing Out Loud looks like.

I heartily concurred with that thought. “That’ll help the readers get right into my head, they’ll have to imagine things the same way I do.”

The folks at Golden Alley Press continue to help me shape my writing for the better, and you can get a sneak peek of a short chapter online now: Just complete the form here. The book includes a bit about how an internship I had at Easterseals ten years ago led to my part-time job here, so stay tuned, there’s more to come!


Where Were the Actors with Disabilities at the Oscars?

A movie theatre with people all looking at a screenThe 2017 Academy Awards presentation was all about diversity. So where were the actors with disabilities?

A Los Angeles Times interview with Academy Award winning actress Marlee Matlin asks the same question. Matlin is deaf, and her Oscar for best actress in Children of a Lesser God marks the last time an actor with a disability won an Academy Award. The only other actor with a disability to ever win an Oscar was Harold Russell, a veteran who lost both hands during World War II. He earned two Oscars in 1947 for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives.

We at Easterseals are especially interested in what Marlee Matlin has to say about disability — she is an Easterseals Honorary Board Member. In last week’s interview the reporter asks Matlin what she thinks the state of opportunities out there for actors who have disabilities. Her answer:

“There are an amazing number of disabled actors out there, and not only in the United States. Even though 20% of the population has a disability, 2% of roles in Hollywood are for disabled characters and of that 2%, only 5% are played by people with disabilities. The rest are played by actors without disabilities.”

Matlin went on to say that she wishes casting directors would better understand the importance of acknowledging real diversity. “Diversity is a beautiful, absolutely wonderful thing, but I don’t think they consider people with disabilities as part of the diversity mandate.”

Marlee Matlin is an amazing advocate for people with disabilities and has shared her talent and her disability with a generation of TV watchers through notable roles on Reasonable Doubts, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Switched at Birth. Her television success is a wonderful demonstration of what people with disabilities can do — when given the chance.


Traveling With Kids for Spring Break? Try This Free Resource.

An airplane on a runway in front of a setting sunWe live in Chicago, and trust me, O’Hare International Airport can be an overwhelming sensory experience for anyone, let alone a child with a disability. Our son Gus is grown now, and as a child he only flew with us twice. The first time, he was 2 years old. After the second time, when Gus was 10 years old, we vowed he’d never fly with us again. But now maybe we’ll consider giving it another try.

The Autism Program of Illinois (TAP), The Hope Institute for Children and Families, and the Have Dreams Project have come together to create aviation accessibility kits they say could make the trip from ticket counter, through security, on to the gate and finally into the air easier for people with special needs, especially those on the autism spectrum. These organizations worked with the City of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Aviation to create kits at three levels of complexity. The educational materials aim to reduce anxiety and make travel more accessible and enjoyable for people with ASD and other disabilities as they travel to airports, go through checkpoints, and fly on the planes.

The kits lay out the steps involved in moving through an airport in words and pictures, and although they were made with the help of the Chicago Department of Aviation, they are intended for use at many other airports across the state and country.

So like I say, maybe it’s worth another try. Airline tickets may be expensive, but hey, you can download the aviation accessibility kits for free!

Read more about what it’s like to travel as a person with a disability.


Share with a National Newspaper How Disability Has Affected Your Job

The Guardian logoThe United States edition of The Guardian is looking for stories from people who feel they’ve struggled to find or secure work because of their disability, but if you want your story included, you’re going to have to write it quickly: The deadline to submit is this Thursday, February 23, at midnight.

Have you struggled to find or secure work because of your disability? Do you keep your disability hidden from your employer? Have you experienced bullying or harassment at work? If you have a disability at work, The Guardian wants to hear from you.

You can even submit your contributions anonymously using their online form, just make sure you submit it by Thursday at midnight. The Guardian plans to publish an edited selection on their Careers site this Friday, February 24, 2017, as part of its disability at work week, and they might share contributed stories across social media as well.


How a Volunteer Became a Lifelong Friend

My friend Benita Daniels Black grew up in the Bronx, taught at public schools in Queens, and raised her son in their apartment in the Village. She loves New York City, and she planned on living there the rest of her life. But then she went to her grade school reunion.

That's Benita with her beloved grandson Sam (photo courtesy of Josh Daniels).

That’s Benita with her beloved grandson Sam (photo courtesy of Josh Daniels).

Dr. Henry Black attended P.S. 114 in the Bronx (sixth-grade class of 1954) with Benita and took time off from his job as Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center here in Chicago to attend that grade school reunion, too. The New York Times published a very sweet story about the epistolary romance that ensued after that. “Within a few weeks, they’d amassed 1,200 e-mail messages,” the story said, quoting Benita saying how exciting it was to be with someone you shared a childhood with. “So much could be shorthanded.”

Benita and Henry were married at the New York City Municipal Building on April 19, 2002. Shortly after joining Henry here in Chicago, Benita started volunteering at Blind Service Association (BSA) to read aloud to people like me.

Week after week she’d help me weed through the pile of books and magazine articles I’d lug into the BSA office on Wabash. We learned a lot about each other in a very short time — she by the things I brought to read, and I by the inflection in her voice as she read them out loud.

When we discovered we were baseball fans, and we both followed the American League, we started going to games together. Henry and my husband Mike joined in the fray, and the four of us started going out for meals, too, mixing politics with baseball talk.

Ten years ago Benita let me know that she and Henry were moving to Manhattan. I wasn’t surprised. New York City was their home, after all, and I was just grateful for the serendipity that connected the two of us during her time in Chicago.

We’ve visited each other a few times since, and we keep up with each other via phone and email. When Benita emailed me recommending the audio version of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World, I took note. Benita and Justice Sotomayor both grew up in the Bronx, and I am guessing some of the talented students Benita taught at public schools in Queens reminded her of young Sonia. In her email, Benita pointed out that the Supreme Court Justice and I both grew up with hardworking single moms (Sonia’s father died when she was young, just like me) and that I’d be able to relate to Sonia’s stories about learning to give herself insulin injections when she was in second grade (Sonia and I were both diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as children).

But could Sonia Sotomayor write well? If Benita was recommending the book, I figured the answer had to be yes. I just finished reading the memoir, and I figured right. It’s a great read, and it’s well read, too: Rita Moreno is the narrator. Yes, that Rita Moreno. Anita from “West Side Story.” She’s friends with Sonia Sotomayor, and hey, I suppose when a Supreme Court Justice asks you to read, you do it!

You can tell that these two women know each other well by the way Moreno intuits which word to punch, where to pause and which phrases her friend would have said with a laugh. As a reader, the Academy award-winner is second only to Benita Daniels Black. And in a wonderful, wacky 21st century way, Benita still acts as my reader, sending links to New York Times stories she knows I’ll be interested in, and recommending books and authors she’s sure I’ll like.

If only the robotic drone of my talking computer would read with a New YorkYawk accent.


Why I’m Celebrating My Retired Seeing Eye Dog Today

Hanni, a lab and goldren retriever cross, walking on a snowy platform.

Hanni enjoys her retirement — here she is on a winter run at the forest preserve near her current home in Urbana, IL.

Bring out the party hats! My second Seeing-Eye dog Hanni turns 17 years old today. You read that right: 17.

Hanni retired from guide work when she was 11 years old and left Chicago to live with our dear friends Nancy and Steven downstate. They started celebrating the big day last Sunday with a visit to nearby Homer Lake — Nancy sends audio messages to my iPhone whenever they head to that forest preserve. The audio reports are a joy to hear — they always come with background sound of Hanni panting after a run or chomping on well-deserved treats.

“We’re getting ready for Hanni’s big 17th on Wednesday,” Nancy said in Sunday’s audio report. “It’s a beautiful day, sunny, the geese are out, hard to believe it’s February.”

I guess it should be hard to believe that a 17-year-old Labrador and golden retriever cross can still get out and enjoy a romp at a forest preserve, but I’ve gotten used to it. My first Seeing Eye dog, Dora, retired at 12 and lived to be 17 years old, and my third dog, Harper, who retired after saving us from getting hit by a car in Chicago traffic, is healthy and robust at age eight. The excellent health of these mature dogs has everything to do with the wonderful friends who adopt my retired dogs, but the care and research the Seeing Eye and other guide dog schools put into their breeding programs deserves a lot of credit, too.

Some schools still train service dogs who’ve been donated from individuals or from animal shelters, but the more established guide dog schools know they have to breed their own dogs in order to end up with the unique traits so important to guide work:

• Excellent health
• Intelligence
• Temperament
• Willingness to work
• Ability to thrive on praise

The Seeing Eye breeds Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Lab/golden crosses and German shepherds. Decades of research has gone into the Seeing Eye’s breeding program, much of it driven by the fact there is no “perfect Seeing Eye dog.” Dogs of all sorts of temperament, size, strength, speed and energy are necessary to match with blind people who come to the Seeing Eye school with, guess what, all sorts of temperament, size, strength, speed and energy levels.

The Seeing Eye web site says their breeding station has “interconnected geometric pavilions, designed so that dogs can see each other and see people enter the kennel, so barking –not to mention stress – are greatly reduced.” Their goal? “To provide a facility most conducive to a positive early childhood experience for the puppies.” I just love that.

And I just love Hanni, too. I’m so grateful the Seeing Eye bred her for me, and so happy to think of her celebrating with Nancy and Steven today. Happy birthday, dear Hanni. Happy birthday to you.


When One Mom is Called Supermom, She Responds With This

I am delighted to introduce Patty O’Machel as a guest blogger today. Patty is a writer, special needs advocate and mom. Her blog Parenting Outside The Lines collects and shares the stories of parents all over the world who are raising children with special needs, and her guest post lets you in on what that’s like here in America.

by Patty O’Machel

A cartoon mom with superhero mask holding two kids on either arm.

Image courtesy of

Another day, another person putting me on the pedestal. Any reasonable semi-narcissistic person would find this kind of admiration comforting, and most likely well-deserved. I’m a special needs mom, though, and those compliments can feel hollow.

I feel guilty when I can’t live up to that image people seem to have of me. My real self, the one who breaks down, who yells at her kids, who gets crabby and tired, is the true representation of me as a mom. But it is an image I can’t show.

I try very hard as a mom to all of my kids. The two considered “typical” kids and also the one who uses a wheelchair and needs my love and time and strength a little bit more. But I am certainly not the flawless, perfect image that people seem to see. I feel haggard at morning drop off and exhausted at 8am. By the time I get the kids to school, I have lifted her body several times in and out of her chair, gotten her dressed, brushed her hair and teeth, put on her orthotics, and hauled the chair and child out into the car. In the drop-off line I look over my coffee mug at the moms dressed for yoga and looking rested and resent them a little under the surface.

I shuttle my kids to multiple sports like other moms do, but I also work several therapies a week into the schedule. That requires moving a wheelchair and heavy child in and out of the car and back again, and it gets exhausting some days. I don’t do all this while adjusting my superhero mom cape. I do it with a grunt and a groan, with some undignified jealousy on occasion, and with all the strength I come with on that particular day.

It is my job as mom in this family, and one I truly do love most of the time. But some days my daughter’s needs are endless and they always have my name at the end of them. Some days I truly just want to rest and refill my reserves of energy and patience. When people look at me and comment how amazing I am and how strong I am, it often makes me feel unworthy. I am not exceptionally strong, I am just a mom who was given a special needs child to love and to raise, and I am doing what is necessary. Some days with grace, and some days without.

A special needs mom is not strong because she is some extraordinary kind of person, she is just a mom. A mom who was given a job that is harder than average and requires some deep pools of strength some days, but at her base level just a mom. No cape and no superhero powers.

Have a special story of your own to share? Post it at the Parenting Outside the Lines blog or email Patty directly at


Are rallies in the United States accessible?

I am pleased to introduce Rachel Arfa, a disability rights attorney, as a guest blogger today. In her spare time, Rachel advocates for cultural accessibility, an area she is passionate about. Rachel is profoundly deaf, communicates by talking and lipreading and uses bilateral cochlear implants to hear. She is on the steering committee of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium and serves on the Board of Directors of 3Arts. She is a 2016 Fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago, and a 2017 Fellow in the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership (IWIL), which trains Democratic women to run for office.

by Rachel Arfa

A volunteer at the Womens March Chicago

Many volunteers helped make the Women’s March in Chicago accessible.


10,000 people.

The number seemed daunting. We had just committed to providing accessibility for an event where the number of attendees might be as high as 10,000. Christena Gunther. Evan Hatfield. Risa Rifkind. Anna Cosner. We’d worked together on various cultural accessibility initiatives before, but never on this scale.

But we knew it would be worth it.
The details: Petrillo Stage in Grant Park, Saturday, January 21, 2017. The five of us met weeks ahead of the march to put together a plan to make the rally portion accessible. We wrote access information for the Women’s March website, conducted a site visit to scope out all the access points and determined placement for all the accessibility needs.

One week before the March, the location of the rally was changed.

We scuttled our initial plans, visited the new site at Jackson and Lake Shore Drive and re-assessed what would work.

And then the number of projected attendees grew from 10,000 to 22,000. This was getting big!

And then, the site changed again. Two days before the Saturday March, the location was moved to its final site, Jackson and Columbus. Weather reports were coming in, temperatures in Chicago were predicted to be well above average Saturday, and the final estimate of marchers was projected at anywhere from 50,000 to 65,000.

We met at the site the night before the march to walk through our plan and update the website about accessibility offerings – we wanted marchers with disabilities to know where to find accessibility tents if they needed more information once they arrived.

We were back at the site less than 12 hours later, at 6:30 a.m., to get ready for attendees to arrive. We’d recruited enthusiastic volunteers from Chicago’s theaters, museums and outdoor spaces – all had experience in working to make their own organizations welcoming and accessible to audiences with disabilities.

Rachel and her friends are in there!

Rachel and her friends are in there!

One accessibility tent was set up at the entrance to the rally, and the one near the stage was where attendees could check out audio description headsets and assistive listening devices. The audio describer set up her equipment in a spot with full view of the stage, armed with her stenographer’s mask. The American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters decided on their stage set-up. The screen for Open Captioning was placed on stage at optimal height for viewing. The chairs set up to provide seating for those unable to stand for extended periods of time were moveable, which created easy access for attendees using a wheelchair or mobility device. A DeafBlind participant was provided enough space for tactile interpreting to have access to what was happening on stage. Individuals who experience anxiety or PTSD had enough space to move around and not feel claustrophobic. And, oh yes. An easy route to the accessible port-a-potties was established as well.

The morning sped by as attendees arrived, but when I found the time, I reached out to some of them to ask if they’d be willing to let us know what their experience was like. Here are just three excerpts of many, many testimonials:

  • Bryen Yunashko: This was the first time that I, as a DeafBlind person, was able to fully access a political rally in Chicago. The efforts and constant dialogue by the accessibility team in the weeks following up to the March to ensure DeafBlind access was amazing, conscientious, dedicated and authentic. This event is a shining example for all future events in Chicago and elsewhere.
  • Aziza Nassar: The volunteers and staffers were very accommodating and culturally appropriate. Within seconds of my arrival to the gate, I was greeted by a woman who asked me and my friend (who is also a wheelchair user) whether we needed “dedicated assistance.” She pointed us in the direction of a tent full of volunteers just ready to assist, and another woman walked us down to the accessible viewing area for the rally stage pointing to the wheelchair accessible Port-a-Pottys.
  • Justin Cooper I knew that many of my friends would be in attendance and I wanted to be there to show my support. The accessibility that was provided made me feel like I was welcomed, that I was apart of the March, and that people with disabilities (especially women with disabilities) were included. I give credit to all the volunteers who helped.

These efforts were successful because disability access was integrated into the design of the event, including each time the venue changed. The March organizers recognized early on the need for disability access and supported our efforts after we’d come on board.

During the March it was announced not that there were 10,000 in attendance, not 22,000 in attendance, or even 50,000 in attendance. It was announced at an early point that there were 150,000 attendees. Then, a second announcement came saying there were 250,000 attendees. The march was a huge success, and we’d designed accessibility that was easily adaptable to the scale needed.

250,000 people.

250,000 strong.



An Expert Shares Her Tips on Dating with a Disability

Vilissa Thompson sitting outside

Vilissa Thompson

Easterseals has supported mentorship programs for decades; this year, we’re celebrating our fifth year with Thrive, a community for young women with disabilities. Thrive focuses on different aspects of disability throughout the year, and this month, Thrive is talking with women about dating and disability etiquette.

It’s extremely important for young women to take action for themselves and others in the disability community, so Thrive reached out this month to gather perspectives on what dating and disability etiquette means to them in today’s world.

While reading through these women’s stories on Thrive’s dating and disability etiquette page, I was especially struck by Vilissa Thompson’s story. Vilissa is a social worker and disability rights consultant who uses a wheelchair, and she’s also the founder of Ramp Your Voice! Her guest post for Thrive was written as part of our #ResolveToRespect campaign.

Vilissa starts her post talking about what happens when she reveals her disability on a dating profile, or if it comes up in conversation on the first date. The post continues with some etiquette tips for people interested in dating someone with a disability. The list is short and to the point, and many of her suggestions would apply to dating someone without a disability, too. Example: Vilissa urges potential suitors to just say no when they figure out they’re not interested in pursuing a relationship.

“Man/woman/they up, and just say that you are not that into it,” she writes. “It’s better to know the truth than to be left hanging.”

Give Vilissa’s “Take Me as I Am” post a read. She’s an honest, candid, and fun writer — I promise you won’t be disappointed!