You Tell Me: Is There a Completely Reasonable Reason to Allow Miniature Horses on Planes?

IdcardTravel everywhere you go with the help of a guide dog, and strangers will feed you an earful of stories about all the other service animals they’ve read about. Helper parrots pecking at shoppers in stores, comfort pigs going crazy on airplanes, a therapeutic rat that quells anxiety in his owner, you name it.

The New York Times published an article about miniature horses last week after The Department of Transportation (DOT) released new formal guidance regarding animals on planes that specifies the three types of service animals prioritized for travel: cats, dogs and miniature horses. Now strangers in elevators and at street crossings are asking me about “guide ponies,” too. From the article:

Shortly after the guidelines’ release, a photo of a small ginger horse, squeezed in front of a woman’s knees, circulated on the internet. It appeared atop numerous articles, without any sort of caption, only adding to the questions raised by the travel document: If flying horses are so common, how come I’ve never rolled my carry-on past one? How could that photo be real? And even if it is, why would you ever want to squeeze a horse in front of a seat like that?”

The article shows a picture of a couple sitting in bulkhead seats of an aircraft, the leg room in front of them occupied by a pony who is standing and lodged between their kneecaps and the bulkhead wall.

After interviewing a blind woman who uses a pony as a guide, the reporter spelled out the advantages of working with a miniature pony, noting that they are:

  • mild-mannered
  • fast learners
  • known to have nearly 360-degree vision
  • able to work three times as many years as a guide dog, thanks to a longer life expectancy

I can understand that last advantage. My own Seeing Eye dog, Whitney, is nine years old now and has lost the fervor she once had for her work. My husband Mike and I were with friends the other day, and when Mike was explaining Whitney’s upcoming retirement to them, he said, “You know, she really loved working when she was young.” Our friend responded with an understanding laugh. “Hey, so did I!”

Anyway, back to this horse thing. Horses can work longer than dogs, yes, but that’s not enough to convince me to switch to a miniature horse as a guide. Before the end of this year, I’ll be heading back to the SeeingEye to train with a new young dog.

Seeing Eye pioneers worked long and hard to open the doors and give our dogs public access. At risk of being labeled as a species-ist, I wish the DOT had limited the definition of service animals to dogs. Specifically, dogs who are public-access trained, as well as individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.

The description of the photo with the New York Times implies that the couple giving up their leg room is traveling together. I often fly alone with my guide Whitney, who knows not to take up my neighbor’s leg room on a plane. A 57-pound Yellow Lab/Golden Retriever cross, she was public-access trained at the Seeing Eye to sit with her bottom under the seat in front of me, and her head on my feet. On trains and buses, she sits under the bench seat. At restaurants, libraries, conferences and the like she sits at my feet, under the table.

The New York Times article reports that miniature horses stand at their owner’s feet throughout each flight. I wonder. If you are being guided by a miniature pony, Do they stand on buses, too? On trains? At movie theaters? During live performances? I have long believed that the phrase “reasonable accommodation” goes both ways. Is it reasonable to ask the person who landed that seat next to you to give up their legroom (or the entire seat, if necessary) to accommodate a pony?

The woman interviewed in the article said she “usually buys flights on short notice, calling the airline the day before to give a heads up that she will be traveling with a horse.” In the past, some airlines have told her there wouldn’t be enough room, but she is hopeful the new guidelines will discourage such behavior from here on out.

She has come up with a “tidy defecation setup” for long flights, and when she senses her miniature horse needs to go, she signals the horse to go into a deodorized bag. “I don’t want my accidents to be someone’s first impression,” she told the reporter.

The story also reports that some airport officials have asked the woman traveling for an official identification card for her miniature pony, but “unaware of any organization that offers such a thing, she and a friend eventually made a card themselves.” The New York Times article I am referring to in this post is titled “The Completely Reasonable Reason People Are Flying With Mini Horses,” but I’m not sure I get it. What “completely reasonable reason” is she talking about?

 

The Department of Transportation Issued New Guidelines for Air Travel with Service Animals

Photo of Whitney in harness.

Whitney’s graduation picture is on her Seeing Eye i.d. card. (Courtesy The Seeing Eye.)

Summer is drawing to a close, but I have one more trip planned before it ends. This weekend, I’m flying to Minnesota to visit relatives and I’m traveling alone with my Seeing Eye dog. On Sunday morning, Whitney will be guiding me through TSA security at Midway Airport in Chicago, to the gate, down the jetway, and to our seat on the plane.

When I was booking my flight last week, I discovered the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) had just issued guidelines concerning traveling by air with service animals. The guidance issued by DOT does not change the current law or regulations concerning air travel with service animals, but DOT is expected to issue new regulations for traveling with service animals in the not-too-distant future. Look for another blog post here when that happens.

For now, though, the Air Carrier Access Act and corresponding regulations are still in full force. The new guidance, called “Final Statement of Enforcement Priorities Regarding Service Animals,” tells us where DOT will focus its limited enforcement resources in response to complaints it receives now, under existing law.

For example, DOT makes it clear that it will not tolerate airlines imposing breed restrictions on passengers traveling with service animals. It also will take action against airlines that require people with guide dogs to notify them ahead of time that they are traveling with their dog (I always try to let them know anyway, just so they won’t be surprised). On the other hand, DOT states the following:

We do not intend to take action against an airline for asking users of any type of service animal to present documentation related to the service animal’s vaccination, training, or behavior, so long as it is reasonable to believe that the documentation would assist the airline in making a determination as to whether an animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

Airlines should only be asking for this documentation in specific cases where they need information to help them determine if an animal is a threat. Whitney, my nine-year-old Golden Labrador Retriever cross couldn’t look threatening if she tried. I am not expecting any problems as a result of this guidance, but who knows how the individual airlines are going to interpret this? And so, I’ll add “Whitney’s complete vaccination records and Seeing Eye ID” to my long list of things to remember to bring in my carry-on Sunday. I don’t want to risk missing my flight!

 

7 traits that help when you’re blind and going to college

Recently when we were talking about my goal of trying new things and going to more campus events this semester, someone said something interesting that resonated with me long after it was said: “People are scared to do things even when they can see. And then if you add your situation on top of that, it does make it a little more challenging. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do those things.”

This is my last semester at Northern Illinois University, and those words made me think of college as a whole and left me reflecting on my entire college experience.

I’ve had challenges because of my blindness. Let’s not sugar-coat that. Being blind does make college life a little more challenging. But this isn’t going to be a negative post where I talk about the negative aspects of being a blind college student. Instead, I want to do just the opposite. In this post I’ll look at the positives, the things I’ve learned. And who knows? Maybe there’ll be things you haven’t thought of!

  1. I learned a lot about self-reliance. When I was in high school (and even when I was at community college at College of DuPage) I was able to visit the campus before classes even started to get oriented. At Northern Illinois University (NIU), I have never had that luxury. The campus is a bit of a commute from my hometown for something like that, and orientation and mobility (O&M) isn’t provided by NIU’s Disability Resource Center. That means I have had to learned the routes to my classes by showing up early enough to wander the buildings myself. On the occasion I wasn’t able to show up early enough, I had to ask for directions and focus on exactly where I was, what turns I was making, and so on. Eventually I was able to memorize the routes.
  2. I learned to be resourceful. I take the bus from class to class, but sometimes the bus was late. Sometimes I had another obligation with no way to get there. Sometimes I resort to asking friends, but often times I just use Uber. My friends have their own schedule. Why should they go out of their way to lead me somewhere when I could find other ways of doing it? I learned to use other resources.
  3. I learned a lot about patience. This is still a work in progress. I am not the most patient person — I’ll admit that. But being in college has taught me that, as a blind person, I spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting for the bus, waiting for someone to ask someone else where a certain room is, waiting for an Uber, waiting to receive my list of accommodations for my professors. Things take time, and I learned early on that I needed to accept that.
  4. I learned not to rely on people too much…because they can’t always be there. I don’t mean this in a negative sense, like we don’t talk anymore or anything of the sort. I mean they’ll drop out, switch to another college, or they’ll graduate. I’m starting my last semester with very few people I know. My close friends graduated, Joe doesn’t go to school here anymore, and I lost touch with a lot of friends from past semesters.
  5. Again, I’ve learned a lot about self-reliance. While I do accept help once in a while, I know not to rely too much on it. When Joe went to school with me while we were still together, he helped me navigate the residence hall. My friends ran through routes with me when I’d get lost and asked them to teach me an alternative route, and they’d take me off campus to explore sometimes, too.
  6. I learned that in the end, it’s on me. It’s up to me to do these things, make new friends, and figure it all out.
  7. I have to work twice as hard. In high school, a teacher told me that as a blind college student, I was going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else. I didn’t know how to take that when I first heard it, but now I know it’s true. I get extended time on tests, I needed tutoring one semester, and sometimes, I need help from the Disability resource Center just to get assignments done. Let’s be honest. When you can’t see, Things take longer.

So yes, being blind can sometimes make it a little more difficult, but it certainly doesn’t make it impossible. I’m very excited to be going back to school in a few weeks and making the most of my very last semester.

 

Inclusion is a beautiful concept, but…

I am delighted to have Patty O’Machel back with us as a guest blogger. Patty is a writer, special needs advocate and mom .

by Patty O’Machel

Patty and her daughter outside on a sunny day

Patty (right) and her daughter (left)

As a mom, I think about inclusion a lot, and the many variations this word takes in my daughter’s life. As a simple explanation most people think of inclusion when it comes to school and their child’s academic life. School systems and advocates throw this word around a lot, and most fall on one side of the fence or the other when it comes to their feelings on whether kids with disabilities should or should not be included in the typical classroom.

I have seen firsthand the way this looks with my own child, and with other children with disabilities. My daughter is in typical classrooms throughout her whole day at school, but I have seen how some kids with disabilities are shuttled in and out throughout their school day and the strange way this looks for them. They don’t get the same consistent instruction as typical kids, and they get bits and pieces of the whole learning experience. Somehow they are expected to keep up with the lesson plans, and the concept being taught, and make connections with peers — all while not being a real part of the group as a whole. But there also seems to be a pervasive hidden attitude of “that’s ok, because they have disabilities and they wouldn’t be able to keep up anyway.”

This whole arrangement doesn’t seem to benefit the child learner. It may check a box on the IEP, but is it the best situation? Does it give that child the most complete learning experience?

I would say “no.”

My daughter is in class with typical peers throughout her day, but I would have to say that inclusion doesn’t often look like the postcard picture of peers all working together and her being included. She uses a wheelchair, so often in crowded classes she is off in the back or on the side, she is not at a regular desk, and this alone can make things isolating.

She uses her stander in some classes in order to get some stretch to her legs, so that means she is rolled in and “stands” in the back. Not a part of the group, but “in” the classroom.

When they do testing, she is removed to a quiet space or one where her scribe/aide can write or type her work. She works better in smaller groups, and has an easier time sharing her thoughts and being able to keep up — but often these situations make inclusion more difficult.

This term is commonly used speaking only about school and the academic environment, but school is not the only place where kids with disabilities can be included, or excluded. My daughter has a wonderful group of true friends. She loves them, and they love her, too. She has a blast when she is with them, but sometimes that inclusion can be hard. When they “hang out” at one of their houses, those houses are not always accessible. They might have stairs to climb to get inside, or the girls might want to hang out in their rooms or basement, both of which are off limits to my daughter. Or they will go up to town and get food or frozen yogurt, fun if you can walk up to town and get around on your own, but not if you use wheels.

My daughter’s friends never exclude my daughter, but the give and take of normal friendship and interaction is difficult when you are not there.

In order for my teenager to be included, I have to essentially be included as well to manage the logistics — and what teenage group wants a mom hanging around with them all the time?

Inclusion is a beautiful concept. To allow everyone into a group, to be equal and to have everyone have a place and a voice. The concept is lovely. The logistics are often not. Still, as special needs parents, we fight tooth and nail to have our kids be included. We want them to have the same educational experience and to achieve their true potential in everything from friendships to sports to algebra.

As a parent, I sometimes think that my view of inclusion and the school systems’ views are not always aligned. But it is something to strive for and to fight for, and to use our collective voice to have our children know true inclusion in every area of their lives.

 

Inclusion: It’s More Than Just Meeting the Rules of the Law or the Policy

Liz sitting at top of a massive sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan looking down at the landscape below after just having crawled the entire way up. Her grandpa and aunt are standing behind her after providing some assistance with the climb.

Liz sitting at top of a massive sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan looking down at the landscape below after just having crawled the entire way up. Her grandpa and aunt are standing behind her after providing some assistance with the climb.

Guest blogger Liz Davis lives in Chicago and is an UX Designer at SPR. She has used a wheelchair all her life, and her experience in dealing with the obstacles of an environment lacking accessibility has granted her a useful perspective on inclusion. We are so fortunate to have her share her story with us today.

by Liz Davis

Inclusion is often thought of as a positive word, a word that is used to inspire connectivity, community and diversity. But inclusion means something different for me than it does for my neighbor.

Growing up as a wheelchair user, I was introduced to the idea of inclusion early on in life. Inclusion was my parents not stopping me from crawling out to the backyard to play in the dirt just like my siblings. Inclusion was my mother fighting with our local school district to get a wheelchair lift so I could attend sixth grade on the upper floor instead of them moving the entire grade because of me. Inclusion was going with my youth group to volunteer to New Orleans for volunteer hurricane relief despite the extra effort needed with a wheelchair.

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of inclusion in my life, but it is just as important to talk about the subtle exclusions that come with being disabled — especially the exclusion that occurs when inclusion is intended, the sort of thing that can happen when trying to meet accessibility standards.

College was the first time I really started paying attention to these exclusive situations. I attended a university in an old Catholic college in Iowa, and the school’s buildings had been built long before the ADA. My dorm room was accessible, I could live independently, and the bathrooms were sufficient for me. By standards of the law it was an inclusive, accessible experience.

On the other side of the coin, the dorm buildings many of my friends lived in did not have elevators, and of course they lived on the highest floors. Technically they could have just come to my dorm to hangout, but social experiences are not so structured. I lived in a single dorm, not the large suite my friends did. They would help me up to the higher floors if we planned out a time to meet, but what if I had to use the bathroom? The feeling of not being able to freely leave when you’d like is not an inclusive experience either. I’d have to find a gap in the socializing to ask if they could help me downstairs, an awkward situation to say the least. Without an elevator available, just hanging out and socializing naturally couldn’t happen. I’d often feel left out.

I never blamed my friends, but this is where exclusion hurts the most. When you can’t speak up or change anything because technically the accessibility need was met. It’s not a reasonable accommodation to put an elevator in every single dormitory for one student in a wheelchair.

To me, inclusion is considering the social aspects of an experience in combination with the physical. It’s more than just meeting the rules of a law, or policy. Inclusion is providing the environment for someone with a disability to fully experience their lives.

 

How Summer Camp Can Be FUEL for the Mind and Body

Sydnee with a camp attendee sitting outside on a bench. Both are wearing "camp FUEL shirts"As you read this, Easterseals locations around the country are offering summer camp experiences for children and adults with disabilities. At Easterseals Crossroads in Indiana, Camp FUEL (Fun and Unique Experiential Learning) is offered to adolescents with disabilities from age 11 through 17. Here’s a post from Sydnee Henson, Lead Counselor at Camp FUEL, about the value camp experiences have on youth with disabilities.

By Sydnee Henson

We created Camp FUEL so that our campers could interact, gain confidence in common activities, have fun and learn. Our campers spend a large portion of each camp day in the community enjoying a variety of experiences from visiting parks, eating out at local restaurants, exploring creative outlets like screen printing and spending time with peers.

Sometimes it can be difficult to find a community of people who are committed to serving individuals with disabilities, but Easterseals has done that. It is such an empowering experience to work with others who are dedicated to shouting out the worth and value of those with disabilities.

I graduated in May with a degree in elementary and special education, and I will start a new job this fall as a high school life skills teacher. Still, my connections with campers and families has kept me coming back to camp each summer.

I have one parent who consistently comments about how surprised she is that her child is not shouting at the end of each day. This camper is very vocal about her emotions, but each day, she calmly colors a picture of a girl at camp while she waits for her mom to pick her up. This same camper has grown so much from her camp orientation night a few weeks ago. Originally overwhelmed by all the new experiences at camp, she now tells counselors “change is good” with a smile on her face.

Camp FUEL fills a much-needed void in our community for teenagers. For many of our participants, it can be difficult to find activities over the summer that will be successful experiences for them. Our campers have siblings who go to overnight camps, music camps or even spend their summers working. Camp FUEL is an option where campers can have their own unique experiences, make their own memories and engage with their families when they get home about their day.

For our campers, success and accomplishment can mean a variety of things. Sometimes accomplishment is the story of a camper who made it an entire day without crying; success might be the story of someone who said thank you as he walked out the door. Seeing the faces of our parents at the end of each day is proof enough for me of every success and every accomplishment for our campers. Ultimately, having campers who don’t want to leave at the end of each day coupled with parents who are shocked by their child’s desire to stay at camp – that is a happy camp experience for everyone.

 

 

Hello out there! We’re in the audience, too!

Longtime Easterseals National blog readers might recall a post I wrote years ago about seeing plays at Steppenwolf Theater here in Chicago. Better put, feeling and hearing the plays: Steppenwolf provides special programming for plays so that people with disabilities can take them in like other theater fans do.

In the rehearsal room, four 8′ plastic folding tables have been arranged to form a large rectangle, around which are seated member of the Artistic and Accessibility teams for introductions, directors notes and a read-through of the play.
Starting in the foreground with their backs to the camera, going clockwise: Seeing Eye dog Whitney (sprawled on floor), me, Jack Miggins and Certified Deaf Interpreter Susan Elizabeth Elizabeth Rangel (all with backs to us). On the left side of the table: ASL Interpreter Lizzy Rangel and Stage Manager Casey Peek. On the far side of the table, facing the camera: Laura Alcala Baker (director), Erica Cruz Hernandez (playing Belinda) and Leslie Perez (playing Adeline). On the right side of the table, from closest to farthest away: Hillary Pearson (Producer and Audience Experience Manager), Lindsay Drexler (Caption Designer and Expert User and Consultant) and Matt Bivins (Caption Manager). Seated in the middle of the rectangle, providing ASL Interpretation: Shannoun Moutinho.

Eight years after attending my first theater touch tour,I was flattered to be asked to help with the “Accessible Services Showcase” put on late last month by the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC), a non-profit helping to make Chicago cultural spaces more accessible to visitors with disabilities. You can learn a little bit it by playing the news segment at the end of this blog.

CCAC recruited a large crew that included two actors, a director, a stage manager, a production manager, American Sign Language interpreters, captioners, and an audio describer to present a 15-minute play that offered a demonstration project of sorts, a way to show what’s possible—and how to make it real. Project Potential, a short play by Chicago playwright Isaac Gomez and directed by Laura Alcalá Baker, featured these services…all at the same time:

  1. Two American Sign Language interpreters standing close enough to the action so that people who communicate via sign language could watch the interpretation and the live action simultaneously
  2. Screens for Open Captioning set up in three different locations so no matter where their ticket was, people who couldn’t hear well could see the screens
  3. Audio description performed by a professional describer who narrates the action to people who are blind or have a visual impairment via headsets provided by the theater, working to capture each scene without speaking over lines

The Audio Description and Artistic teams in the third rehearsal. In the foreground with backs to camera: Whitney (sprawled on floor), me and Jack. Jack’s hand is stretched out in front of him, gesturing towards the director and actors gathered around the prop desk at the far end of the room. In the middle ground, Stage Manager Casey Peek watches the action from the stage manager table.

With some variation, cultural institutions that offer accessible performances usually divvy that all up: one or two performances per run that offer ASL and/or live captioning, another one on a different day with a pre-show for people with visual impairments and so on. And for most live performances, the audio describers, ASL interpreters and live open captioners are not part of the rehearsal or creative process. They prepare by previewing performances and/or working from videos or audio recordings in advance to figure out what to interpret or describe for patrons with disabilities. That means that they’re usually preparing based off an already completed product—which can create challenges, both for the quality of the services and the overall experience of the audiences using them .

But this time was different. They all were invited to attend the rehearsals. And so was I!

Add this to my vita: I am now considered an expert user of audio description of live performances, and along with other user experts who are deaf, use wheelchairs, and identify as having Sensory Processing Disorder, I was invited to attend all four rehearsals for the short play. I learned a ton being at those rehearsals, here are a few nuggets:

  • Sign language interpreters have to sort of memorize the action on stage — if they turn around to look, deaf audience members won’t be able to see their hands
  • The people creating captions during the show avoid writing THEM IN ALL CAPS because ALL CAPS CAN TAKE LONGER TO READ than words printed in lower case
  • Actors are very patient people. During rehearsals the two actors we worked with had to do short scenes over and over again so we could coordinate all the accessibility stuff going on around them
  • The audio describer’s job would be a lot easier if they could be at a tech rehearsal alongside someone who uses their services — it can be hard for someone who can see to figure out what a person who is blind can figure out for themselves.

Audio describer Jack Miggins and I sat side-by-side during rehearsals, and he whispered to me what he would say to describe the action on stage. At the same time, I told him what I could figure out on my own.

The Audio Description, Artistic and Production teams at tech rehearsal. On the right side of the frame, Beth and Jack face the action to their left with Whitney sprawled on the ground at Beth’s feet. On the left of the frame, Jason Harrington sits on the floor with his back to the camera, watching the actors work a scene. In the far background facing the camera, Caption Manager Matt Bivins uses his laptop to run the captions, which are visible on a flat-screen tv mounted above the stage.

Perhaps the best example of this was a scene where a high school principal was having a teacher sign a bunch of forms. The principal sat at a table, passed the form over to the teacher, and said out loud, “Sign here.” The teacher signed with such gusto that I could hear the ball-point pen moving across the paper. So after Jack whispered “She signs” I could let him know that (for me, at least) description wasn’t necessary.

But then there’s this: I myself can’t assume everyone in the audience with low-vision would be able to figure that out—it’s also contingent on everyone using the audio description being able to hear something that subtle. Based off their proximity to the stage and their individual hearing ability, some may not. So that’s just one of many, many factors a describer has to weigh.

The presentation was co-sponsored by Theater on the Lake, and free tickets for the June 27 performance were offered to accessibility coordinators, executives, front of house staff, marketing people, and people from the technical and artistic teams at cultural organizations (mostly theaters) from all over Chicago. They all got a first-hand look at how accessibility works, and they stayed afterwards as sign language interpreters, captioners, and Jack Miggins and I gave 15-minute presentations to give them a peek behind the curtain and learn what went on behind the scenes to make it all happen. “I wish we could be at rehearsals for every play I describe!” Jack told the audience. “It would make my job so much easier.”

A week or so after the event was over, I discovered that was part of the plan: to encourage theaters to someday involve accessibility concerns in play rehearsals ahead of time, and include accessibility as important as sound, lighting, costumes, set design and so on during the creative process. Will that ever happen? Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Okay, hear.

 

Access? Yes. Included? Not always.

A young girl in a wheelchair, arms spread wide, with a bowl of strawberries in her lapOur daughter Elena has a standing physical therapy appointment every Saturday at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, which is one of the top rated rehab hospitals in the world and is located just north of downtown Chicago. Fortunately, it’s only a 30 minute drive from our house.

When we pull into the covered valet station, we’re protected from any inclement weather. That means we lower the ramp on our accessible minivan, roll Elena on to the sidewalk, and hand the keys to the valet, which is only 3 dollars with a valid handicapped placard. Try finding that any other place in Chicago!

With ease, we enter the building through automated doors, navigate the wide hallways, roll over incredibly smooth floors, and ascend to the 18th floor for our regular appointment. It’s a stress free way to spend our morning and we don’t have to worry about figuring out the location of the accessible entrance, wondering if they accommodate wheelchairs, finding out if there is an elevator or lift, or checking if there are any stairs.

As July celebrates the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it has become clear to me that most places are accessible, which is good, but few places are truly disability friendly. What I mean by this is that often institutions have a “good enough” or tokenistic attitude toward accessibility that often prevents our family from having a choice of where we enter or exit a building, where we sit, or how we ascend or descend to different levels of a building.

When we go to the movies, we sit in accessible seats, which are either in the last row or on the side. When we enter a building, the accessible entrance is seldom on the front of the building, but rather on the side or in the back, out of plain site. We often enter buildings using doors that are not automated and were it not for my wife or me accompanying our daughter, Elena would not be able to enter.

So, do we have access? Yes. Are we included? Not always. When the dignity of choosing where to enter and exit a building or where to sit is compromised, I wonder how truly inclusive our society is?

Before I had a child with a disability, I believed that our country did a pretty decent job of including those with mobility needs. However, as a parent of a child in a wheelchair, I’ve learned first-hand that there is clearly a great deal of growth that needs to happen in order to call ourselves an inclusive society.

The village we live in made the news when it decided to move the ramp from the side of one of our park district buildings to the front. Of course I applaud their efforts to implement a plan to create a more inclusive society, but I want to live in a world where this is not a headline, just regular practice.

 

Reasons Why We Need to Give Picture Captions an Upgrade

fingers touching braille on a screen reader device I am pleased to introduce Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter as a guest blogger today. Her work has appeared in 13th Floor, Breath and Shadow, Misbehaving Nebraskans, and many other publications, and her guest post today discusses inclusion and assistive technology. She lives in Omaha with her husband and two sons. “They provide endless material for my writing,” she says. “When they give me the time!”

by Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter

My fingers manipulate keys, navigating Facebook. Arrowing down, the cursor lands on a picture and I hear, “Two people and a Baby.”

Great, I think, no context. I continue to arrow down, finding another picture. This time, the electronic buzz of my computer’s voice says, “Man in sunglasses.” Again, zero context for me.

Fifteen years ago, I became visually impaired. I transferred my visual understanding of the world into a non-visual medium. To use a computer, I now use a program called JAWS, which is a text-to-speech screen reader. It reads whatever the cursor highlights, allowing me to still do email, Google-search, write and of course, shop! However, if pictures and graphics are not properly captioned, I have no clue what they are.

When submitting my written work to publications, I only consider those that have online access. Publications with easy navigation for my screen reader provide me with the same opportunity sighted writers have to read pieces and study submission guidelines.

Since becoming blind, my life does not feel less than, as if I’m missing out on something. I do have to navigate the world non-visually, though, and that is made more difficult when accessibility is not a factor.

Some platforms have created generic captions that interact with screen readers, but they provide bare-bones details. Example: if a picture is of a group taken outside, my screen reader will likely say, “Several people in nature.” I have no clue what is in the picture, or what kind of nature scene it is. I don’t need a dissertation on the pic, but, some context and brief detail is good.

If posting a photo of you and your baby, JAWS might tell me, “Woman and baby.” I want some extra detail to paint a visual in my head.

Rather than help, generic captions like the ones above just make graphics pesky, uninteresting, and not-useful pieces of information. Placing a caption under pictures and graphics (and providing a brief description of content if the formatting is experimental) allows people with visual impairments to have equal access.

As a nonfiction writer, I write about the world, using my experiences to address discrimination, isolation, acceptance, breaking stereotypes, usually in context to disability. As a writer, I participate in classes, retreats, conferences and workshops, and often, we are given very visual exercises.

Recently, I was asked to create a visual memory map. This emphasis on the visual is prevalent in the writing community, but thinking of non-visual means to achieve writing goals is a good sensory exercise for all writers, not just those of us who are blind.

I ended up writing a timeline with descriptions of place instead of drawing a map. Having been sighted for twenty-two years, I can recall visual memories in my mind, but creating them on a piece of paper is difficult.

While I’m actually still a visual person, constantly creating visuals in my head, and while I think visual references can be great and beneficial for sighted writers, I’m also now in this other world where non-visual means of accessing the world make more sense and are much more helpful.

Inclusion and equality for all is a big topic these days. However, disability is usually missing from the discussion. It’s not always intentional, we just need more education about accessibility. As the artistic community moves forward, as the world moves forward, we need to consider accessibility, and make disabled people an active part of the conversation. Often, it doesn’t take much to make information accessible, but it has to be considered, then implemented.

I want to work with the writing community to bring attention to this issue and help create resolutions. The world is a better place when inclusion involves all of our voices.

A longer version of this post was originally published in June, 2019 on Brevity’s Non-Fiction blog.

 

You don’t have to be everyone’s teachable moment

Anja Herrman (at age 9) and her dad

Anja Herrman at age nine with her dad

Remember the 9-year-old who wrote a post here for Valentine’s Day years ago about how much she loves her Dad? She still does! Anja is a teenager now, and she’s back with a guest post that explains one — of many, many reasons — that is.

by Anja Herrman

My heart cracked and I pressed my head against my dad’s firm shoulder. Tears clouded my eyesight and I took deep breaths. The instant my father squeezed my arm, it all came rushing out, sobs and snot running with my speech.

Hang on, blog readers. You’re probably confused. Let me tell you the whole story.

I was in New York City to represent the KIDBOX board of directors. KIDBOX is an organization that helps parents and kids select boxes of clothing and have them shipped for kids to try on in the comfort of their own home before buying. For every box sold, KIDBOX sends a new outfit to a child in need, and the Kid’s Board works with KIDBOX to come up with meaningful projects to help spread the word about its mission to clothe one million children in need.

The instant I entered that room to meet the other kids on the KIDBOX board, I felt 17 pairs of eyes on me, burning holes in my back, watching my every move. I was the only one with a disability there.

Once I sat down, I heard whispers and snickers. “What’s wrong with her?” one kid asked. “Musta’ been in a car accident,” said another. “Well whatever it is, I hope she’s not contagious.”

How dare they insult me! I thought. It was as if tiny workers seeped into my body and began drilling holes in my heart. Nevertheless, I took the first step and continued on trying to break the ice. “Hi, I’m Anja. What are your names?”

Instantly, like I unscrewed the top off a jar of flies, the whispers started up again – well, most of them were whispers. “There’s obviously something wrong with her body and her mind,” one 10-year-old shouted out, her face contorting into an expression of rage and anger, a scowl apparent on her lips. “Plus she can’t be that smart, she’s in a wheelchair.”

Wait, what did she say? I thought. My brain just couldn’t process her words. Once it had, I began to crack. Tears came to my eyes immediately.

Although I fought and fought the stinging burning tears, I couldn’t help it. My one small whimper must have actually inspired the teacher to say something. “Hey,” he said. “That wasn’t nice. My mother was in a wheelchair and she was a whole heckuva lot smarter than you, because she was actually a good person.”

WOW! Didn’t this teacher realize that being mean back to this bully just reinforces her rude behavior? His story about his mother did little to ease me, my tears were flowing in earnest now. I bolted out of the room and made a beeline for my father, tears making rivers as I went.

“Daddy!” I cried. That was all I could get out. He understood. We locked ourselves in a bathroom stall and he waited for my tears to stop.

“Kiddo,” he said quietly. “What’s wrong?” I lay my head against his cotton shirt, which was already damp with the first wave of tears.

“Out there, kids were teasing me. They were attacking my integrity!” I said in a voice even quieter than his.

“Well, let’s go out there and show them they’re wrong!” he said.

I shook my head no. Why do I always have to be the bigger person and teach everyone everything? I shouldn’t always have to do that. “No Dad!” I said furiously, edging to the door, and gripping my purse so hard my knuckles turned white.

“Anja!” Dad said, placing a hand on my arm. “Why don’t you want to go out there?”

I was exasperated. “Dad, I do not have to go teach those kids ANYTHING. They are jerks.”

“Anything else?” my dad asked. And in fact, there was something else I wanted to say.

“I do not have to be everyone’s teachable moment just because I have a disability.”

And with that, my dad threw his hands up in defeat. “Alright, you don’t have to go back,” he said, tapping his phone. “We have to go back to the hotel anyways.”

“Could we maybe go to Times Square afterwards?” I asked, giving him a weak smile. “Maybe,” Dad answered, giving me a small smile of his own.

Later that night, as I was surfing through Broadway clips, Dad came and sat next to me. “Look, Anja, you’re right. I am sorry those kids were jerks. It’s not always going to be like this. But you know what, you probably taught them something by not going back in there,” he said. “I’m proud of how you reacted and I really do think you made the right decision.”

I laid there, momentarily stunned, too surprised to even move. Finally, at least my arms worked. I leaned over and gave him a hug. He chuckled and said, “So, what do you say? Let’s go hit Times Square.” I grinned and grabbed my purse.

As we walked out of the hotel, I realized we’d both learned a very valuable lesson that day. Just because you have a disability, that doesn’t mean you have to be everyone’s teachable moment.