How I Prepared for My Hotel Staycation as a Blind Woman

A hand opening a door to a hotel roomFor Christmas this past year, my parents gave me a gift certificate for a free night at the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in Addison, just a couple miles from my hometown. This wasn’t something I expected to receive, and I took it as a sign of independence. My parents have always been encouraging about my independent travels, whether that meant visiting friends at local or faraway colleges, or (in this case) staying at a hotel.

They’re also good about letting me figure things out on my own, so they left it to my boyfriend Joe and me to choose the date and figure out transportation. Joe and I spent the next few weeks trying to pick a time that would be convenient to go. The certificate didn’t expire until December 2019, but I didn’t want to wait too long. I was afraid we might forget to use it!

After discussing many options, we finally decided to take advantage of the free time I’d have during spring break and use the hotel stay as a mini getaway. We specifically chose March 14. Here’s a little bit of a fun fact: You might recall that in a past blog post, I explained that Joe and I were casually seeing one another before we became an official couple and went on a few dates. March 14 was the day he asked me out on our very first date four years ago. We’ve never acknowledged this day as anything to celebrate, since this isn’t our official anniversary, but since it landed on my spring break we decided to do something different and use it as an excuse to go to a nice hotel.

After finally choosing a date, it was time to call the hotel. I let the receptionist know that we were both blind, so if there was a way to add a note to the reservation, I would appreciate it if that was added. “Yes, of course!” she said. “I’ll also put ‘special assistance’ so they know they have to help you with things like leading you to your room.” The friendliness in her voice was reassuring, and the hint of familiarity, like this news wasn’t a shock, put a smile on my face as I thanked her and said goodbye.

Next was figuring out transportation. I knew that if my parents were free, they would take us, but I enjoy being independent and traveling on my own. I had a gift card for a local Italian restaurant nearby, so we decided we’d take an Uber to that restaurant first, have a nice lunch, and Uber from the restaurant to the hotel to check in. I used voiceover on my iPhone to navigate through the Uber app to enter in the pick-up location and destinations to get the fare for both trips, and Joe and I agreed to split the fare each time.

The day before our trip, my dad took me to the Hilton to get oriented. Upon arriving, we walked to the front desk, and my dad explained to the receptionist that I had a reservation there the following day and, because I’m blind, he wanted to take me around a bit to get the “lay of the land.” The receptionist said that was fine, sounding polite. We started out by walking to the elevators, then heading to a different floor to look at room numbers.

When I was checking out the Braille sign near the door, I noticed there wasn’t a key hole. My dad explained you simply hold your key card up to the door. “It’ll be scanned to unlock the door for you.” This was a relief! It meant I wouldn’t have to request for a corner to be cut on the room key so we’d know how to insert it. After checking out a few more rooms, we headed to the first floor to look at the pool area.

We couldn’t go into the pool area (you needed a key to get in) but my dad was able to look through the window to give me a description of the layout. After practicing these routes a few times — from the elevators to the pool, from the pool to the elevators, and the elevators back to the front — I was even more excited.

Find out how the hotel stay goes in Part Two.

 

Make a Film Over One Weekend, Help Change the Way the World Views Disability

Easterseals Disability Film Challenge logoThe Easterseals Disability Film Challenge is fast upon us, and entering the challenge is easy. All you have to do is register by April 3, 2019, and then, over the next weekend (April 5 to 7, 2019) , make a film that uses the talents of an actor, writer, director, producer, and/or crew member who has a disability.

Okay, okay, maybe producing a short film in a single weekend isn’t exactly easy, but the rewards are great! The idea behind the Disability Film Challenge is to give both disabled and non-disabled filmmakers a reason to work together, and every year the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge recognizes the talent and hard work that goes into the films by presenting four awards to film challenge participants, including the following mentorships:

  1. Best Film: Mentor Meeting with John Penotti, President of SK Global and producer of Crazy Rich Asians
  2. Best Director: Mentor Meeting with Phil Lord, writer, director and producer of Spiderman: Into The Spider-Verse, Lego Movie & 21 Jump Street
  3. Best Actor: Mentor Meeting with legendary Casting Director Pam Dixon (Angels in the Outfield, City Slickers)
  4. Best Awareness Campaign: Mentor Meeting with Tiffany Smith-Anoa’I, Executive Vice President, Entertainment Diversity, Inclusion & Communications, CBS Entertainment since February, 2016.

I had the privilege of interviewing Tiffany last year when Variety Magazine and Easterseals Southern California teamed up to present a first-ever in-depth look at people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. She works with her CBS Entertainment staff to help directors, writers, producers and casting directors create shows reflecting the real world and acknowledged that progress for actors and creatives with disabilities lags far behind other minority performers. “We have to look broader, disability goes by the wayside far too often,” she told me in our phone interview, noting that’s why she enjoys working with the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge so much. “I’m happy this is really becoming more a part of the inclusion conversation.”

Learn more about each award, the accompanying prizes and last year’s winners at the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge web site, then make sure to link here to register by April 3, 2019.

 

Mark Your Calendar: Don’t Miss Easterseals on “Coffee with America”

Grab your cup of hot coffee (or tea!) and tune in to “Coffee with America” to hear Easterseals North Georgia CEO, Donna Davidson, talk more about the 100th Anniversary of Easterseals. The segment will first air in Atlanta, Georgia on FOX (WAGA-TV); New York (WNYW-TV); and LA (KDOC-TV) on Saturday, March 23 at 5:30 a.m. Check your local listings for air dates/times near you!

“Coffee with America” Host Sasha Rionda (left) interviews Donna Davidson, President and CEO of Easterseals (right) of North Georgia about Easterseals’ upcoming 100th anniversary.

 

New Emoji for People with Disabilities Have Arrived!

Emojis including a Seeing Eye dog, hearing aid, person in wheelchair, person with a cane, prosthetic leg and someone motioning toward their ear

Earlier this month the Unicode Consortium (the organization that standardizes the emoji offered by Apple, Google and other device makers) released a list of new emoji that will be available to use on smartphones and other devices later this year. You can see them all here. The big news for us at Easterseals is this: 12 of the new emoji depict people with disabilities.

But why should I care? I am completely blind. I can’t see emojis.

Here’s why: the speech synthesizers on my laptop and phone describe emoji to me out loud whenever they appear on screen. For years I’ve heard things like:

  • “Face with rolling eyes”
  • “Thinking face”
  • “Winking face with stuck out tongue”

You get the picture. And thanks to my speech synthesizer, so do I! In the past couple years I started hearing my synthesizer describing members of the LGBTQ+ community represented in emoji form — images of same sex families, two men holding hands, two women doing the same, rainbow flags.

Cool.

And then my speech synthesizer started calling out the skin tones of emoji, too. Example: I follow Chance the Rapper on Twitter, and when I hear one of his tweets followed with something like “hands with medium skin tone pressed together” it makes me smile. According to an article in Disability Scoop, some of the new disability-related emoji will have male and female versions and variants for skin tone, too. You know what that means, don’t you? When my smart phone starts reading those tweets out loud to me later this year, I’m going to be smiling a lot!

This increased representation — even via emoji — is paramount to inclusion. More than 1 billion people worldwide have some form of disability, and until now, only one symbol – the image of a wheelchair – has been available to represent all of us. That’s why I care. The new set of emoji aims to provide a wider array of options to represent basic categories for people with all sorts of disabilities, and I say, bring ‘em on.

 

My Approach For Confronting Awkward Situations

Beth at the bus stopSome of the workarounds and methods I use to get around in a sighted world are, well, unconventional. And when you have an obvious disability, you get a lot of awkward questions and comments from outsiders. Early on in my blindness, an awkward question or comment could make me feel misunderstood. Lonely. Burdensome. Enough questions like that and you start apologizing. You feel ashamed. For what? For being who you are?

Over the years talented teachers and positive role models have shown me ways to turn unnerving situations around. “Use them as opportunities,” they taught me. “Educate those people.” I started giving it a try, and you know what? It works! It’s pretty unusual for me to walk away from an unnerving situation feeling ashamed of myself anymore. Let me give you an example here, one I’m especially proud of.

I had just tied my Seeing Eye dog’s latest deposit into a pick-up bag and was leaning down to re-buckle her harness when a stranger approached. “Excuse me,” she said. Her question must have been pressing. She couldn’t wait for me to stand up before asking.

“I’m not sure you notice, you know, not being able to see him and all, but do you know your dog is too skinny?” My face broke out into a huge smile. I think I even chuckled.

Once I stood up, I looked towards the sidewalk stranger’s voice and thanked her for her concern. “You know, it’s funny,” I said, explaining that the night before graduates leave for home with our new Seeing Eye dogs, a veterinarian from the Seeing Eye speaks at our “Going Home” presentation and warns us that once we get out and about with our guides at home, complete strangers will stop us to tell us our dogs are too thin. “And here you are!” I said.

During that Seeing Eye lecture, the veterinarian tells us our dogs are the perfect weight,” I told the sidewalk stranger. “The vet told us Americans feed their dogs too much food, everyone gets used to seeing overweight dogs, and they end up thinking that’s the way dogs are supposed to look.”

What do you think?

The sidewalk stranger was unmoved. “I know they breed them special, I know that,” she said. “But there’s something wrong with yours, he’s too skinny. I have three dogs, I know dogs. Bring him to a vet. Ask them, they’ll tell you.”

I considered telling her that at our visit to the vet a month ago the doctor had confirmed that Whitney is still the perfect weight. But then I thought better of it. During that same “Going Home” lecture at the Seeing Eye, another Seeing Eye staff member told us that when we’re out and about with our Seeing Eye dogs it’s normal to encounter questions — and sometimes interference — from people who do not intend to cause us difficulty.

“By being polite and courteous and developing a brief explanation, you will limit the interference — educating these people will prevent more problems in the future,” he advised. “As distracting as public interference can be, you will generally make it worse if you lose your temper.”

And so, I didn’t lose my temper, even when the sidewalk stranger confessed she’d been following me for a while. “I was walking behind you and his back legs, you can’t see him, but he’s too skinny,” she said. “The way he walks, there is something really wrong with him. You need to take him to a vet.”

Time to go. I thanked the sidewalk stranger again for her concern, and then I told her I did have something she could help me with. “Without being able to see, you know, I can’t tell where a nearby garbage can might be.” I said. “Can you throw this out for me?” And with that, I handed her the bag.

 

Calling All Writers With Disabilities: Apply For a Grant Today!

An image of a laptop and notebook on a wooden deskDiversity has become a buzz word the past decade or so — a good thing, really — but when it’s talked about, the conversation tends to leave disability at the wayside. Conversation about diversity is often limited to ethnicity, race, religion and sexuality.

Not at the Mendocino County Writers Conference in California, though. Every year the MCWC awards a Voices of Diversity grant to a writer from an underrepresented group “on the basis of age, ethnicity, and sexual identity, and disability, social or cultural background.”

You read that right: the Voices of Diversity grant can be awarded to someone with a disability, and I can tell you firsthand that it’s a thrill to attend the conference – I was awarded the grant last year.

The Mendocino County Writers Conference is offering the Voices of Diversity grant again this year, and if you’d like to apply, you need to act fast: applications are due by Friday, February 15, 2019. To apply for a scholarship:

  • Fully download, complete, and sign the scholarship application form
  • Submit a digital signature, or print out the form and sign it by hand
  • Email it with your writing sample to scholarships@mcwc.org

Being around people from different backgrounds exposes us all to new viewpoints and perspectives, and in the case of a conference for writers, being around people with different sorts of identities impacts how you see the world and what stories you are able to tell. It’s important for fiction writers, non-fiction writers, poets, playwrights and script writers to tell everyone’s story, and I commend the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference for recognizing that disability needs to be a part of this larger fabric of stories, too.

Now get those applications in — full instructions for manuscript preparation are provided on the application form itself, and they’re .

 

How I Experienced the Super Bowl Halftime Show Using Smart Glasses Technology

Super Bowl 2019 logoI’m not much of a football fan. I am, however, a huge fan of new assistive technology, especially when you can try it out for free. That’s why I brought my smart phone and headphones along to our neighborhood Super Bowl party last night: AIRA had a special offer to allow anyone to listen in on its Virtual Super Bowl party free of charge. AIRA calls itself a “visual interpreter for the blind,” and you usually need to subscribe to AIRA to connect with their trained sighted guides to have them describe stuff for you. Last night, you didn’t need to be an AIRA subscriber to listen, though. All I had to do was call a toll-free number and I was in. No need for Smart Glasses, either — someone at the game would be wearing them, and my Smart Phone would allow me to hear what that spectator was seeing . Here’s how the AIRA web site describes it:

“The trained agents see the world through the smart glass worn by the customer and describe the view. They respond to requests for information from the user, working at a specially-designed dashboard that efficiently connects to information via the video camera, GPS, and other sources of data.”

AIRA offered the free service during the Super Bowl last year, too, when Greg Stilson, a blind football fan, was at the game in Minneapolis. Stilson wore smart glasses with an embedded video camera during the game, and I listened in at home as trained and certified AIRA agents who weren’t at the game used smartphones and portable WiFi hotspot technology to describe what was in front of Greg remotely in real-time. I was a little disappointed by the whole thing last year — it seemed a bit silly to have the AIRA trained and certified agents describe the game when I could just turn the radio or television on and listen to the announcers.

This year AIRA left the game itself to the announcers. Someone at the game was wearing Smart Glasses, though, and the certified describers were on hand for the pre-game, halftime and post-game activities.

Must admit, I did get a kick (excuse the football pun there) out of hearing a professional try to describe all that was happening on the field during halftime!

To the amusement (more likely, the annoyance) of my sighted friends watching halftime on TV at the Super Bowl party, I repeated the descriptions I was hearing in my headphones out loud for them in rapid succession. “Panning the audience on the field – mostly young girls,” “A fire igniting in front of the stage!” “Adam Levine shuffling, I guess dancing, around the stage with just a microphone, no guitar,” “Young girls freaking out in the audience,” “Lanterns, pink and blue, out in the stands, everywhere,” “Big Boy driving up in a big car, maybe a Cadillac?” “A gospel choir assembling on stage,” “Big Boy getting out of the car, wearing a big fur coat!” “Another fire igniting, this one to the side of the stage!” “Adam Levine’s shirt is off, young girls are flanking him!” It was ridiculous. So ridiculous that I got a good laugh out of it all. And thanks to AIRA, I got to be part of the fun.

 

My 5 Tips for Walking Your Dog in Winter Weather Conditions

Whitney, a golden retriver/labrador mix, wearing snow booties

Whitney in her snow booties

Our Chicago apartment is surrounded by other big buildings. Most ground floor units are retail, and shop owners don’t like their customers falling on ice. So they shovel their sidewalks. Trouble is, they put salt on their sidewalks, too. LOTS of salt.

The American Dog Trainers Network website warns that ice-melting chemicals and salt on sidewalks and roads can cause severe burning to a dog’s footpads. “Whenever possible,” says the web site, “avoid walking your dog through these substances…”

Trust me, I’d avoid walking Whitney through those “substances” if I could. But for one, I can’t see the dang stuff. And two, if we avoided the salt, we’d never get anywhere. We’d be trapped, just like my friends who use wheelchairs and walkers and can’t make it over the piles of snow in the crosswalks.

Musher’s Secret to the rescue! Musher’s Secret is this waxy stuff you can get online from pet suppliers. It smells a bit like Vicks Vaporub, and all you need to do is rub this goop on your dog’s paws before you leave home – I recommend you do this near the door outside so the wax doesn’t get all over your indoor carpet! When temperatures are this low, the wax hardens on Whitney’s paws the second we get outside and the salt can’t get through to her pads. Whitney is not fond of having her paws rubbed, so I alternate between using Musher’s Secret and putting dog booties on her. Some other Polar Vortex tips for those of you with service dogs:

  1. Keep your trips outside as short as possible.
  2. Be aware that even though dogs have fur coats, they are just as susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite as we are. Dogs should not be outside in temperatures below zero for more than a few minutes.
  3. Protect your dog’s paws even when there is no salt on the ground. Pavement feels awfully cold when the temperature is below zero, and paws should not make contact with the cold pavement without some sort of barrier to protect them.
  4. Dog sweaters and coats can provide warmth for short-haired dogs – they don’t have the double coat that protects dogs like huskies or Bernese mountain dogs from extreme temperatures.
  5. Dogs with health sensitivities, such as heart or lung issues, are at a much greater risk in temperatures below zero. Air is bitter cold and very difficult to breathe in, so monitor your dogs very carefully, even after their walk is complete and they are inside.

I’ve been working with guide dogs nearly 30 years now and we’ve made it through a lot of cold winters. My advice: be careful, take your time, and remember to reward your dogs with a lot of affection and play when you get back inside — they deserve it!.

 

Let It Snow, But Make Sure You Shovel Your Sidewalk After

An aerial view of a snowy streetTemperatures are hitting record lows in parts of the country this week. In preparation for the snow and cold, check out our winter safety tips for people with disabilities.

When sidewalks are covered in snow and ice, walking to work — or to school, or just to exercise — can be difficult. Or impossible.

My hometown of Chicago is one of many American cities where the number of people walking or using public transportation to get to work outnumber the people who drive. Every winter here I find myself questioning why it is that when snow plows clear passage for cars, the snow mounds they leave at bus stops — on curb cuts and crosswalks — go unshoveled. What about the pedestrians? We appreciate you plowing the streets, but how can we get to the crosswalk to get to the other side? What better place to find information on all this than on a Minnesota web site. A site called Minnesota Walks points out that approximately one-third of the U.S. population does not drive, including:

  • Children
  • People with certain disabilities
  • People age 65 or better
  • Those who cannot afford a personal vehicle
  • A growing number of people who simply choose not to drive.

Sidewalks and crosswalks are necessary for those of us who don’t drive to access destinations or public transit, and the Minnesota Walks site also points out that the “Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title II Regulation §35.133 requires maintaining ADA-compliant access to walkways year-round, which includes snow and ice clearing.”

Photo of Beth and her guide dog making their way through a shoveled, tunnel-like path.

For guide dogs, everything can look like a tunnel sometimes.

Those of you stuck at home in the aftermath of a snowstorm may want to use your time inside to communicate and educate transportation professionals and community leaders about snow removal and accessibility. Easter Seals’ Project Action has developed a guide related to transportation and snow removal. The 24-page booklet highlights innovative policies and strategies used by U.S. and Canadian communities to improve accessible pathways and transit stops during winter weather.

Happy reading, and hang in there — it’s gotta melt sometime.

 

What It’s Like Speaking to Kindergartners About Disability

I am the youngest of seven, and a lot of my nieces and nephews were toddlers when I lost my sight. It wasn’t until they were five years old that they started to understand I had “special needs” that were different from their other aunts. My favorite example? One sunny afternoon when my sisters were sitting outside passing photos around, my five-year-old nephew Robbie was so pleased at the attention being given to a photo of him that he brought it to me. After placing it proudly on the tabletop in front of me, he grabbed my hand and ran my finger across the photo. “That’s me, Aunt Betha! See me? That’s me!”

A five-year-old I visited on a recent trip to New Orleans had a similar “aha” moment, and although I’ve been unable to find any written studies on when children start to recognize disability in others, personal experience shows me again and again that it happens at age five. Here’s what happened in New Orleans.

Photo of Beth seated next to a white board next to Tallie.

That’s my helper Tallie.

We have friends who live in New Orleans, and their oldest daughter was only a year old the last time we visited. Tallie is five years old now, and her kindergarten teachers agreed to have my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and me come visit her classroom while we were in town.

All the kids were seated criss-cross applesauce on the floor when we arrived, except for one: five-year-old Tallie, my special helper, was seated in one of the two chairs in front. We knew she wouldn’t remember me, and we weren’t sure if she’d be too shy to help, but I found the seat next to her, and once Whitney was arranged on the floor beside us, I reached over ever-so-carefully to pat Tallie’s leg and thank her for agreeing to help me. “You’re welcome,” she said, and the fun began.

Tallie and her parents had read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound at home, and she brought her copy to show to her classmates. “Can you find a page with a picture of the dog and me together?” Tallie flipped through the pages, found the perfect illustration, and when she lifted the book to show her classmates, I asked them all if the picture looked like me. The answer came in a chorus of exuberant yesses. “It’s you! And that’s your dog! It looks just like you!”

When I’d been emailing back and forth with Tallie’s teachers ahead of time to plan this visit, one of them had alerted me that Monday would be their first day back after the holiday break. “The kids will be wiggly,” she warned.”You promise?” I wrote back. I love wiggly kids. Tallie’s classmates did not disappoint.

I reached over then to see if Tallie was back sitting on her chair beside me. My palm landed softly on her arm, confirming she was there, and as the teachers continued settling the other kids down, I whispered to Tallie: “Your shirt feels so soft, what color is it?” Quietly and carefully, Tallie described grey and pink designs. When I asked her what color her pants were, she became quite serious. Was that a moment when she understood I really couldn’t see her? I think so. “It’s all one piece!” she whispered. “They’re connected.”

By then the class had settled down enough for Tallie to be able to call on her friends who had questions. Or, in many cases, statements.

    • I have a cat who’s four.
    • How does that dog know when to cross the street?
    • When you’re blind, you look up, and all you see is the sky, so that’s why you need that dog, right? To tell you which way you’re going?
    • Your dog is cute.
    • I know it snows where you live, so does that dog wear a snowsuit?
    • I’m sitting on an umbrella.

One of their teachers, Miss Dominica, must have noticed the dumbfounded look on my face after that bit about the umbrella. “Each carpet tile is a different letter of the alphabet,” she explained. “Each child sits on the first letter of their name.” As I write this, I can’t remember who it was sitting on the umbrella. Ursula, maybe? Anyway, the kids took it from there, each child letting me in on which letter they were sitting on. “I’m on I, for igloo!” “I’m on G, for goat.”

What happens if two kids have names that start with the same letter, I wondered out loud. Off they went, all of them calling out letters at the same time “We have two T’s!” “There’s four E’s!” My husband Mike says I am the worst person to have come and speak to kindergartners. “You’re one of them!” he says. “You stir them all up!”

Guilty as charged. Nothing better than getting questions from kids, hearing them laugh and have fun. Their curiosity — and their exuberance — bring me joy. So when the teachers had to settle the kids again, Tallie and I huddled. “How about you ask if anyone has a question?” Tallie is a good listener. When she asked loud and clear, in her Mardi Gras voice, “Do any of you have any questions?” One hand shot right up.

“I do! I do!” the little boy said. “I know you can’t draw pictures with a pen, but can you write words with a pen?” I reminded him that I was able to see when I was growing up. I’d learned penmanship then, too, and I still remember the shape of letters. “It’s hard for me to write in a straight line, though,” I admitted. I was about to tell them how using a straightedge helps, but when I realized they might not know what a straightedge is, I told them that if you put a ruler on the line where you’re supposed to write, it helps you keep straight. “Do you have a ruler?” the boy asked.

Of course I didn’t. Miss Dominica did, though. “I have a whiteboard and a marker, too!” she exclaimed. “I’ll bring them over.”

I’ve never written on a whiteboard. They weren’t around when I could see. Can I? Aha! An educational moment, Beth. Tell them it’s good to try new things. It’s okay if you fail. You can learn from mistakes. And so, while Miss Dominica held the ruler in place, the kids watched me write on a whiteboard.

The class had just been working on the word “I” before Christmas break, and by chance the first word in my sentence was “I.” They all knew that word, and one of the older five-year-olds could sound the entire sentence out. It was legible. Success!

While the class cheered, I asked Tallie one last quick question: Who’s the other t? “Teddy,” she said with a shrug.

“We share our square.”