This Clever Podcast Helps Kids Imagine What It’s Like to be Blind

A young child has earphones on and is listening pleasantly. Behind her are illustrations of different objects like a feather, kit, radioI like to start my mornings with coffee and a podcast. I never used to be into podcasts, actually — I’d listen to a few here and there — but when COVID-19 regulations started keeping us closer to home, morning podcasts became a part of my routine.

The first one I ever listened to was Serial, a murder mystery. Since then, my two favorites are Crime Junkie and Morbid: A True Crime Podcast.

A few weeks ago, our Easterseals blog moderator Beth Finke told me about a podcast called X-Marks The Spot and asked me if I’d be willing to give it a listen and write a review for you Easterseals National blog readers.

Created by the Chicago Children’s Theatre (CCT), X-Marks The Spot is a five-part serialized audio production conceived and directed by CCT Artistic Director Jacqui Russell. She came up with the idea after completing a 2018 residency at Otis Elementary, a Chicago Public School where some children with visual impairments learn alongside their sighted peers.

Listeners to the podcast are encouraged to listen to the dialog and the narrations to enjoy a story using their sense of smell, taste, touch and hearing rather than depending on their sense of sight. Sighted people can and do enjoy all sorts of podcasts, but they might not be used to podcasts that are more of a performance and a story. Not being able to see the action may be new to them. I thought this was really interesting, so I was glad to give it a listen and then give you readers this review.

Described as an “extra sensory experience,” X-Marks the Spot is obviously much different than what I normally listen to. I’ll use certain scenes to give examples here , but don’t worry about spoiler alerts – my examples won’t spoil any major plot twists! Here are my thoughts about the podcast’s representation of blindness:

  • X-Marks The Spot follows a family with 4 children, including Melody, who is blind. It begins by introducing each member of the family, and then having that person speak so the listener can identify the person based on their voice. I enjoyed the beginning of the podcast because Blind people are used to identifying people by their voices, but sighted people may not be.
  • The beginning also described the different dimensions of visual impairment. Some people who identify as blind actually have some sight. Melody, the character in the podcast, is completely blind, just like me.
  • The first episode also addresses something that intrigued me, because it’s a question I often get: how do you describe color to a blind person? There’s a quick scene that is a great representation of this. While the children are in the car, they play a game where someone describes a color without saying what it looks like: they use their other four senses instead. This way everyone can play on an even keel, Melody is not at a disadvantage because she can’t see. Example: “This color sounds like a sick guitar solo. It feels like a skinned knee. It smells and tastes like desert air.” The color was red. This was one of my favorite scenes, partly because I had read once about describing color to a blind person using senses, and another because it was fun! I, too, was able to play along and try to guess what color they were thinking of.
  • In another episode, the kids are flying a kite, and their mother puts a bell in the kite so Melody could hear how high it goes. I don’t know if I ever flew a kite as a child, but if I did, we never adapted it like this. That’s certainly not because my family didn’t want to. That idea just never occurred to us.
  • I think this is a great podcast for children. Even as a 28-year-old listening to something geared toward a younger crowd, I found myself laughing at some parts.
  • I think it does a great portrayal of blindness, from the color game to mentioning the white cane to even being able to hear the sound of the Braille writer.

I think kids of all ages would really enjoy this podcast — it might give them ideas for ways to adapt things, such as the kite and the color game. My family has always wondered how to describe color to someone who can’t see (my dad has asked me this a few times and has always been curious).

So now I can give him an idea. While X-Marks the Spot is different from podcasts I normally listen to, it is something lighthearted, amusing, and I’m glad I was able to write about it here. I recommend you give X-Marks the Spot a listen – you can find out more and link to the podcast from the Chicago Children’s Theatre web site.

 

Working From Home: A Reasonable Accommodation under ADA Law?

a woman working on a laptopA story published earlier this month in HR Dive (a newsletter for people in the Human Resources industry ) reported that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities hit a 7-year high last year. And that’s saying something – it’s not like the outlet for people with disabilities getting a job was all that great before the pandemic, either.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), back in 2019 only 19.3% of working-age people who had disabilities had a job. The number of people with disabilities working last year dropped to 17.9%. In its analysis, BLS pointed out that “Persons with a disability were more likely to work in service occupations and occupations involving production, transportation and material moving in 2020 than those without disabilities.” The analysis said employment in leisure and hospitality fell by 8.2 million jobs in the first two months of the pandemic, and 8.3% of employed persons with a disability were working in those fields before 2020.

Americans with disabilities have lagged far behind their peers in employment for far too long. Even before the pandemic, only two in ten people with disabilities were participating in the workforce (compared to seven in ten for people without disabilities). Despite efforts to help increase employment for people with disabilities (including the passage of the historic Rehabilitation Act of 1973) jobseekers with disabilities continue to face double digit unemployment.

For individuals with disabilities whose major challenge is getting to work (accessible public transportation, ADA compliance in the workplace and so on) this past year might change things for the better. COVID-19 risks motivated many employers to add work-from home options for workers and adopt virtual hiring processes. From the HR Dive article:

That adoption is expected to continue well into 2021. Combined with other measures to reduce bias in the hiring process, this change could vastly improve accessibility for individuals with disabilities.

The article even suggested that the impact of remote work in 2020 could encourage employers to consider work-at-home arrangements as reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I hope they’re right.

 

National Transportation Organization Wants to Hear From Us

I love it when organizations or businesses go out of their way to ask older adults and/or people with disabilities what we think, don’t you? So when I found out the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC) had launched a survey to hear about our experiences accessing and using local transportation options, I filled it out right away. From the NADTC web site:

As part of continuing efforts to identify transportation access, usage and disparities that impact diverse groups, the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center (NADTC) has launched a national equity, diversity and inclusion transportation survey. The survey will gauge opinions and obtain information from a representative sample of racially, ethnically and culturally diverse older adults, people with disabilities and family caregivers.

The survey is accessible and only took ten minutes to fill out — a very small chunk of my time to spend to be part of a study that may help with some of the public transportation issues I run into living in a big city. I urge you to join me and feel good about helping an organization make transportation options work better…for all of us!

 

Women’s Empowerment and Disability: Becoming the Role Model I Needed

A young lady wearing glasses and a cloth face mask with flower printI am pleased to have 14-year-old guest blogger Anja Herrman back with us today. I got to know Anja very well when she was nine years old and learning at home during a casting program (casts on both legs from her hips down to her ankles). She was schooled at home for two months back then, and I was her at-home writing tutor. Many of her completed assignments were published as guest posts here on our Easterseals National blog, and you can read this post from 2016 to learn how and why she had all her posts back then published under the pen name DJ Mermaid. A disability activist, Dj Mermaid is in high school now and goes by her real name.

by Anja Herrman

Marie Curie. Madeline Albright. Rosa Parks. Michelle Obama. Just a few of the role models I’ve looked up to in my fourteen years of life, all for different reasons: their perseverance, courage, bravery and strength, to name a few. As a young girl, I had these women to emulate and to champion.

There’s just one problem. While these women are all incredible in their own right and this is not to be dismissed, none of them openly identify as disabled. Growing up, whenever I looked for role models to help guide me along in my journey from childhood to adolescence, I never felt like I had people who “got me.” None of them understood the deep nuances of my life, so the “guidance” they provided for other pre-teens never rung true for me. These women existed, I just couldn’t find them, even though I spent a long time searching.

What to do? Well, if I couldn’t find any role models, I told myself, then I’ll be a role model, both for me, but most importantly, those who come after me. I was nine when I made this resolution, and over the past half decade (wow, I’m old!) I’ve been working on this promise to myself: to be a good role model and make the world more accessible and equal for people with disabilities. I want to forge a path that, if I’m lucky, others may choose to follow.

One such opportunity arose almost exactly a year ago (curse you, COVID, for drying up all of my speaking opportunities!) when I was asked to be a keynote speaker at an International Women’s Day event in Chicago. The speech was supposed to focus on advocacy and the disability community. Okay, piece of cake, I thought. The catch? The speech also had to be tailored to the business community. Which, in hindsight, makes sense, since it was hosted at an advertising firm.

But here’s the thing: I had absolutely no idea how to do that. Hence, for the very first time in my life as a writer, I found myself in a battle against every writer’s worst nightmare: writer’s block. Intense pressure doesn’t help, but what would you expect from a girl who compares herself to a lauded Secretary of State, a First Lady who is the literal definition of an icon, a famed scientist and a civil rights pioneer?

So, to conquer the writer’s block, I went back to basics and wrote a speech explaining what right I had to be speaking up on that stage. Using what I’ve learned from my life as a disabled adolescent fighting for equality, I crafted what I thought was a good speech and then I moved on to something else. I put the speech on the back burner, letting it simmer in my subconscious like a soup. Instead, I worried about other tasks: mainly the French test coming up in a few days.

Pro Tip: Another surefire way to get writer’s block is by over-critiquing. Critiquing beyond the point of being constructive stifles ideas.

The event drew nearer. So near that before I knew it I was sitting in the passenger seat of our car putting my mascara on while my mom was driving, and my brother was playing some sort of game on his phone, probably Minecraft…is that even a thing anymore?

Looking back, it’s a miracle I didn’t poke my eye out with a mascara wand while going over my speech one last time.

We got out of the car, raced up to the event space and, thankfully, I had a half an hour before I had to speak. So begins all the pre-event tests like checking the ramp to make sure I don’t tip before I have to speak (can you think of anything more embarrassing?) and introducing myself to all the other speakers and wishing them luck.

Before I know it, it’s showtime!

All the way through my speech, I imagine a little tiny me, with her pigtails and AFO’s sitting in the audience, biting her lip with anticipation. I look out, and notice that tiny Anja is laughing at the funny parts, and solemn at the serious parts, which means everything is landing exactly as I wanted it to back when I was sitting at home in my ratty pajama top writing the speech.

I conclude the speech. Over the roar of applause, I look into my younger self’s eyes, and see that she’s proud of me, and I know that I’ve succeeded in my quest, to be the role model that I needed.

And, guiding another person down the path to their own definition of success, well, that feels pretty great too.

 

Don’t Miss This Jazzy Celebration at the Library of Congress

Jazz musician Matthew Whitaker wearing earphones, sunglasses - in front of keyboard piano setI’ve written a post here before about how much I appreciate the free audio book program the Library of Congress provides for people who are blind or have physical disabilities that prevent them from reading print. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Pratt-Smoot Act, the legislation for the “Books for the Blind” program, and to celebrate, the National Library Service (NLS) is sponsoring a concert.

Jazz musician Matthew Whitaker has been a patron of the NLS music service for many years, and if you’re a fan of television’s 60 Minutes you may recall an episode a year or two ago featuring him on piano. He’s a highly gifted performer, age 19, with a lot of credits so far and a couple of albums out besides.

In normal years, the National Library Service would have held the concert in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, with an interview preceding, and a reception to follow. This year is not a normal year, so instead, they’ve pre-recorded the concert and an interview the National Library Service Director Karen Keninger did with Matthew.

Full disclosure: Karen and I got to know each other when we both were in New Jersey training with our Seeing Eye dogs in 2012. She returned home with new dog Jimi that year. I came home with now-retired Seeing Eye dog Whitney and we’ve kept in touch ever since. She is the one who alerted me to this historic anniversary. The celebratory concert streams free of charge on YouTube and the Library of Congress Facebook page at 8:00 pm Eastern Time today, March 3, 2021, and I’ll be tuning in. The interview is available at 8:00 a.m. Eastern on the Library of Congress YouTube channel.

No time to watch right now? No problem! The concert will remain on YouTube for two years, so if you miss it today, you can still catch it later. As Karen says, “If you like jazz, you won’t be disappointed!”

 

Snow and Ice: It’s an Accessibility Issue

Beth and Seeing Eye Dog Luna posing in a snowy park, Beth in a long red winter coat.

Beth and Seeing Eye Dog Luna posing in a snowy park; Beth in a long red winter coat and a face mask.

Every winter here in Chicago, I find myself questioning why it is that when snow plows clear passage for cars, the snow mounds they leave on curb cuts and crosswalks go unshoveled. What about the pedestrians? This article in Forbes says it well:

Plowing equipment exists that can clear sidewalks at least as efficiently as streets are cleared by conventional plows. College campuses and companies with large and complex facilities use them. But very few cities take full responsibility for clearing sidewalks the way they all do for clearing streets. And by and large, either taxpayers don’t want to fund it, or politicians don’t want to risk asking. So while some winter weather cities and towns are better than others for winter accessibility, very few do a genuinely good job of it.

Temperatures are hitting record lows (and are staying there) in many parts of the country this week. With so many people working or attending school classes from home due to COVID-19 regulations this winter, many Americans are spending less time in their cars and more time walking outside. Traveling on snowy icy sidewalks to take short breaks from work, run errands, help neighbors, or just get exercise can be difficult. And if you use a wheelchair, it is often impossible.

We appreciate city services plowing the streets, but if they don’t clear the crosswalks, curb cuts and sidewalks , how can pedestrians get safely across to the other side? In addition to people with certain disabilities, other parts of the U.S. population do not drive, including:

  • Children
  • Many 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 all of us who don’t drive. More from that Forbes article:

If this was purely a weather problem, then disabled people would have no choice but to endure, or somehow find a way to move to warmer climates. But winter weather accessibility barriers are also a policy and practice problem. Winter weather would be substantially less of a problem if cities and towns made it a higher priority.

Maybe we, pedestrians, all need to band together? In the meantime, those of us stuck at home in the aftermath of a snowstorm might want to use our time inside to check out our winter safety tips for people with disabilities.

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

 

Hearing Actor Riz Ahmed Nominated for Best Actor for Sound of Metal, A Film Portrayal of Deaf Culture

Crom SaundersI am pleased to introduce Crom Saunders as our guest blogger today. A theatre interpreter and American Sign Language (ASL) master, Crom has a M.A. in Creative Writing and began teaching ASL and Deaf Culture at several universities before getting tenure at Columbia College Chicago, where he is currently Director of Deaf Studies.

by Crom Saunders

Late last year I began seeing online articles and posts on social media expressing positive buzz about the portrayal of Deaf culture in Amazon Studio’s new movie Sound of Metal. I teach a college course called Deaf Representations in Media, so I was simultaneously hopeful…and ready for disappointment.

I was hopeful for a film that would present a refreshing take on deafness and Deaf culture (rather than the same tired old tropes that have been utilized ad nauseum since the 1920’s). But I was also prepared for disappointment because I have often seen such promotional ballyhoo about other films in the past, only to find them lacking and one-dimensional.

Sound of Metal is a story about a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing rapidly, goes into a funk, meets several Deaf characters and realizes that Deaf people lead fulfilling lives.

Recognizing that the Deaf culture amongst the Deaf community goes hand-in-hand with American Sign Language (ASL), Director Darius Marder brought Jeremy Lee Stone, a Deaf (ASL) sign coach on board as a cultural consultant. Actor Riz Ahmed portrays the drummer in the film and spent five days a week for seven months with Stone to prepare for his role.

This is a welcome break from tradition regarding hearing actors portraying deaf characters in films. A hearing actor portraying a Deaf character might learn a few lines in ASL, but nothing about the culture or the community behind the language. When nominees for the 2021 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards were announced this morning, Ahmed was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Ruben. The actor stated the following about his role in an interview with Variety Magazine:

“I think we bridged a bit of a divide between hearing and deaf culture which is often so segregated, and that’s the fault of hearing people. They overlook, marginalize and oppress deaf people. It was great to make that connection. Our connection was something on the unique side. It opened my eyes to the richness of Deaf culture.”

This presents quite the contrast with Alan Arkin, who garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as a Deaf-mute character in the 1968 film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Arkin prepared for his role by visiting a school for the Deaf. He observed, “I visited a school for deaf-mutes in Montgomery and I learned they are not freaks. Stereotyped in my mind, they were always people who were not terribly bright, wildly animated at all times in trying to express themselves, and undisciplined emotionally.” At the end of the interview he surmised that he got that impression from watching another Deaf character portrayed by a hearing actress: Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. Arkin also added that, “The sign language was the easiest thing to learn, I got it in a day or two.” Spoiler alert: He really didn’t. His use of sign language in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is stilted, emotionless, and unrealistic.

Ahmed expresses himself much more authentically in Sound of Metal. His gradual immersion in the Deaf community and his language development of ASL ring true within the context of the story. In his Variety interview, Ahmed also commented on the process of learning ASL and how it not only enabled him to create a better portrayal but also opened the door to a new world for him. “To anyone who’s considering learning ASL or British Sign Language or any kind of sign language, do it because it will enrich your life with new friendships, new connections, and a new culture.” This is indeed a refreshing take on a hearing actor’s preparation for a Deaf role — almost completely original in Hollywood’s history of Deaf-centered stories.

However, one must question the originality of Sound of Metal, which has many similarities to the film It’s All Gone Pete Tong. The 2005 British-Canadian comedy concerns a DJ who loses his hearing rapidly, goes into a funk, meets a Deaf character and realizes that Deaf people lead fulfilling lives. Sound familiar?

Sound of Metal does have a few advantages over that 2005 film, though. Sound of Metal takes a more real-life approach to Ruben’s experience and transformation, and is far more inclusive of Deaf people—with one glaring exception.

Not Ahmed in the role of Ruben, but Paul Raci as Joe, the wise old Deaf person who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. Paul Raci is a hearing actor who grew up in a Deaf family, so his ASL skills are at least at a native level of fluency. What irks me is that Raci’s portrayal has already generated Supporting Actor Oscar buzz, and I find that rather tiresome. The quality of his acting in this role is actually moot. The issue at hand is giving the role to the most qualified person, and the most qualified person to portray being a Deaf person is a Deaf person.

With a plethora of seasoned Deaf actors who can also speak for themselves, who could have been portrayed as veterans of Vietnam, Korea, or even Desert Storm, this casting decision is the latest in a long, long tradition of misguided intentions. Sound of Metal might be more authentic than many previous films and shows featuring Deaf characters, but the lens and portrayal still lack true credibility. However well the film Sound of Metal might perform at award ceremonies this year, I predict that finally, when a well-crafted film comes along with all Deaf roles appropriately cast with Deaf talent, there will be a new sound: the thunderous applause of a community validated.

 

The White House is Asking for Input from People with Disabilities

The White House on a bright, partly cloudy dayAmong the many changes the new administration made in its first week was to make a commitment to ensure its site is accessible to all Americans. A White House Accessibility Statement released this past week says its Whitehouse.gov site will conform to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, level AA criteria — guidelines that not only help make web content accessible to users with sensory, cognitive and mobility disabilities, but ultimately to all users, regardless of ability.

The statement says its ongoing accessibility efforts will “work toward making WhiteHouse.gov as accessible as possible,” and, to that end, they are looking for help from experts: us!

You read that right. Users with disabilities are encouraged to send comments on how to improve the site’s accessibility, and here’s how you can :

  • Switchboard: 202-456-1414
  • TTY/TDD Phone Numbers (for the Hearing Impaired Only):202-456-6213
  • Visitors Office: 202-456-2121

Let’s chime in, shall we? Let freedom ring!

 

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King: The Path to Positive Change

As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the vital work he did and continues to do through his legacy, I would like to reflect on the hope that change can bring.

Change is not something that just happens automatically, but it can happen in the wake of pain. Over this past year, this country experienced the unimaginable with the pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of people losing their lives. The divisiveness in this country was highlighted over and over, with the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, and culminating in the reprehensible actions taken at the U.S. Capital.

But in these dark moments, we also see people engage in acts of love that make the unbearable bearable and let each of us know we are not alone in our fear or grief; social distancing does not mean disconnection from each other, whether it’s connecting through Zoom with your friends in quarantine or holding a virtual vigil for those we lost.

If you are feeling powerless right now, remember that Dr. King once said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Every action we take to help each other, and to be kind, sets us forth on a path to positive change and brings hope for a brighter future. Through self-reflection, community outreach, or other acts of love, we can be a beacon of that hope we so long to feel again. Let’s listen to Dr. King’s words and put them into practice every day.

 

Speech Software, Smartphones: Why Braille Still Matters

Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809. His birthday is now annually recognized as World Braille Day, and January is Braille Literacy Awareness Month. I have long been aware of World Braille Day, but it’s only recently that I learned that the entire month is dedicated to Braille — how cool is that?!

Picture of a letter written in Braille.

A page written in Braille along with standard characters and words.

Though I don’t use Braille as often as I used to, it’s still a part of my life. I first learned Braille when I started preschool at age 3. My memories of this are foggy at best, but I do remember the first Braille book I read was called Go and Do. It introduced me to contractions, which are letters or symbols that are used to substitute for actual words. For example, the letter G by itself stands for the word “go.” Braille has a symbol for the word “and,” similar to how in print, you use the symbol “&” to mean “and.” The letter D by itself stands for the word “do.” This makes typing easier, as you do not need to type the entire word.

I read a lot of Braille in my school years. As far back as middle school, I remember textbooks being several volumes. Braille books are heavier, and the dots can take up so much space that the average print textbook is split up into several volumes when converted to Braille. This made for some accommodating in middle and high school — for my school presentations, I often needed to know ahead of time what pages we’d be working on so I could see if I needed to retrieve another volume of the textbook. If this concept confuses you, don’t worry; it confused my teachers when I’d try to explain it. They’d ask, “Doesn’t your textbook there just have all the pages like ours does?”…not in a patronizing way, but out of simple confusion.

Braille books can be very expensive, especially when they come in several volumes. So, you can imagine that this is why, when I’m reading books for pleasure at home, I prefer to listen to audio books. I read a lot of books (I love reading!) but after reading Braille for quite a while, my fingers can actually get tired. Sometimes, they hurt!

When I went to college, most of my assignments were done electronically. I could read textbooks using VoiceOver (the speech synthesizer on my iPhone), but I often took tests in Braille. I was given the option to either have them read tests to me in person or provide them to me in audio format. If I chose the audio format, someone from the Disability Resource Center would record the exam, I listen to the recording and write my answers in Braille. Later, my Braille answers would be transcribed into print for the professors to grade.

Audio format seemed like it took too much time, so I arranged to have my exams provided in Braille instead. The professors simply emailed the exam to the Disability Resource Center and they’d provide it in Braille. That way I wouldn’t have to rewind the audio or ask someone to re-read something if need be — I could simply use my fingertips to reread the question if I needed to.

To take notes in class, I’d use a Braille Note Apex (it essentially looks like a screen-less laptop). Similar to how words appear on the screen when you type on a laptop, the words would appear at the bottom on a Braille display. I could have used my laptop to take notes, but I would’ve had to use headphones so my classmates wouldn’t hear the screen-reading software on my computer. You can see the problem there: it’s hard to hear a class lecture with headphones on! Using just one earbud in my ear meant I might be too focused on the speech software and miss something the professor said. So I went with Braille.

As you might know from previous posts, I graduated from Northern Illinois University in December 2019. Most people think of Braille as a way to read books, but now that I’m done with school, I use it in ways you might not think of. We used my Braille writer — a very large typewriter of sorts — to label the cards so I can play card games with my family. I use Braille to read signs that verify bathroom signs or room numbers (though this was more applicable in college, but I’m sure it will be useful again post-pandemic, when I get out and travel more). Another example: I sometimes use sound clues to locate restrooms myself when alone at a coffee shop, and I check to see if there’s a Braille sign near the door to indicate it is the women’s restroom.

A common concern among parents is that after a blind person is through with their education, with everything being electronic these days, Braille skills will diminish, and a person may not read as well. But Braille is still there and still useful, from reading signs to playing games to even writing an old-fashioned card if you want to.

One of my (sighted) friends learned Braille and every year she writes my birthday card in Braille, and I’m grateful that she taught herself Braille and that I still use it outside of school.