Enjoy the Sounds of Ohio’s Blind Marching Band

members of the marching band hold up banner and play instruments during a paradeWhat? You didn’t see the Ohio School for the Blind (OSSB) Marching band leading the Outback Bowl Parade on New Year’s Eve? I didn’t, either.

I have an excuse,though: I can’t see!

I can tell you this, though: the world’s only blind marching band sure sounded fabulous, and if you missed it, don’t fret:you can see – and hear – highlights here.

Comprised of 7th through 12th graders from across the state of Ohio, the OSSB marching band not only marched in the parade but also performed with other high school bands during the halftime show on New Year’s Day.

Community volunteers act as marching assistants to guide the musicians while on and off the field. “They know their steps already,” a marching assistant named Sandy Wilson explained in a Bay News story about the OSSB marching band. “We just sort of help them make sure they stay in line.”

The Music Intstruction page on the Ohio State School for the Blind web site explains their emphasis on music:

Music is an essential part of the education at OSSB. Since most of our students have little to no vision, music takes on added significance as the most approachable art form in which they can participate.

All students at OSSB take music classes, and students learn to play by ear and read music Braille as well. Guests from the Artist in Residence program present lessons that expose the students to music of other countries, allowing educators to promote cultural diversity and tolerance. The emphasis of music at that school is obvious from their scheduling:

  • Private lessons occur once a week
  • Multiple students with disabilities have music three times a week
  • Jr. High Students have music five times a week
  • High School Choir meets five times a week
  • High School Marching Band meets five times a week, holds a marching practice once a week during football season, and Participants must also attend a week long band camp during the summer

The blind marching band plays at area football games, performs as a pep band at the Ohio School for the Deaf basketball games, and travels to events in and outside of Ohio –they marched in the Rose Bowl parade a few years before appearing at this year’s Outback Bowl. A 14-year-old drummer in the band did a beautiful job expressing the importance of performances like these in that Bay News story: “Some people think that even though we’re blind that we’re not capable of performing,” she said. “I want them to be happy and amazed after our performance, I want them to think like, ‘wow, they really are the only blind band in the world and they can play music and they can do everything just like any other band.'”

Back in high school I was in the marching band.

Back in high school I was in the marching band.

I was in my high school marching band back when I was a teenager. I was a pretty gawky teen, never had a boyfriend, never went to prom. But I had a ball in the band, especially on bus rides to and from performances at other schools and in other states. Many of my closest friends today are kids I met in marching band, and I trust the same will be true for these kids from Ohio. March on!


The One Thing People Who Are Blind Have in Common With Search Engines

illustration of a browser viewing an image with a sales tag attached to it saying 'alt tag'Here’s a New Year’s resolution that’s a cinch to follow: vow to start using html code to identify images and graphics for users like me, who are unable to see them. Your reward? You’ll likely increase your SEO (Search Engine Optimization) scores as well.

Let me try to explain. Many of us who are visually-impaired or blind use screen readers on our computers and smartphones. When we visit a website, as long as you’ve used alt text, our screen readers will read the alt text out loud so we know what images you’ve used. Sites that don’t use alt text correctly (or don’t use it at all) risk leaving us, quite literally, in the dark.

Turns out we’re not the only ones who can’t see images on your website: search engines can’t “see” them, either. Adding alt text and, when possible, describing images in a way that includes a keyword you’re targeting, is a great SEO tactic.

I like to think of this alt text tactic as an example of accessible technology is like accessible design. Like to skateboard? Use luggage with wheels? When you take walks, are your kids in strollers? If so, you have the Americans with Disabilities Act to thank for requiring curb cuts.

The Americans with Disabilities Act also brings you closed captioning, which means bars, restaurants, health clubs and airport lobbies don’t have to crank the volume for people who want to keep up with news events, sports and weather.

So now, with this alt text idea, I can say accessible technology is for everyone trying to increase SEO scores. Who knew? Not me! But just like curb cuts and closed captioning, alt text provides unintentional benefits to people whether they have disabilities or not. I. Love. It.

A little research on all this led me to the Perkins School for the Blind’s Technology blog. I’ll say goodbye here with a recommendation that you read a post there to learn best practices when writing alt text. Then watch your SEO scores zoom upward as search engines – and people who are blind – can read them.


Flying Blind

a wide view of an airplane  stationary at an airport, sun low in the backgroundThis Monday I take off for Morristown, New Jersey to spend three weeks training with a new Seeing Eye dog. A post we published here last month explained where my retired dog Whitney is living now, and today’s short post will clue you in on some of the details involved in getting 24 people who have visual impairments arrive at Newark International Airport on the same day from all over North America.

A few of the 24 of us will be training with their first ever Seeing Eye dog, but a majority will be like me: people who retired a guide dog recently and are returning to train with a new dog.

Translation: we are not very skilled with our white canes! To help you understand a bit about how this all works, I give you a bit of the official itinerary sent to me by the Seeing Eye.

Here is your confirmation for your flight on JANUARY 06, 2020. Please make sure that you arrive at the airport with your Government issued photo ID and go directly to the ticket counter for your boarding pass. We recommend you checking with the airline for the current baggage fee policy. You will be responsible for any baggage fee so packing lightly will be to your advantage.

Upon your arrival at Newark Airport you will be escorted by an airline representative to your baggage claim area, where a Seeing Eye Instructor will meet you and drive you to campus. Airline representatives who provide assistance often have wheelchairs with them, but remember you do not have to ride in a wheelchair unless you want to.

We ask that you turn on your cell phone and use the facilities prior to getting to the baggage carousel. There usually is some waiting time while collecting everyone.

Lori will be sending you a Seeing Eye luggage tag via USPS. Please attach that to your checked bag so it will be easily identifiable by the instructor that meets you.

Wish me luck!


This Holiday Season, Many Happy Returns


idcardThat’s the one word that describes my holidays this year. In a matter of days, I’ll be returning my Seeing Eye dog Whitney to the fabulous family who volunteered to raise her as a puppy. In January I’ll be returning to the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, New Jersey to train with a new dog. And in-between, my husband Mike and I will be returning to New Orleans, one of my favorite vacation destinations.

New Orleans is the only American city I know of where sight takes a back seat to the other senses. So I’ll be listening to live jazz in the streets, feeling damp, dense, warm air on my skin, and following my nose to green peppers and onions sautéing in butter. Oh! The food. Can you say crawfish etouffee? Jambalaya? Gumbo? Muffuletta?

And who knows? After Christmas, I may be returning gifts, too!

But why, you might ask, is my Seeing Eye dog going back to her puppy raisers? Good question. Whitney is healthy. She still enjoys visiting elementary schools with me, and still knows her lefts from her rights. But she’s ten years old now. Walks wear her out. Traveling outside our familiar neighborhood unnerves her. She loses focus.

Whitney has worked long and hard for me, and I don’t like forcing her to do something that makes her so uncomfortable. I love her. And if anyone deserves a happy carefree retirement, it’s Whitney the sensational Seeing Eye dog.

Plan A was for my great-niece in Minneapolis to adopt Whitney. Shelley already has an older dog named Wilson, but she is very fond of Whitney, too. That bond grew stronger when Shelley’s mother (my sister’s daughter, Lynne) died after a long illness. Whitney guided me through the airports to Minneapolis to be with Shelley and her sister Jamie during Lynne’s final days. At the hospital, Whitney was a comfort to all, even placing her head on the mattress so Lynne could reach her soft ears and get an occasional lick.

Since we spent our entire time at the hospital, Whitney never got to meet Shelley’s dog Wilson. A subsequent flight we arranged to introduce the dogs was canceled due to a thunderstorm.

And then I heard from the family who had raised Whitney as a puppy.

The Seeing Eye has a long-standing “closed adoption” sort of policy. They do not give our name or contact information to the volunteers who raise our Seeing Eye dogs for the first year. The school does send a graduation photo to the volunteer families once their puppy has been matched, and Whitney’s photo came with a letter saying Whitney had been given to an author in Chicago.

Whitney’s puppy raiser’s own Golden Retriever, Honey, was two years old when Whitney lived there. The two dogs ran, chased Frisbees, and even slept together. Honey had to be euthanized earlier this year after suffering renal failure. Grief over that loss got the family thinking about Whitney. They Googled “Chicago author Whitney,” and…voila! They found my blog and left a comment there offering to be a “Plan B” if things didn’t work out with Shelley.

You can probably guess the rest.

I called Shelley to tell her I’d heard from the Pennsylvania puppy raisers, that their family dog had died earlier this year, that they were just starting to look for a new dog to certify as a therapy dog to visit nursing homes and libraries.

Then came the hard part. “I’m thinking I might like to have Whitney retire with her puppy raisers,” I told my great-niece, my stomach twisting in worry over how she’d take this news. Her response was immediate. And surprising. “Do it!” she said, a smile in her voice. “I love Whitney, but I have Wilson, and there will be other dogs in my future. Right now, the puppy raisers need a dog to love.”

So off we go.
Mike and I will be returning ten-year-old Whitney to the loving people who raised her back in 2010. They’ve told us, “Getting Whitney back will be the best Christmas gift ever!”

And so, my holiday gifts came early this year. At first, I was very sad about having to say goodbye to Whitney. But that’s diminishing as I ponder how fortunate I am. This is a holiday to celebrate the human spirit – the love, understanding, and generosity that come with helping people we’ve never met.

Think about it: a family gives up an adorable puppy they’ve nurtured for months to assist an unknown someone who needs help. A kind great-niece gives up something she’d been hoping for, showing love, understanding, and empathy for a far-away family she’s never met. A husband has to say goodbye to a dog he loves, too, but he understands why: he wants “both of his girls to be safe.”

I have a lot to look forward to in the new year as well. People at the Seeing Eye are hard at work right now getting things ready for me to train for three weeks with a new, young, enthusiastic dog. Get ready, New Jersey. On January 6, 2020, I will be, yes…returning.


I deal with this every day, so I might as well talk about it

piano keysI spent last Sunday afternoon enveloped in holiday music. Not your everyday stuff – this was the Marcus Roberts Trio with the Chicago Philharmonic, playing holiday classics arranged by Duke Ellington. A Concerto written by George Gershwin. Holiday Jazz.

I love jazz, I’m especially fond of jazz piano, and ever since I heard an album of Marcus Roberts playing piano at a record store back in the 20th century, I’ve been a fan. I bought the CD and played it constantly. Years passed before a friend kindly pointed out to me that Marcus is blind.

He’s blind? Who knew?! Quirky fact: Without having sight, it’s hard to know if someone else can’t see, either. I liked Marcus Roberts even more now and bought more of his CDs.

About 15 years ago, Marcus Roberts did a weeklong artist-in-residence stint at a nearby college. The public was invited to come and listen and I stalked him at every workshop and performance he gave. Not an easy feat for a blind woman, but well worth the trouble.

Between tunes at the first workshop, Marcus told us what it was like to grow up blind, how he first learned to read Braille music, and the frustrations he faces when traveling to and from gigs.

“When our plane landed this morning, I stood up. The flight attendant brought in a wheelchair.” He paused for a moment. He was looking at us, I could tell. “I was STANDING. You with me?!” he finally continued. “I wonder, do they give white canes to dudes who need wheelchairs?”

I was spellbound. So, it seemed, was the rest of the audience. We all broke out in laughter.

Marcus went on to explain how he communicates to his trio during a performance without being able to see them. Drummer Jason Marsalis demonstrated the cadence he uses to cue a key change. Marcus showed us a pattern he plays on the upper register to cue bass player Roland Garrons for a solo. Afterward, we were encouraged to ask questions. I directed mine to Jason and Roland. “When Marcus approached you to play in his trio, did you hesitate at all?”

No answer.

“I mean, knowing there might be extra work involved, him being blind and all.”

They both stayed quiet for a while. Finally, Jason piped up. “In jazz, when you’re offered a gig, you take it.”

Roland asked to add something to that. He’d played with a lot of musicians over the years, he said, and a lot of them get lazy. “But with Marcus, he’s always coming up with something new. And when you play with Marcus, you really have to listen. I think we’re better for that.”


Marcus and I had a chance to talk after a performance later that week. “Have you always talked about your blindness like that?” I asked him.

“Oh, man, no!” he answered. What a voice! “I used to do what so many other blind people do — pretend it doesn’t exist, it’s no bother.”

I nodded my head in agreement. You might think you have to be able to see to know if someone is nodding, but we know. “What made you decide to start talking about it, then?”

“About five or six years ago, I just thought, man, I deal with this every day. I might as well talk about it.”

What a relief it was to hear him talking so candidly about blindness. I’m a writer, and for years I’d been writing a book about losing my sight as an adult. Long Time, No See was in the midst of reviews and editing just then, due out in a couple months. “I’d like to read it,” Marcus said.

I got his address, contacted the college’s disability services office the next day, and they agreed to print a Braille version of the advanced copy. Marcus liked the book so well, he agreed to do a blurb for the cover.

So there you have it. My brush with fame. I haven’t spoken one-on-one with Marcus since then, but trust me. Last Sunday, his performance from that Chicago concert stage of Gershwin’s Concerto in F spoke to me. What a sensational way to start celebrating the holidays this year.


Consider Having a Mental Health Holiday

gifts sitting on a bed of pine leaves with round ornaments The semester is almost over already! I’m still trying to process the fact that I’m graduating from college in a few days. I got my tickets for the graduation ceremony in November, and now it’s finally starting to really sink in.

I had a really, really rough week early in November. It was one of those weeks where everything that could possibly go wrong did and where the universe just wanted to throw every accessibility issue it could at me just to see how long it’d take before I lose my sanity. The answer: I took a “mental health day.”

I’m not going to say that people with disabilities need more mental health days than those without a disability, but what I will say is this: in my opinion, those of us with disabilities are used to pushing ourselves. We’re told — or at least, I was told — that I’d have to work twice as hard as the average college student, and they weren’t wrong.

We have to push ourselves because sometimes we have to wait to get things done until an accessibility issue is fixed. Tests take longer. Assignments take longer. Some professors aren’t understanding. There are a variety of things that occur in the day-to-day life of a college student with a disability, and it can take its toll. That was the case during that really really rough week I had early last month. I’d planned to catch up with everything by having a productive couple of days the following weekend, but by the time that weekend came around I was exhausted. That rough week sucked every ounce of energy I had. I desperately needed to recharge.

Mental health day to the rescue! I started the day at Dunkin with my best friend Jenny, and after a medium hot coffee, Jenny and I came back to my dorm room to watch Atypical on Netflix.

If you haven’t heard of the show, Sam Gardner, the main character on Atypical, is on the autism spectrum. Keri Gilchrist (the actor playing Sam) does not have autism, and I think he does a fantastic job. It’s a fictional show, and it’s nice to see autism portrayed in a realistic and thoughtful way, and I think it’s so cool that a popular show like this features a main character who has a disability. Watching it with a friend and sharing our thoughts, opinions, and impressions while the show was going on brought the enjoyment to another level.

And guess what? The mental health day worked! The next morning I was up and getting ready for the day by 5:30 a.m., and by noon I had already gotten a lot of studying in.

My mental health day taught me a very valuable lesson. It made me realize that I really need to make myself more of a priority. We all do. Productivity is nice, but we can’t be productive unless we take care of ourselves first.


7 Things to Be Thankful For This Thanksgiving

smiling woman in front of a vibrant blue body of water with her seeing eye dog

Credit: Elisha Knight

Happy Thanksgiving, 2019! It can be too easy to get down in the dumps this time of year. There’s so much going on, so much to do, troubles in the world, troubles on the news, flight delays, stressful family get-togethers, you name it. I was about to crawl down that dark hole but stopped at the edge to think twice. I have a lot to be thankful for. Easterseals is providing this short work week in our calendar and encouraging us to take time to catch up with family and friends during the holiday, and I am very grateful for that. I am also grateful for the many years I’ve had the privilege of moderating the Easterseals blog, and especially grateful to all of you who continue to subscribe, read, comment and share our posts.

In honor of all that goodness, today I am linking to previously-published posts of thanks. We’ve published many, many posts expressing gratitude since our blog started a dozen-plus years ago, but these seven came to mind right away. So here they are, in no particular order:

    1. Steve Jobs for emphasizing technology for “the rest of us” and making the iPhone so accessible for people with disabilities
    2. George H. W Bush for signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law
    3. Members of the U.S. military, veterans, and their families for their continued service
    4. My Seeing Eye dog and service dog instructors who train them for people with disabilities
    5. Companies that offer free or reduced rides to polling places for people with disabilities
    6. Caregivers who provide care to the millions of Americans who need them
    7. Little kids who ask such great questions about disability during my visits to their elementary school classrooms.


And those are just the first seven that came to mind! Consider coming up with your own seven things to be grateful for: you’ll end up with even more to celebrate this weekend. Happy Thanksgiving!


Now, here’s what I call accessibility!

A little shout-out to my alma mater, University of Illinois. Yesterday morning my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I took a train from Chicago to Champaign to give a guest lecture there, and on the way down I took time to check out a new website I’d heard about on Illinois Public Media a few weeks ago.Photo of City of New Orleans Train, which makes a stop in Champaign, Illinois Here’s the deal: undergraduate and graduate students studying special education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have put together a website ranking local businesses on how accessible they are to people with disabilities.

Plenty of restaurants claim they are accessible, but what does that mean, exactly?? This new Access Urbana-Champaign website spells it all out. Every one of the 100-plus local restaurants, cafes, and bakeries featured on the site are rated based on a 25-point survey, and the answers are posted right there on the site for all to see. Or in my case, hear.

Once I was done giving my guest lecture yesterday afternoon, I’d arranged to meet a friend at a place near the train station called Esquire Lounge. I went ahead and checked how well it ranked, and…wow! Excellent. I mean, that’s what it ranked: excellent! Just to give you a better idea how the Access Urbana-Champaign site works, here’s an example of what I found there — about the questions the students asked on their survey, and the answers they came up with about Esquire Lounge:

Accesibility Survey Details

Is there at least one designated accessible parking space in restaurant’s private lot?


If no, is there at least one public accessible parking space within 1 block?


Is this restaurant located on or near a public bus route?


Is the entrance to the restaurant accessed by level ground?


If not, is the entrance to the restaurant accessed by a low-incline ramp 36 inches wide?


Is the entrance threshold less than 3/4 inches tall?


Is the doorway clearance at least 32 inches wide?


Can the entrance door be opened with limited grasp?


Are there aisles and pathways between chairs or tables that are 36 inches wide?


Are all of the condiments accessible on counters that are within 36 inches in height and within arm length of 25 inches from edge?


Do any of the tables offer 27 inches (from the ground) for knee space?


Is a menu offered in Braille or large print?


Does the restaurant welcome people with disabilities with service animals as required by ADA?


Do all fire and emergency alarms in public areas have both audible and visual signals?


Is there signage to indicate accessible restrooms?


Can the restroom door be opened with minimal force / limited grasp?


Does the doorway leading to the restroom(s) have at least 32 inches of clearance space?


Is the aisle-way leading up to the accessible stall at least 42 inches wide?


Does the accessible stall door have at least 32 inches of clearance space?


Is the toilet seat 17 inches to 19 inches above the floor?


Are there grab bars behind and on the side wall nearest the toilet?


Measured length the interior of the stall space.


Measured width the interior of the stall space.


Is the counter with wash basin no higher than 34 inches from the floor?


Is there 27 inches of knee clearance under the sink?


Are soap and other dispensers no higher than 48 inches from the floor [at the point where the product is dispensed]


Can faucets be operated with a closed fist?



If they had a question like, “Are all these accessibility efforts a turn-off to your patrons?” the answer would be a resounding “no!”

We were there before 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, which is not exactly a party time, and the place was full of customers of all ages and all sorts. Before we left, my friend and I checked out the public restroom. Whitney guided me to the larger accessible stall and…thumbs up! Before I left to catch my train back to Chicago, I made a point to compliment the manager, and he said he was proud of their high ranking. Pretty cool.


Service dogs for Veterans with PTSD? The Rest of the Story

U.S. Flag A Veteran’s Day story on NPR about service dogs and veterans caught my attention this morning. The story was only three minutes long, and the title made the issue sound black and white: “Advocates Say VA Is Taking Too Long To Assign Service Dogs To Vets.”

But like so many things, the story is not that simple.

I am blind, I live in Chicago, and I use a service dog to get around the city safely. My current Seeing Eye dog Whitney is ten years old now and has lost her fervor – and her ability – for guiding me safely through an urban environment. She is retiring soon, and the Seeing Eye School has been evaluating its string of dogs for months now to determine if one is an ideal match for my needs. When they find a good match for me I will travel to their school in New Jersey and spend three weeks with my new dog and experienced trainers there before heading back home. But these things take time. I’d been schedule to attend the December class, but when they determined they didn’t have the right match for me, I was rescheduled for the January 2020 class.

All to say, training a dog to help a person with a disability, and then making a perfect match between the two of them doesn’t happen in a day. Rushing the process would be unfair to the human being, and, especially, to the dog. Service dogs have a lot of responsibility – it’s not an easy job – and is nothing to rush into.

And then there’s the question as to whether dogs who help people with mental health issues are pets, or service dogs. Today’s NPR story referred to a study at Purdue University that found that in addition to the physical tasks service dogs – more specifically, mobility and medical alert service dogs – do for their human partners, they can also provide help with low self-esteem, build confidence, decrease social isolation, and increase the feelings of independence in their human partner. I can certainly vouch for that: traveling with Whitney, havoing her lead me directly to elevator buttons rather than feeling around for them, gliding through doorways without my shoulder running into a doorframe, knowing she’ll stop at stairways and curbs so I don’t stumble…it all leaves me with a sense of dignity. People who see us admire us, and I no longer feel a sense of pity from strangers. But while the V.A. covers the costs of training and ongoing care of service dogs for veterans with certain physical disabilities, like blindness or vision impairment, it does not cover costs for dogs assisting veterans with mental health issues. Why not? Not enough clinical evidence to prove the benefits dogs can give in treating mental health issues.

Today’s NPR story failed to give the reasons behind the VA’s decision on this, but in a longer NPR piece on this in 2017, they interviewed Dr. Michael Fallon, the V.A.’s chief veterinarian on the subject. “I would say there are a lot of heartwarming stories that service dogs help, but scientific basis for that claim is lacking,” he said. “The V.A. is based on evidence-based medicine. We want people to use therapy that has proven value.” A story in the February 14, 2019 issue of Purdue University News reports researchers there are leading studies regarding how psychiatric service dogs may help veterans with PTSD, and how research has revealed how service dogs might offer both psychosocial and physiological benefits to veterans. Right now the research group is conducting a clinical trial studying veterans with and without service dogs over an extended period of time.

Just wanted to get all this down in a post to help our blog readers understand this issue is a bit more complicated than it looks sometimes, and the barrage of people bringing pets into public places and claiming them as service dogs complicates it further. I’ll say goodbye here and leave you with information about an ongoing VA study about service dogs reported in a New York Times story this past summer:

The V.A. is currently conducting research into the effectiveness of service dogs, but the process has been slow. Research started in 2011 was supposed to wrap up in 2015 but has repeatedly been stalled by problems with the study’s design and execution. In May, the V.A. said the findings of the study, which has cost $16 million to date, would be released to the public in 2020.


Daylight Savings Time Without Sight

the back of a woman and her seeing eye dog crossing a Chicago street. The conversation during a walk home in the sunshine with friends Saturday centered on Daylight Savings Time. “This time tomorrow, it’ll be dark already,” one friend moaned. We reminded ourselves to set our clocks back, appreciated out loud the extra hour of sleep we’d get, considered going out again later and staying up extra late to celebrate. We went on and on with all we could do with that extra hour. “But it’ll be dark when we get home from work Monday,” the one who’d moaned about the 4:30 sunset reminded us. “I hate coming home from work in the dark!”

Conversation switched to shortened days, early dusk and darkness until my husband Mike piped up. “Oh, yeah, here we are complaining about the dark. Beth must be rolling her eyes!” We all laughed, and I used a handy “woke” comeback Mike came up with a few weeks ago. “You guys and your sight privilege,” I said with a smirk. And yes, I still can roll my eyes. So I did!

I can tell the difference between night and day, especially when I’m outside. Dark has a feel to it. And in some ways, a smell, too. When inside, if I’m near a window, I can feel the sunshine. Mike was right to point out that it getting darker earlier doesn’t bother me much, though. I just have to remember that it’s dark for everybody else an hour earlier now, too. Knowing that drivers are in the dark earlier means I need to wear a brightly-colored coat when I’m outside in the late afternoon, not just at night like I do at other times of year. I want drivers, bicyclists, and skateboarders to be able to see me when I’m crossing the street. But to me? A small price to pay to get that extra hour of sleep every Fall!