When it Comes to Disability Inclusion, Ignorance is Not Acceptable

A woman smiling in a purple shirtEvery July since 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law, I’ve felt the urge, or more accurately the pressure, to write something thoughtful that includes the essential message that disability is just one of many factors of the human experience and those of us who live with disability are no less human for the experience. Of course, I deliver this message all the time both at work and in my personal life, not just during Disability Pride Month. I have been delivering this message since I was old enough to understand that a lot of people have a large knowledge gap about disability and their fear of what the experience might be prevents most from really thinking about it beyond something to avoid at all costs. As a result, this fear/avoidance translates into poor performance when encountering people with disabilities and a world designed without due consideration of the needs of all the people living in it. Yes, the ADA and similar laws were passed to help offset this discrepancy and we are seeing an improvement in the design of buildings, public spaces and when really smart people are involved, less discrimination in the workplace and in service delivery.

While my 43-year career has focused on increasing equity for people with disabilities, disability is also deeply personal for me. I find that at 63 years old, I am well and truly angry about disability discrimination and the willful, continuing ignorance that allows that discrimination to linger and even grow. I find that some people are only giving lip service to disability equity while they are all too ready to abandon the concept whenever it is openly challenged. Technology companies large and small develop software and web-based applications as tools to enhance productivity in the workplace, and every day I struggle to keep up because how these technologies interface with my screen-reading software is at best inconsistent, cumbersome and lagging behind every upgrade release, or at worst never considered at all, making it difficult for me to compete with my colleagues. I’ve instead risked my health over the years by developing a pattern of overachieving in other ways in order to make myself a beneficial employee despite the difficulty in filling out time sheets or collaborating on documents in shared spaces. The fact that this has been necessary frustrates me. True equity would afford me the opportunity to maintain employment while being an average worker. The number of people who I personally know who are blind and who have been seriously injured by drivers who didn’t see them because they weren’t considering pedestrians as they maneuvered their vehicles through traffic, continues to grow, while legal remedies for such negligence are still mostly nonexistent, and this enrages me almost beyond rational thought.

So, am I turning into a curmudgeon who shakes her fist at all perceived infractions against people with disabilities in this still mostly inequitable world? Probably not, though I reserve the right to shake my fist when I feel like it. I still believe that the best path forward is to continue to educate and allow people to build their knowledge base around disability and evolve into a social consciousness that no longer shuns diversity, but I’m also done pretending that ignorance is acceptable. It’s just not. Most of what people need to learn about the disability experience are things I can’t actually teach. Real change requires that knowledge shared is internalized, processed and used to inform thought and action. Each of us must take on that responsibility for personal growth if we want to really create change. So rather than waiting for me and others like me to teach you what you need to know about disability, try educating yourself.

The next time you are walking around the neighborhood, think about what the experience would be like if you were sitting in a wheelchair. How would that change your line of sight as you look around? Would it change the path you choose? What would it feel like? Is the path smooth and easy to roll across or are there barriers that limit progress?

Stop wherever you are right now and use senses other than vision to experience the space you are in. Close your eyes if that is helpful, but it’s not necessary. Just focus on sound or smell, or touch. What do you hear? What can you deduce about your surroundings through sound alone? How would adding touch to the experience improve what you know about what is around you?

When people are asked to think about what it is like to be blind, they spend a lot of time thinking about the not seeing part. I get it. It scares a lot of people and makes even more feel uncomfortable. But you’re not being asked to go blind, just to think about it rationally. What happens after you spend an inordinate amount of time pondering the concept of not seeing? Can you make yourself work past this just a little bit to think about alternative ways of accomplishing the things you already know how to do? Would you really choose to give up on experiencing life because one of your five senses doesn’t work like everyone else’s? Isn’t it more likely that after you are done wallowing in this sense of loss for a while, that you’d start to adapt? And once you start adapting, might you also then start to consider how to build some serious skills that would provide even more independence? And if you’ve made it this far, can you entertain the notion that there are advantages to developing a better sense of touch, hearing, smell, and taste? Might it actually change your view of life around you because you now have additional perspectives from which to observe the world?

So, this is my disability pride message for 2022. I’m blind. I use my other senses and select tools I find useful to do the same things everyone else does. I’m not amazing. I’m not subpar. I am a subject matter expert in a few things, and am of average intelligence in a lot of other things. I try to be kind , but I’m not very patient. I am generally upbeat, but I can also be a grouch with a sharp tongue.

Wait. Is this becoming an song? “And what it all comes down to is that [we] haven’t got it all figured out just yet. I’ve got one hand [on my cane] and the other one is giving a peace sign.”

 

My Journey to Disability Pride: I Wasn’t Always so Proud

Ben Trockmen smiling in front of an office buildingMy Disability Pride month story starts with the truth – I wasn’t always so proud.

15 years ago, lying in a hospital bed in Atlanta, I was insecure and depressed. I was paralyzed.

At first, I didn’t want to live – it all just seemed too hard to handle. Life wouldn’t be the same and wouldn’t be worth living. A few weeks passed, and I was halfway convinced I was living in a bad dream. Surely, I would soon wake up to my old life, where I could walk, throw a baseball, and wax my truck.

After a few months, the reality of my injury slowly set in, and I started to accept what had happened. In doing so, I regained a bit of my humor, but lacked confidence.

As I tried to cope with my new normal as a quadriplegic, I was incredibly lucky to have a unique security blanket in the nurses and therapists at the Shepherd Center. Shepherd, a traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury hospital, was an excellent place for me and my family to learn our new normal. It was at Shepherd where I got my first wheelchair, learned voice recognition, and started my first therapies.

Shepherd was full of people who understood spinal cord injury. As I rolled around the hallways halfway dressed, a halo attached to my head, and a ventilator tube attached to my neck, no one looked at me differently. We were all normal. We were all there to support each other. It was home.

After four months at Shepherd, I returned home to Evansville, but I felt very vulnerable. No longer were we surrounded by nurses who always knew what to do. We were “out in the wild” of the world, where most people didn’t know a thing about spinal cord injury. It scared the hell out of me.

I can distinctly remember my first trip to the movie theater in Evansville. My friends were ecstatic to check out the newly released “Superman,” who coincidentally – with the influence of Christopher Reeve, a fellow quadriplegic – had quickly become my new “superhero icon.”

We loaded up in my big, clunky blue van, and made our way to Showplace Cinemas. That first van we owned was awful. It was way too big, it rode terribly rough, and worst of all, IT WAS A VAN. As a young man who prided himself on his bad ass trucks, I was now stuck in a blue Ford van! Depressing.

As we parked at the theater, I felt a tingle of excitement to check out a new film, and bond with my friends. But, I was nervous as to how people in the movie theater would react to the sounds of my ventilator (much like a loud Darth Vader breathing) during the quiet parts of the movie. Would that bother people? Would I be an inconvenience? I told myself all would be okay.

“Errrgg……” the bulky ramp folded out from the side of the ugly blue Ford van. It was time to get out.

I rolled out on the pavement in front of the theater, and it was in that moment I was struck by a sight I’ll never forget – a school bus full of kids staring straight at me, watching my every move. Panic.

I knew those young kids were judging me. This wasn’t the experience of the Shepherd Center, where everyone knew about spinal cord injury. I was outside my element, and I was, quite literally, paralyzed with anxiety. I didn’t want to go see a movie anymore. In that moment, I wanted to go home.

“Just breathe. Look away. Don’t worry about it. Let it go,” I told myself.

Knowing going home wasn’t an option (my friends would have kicked my butt for cowering down to some kids), I tried to act as nothing happened, and we continued to see Superman with most of my initial excitement. The movie was lovely, a trip out with my friends was fun, but those daunting sets of eyeballs – and the following fear of insecurity as a person with disability – was blazed into my memory forever.

Years later, I look back on that moment – a still young, newly injured Ben – and I’m proud of how far I’ve come. In fact, I often share the story of “those damn kids” when I speak to audiences about my journey after spinal cord injury, and the pursuit of confidence, and regaining my sense of humor and purpose.

At that time in my life, I was insecure. I still am to some degree, but I’ve become very proud of who I am.

If those kids were looking at me today, I’d say “hey, what’s up y’all” and wouldn’t think twice about it.

I was once very insecure about my disability. After 15 years, graduating college, working a full-time job, finding my advocacy voice as a National Ambassador for Easterseals, traveling across the country to advocate for accessible airlines, and even running a political campaign and getting elected – I’m damn proud. And yes, that very much includes my disability.

As we celebrate Disability Pride month, it’s more important than ever to discover what makes you proud of who you are, and even more importantly, the journey that got you to where you are today.

My Disability Pride story starts with a simple trip to the movie theater, how about yours?

 

Inside the ADA Lawsuit Against the Chicago Cubs

A baseball glove, and weathered ball lying on home plate in late afternoon sun. The Chicago U.S. Attorney’s office announced it was suing the Chicago Cubs over the recent years-long renovation of Wrigley Field to force them to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Hearing that news got me thinking about what happened at Wrigley Field the first and only time I ever went to a Cubs game with my Seeing Eye dog. When we got there, the man taking tickets said he didn’t know if the dog was allowed. I pointed to her harness, told him she was a Seeing Eye dog, and he sent me to a different gate. The man at the second gate wasn’t sure, either. He’d have to get a supervisor to come and check us out.

Turns out a week earlier someone had brought their untrained puppy to Wrigley, claiming the dog was a service dog. The dog misbehaved, fans sitting nearby complained, and after that, the people working the gates were told to scrutinize anyone coming in with a service dog.

So my Seeing Eye dog and I stood there and waited for the guy at the second gate to summon a supervisor to come and “approve” us.

We didn’t have to wait long, but we sure stuck out just standing there while all the other ticket holders breezed by and waltzed right into the ballpark, no problem. It just didn’t seem fair somehow.

When the supervisor arrived, she saw my dog’s harness and immediately gave us the thumbs up. She even guided us to our seats. We enjoyed the game. I never considered suing, but that’s only because mine was an easy fix. I did get in, I had a seat, my Seeing Eye dog could guide me in and out of the restrooms when I needed to go, I could reach the paper towel dispenser after washing my hands there, and the cashiers could see me when I walked up to the counter to order food.

For people with physical disabilities – those using wheelchairs, scooters or crutches, for example – the fixes are not that easy. The Fed’s suit against the Cubs claims Countertops in restrooms and at concession stands at Wrigley are too high for people using wheelchairs to reach paper towels or order food. An article in the Chicago Sun-Times reports the feds’ investigation of Wrigley’s ADA compliance became public in December 2019, when lawyers for the team filed a letter as part of a lawsuit brought by David Cerda, a Cubs fan with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who uses a wheelchair. His father, David Alberto Cerda, is also his attorney.

The Cubs have spent a lot of time and money renovating Wrigley Field these past few years, but an article in Sports Illustrated says the 2019 lawsuit states that while the Cubs “significantly enhanced the gameday experience for many fans, particularly those able to take advantage of premium clubs and other luxury accommodations, the same can not be said for fans with disabilities.” You can check out the entire 19-page lawsuit here — the suit also highlights how the Cubs failed to remove architectural barriers where they could, and instead they placed wheelchair seating in the last row of general admission.

I haven’t studied ADA regulations to know if relegating people using wheelchairs to the last row in a stadium is an infraction, but I do know this: Cub fans stand up and cheer a lot during games. If you are seated in a wheelchair in the last row with all those people standing in front of you, your sightlines will be terrible –you’re bound to miss a lot of the action on the field.

The Chicago Sun-Times article quotes the team as saying they are “disappointed in the lawsuit” and hoped the suit could be “resolved amicably.” The team also said it would “defend Wrigley Field” and defend their position that Wrigley meets accessibility requirements for fans.

I’m eager to see how it all, ahem, plays out.

 

Even with the ADA, Disability Employment Has A Long Way to Go

Grace W. Dow smiling, sitting at a table in a restaurantWe are happy to introduce a guest blogger today – Grace W. Dow. Grace is an advocate and a writer. Through her writing, Grace places a spotlight on various disability issues and perspectives as a person with cerebral palsy.

The 32nd anniversary of The Americans with Disabilities Act takes place on the 26th of this month. While this was a defining moment for the community, equality for disabled people in the United States still has a long way to go. Physical access to restaurants, stores, and schools is excellent. Because of the ADA, I attended local public schools when I was growing up. This meant that I could go to sporting events and other activities at school as well. I could watch my younger sibling’s sporting events because the gym was ADA compliant. However, physical accessibility is only one aspect of equality. Ableism and related attitudes hold us back more than you may think.

I’ve been looking for work for the past three years and have been unsuccessful. Too often, when employers find out that I have Cerebral Palsy, they are no longer interested in hiring me. Such discrimination is illegal according to the ADA, yet it still happens. Employers need to embrace having those with disabilities as a part of their workplaces. Ableism is the real reason why I am unemployed right now.

I’d love to see a day where more Americans with disabilities are employed in their communities alongside non-disabled people earning fair wages. Hiring people with disabilities makes sense from a business perspective as well. We are creative thinkers and excellent problem solvers because living with a disability often requires ingenuity. In addition, employees with disabilities are dedicated to their jobs. They routinely outperform their non-disabled peers in terms of the number of missed workdays, daily punctuality or adherence to a regular work schedule, and retention in their current positions.

Those with disabilities are also eager to work. According to research, having persons with disabilities in the workplace boosts staff morale, strengthens teamwork, and improves the quality and efficiency of other employees.

Hiring people with disabilities also makes financial sense. The organizations that have committed to changing their diversity policies to be more inclusive in recruiting, hiring, and retaining individuals with disabilities have experienced a positive impact on their bottom line, enhancing productivity, customer loyalty, and profitability.

A diverse, inclusive workplace is seen favorably by others. Companies that are socially conscious are more successful in today’s economy. Customers care about your business practices since they have a direct impact on their decision to buy. The vast majority of customers have higher opinions of businesses that employ a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce, including persons with disabilities on their teams and in their branding and marketing initiatives.

Americans with disabilities are also left behind in other ways. In recent years, America has come a long way in the fight for marriage equality. The Supreme Court determined in 2015 that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right in the United States. This was unquestionably a huge step forward in terms of marriage equality. However, many disabled people who rely on programs like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are still unable to marry without having their benefits reduced or taken away entirely.

I am one of the many Americans who still can’t marry in the United States. I rely on Medicaid and SSI to survive because, without these programs, I’d be unable to live in my community. I dream of getting married in the future, but I won’t be able to unless these rules change.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act was a landmark piece of legislation, we still have so much work to do in the fight for true equality for disabled people in America.

Works Cited:

  • “All in: Easterseals Plan for Disability Equity.” Easterseals, Easterseals, https://www.easterseals.com/our-programs/employment-training/all-in/.
  • Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 June 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/06/27/us/supreme-court-same-sex-marriage.html.
  • Star, Eryn. “Marriage Equality Is Still Not a Reality: Disabled People and the Right to Marry.” Advocacy Monitor, National Council on Independent Living, 14 Nov. 2019, advocacymonitor.com/marriage-equality-is-still-not-a-reality-disabled-people-and-the-right-to-marry/.
 

Four Protections Under the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act You May Not Know

A woman using a wheelchair moving down a sidewalkThe Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) 32nd Anniversary is on July 26th! This landmark legislation has been instrumental in advancing civil rights for people with disabilities. While we celebrate the ADA’s impact in the lives of one in four Americans living with a disability today, Easterseals, along with disability advocates across the country, are actively fighting to ensure that protections under this legislation are honored and enforced.

Throughout the decades since the ADA was signed into law, advocates have also worked to eliminate gaps and loopholes when it comes to ADA protections that are often overlooked. That work continues to this day. People with disabilities still experience barriers in all areas of life, including employment, financial stability, education, and heath care. Securing accessible housing isn’t without its challenges, too, and in a housing industry that is often difficult to navigate, many may not be aware of the protections they do have.

While the ADA protects against discrimination in matters of employment, education, transportation, and access to areas available to the public, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) includes protections when renting, buying, or refinancing a home. Both are essential to ensure equity, inclusion, and access for all. However, due to the lack of support and education, some may believe independent living is unattainable. We are here to say that is not true! There are resources and options available and there are protections under both the ADA and FHA you may not know.

If you’re thinking about renting or buying, now or in the future, make sure you remember these four protections from Freddie Mac and Alabama’s Center for Fair Housing:

  1. Housing providers must ensure an accessible or assigned parking space, even if it requires a cost for the provider. This request is considered a reasonable accommodation. Housing providers must honor this request even if the provider has a policy that doesn’t include assigned parking spaces or if there’s a waiting list. Parking accommodations include curb cuts, repainted markings, and signage. Remember, you do not have to pay any extra fees for this request.

     
    At the Alabama Center for Fair Housing, a client with an invisible disability requested an assigned parking space. He was having a difficult time finding parking close to his unit and the one accessible parking space was almost always occupied. The center was able to request a reasonable accommodation for an assigned parking space for the client and the request was granted.

  1. You do not need a letter approved by housing providers if you have a service animal. Service animals are protected under the ADA — and that remains true even if the housing provider has a policy that doesn’t allow pets. Emotional support animals, however, are covered under the FHA.

     
    Even if your request to live in the unit with a service animal is denied, you  still have options. For instance, a client with a disability contacted the Center for Fair Housing for assistance because her apartment complex had a no-pets policy and denied her request to live with an emotional support animal. The center advised the client to ask her doctor for a letter regarding the need for her emotional support animal which could be presented to the complex’s management company. After presenting the documentation from her doctor, the client was asked by management to fill out their reasonable accommodation request form and the request was granted.

  1. You cannot be denied a mortgage loan because you’re pregnant. A lender cannot deny a mortgage to a woman because she is on or plans to go on maternity leave.
  1. Interpreters and Braille documents (to gain access to applications and printed documents) are both considered reasonable accommodations under the ADA. These are covered under the effective communication requirements by law and can apply at any point in the housing process.

If you’re considering renting, buying, or refinancing, and need support and assistance, there are resources available to help. In partnership with Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored enterprise in the housing industry, Easterseals has developed a series of webinars and educational resources to assist people with disabilities, veterans and their families on the road to financial stability. Visit Easterseals.com to learn about ways you can shore up your finances in preparation for renting or buying a home.

For even more support, you can visit My Home by Freddie Mac® to learn about homebuying, homeowning, and renting. Freddie Mac has made housing more accessible for communities nationwide and offers a free, on-demand financial enablement curriculum, CreditSmart®,  you can use today to make better finance, credit, and homebuying choices.  You can follow Freddie Mac on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn to get more tips and resources for your housing journey.

 

When You Have a Disability, Virtual Friendships Can Be Special

A computer laptop showing a virtual meeting on the screen with multiple people on ZoomWhen we think about how COVID has changed the way we live our lives, we think a lot about mask mandates, vaccines, and Zoom meetings. We think about in-person jobs switching to remote or hybrid. Unfortunately, a conversation about how it affects people with disabilities isn’t too common.

It should be.

I’ve heard from friends that they’re paying a lot more in ridesharing fares. I’m thankful I haven’t noticed a spike, but that could very well be location-based.

Many of my friends are actually struggling with the job search. Yes, a lot of things have gone remote, but a lot of remote jobs are requiring the completion of assessments, and a lot of these end up being inaccessible. Friends who are looking out of state are struggling with residency requirements to qualify.

Another issue? The lack of social interaction. You may think the lack of social interaction isn’t as big of an issue as it was two years ago, when COVID was at its peak, but I’ve noticed it myself lately and have talked with friends who feel it, too.

And these friends I’m talking about? They aren’t just the ones that I’m lucky enough to know personally. I also have some good friends I’ve actually never met in person.

Times have changed, and with that time comes our change in beliefs. “Don’t talk to strangers on the internet” has evolved into dating apps, Facebook groups, and virtual events. And two out of the three of those things is how I met some of the closest friends I have. I met them virtually through other friends, but we’ve never met in person. But I feel as close to these online friends as I do to the friends I know in person.

I met one person when she sent me a friend request in the summer of 2019. It turned out we had a lot of mutual friends, and people that I knew quite well, so I accepted.

I met another through interacting on another person’s Facebook page, so she added me (I guess she liked my personality), and now we have regular movie nights together over FaceTime.

To keep myself busy in the summer of 2020, I joined a virtual writing workshop. I already knew one participant — I went to college with her — but most of the writers in class were people I’d never met. I clicked with one of them, and we text almost every day and often send each other good music.

I don’t think of these people as “friends I’ve met on the internet.” I just think of them as just that — my friends. If someone were to ask me how I met them, I wouldn’t lie about it, but the fact of the matter is, I feel as connected to them as I do to the friends I made in person before COVID. I fully intend to meet every single one of these new friends in person someday.

In the meantime, we connect during movie nights, share music, and bond over true crime podcasts and videos. We’re also there for each other during the tough stuff. I stayed on the phone with one of them late one night last year while we were both having relationship problems, so we talked each other through it.

Virtual friendships have helped me make it through the COVID years. During the open, honest, vulnerable conversations, we discussed many of the same things you’d talk about with a close friend face-to-face, or on the phone if you can’t see them in person. The only difference is that I’ve never met them in person. We connected through friends I know quite well, and these people have good character, and that’s all I care about.

As we progress through life and times change, we need to normalize virtual friendships rather than question their value. In a world that focuses so highly on the internet, it’s almost expected that at some point, you’ll make friends online. That’s okay and should be acceptable.

For me, the old warning “Don’t talk to strangers on the internet” has evolved into doing just that, and meeting some of the greatest and most influential people I could ask for.

 

How Much Do You Know About Making Documents Accessible?

fingers touching braille on a screen reader device

The Kennedy Center’s Office of Accessibility & Very Special Arts sponsored webinar met via Zoom free of charge at a time when I had another obligation. What a disappointment! The subject matter, “Creating Accessible Handouts” is something I am very interested in as a user (I am blind) and as a teacher who uses handouts in class sometimes.

People who know I am blind assume I know all the guidelines and HTML codes and tabs and things to use to make PDF documents and worksheets and other handouts accessible, but the truth is, I don’t!

I can tell you if my screen reader can read a document out loud to me, but I’m no expert at formatting a document or what codes to use to make them accessible, and the promotional information about the webinar made it sound like it was meant for me: intended for people who weren’t sure how to create a PDF that is screen reader accessible, people who wonder if they can include images in their handouts, and, if so, how and where to describe them. I checked in again a few days after the webinar and got some good news: they recorded it! The entire presentation is available for free on YouTube!

I listened to the webinar as soon as a could and right away in her introduction, Amber Pearcy, the presenter, tells her audience she was born blind. I was relieved to hear that – she’d know firsthand how frustrating it can be when handouts and forms are not accessible to screen readers.

She was smart to start the presentation by defining certain terms that she and I know well but may not be familiar to people outside of the disability world: things like “screen magnifier” and “speech recognition software” and “text to speech.” Along with explaining what a screen reader is, she turned up the audio on her own screen reader to demonstrate what it sounds like. Good idea!

From there, she let her audience know which programs she wasn’t fond of when it came to access. I found this part reassuring: it’s not just me! Amber has trouble with Google Docs, too, describing them as “too clumsy to even get in” using a speech synthesizer. She explained how it can be a little easier to access a link if that link is a stand-alone line rather than imbedded in a sentence. She used her mouse to click on an image to demonstrate how to add Alt text to an image. The hour was almost over by the time she got to discussing PDFs, acknowledging she could do an entire hour-long presentation on that task.

But with time running out, she pointed audience members to Adobe, who she says has quite a bit on their web site about making a PDF accessible. Amber described PDFs as the “most complicated and complex problem for blind people” when it comes to access. I totally agree.

It wasn’t until we got to this part that I finally realized: this webinar wasn’t intended for people who are blind, it was intended to show people who aren’t blind why and how certain things they do when creating handouts would make them more accessible for people who are blind or have visual impairments. Still, I am glad I checked the webinar out. Listening to the YouTube recording taught me what things are too complex and complicated to bother with, and to continue steering away from Google Docs and PDFs. Worth the price of admission for sure!

 

Can’t Travel Right Now? Here are 6 Staycation Ideas to Enjoy the Summer

For some people with disabilities, travel at this time is simply not feasible. From inaccessible public and private transportation to COVID spikes that put folks with pre-existing conditions at a higher risk of severe complications, many are choosing to stay home as we head into the summer months.

Staying safe at home doesn’t mean you can’t experience that vacation life you want! Below are some tips on how to create that relaxing vibe in your own home or town.

If you have a backyard, put up a baby pool and make fruity drinks: You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy an inflatable kid’s pool. Whether it’s just dipping your feet as you lounge in your wheelchair or putting on a bathing suit to go all in, you can bask in the sun as you sip your fruity beverage of choice. I’d recommend margaritas if you’re over 21, and frozen lemonade if you’re underage. Or try some of these fun drink recipes! Either way, kick back, relax, and pretend you’re poolside at a fancy beach resort.

Try cooking a new cuisine: A benefit of traveling is experiencing different cuisines from around the world – but you can still do that locally! Find a recipe online and have groceries delivered, or order from a local restaurant that delivers – or try something new in the frozen-foods section of a supermarket. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you’re being adventurous! To get more into the moment, research the cuisine and the region it comes from. There are also numerous travel food shows available online like Taste the Nation on Hulu or Chef’s Table on Netflix.

Go on a Zoom date: By now, we’re all aware of the power of Zoom! Thanks to this technology, it’s pretty easy to connect with people from the comfort of your home. Some fun Zoom-date ideas are to play games together (check out Board Game Arena for online board games), watch your favorite summer movie, or share a meal.

Spa day: If you really want to relax, treat yourself to a spa day. Soak your feet in a basin of water, lie down with a warm towel over your eyes, and put on some calming music; there are free radio stations on iTunes that are perfect for meditating and creating a tranquil environment. When you’re done chilling out, lather yourself in lotion and give yourself (or ask someone to give you) a new manicure or pedicure. End your day with a warm bath or shower, and you’ll be feeling luxurious!

Read, read, read: One thing folks love to do on vacation is read, preferably on a balcony overlooking the ocean. But when you can’t get out and do that, reading at home with ambient sounds playing in the background is another option. There are a lot of free sounds you can search for on YouTube or iTunes radio – just look for “ambient sounds” on Google! If you read with audio books, that’s even better. If you can’t get outdoors at all, try reading near a window or by a light box to get some much-needed Vitamin D.

Travel virtually: The one thing that many of us miss out on in staycations is the ability to explore someplace new. But you can still see the sights at different travel destinations with Google Maps! Go to street view, and you’ll be transported to a first-person view of the city. You can then explore different areas, walk down the street, and – in some cases – go inside buildings. Some favorite places to Google travel to are Venice, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the White House, and the Great Barrier Reef! There are also live content creators on YouTube, like the Urbanist, who take you along with them as they walk the streets of cities around the world.

What are some tips you have for the perfect staycation? Let us know in the comments!

 

Disability Awareness in the Classroom: Our Last Visit for This School Year

Luna and I had a great day at school.

Last Thursday, two neighborhood friends drove my Seeing Eye dog Luna and me to a Chicago suburb 30 miles away to visit third graders there. We went as part of the Educating Outside the Lines Disability Awareness program. Every day that week someone with a disability came to the school to talk with students about their disability and the “helper tools” that let us do the things we like — or need — to do.

Black Lab Luna guided me to two presentations for third graders Thursday morning. At each one, I talked with the kids about being blind, what service dogs do, and how I use a talking computer to do my job moderating this blog for Easterseals.

As I readied myself for the question-and-answer part at one of the presentations , the teacher there gushed over Luna. “She’s sooooo pretty!” I took my cue, turned to the third-graders and told them I hear that a lot. “I just pretend they’re talking about me!” I laughed. After that, the questions started pouring in:

  • Do you cook your own food?
  • How do you, like make your breakfast and your cereal and stuff?
  • How can you eat, then?
  • How do you know where someone is if you can’t see them?
  • Did you ever get robbed because you are blind?
  • How do you know what earrings or necklace to wear when you’re getting dressed?
  • Have you ever lost your dog when you were walking?
  • Can you see in your dreams?
  • Can you swim?
  • What was the last thing you ever saw?
  • How does your dog know where you are when you go on a walk?
  • This is not a question, it’s a comment. You’re very pretty. And I mean you, not the dog.
  • How old is your dog in people years?
  • How can you ride a bike?
  • Did your dog ever run away and you didn’t know where it went?
  • Is it hard to know which way to go when your dog goes around a tree?
  • How do you swim?
  • How do you drive?
  • When you call someone, are the numbers in Braille?
  • Have you ever lost your dog when you were walking?
  • How do you get on your bed?
  • How does your dog know where you are when you go on a walk?

And with that, I picked up Luna’s harness, commanded, “Luna, Outside!” and the children cheered as my Seeing Eye dog guided me out of the classroom for our last visit for this school year. “Good dog, Luna!”

 

Airport Anxiety: The Importance of Transportation Options for People with Disabilities

We are standing outside the restaurant. I’m wearing a sundress and he’s wearing a dress shirt with dress pants and dress shoes. We are standing side-by-side with an arm around each other and smiling. It was taken after dinner for our two year anniversary.

If you’ve read my posts here on the Easterseals National blog, you know that I love sharing travel stories, especially new experiences. It feels good to step out of my comfort zone, do something different, and have it go well enough to actually want to write about it.

Such is the case this time.

I spent the month of April in Houston visiting my boyfriend Juan. We’ve been in a long-distance relationship for two years now, and a 4-part series here describes how we’ve managed to keep that relationship going strong for so long.

We typically take turns flying, but I’ve been traveling a bit more than him lately. Last winter, I flew to Houston to get away from Chicago weather and celebrate the holidays with Juan, and then I flew in April to spend a month to explore a new city to see if I could picture starting a new life there. We only see each other in-person about four times a year, and transitioning from a long distance relationship to living together is a huge step. We wanted to make sure we could live under the same roof.

I flew back to Chicago in early May, and this time rather than having someone from Juan’s family drive me to the airport, I ended up taking their paratransit service MetroLift to the airport.

Paratransit is a door-to-door service offered to people with disabilities, an alternative to taking the fixed route buses. The service area — that is, the areas of town in which paratransit will provide service to disabled passengers — is much wider in Houston than the service area covered by paratransit in Chicago, where I live now. I was a little nervous taking paratransit, but I definitely felt more comfortable taking MetroLift than I did taking Uber.

The thing is, I’m an anxious traveler by nature. Part of that is just anxiety in itself, and part of that does stem from my blindness — the constant and extra planning that goes into traveling as a blind person, needing extra assistance, and worrying about being forgotten. I am not relaxed until I am safe and sound at the gate, because in my mind, anything can go wrong before that.

I prepare mentally for what could go wrong and create a backup plan in case it does. Juan knows this about me. He is blind too, and he knows that if plan A gets derailed without a backup plan, I’ll obsess over it and start to panic. When we have to make alternative plans, he’s good about planning it all out.

So when he told me his family was going to be away in Austin (where his sister lives) for Mother’s Day weekend, I started to get nervous. Who’d drive me to the Houston airport, then? Juan calmly presented plan B in meticulous detail, and I felt okay right away.

The plan was to take MetroLift to the airport and get there early. He schedules his rides based on appointment time (that is, what time he wants to arrive) rather than pickup times, because if you schedule by appointment time, even if they have to pick you up early due to other pickups and drop-offs, you’ll still arrive when you want to arrive.

Juan also assured me he’d be coming along on my ride to the airport. He said MetroLift drivers have to hand you off to an employee, so they wouldn’t just drop us off and leave us like an Uber driver might.

So, despite the bittersweet feeling of saying goodbye after spending a whole month together, when departure day arrived, I found myself actually getting excited rather than feeling nervous. I didn’t want his mom to miss most of Mother’s Day weekend, and this seemed like it would go smoothly enough. When Juan called to verify what time our ride was coming to his apartment, he also double checked that they’d walk us into the airport. I overheard him talking to dispatch: “We’ve never done this before,” he said. “So I want to make sure my girlfriend gets assistance — she’s blind, too.”

He made sure they knew we’d both have our white canes with us. They ask this anytime you book a trip anyway, but in this case he told them so they would know who to look for when they arrived at his apartment to pick us up. “I don’t want her just stranded there at the airport ,” he said. “I want to make sure the driver is going to lead us inside.”

The call was on speaker, so I could hear the friendly dispatcher’s voice assuring Juan that yes, the driver would walk us inside, and kindly describing the process of airport drop-offs.

With my trip to the airport booked, Juan scheduled his ride back from the airport for one hour later. That way he could come inside and wait with me. We had scheduled the appointment time early enough that even as our driver took a while to figure out where to park to lead us inside (she herself had never done an airport drop-off before), I wasn’t nervous. Our driver was determined to figure it out, and we had plenty of time.

When she found where to park, she led us inside, where an employee saw us and said he’d take us to the check-in counter. After I told him I was the only one traveling, Juan added, “I’m just going to wait with her to make sure she gets help to security, and then I’ll need some assistance downstairs to catch MetroLift.”

The employees were very patient and accommodating as they led us to the counter and the driver departed. After checking in my suitcase, an airline employee handed me my boarding pass and placed me in a wheelchair to wait for assistance. Being placed in a wheelchair doesn’t bother me even though I don’t need one. It’s pretty common practice in airports and I know it bothers some people. However, it really does make the overall process of getting through security a lot faster. Then there’s this: it makes me more visible and serves as a constant reminder to them that, “Hey, I’m here and I need some assistance!” I only needed to wait about 15 minutes before someone came to assist me. “I’m going to take her to security,” she told Juan. “And sir, someone is already on their way to take you downstairs to catch MetroLift.”

He thanked her for assisting me and for accommodating him as well, telling me to text him once I’ve made it to the gate. We said goodbye, and I was on my way to security.

I ended up having about an hour and a half to kill at the gate, which didn’t bother me. I felt very relieved that the trip went so smoothly. It was definitely a new experience and something I would do again for sure.

 

For more about paratransit and transportation services in your local area, visit Easterseals