Watch: This New Program Aims to Increase Disability Inclusion and Awareness In Schools

I am delighted to have Patty O’Machel back with us as a guest blogger. Patty is a writer, special needs advocate and mom. Her blog Parenting Outside The Lines collects and shares the stories of parents all over the world who are raising children with special needs, and her guest post today lets you in on another “Outside the Lines” project that launched earlier this month –just in time for the new school year!

by Patty O’Machel

Patty and her daughter outside on a sunny day

Patty (right) and her daughter (left)

Ability awareness is a passion project of mine. This is where my heart lies, as the mother of a little girl with cerebral palsy and as an advocate for change and acceptance. I want to share Ability Awareness programs in schools all over the country and help to change perceptions in kids of all ages.

And so, earlier this month, I launched a new business called Educating Outside the Lines. This project stems from my core belief that “kids with disabilities are just kids.” I want the world to see what I see. I want them to see ability.

The overall objective of bringing ability awareness programming into the school system is to break down the barriers between children with and without disabilities, and to help erase the fear of differences.

Every kid with a disability is someone’s child, someone’s classmate or someone’s friend, and today’s schools include children with all types of disabilities or challenges. Every child who has a classmate or friend who is physically or developmentally challenged learns a lesson in acceptance and understanding that they will take with them into adulthood.

Students in a gym testing out wheelchairs and tossing up a basketballSchools are instrumental in breaking down barriers, fears and misunderstanding about disabilities. By celebrating and enlightening kids, school becomes the change agent the world needs to include and accept children with disabilities in every aspect of life.

I have been able to develop my Educating Outside the Lines program into several areas of focus, from assembly speeches to grade-level specific programming. With the help of many partners in the disability world, my passion has come to fruition.

A Chicago-based firm called Small Forces creates short documentaries that highlight the work of grass roots organizations and people making their communities better. As part of a grant project, Small Forces worked with Educating Outside the Lines to produce a video that completely encapsulates the impact of the program. The video launched on The Mighty Parents Facebook page on Friday, August 3 and had been viewed over 18,400 times in its first five days online. The beauty of the short video is in the voices of children with disabilities speaking from their own perspective about what this kind of education means to them personally.

I am so proud of this video and of the voices of the kids. The show stopper is one of Easterseals own, Ahalya Lettenberger, who with her brother Charlie served as the Youth Ambassadors for the Easterseals DuPage and Fox Valley Gala in 2017. Ahalya is an amazing example of “abilities” in every aspect of her life. While her disability doesn’t allow her to walk independently for long distances, she is a 16-year-old girl on the move. She competes internationally in paratriathlons, she is an above average student in high school, and is on her schools’ swim team. In the video, Ahalya speaks of her experiences with peers not always understanding her disability, and she shares her message with school-aged kids about how to fight back when life gets hard, and to achieve and strive for your own personal goals. Her message is of strength, acceptance and ability.

Ahalya Lettenberger

Ahalya Lettenberger

The video also highlights a 16-year-old high school hockey player with dyslexia who speaks about his experience with a hidden disability, and his peers’ misunderstanding of what he really must conquer each day sitting next to them in class. My 13-year-old daughter uses a wheelchair to get around her junior high, and she’s in the video, too. She speaks about her overall feelings of invisibility with her peers, and about the misconceptions about the true accessibility of her school.

Prosthetic legs, wheelchairs, and hidden disabilities can often be scary to kids. Our Educating Outside the Lines program lets kids experience these things hands-on and serves to demystify the differences. It erases isolation. It combats bullying. It stifles the urge to stare and exclude. It bridges the gap between fear and understanding, and there is nothing more powerful than that to teach our children.

I am so excited to get my business launched, and praying that our web site and video get noticed by parents, teachers and administrators across the country to help them understand the importance of ability acceptance programs in schools. Please take a look at our new Educating Outside the Lines web site and by all means feel free to email me at pattyomachel[at] for more information on ways to bring ability awareness programming to your schools.


Watch: Easterseals Staff and Clients Sing ‘This Is Me’ From The Greatest Showman

We’re so proud to announce that Easterseals New Hampshire placed first in a video contest hosted by the National Home & Community Based Service Conference. When asked to submit a video, the affiliate jumped at the chance! They went above and beyond to showcase the joy, pride, and talent in New Hampshire.

Check out their version of the song “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman, performed by Dave Jenne.

Jenne, a local singer and Community Based Services client at Easterseals New Hampshire, will travel to Baltimore at the end of August to sing the song in front of 1,500 conference attendees and accept the award.


Three Assistive Technology Podcasts To Listen To Today

by Wade Wingler

In 2011, Easterseals Crossroads in Indianapolis released the first episode of Assistive Technology Update, a weekly news program and podcast focused on assistive technology news and interviews.  Since that time, the affiliate has grown a small podcast network that includes three shows with a total of over 700 episodes and an international audience in over 160 countries.

Interviews and News

Assistive Technology Update logoEasterseals Crossroads’ flagship podcast, Assistive Technology Update, is a 30-minute news and interview program that features the latest developments in the assistive technology industry and interviews with researchers, developers, and other assistive technology thought leaders.  The program hosted by Wade Wingler, Vice President of Easterseals Crossroads, has been in continuous production since 2011 and has become a weekly mainstay of news and information for individuals with disabilities and assistive technology professionals/service providers. Assistive Technology Update is the #1 podcast in iTunes on the topic and was listed as the #1 podcast for people who are blind at  Recent interviews have focused on Microsoft’s Translator and Soundscape apps, physical therapy vs. occupational therapy in assistive technology (PT vs OT in AT), video gaming basics for people who are blind or visually impaired, and the Brain Injury Technology Education and Support (BITES) program sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal.

Questions and Answers

ATFAQ logoAssistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions (ATFAQ) is a question and answer show hosted by Brian Norton, Director of Assistive Technology, and features a panel of assistive technology experts who respond to questions posed from listeners around the world.  Twice monthly, the show covers questions about which types of technology are appropriate, how to fix adaptive equipment, and basic through advanced features of assistive technology during this hour-long show.  Recent questions answered include the following:

  • How can I read my iPhone in braille?
  • What is the difference between Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Home Pod from an accessibility perspective?
  • What are some good apps for elementary students with learning disabilities?

Quick and Easy

Accessibility Minute logoAccessibility Minute is a weekly show hosted by Laura Medcalf, blogger and social media content specialist, that offers a minute-long glimpse into the world of assistive technology and accessibility.  Whether it’s a new app, a new service, or Laura’s personal insight into the world of assistive technology, Accessibility Minute will address the topic.  Recent topics include:

  • Ring Doorbell
  • Adaptive toothbrushes
  • Adaptive clocks and sleep aids
  • Smart phone adaptations

You can find each of these shows in Itunes, Stitcher, and wherever you listen to podcasts as well as at


The Plastic Straw Ban, Disability, and Accessibility

A straw in a plastic smoothie cupAn opinion piece about the banning of plastic straws in different businesses and municipalities published in the Washington Post earlier this month caught my attention. Written by disability advocate Karin Hitselberger, the piece was brilliant at describing what the word “access” means in a pretty short sentence: Access is about the quality of life, and being able to have the same experiences and opportunities as a nondisabled person, with some adaptations.”

Karin Hitselberger lost me, though, when she claimed the efforts of businesses and municipalities to help reduce ocean pollution by discouraging the use of plastic straws is an accessibility issue. “This isn’t about straws,” she wrote. “It’s about access”.

I’d say it’s about both.

You regular Easterseals blog readers know that I’m a huge fan of the word “reasonable” when it comes to reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but in my view, the “reasonable” part applies to both parties. How about we work together on this one so everybody wins? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask people who need plastic straws to bring their own. I have Type 1 diabetes and need insulin to be able to eat, and I bring it along when I eat at restaurants. I am blind and can’t tell if the packets at a coffeeshop are sugar or artificial sweetener. I suppose I could demand that packets be Braiilled for those of us who can’t see, but so few of us read Braille that this would seem an unreasonable request. So I just bring my own packets to make sure I’m getting what I need. People who need straws to eat and drink and bring their own along when they eat out will not only ensure they have what they need, but also know their efforts can help the environment by cutting down the number of people using straws when they don’t absolutely need to.

In her article, Karin Hitselberger points out how complicated life with a disability can be:

Living with a disability means having to worry about things on a daily basis that never cross other people’s minds. It means worrying about whether somebody will come to help you get out of bed in the morning. It means a morning commute completely derailed by an elevator outage. Living with a disability means only being able to travel to cities where accessible transportation is an option. Living with a disability takes a lot of planning and energy and learning how to exist in a world that is not made for you

I agree. Living with a disability takes a lot of planning and energy. Accessible transportation is a necessity. Accessible jobs, technology, education and civil rights are necessities. I also agree that learning how to live in a world that is not always made for people with disabilities can be a challenge. But asking us to bring an insulin pen or a packet of artificial sweetener or a straw along when heading out? That just doesn’t seem so challenging. To me, it doesn’t qualify as an unreasonable request.

What is your take on companies getting rid of plastic straws? Is it an issue of access? Let us know in the comments section.


We Need More Stories From Writers With Disabilities

Two open books in a libraryMy Seeing Eye dog and I are heading to California this afternoon — I was awarded a grant to attend the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference from August 2 to August 5, 2018.

I was flattered – and surprised – to receive the grant. Flattered, since it means I will be in the midst of so many talented writers there. Surprised, because the grant I received is a “Voices of Diversity” grant, and having a disability is not always regarded as “diverse.”

These days most people determine diversity by a person’s race, religion, gender and/or sexual orientation. But hey — shouldn’t disability be on that list? I think so.

A 2015 report from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that roughly 13% of Americans have a disability. The 2015 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey defined disability status through a number of questions measuring serious difficulty with any of the following:

  • Hearing
  • Vision
  • Cognition
  • Walking or climbing stairs
  • Self-care
  • Independent living

People with disabilities are definitely in the minority. Being around people from different backgrounds exposes us all to new viewpoints and perspectives, and in the case of a conference for writers, being around people with different sorts of identities impacts how you see the world and what stories you are able to tell. It’s important for fiction writers, non-fiction writers, poets, playwrights and script writers to tell everyone’s story.

Disability needs to be a part of this larger fabric of stories, too. I commend the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference for including us in the discussion – their Voices of Diversity grant is awarded once a year to “writers from an underrepresented group on the basis of age, ethnicity, sexual identity, disability, social or cultural background.” Thank you for the honor, Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. And now…off to the airport!


Travel, Disability, and the ADA: What’s Changed Since 1990

A train passing byEarlier I walked you through a typical visit to see our son Gus at his group home. To complete the celebration of the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act — and to further explain how much the ADA affects our everyday lives — here’s an account of a train ride back to Chicago after one of those visits with Gus.

When the cab picked us up at the hotel, the driver understood immediately that Whitney was a service dog — no extra charge for her. Whitney has gone through a lot of training to become a Seeing Eye dog, and she always sits quietly at my feet in the back seat during cab rides.

Our driver got us to the Amtrak station just in time to board our train, and we sat up front in the disability seats. That way Whitney had more room to stretch out than she’d had in the cab.

A woman sitting across the aisle in the disability section noticed my dog and leaned over to ask whether we might want her space. “I think it might have more room for her,” she reasoned.

It took the woman a few seconds to realize we had the same kind of spacious accommodations as she did. “OH,” she said, a little embarassed. “I didn’t see — you already have room!”

When the train eased out of the station, the lady across the aisle leaned over one more time. “Can I be so bold as to ask how long you’ve had that dog, and how it’s working for you?”

Twenty minutes of conversation told us she’d lost her sight in one eye. The other was in bad shape, all due to diabetic retinopathy (the same thing that took my sight away decades ago). She was a couple years older than us, and she’d been living with Type 1 diabetes for 50 years. A nurse herself, she’d always been praised by her doctors for being a model diabetic. But that’s not always enough.

Her husband had stayed home for this trip, but the way she described their situation seemed to be a lot like Mike and mine had been 33 years ago. She’d had good doctors and bad doctors and doctors who had the bedside manner of Attila the Hun. She could see some out of one eye, and she was in that awkward phase where she is doing just well enough and badly enough by herself to annoy (or frighten) the people around her.

She wasn’t blind yet, but she wanted to get ready in case total blindness was in her future. She didn’t want to drag down her husband with endless needs, nor did she like losing independence and needing his help. For his part, her husband, a “type A” as she put it, seemed to be struggling not to over protect.

Her experience rang so familiar, and as Mike and I related our experiences — and how similar they were to our new acquaintance — it seemed almost revelatory to the woman across the aisle. “Things are so much better since the ADA was passed,” I pointed out, relating my horror story of losing my job when I lost my sight in 1986. I gave her the name of the memoir I wrote back then, assuring her that “Long Time, No See” is available free of charge from the Library of Congress Talking Book program, both in Braille and as an audiobook. “That’s another thing that’s changed,” I marveled. “So many audiobooks now!” Mike wrote down his email address, too, and told her to give it to her husband.

If it weren’t for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we wouldn’t have met this woman. Before 1990, it was more difficult for people with disabilities to travel. To work. To get out and about. To access public transportation. We’re out there now, though.

It made Mike and I both feel good to be able to reassure this stranger on the train that she and her husband back home are not alone — happy anniversary, ADA!


What Life Is Like 28 Years After the Americans With Disabilities Act

Beth touching the museum signThe 28th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is this Thursday, July 26. My husband Mike and I will be celebrating with a visit to see our son at his group home in Wisconsin. Gus moved away from home when he was 16 years old — he was born with significant physical and developmental disabilities. He can propel his own wheelchair, but when we take him for walks from his group home to the park, his dad supplies the horsepower. I hold Mike’s arm as he pushes Gus’ wheelchair up the ramps to the sidewalks, and once we’re in the park we head to the swing — it’s especially suited for wheelchair use. Our visits are happy and uneventful, and on the drive back to our hotel room, we often talk about how grateful we are that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law when it was, back in 1990.

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney stays in our hotel room while we visit with Gus. She is jealous of (or unnerved by) our son — probably a little of both. When we get back to our room, I buckle on her harness, give her the “Forward!” command and she guides me to the elevator. We’re heading to the lobby, and hearing the bell ding twice tells me the elevator that’s opening will be going down — one ring means up. I command, “Whitney, forward!” My eight-year-old Golden Retriever/Yellow Labrador cross leads me in. “Whitney, sit!” She sits quietly at my feet. Braille labeling tells me which button to press for “lobby” and we’re on our way.

Downstairs, Whitney leads me to the handicapped-accessible door (revolving doors can be difficult) and we’re off to a nearby tree where she can “empty.” Back inside, I listen for music — we’re meeting Mike at the jazz bar for a nightcap and live music before heading to bed. No one there questions my having a guide dog with me, and we enjoy the music and banter. On this weekend’s trip, we’ll raise a glass to The hard work so many disability advocates put into getting this bill passed, and to President George H. Bush for signing it into law in 1990. The Americans with Disabilities Act has changed a lot of lives — for the better.


How Can We Bring Disability Issues to the Forefront of Elections?

This week is National Disability Voter Registration Week. Are you registered to vote? If not, learn more here!

Polling place signWith cyber concerns in the news these days, many polling places are considering returning to paper ballots in future elections. I get that, but here’s the thing: many people with disabilities cannot mark paper ballots without assistance.

I’m one of those people. I am blind, and without being able to read a paper ballot, I rely on special voting machines equipped with earphones in order to vote privately and independently.

But now, according to Michelle Bishop, a voting rights advocate for the National Disability Rights Network, the return to paper ballots in polling places could make poll workers less comfortable with operating machine-based systems. In a Stateline article, Bishop pointed out that with half of Americans voting using paper ballots now, untrained poll workers are discouraging the use of accessible voting machines at the polling places. From the article:

“It’s a constant complaint from voters with disabilities nationwide, Bishop said. In the last election, for example, a voter called her to report that a machine was placed in the corner, turned off, with a flower wreath hung on it.

‘The message is: You’re not wanted here,’ Bishop said. ‘We get reports of poll workers discouraging their use. They say, ‘I haven’t been well trained,’ ‘It’s intimidating to me,’ ‘We’ll set it to the side and get through Election Day.’’

The article said an October study by the Government Accountability Office shows that nearly two-thirds of the 137 polling places inspected on Election Day 2016 had at least one impediment to people with disabilities. Among the infractions:

    • The accessible voting machine wasn’t set up and powered on
    • The earphones weren’t functioning
    • The voting system wasn’t wheelchair-accessible
    • The voting system didn’t provide the same privacy as standard voting stations.

I have experienced three of those four infractions at my local polling place, and I know firsthand how occurrences like those can make you wonder whether to bother heading over there on election day at all.

My polling place is right across the street from where I live. Others aren’t as fortunate. Many struggle to find transportation to polling places, and along with the lack of training for poll workers, limited access to registration materials and insufficient resources for election officials — well, it’s easy to understand why we can get discouraged.

A survey of voters in the 2016 election by Rutgers University reported a decline in voter participation among people with disabilities. That, in turn, discourages political parties from targeting “get out the vote” efforts to people who have disabilities.

“We’re segregating in the way we vote,” Bishop said in that Statesman article. “Separate is not equal. That’s a lesson this country should have already learned by now.”

More than 35 million people with disabilities are eligible to vote in the U.S. That makes the potential for the disability community to bring disability issues to the forefront of elections (and to hold elected officials accountable for policies and decisions that affect people with disabilities) pretty high. But it all starts with getting more people with disabilities registered to vote.


Why I Don’t Vote By Absentee Ballot

This week is National Disability Voter Registration Week. Are you registered to vote? If not, learn more here!

polling place, vote here signI’ve published posts here about the obstacles people with disabilities often run into at polling places, and after an op-ed piece I wrote about this appeared in the New York Daily News in 2016, people started asking me why I don’t just vote absentee. The answer is simple. To me, going to the polls is essential. There’s no substitute for the feel of a voting device in your hand or the sound of your vote actually registering. Voting at the polling place gives me a certainty that voting by absentee ballot can’t provide.

And I want my vote to count.

The National Voter Registration Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act and the Federal Rehabilitation Act guarantee the right to vote to all registered voters — including those of us with disabilities.

When I’m in the voting booth, I put headphones on to hear Text-to-Speech software translating the candidate selections on the ballot into spoken choices, I use a special keypad to choose my candidates by touch, and then I confirm my selections by voice again before my ballot is officially cast. It’s when I explain this process to others that I get those questions about voting absentee. “Why not save yourself the trouble,” some suggest with a shrug. “Vote absentee at home.” On a purely technical level, I won’t vote absentee as it’s historically fraught with challenges, including ballots getting damaged or lost, and in many cases not even counted.

It’s the larger imperative that compels me to the polls, however. Voters need to see people with disabilities out there voting with them. The astonished comments I hear from people waiting with my Seeing Eye dog and me in queue tell me they really do want me to vote.

Those of us with disabilities can’t let others forget about us. In the not-too-distant past, people with disabilities did stay home, not just on voting day, but perpetually. We can never go back to those days, and voting publicly is one way to ensure we don’t.


Reading List: Books About Disability For Kids and Teens

A stack of books against a white backgroundIndependence Day has come and gone, but there’s still a lot to celebrate this month: It’s the anniversary of the ADA and many cities across the country are celebrating disability pride! One way to celebrate and learn about the contributions of people with disabilities is by reading books about them. Earlier this month I put together a blog post with a list of books about disability for adults, and now it’s time for the kids. Here’s a list of some of the books for children and young adults we’ve reviewed over the years:

For younger kids

For teens and young adults

Happy reading!