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A Director’s Experience: Creating Employment Opportunities for Individuals Who Are Blind

This blog post is by guest blogger Ben Caro, a film editor, screenwriter, and director on a mission to change the perception of blindness in our society. Ben is directing Cathedrals, a short film starring an actor who is visually impaired. Read about his passion project and mission to advocate for employment opportunities for individuals with vision loss.

Banner with the word Cathedrals and the face of a man

Cathedrals by Ben Caro

I had to look in strange places for the right actor to play the lead role in my passion film, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story "Cathedral." We called "dining in the dark" restaurants and e-mailed agencies that only represent the disabled. Usually, hundreds of actors flock to a project in droves. However, this project was different: I was looking for an actor who is blind.

I called Greg Shane, the creative director at Theater By the Blind, an organization that empowers individuals who are visually impaired through performance. I asked him if any of his stage actors were interested in auditioning for the film. He had one question for me: "Will you pay them?"

He told me most of his actors were living below the poverty line and could really use the money. I was astounded by this, and when I got off the phone, I did the research myself. It's not conclusive, but some data suggests that about 70 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed and almost a third live in poverty.

Obviously, it's not because people who are blind are unqualified. Greg said he was part of a braille institute program that used theater to help train people with visual impairment to get jobs. "It was incredibly difficult. People would discount these individuals before they even walked into the interview." Many people are still bewildered by the thought of a blind person using a computer. I started to realize that it’s not that the blind are unqualified to work; it’s that most workplaces are unqualified to hire.

Actors who are blind have it hard in other ways. Greg told me, "I worked with an actor who was up for a lead role for a feature film and she was totally blind, and the producer decided that they wanted to go with a sighted character because they thought it was more commercial."

It's rare that people who are blind play themselves. Abigail Breslin was blind in The Miracle Worker, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, and Val Kilmer in At First Sight. Obviously, films need stars, but by not hiring qualified individuals with disabilities, we keep opportunities from the people who really need it, the people the films purport to honor. Because actors are usually applauded for their performances, the practice even has its own name: "cripping up."

However, for someone who is blind, or in the process of becoming blind, it's important to see the visually impaired at work. Dreams, such as performing on stage or in film, are achievable, even without sight. Also, those who aren't exposed to individuals with low vision can become sympathetic toward their needs. This has occurred with Modern Family, where the show's portrayal of a gay couple coincided with America's shifting positivity toward marriage equality.

Rick Boggs with his hand on his horse

Rick Boggs with his horse

With my film Cathedrals, I want to help. We’ve cast Rick Boggs, blind since age 5, to play the lead role. We're also pushing for opportunities in the workforce. By partnering with the Hearts for Sight Foundation, an organization that increases employment through educating employers, I'm hoping to not only make a good film but to make some good too. I'm really excited!

For more information or to help with Ben's project, visit his website.

More on Employment in the Entertainment Industry

About Jobs in Pop Culture, Art & Entertainment and Artisans Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

The Impact of the Popular Media on Public Perception of People with Disabilities


Topics:
Arts and Leisure
Cultural Diversity
Employment
Personal Reflections

Helen Keller: A Love Affair

Helen Keller smelling flowers in a vase, circa 1919

Image: Helen Keller smelling flowers, circa 1919.

This is the fourth in our series of posts celebrating Helen Keller and the wonderful new avenues that are opening up for research about her life and legacy as a result of the Helen Keller Digitization Project. This week’s post is from Christopher Carlson, author, screenwriter and playwright. Enjoy!

I’m thrilled by the diligent work being done at American Foundation for the Blind to digitize its prodigious Helen Keller archive – so needed! We who revere the Keller legacy are grateful for this invaluable on-line service. That said, during the past several years I had the privilege of visiting AFB in New York and using the on-site library to conduct research while writing my full length Keller play, LITTLE ISLAND OF JOY.

The play takes place in 1916 when Helen was 36 years old and arguably the most famous woman in America: author of best-selling books and widely-read magazine articles; a highly paid national speaker; a radical socialist who spoke out forcefully against President Wilson’s plan for the United States to enter the war against Germany. Helen’s traveling secretary was Peter Fagan, a like-minded radical. One auspicious day, Peter communicated to Helen that he cared for her, deeply, which both surprised and delighted her. If only those closest to her — her beloved Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, and mother, Kate Keller — might have partaken in that same delight. Many years later, Helen wrote about this passionate, and secret, love affair, referring to it as "my little island of joy, surrounded by dark water."

These are the life events I explore in LITTLE ISLAND OF JOY. This year the play achieved 3rd Prize at the Beverly Hills Theater Guild-Julie Harris competition, and was a semi-finalist at the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. In addition, the Lighthouse Guild, an international agency dedicated to promoting and serving the interests of the visually impaired, will sponsor a full reading of the play in December for its annual fundraiser in New York City. Ultimately of course it’s my hope to find a stage where we can bring Helen’s enthralling character to life, not to mention her beloved and dedicated Teacher, Anne Macy.

My thanks to archivist Helen Selsdon for all the hard work she does at AFB to preserve Helen’s legacy, and from me particular thanks for the work done ‘back in the day’ — pre-digitization — when she gamely carried box after box from the stacks to this researcher’s desk. Those were the days, my friend. Now, thankfully, we can access the archive from wherever we happen to be. I’m also grateful that digitization will make AFB’s priceless historical resources available to everyone, including those who are blind or visually impaired. This is something we can all celebrate.

Recommended Resources


Topics:
Arts and Leisure
Helen Keller

The ADA Anniversary: What We're Not Celebrating

access denied

This year marks the 26th anniversary of the signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Each year, advocates look for ways in which to properly commemorate the ADA and to celebrate the promise of equal access that it represents. We at the American Foundation for the Blind are also weighing in, not only with praise for the barriers that the ADA has broken down, but also with concern about the work that still needs to be done.

We are deeply disappointed that we're celebrating yet another ADA anniversary without the long-overdue clarifications of the ADA's application to cyberspace that the Obama Administration promised us years ago. Sadly, the latest failings concerning web accessibility are all-too-consistent with a pattern throughout the Obama presidency to neglect the vital intersection between disability policy and technology.

The Obama Administration has determined, yet again, to delay movement on the issuance of regulations clarifying the application of the ADA to online-only places of public accommodation. Most recently, the Administration scuttled a set of proposed federal regulations developed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which would have provided even greater clarity about the web accessibility obligations of state and local governments. Now, to try and pick up the pieces, the DOJ is asking advocates yet again to weigh in and share our views on the importance of web access to governmental programs and services.

Such questions are insulting because, as a civil rights law, the ADA should mean that people with disabilities have a right to expect society to accommodate their individual needs. Rights aren't up for grabs based on a cost-benefit analysis. As our colleagues in the American Council of the Blind put it recently in a resolution unanimously adopted at their annual national conference and convention, "No civil right--whether started at Seneca Falls, Selma or Stonewall, or sought in Silicon Valley or cyberspace--no civil right should ever be sold at auction."

It is true that the ADA was enacted when the Internet was still in its infancy, but over the years, an array of court decisions continues to muddy the waters for the application of the ADA to the Internet, particularly to online-only places of public accommodation such as "clicks and no bricks" retail stores, banks, insurance companies, and the like. On the 20th anniversary of the ADA in 2010, the Obama Administration acknowledged the need for clarifying regulations in this area but has consistently thwarted efforts by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to make progress on this critical regulatory agenda.

There is a lot to celebrate about the positive changes that the ADA has brought to our country, and federal agencies with responsibility to enforce the ADA have aggressively championed civil rights enforcement under the Obama Administration's leadership. The same most definitely cannot be said for this Administration's web accessibility policy agenda for people with disabilities.

At this point in the Obama Presidency, we can be nearly certain that we won't see any meaningful progress in this area prior to Mr. Obama's last day in office. That is why AFB is joining a growing chorus of appeals to the major party candidates for President of the United States to demand issuance of regulations clarifying that online-only places of public accommodation are covered by the ADA. If you would like to share your frustration on the lack of progress on web access regulations, you can send an email to comments@afb.net. Please include your home address, and we will file your comments with the Department of Justice.

Surely by the 27th anniversary of the ADA there should be no doubt about the right of people who are blind or visually impaired to shop, communicate, and otherwise take full advantage of the tremendous online opportunities that most Americans today take for granted.


Topics:
Public Policy
Technology
Web Accessibility

When You Can't "Catch 'em All": Overcoming Social Isolation As an Individual Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

William Reuschel and Aaron Preece look at an iPhone while guide dog Joel looks at a Pidgey

Image: Left to right, William Reuschel stands with Aaron Preece, looking at an iPhone, while Aaron's guide dog, Joel, appears to look for a Pidgey.

It's time to dust off the old Gameboy, find the faded trading cards, and watch cartoons starring Ash Ketchum because Pokémon is making a HUGE comeback. The makers of Pokémon, Nintendo America, in cooperation with Niantic Labs, have introduced a new mobile app game, Pokémon Go. This international craze has taken over the world. It is in the news, on social media, and all over town.

But what if you are missing out because of your visual impairment? What if you can't "catch 'em all"?

Being blind or visually impaired can often be very isolating. You can feel left out and left behind socially, physically, and emotionally. But you can't let the seeds of doubt discourage you. You must embrace who you are and find ways to join in on the fun.

While the game is not very accessible, there are ways you can make gameplay more socially inclusive. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Take a Friend and Join the Hunt. My favorite part of the game is tracking new Pokémon. It is fun to get out, walk around, and discover new items and characters to add to your collection. Ask a sighted friend to join you in your Pokémon quest. When you hear the sound of a new Pokémon, ask your friend to describe the character to learn more about its class and abilities. With proper and safe orientation and mobility skills, you can help your friends hunt down your favorite Pokémon.

  • Organize a Pokémon Go Outing. This past weekend, I was invited to a "Pokémon Go Walkabout" at the local park. A large group of community members came together to catch Pokémon, compare their collections, and plan to take over all the local Pokémon Gyms. These outings are a great way to make new friends and share a common interest. You can get involved by organizing one of these events in your community.

  • Become an Expert. If you are a long-time fan of Pokémon, this would be great for you. Become the expert on all the original Pokémon. Help your social circle learn the evolution of each character and how to create the strongest Pokémon. Your expertise in strategy can be an asset to your friends and other players.

  • Advocate for Accessibility. Pokémon Go isn't accessible right now, but it could be in the future, if enough people convince the developer that accessibility is important. Read more about the changes that need to be made here. Contact or tweet @NintendoAmerica and @NianticLabs to ask them to make the necessary game changes so people who are blind or visually impaired can play. Encourage your friends to do this too. They can explain to the game developers how important it is to them that you be included in their Pokémon adventures.

Pokémon Go is a social phenomenon, and with some persistence and creativity, you don't need to be left out of the fun. How are you involved in the Pokémon Go craze? Let us know in the comment section below.


Topics:
Arts and Leisure
Getting Around
In the News
Independence
Personal Reflections
Readers Want to Know
Social Life and Recreation
Social Skills
Web Accessibility

Pokémon Go: Let’s Catch ’em All!

By William Reuschel and Aaron Preece

Aaron Preece stands with his guide dog Joel and a Pidgie Pokemon

Image: Aaron Preece stands with his guide dog Joel and a Pidgey Pokémon.

Pokémon mania is sweeping the nation once again! The latest incarnation of the game that has players collecting and battling fictional creatures is called “Pokémon Go,” but this version is a little different from past games. You can’t play Go on your couch. In fact, you’ll have a hard time playing it indoors at all. Pokémon Go is all about getting players outside and interacting with various points of interest around their towns. Communities everywhere are buzzing with activity as people battle for control of “gyms” located near parks, churches, statues, and businesses.

We wanted to take a moment to consider the unprecedented opportunity that Nintendo and the app developer, Niantic, have to provide equal access to the social phenomenon they have created. With just a little bit of extra effort, Pokémon Go could be made completely accessible to people with vision loss. A game with such profound social significance that allows for inclusion of all people who wish to play it could have significant and meaningful impact on the lives of gamers who are blind or visually impaired.

Aaron Preece and William Reuschel play Pokemon Go

Image: Aaron Preece and William Reuschel play Pokémon Go.

The Game

If you haven’t heard about the specifics of this game, let’s hit the highlights. In the game, you are a Pokémon trainer with the goal of collecting as many different kinds of Pokémon as you can. You accomplish this by walking around your town and visiting virtual “Poké Stops,” which are usually points of interest like statues or fountains, and stocking up on in-game supplies like Poké Balls. As you walk around, you will encounter the Pokémon themselves. You throw Poké Balls at Pokémon to catch them.

Once you catch enough Pokémon, you are invited to join one of three teams. Now you have access to the last major feature of the game, which is battling with your team for control of Pokémon Gyms. Gyms are distributed among the points of interest around town, and everyone in the immediate area of the Gym can compete on behalf of their team to maintain control of them.

The Fixes

We have presented a simplified explanation of the game itself, but it should be clear that the actual gameplay mechanics are significantly different from the more traditional experience that one might have when playing an action game on a console in their living room. Most modern video games are highly visual, with the entire gameplay based on sights, sounds, and your reaction time to them. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make action or sports video games, for example, accessible to someone who can’t see the screen without making fundamental changes to the way they’re played. The gameplay in Pokémon Go does have visual aspects, but there’s much more strategic depth to the gameplay centered on physically going to places and interacting with an augmented reality of the virtual world overlaid on the physical world. This makes it a great candidate for game accessibility.

The good news is that it wouldn’t be difficult for Nintendo to make the game accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. Pokémon Go already makes great usage of haptic or touch-based feedback and sound cues. Only minor changes are necessary to include blind and visually impaired gamers. Here are some of the accessibility challenges of the game, and how we propose they be addressed in future versions:

Challenge: Reading and Accessing the Visual Menu System

Currently, the menus in the game must be visually read, but making menus accessible is easy. VoiceOver, TalkBack, or an in-game speech engine could be used to vocalize the text of the menus and other on-screen text.

Challenge: Using the Visual Map

When you open the game, there is a visual of your avatar on a stylized map of the actual roads and buildings nearby. As you move, so does your avatar. The map is helpful because it shows the location of Poké Stops and Gyms. To be accessible, simply having a spoken list of the points of interest nearby, with their distance and actual address, would allow anyone with the appropriate orientation and mobility skills to navigate to them.

Challenge: Visiting a Poké Stop Location

When you get to a Poké Stop, you have to spin a disc and collect some items that appear by swiping over them. This can be done with auditory cues in the game right now, but there’s an accessory in the works that will make this even easier. The “Pokémon Go Plus” is a wearable device that buzzes and flashes a light when you’re near a Poké Stop. You will just press the button on it to collect the items.

Challenge: Catching Pokémon by Throwing a Visual Poké Ball

This game mechanism will require some work. As it exists today, to catch a Pokémon, you have to find it and accurately fling a Poké Ball at it to catch it. To be accessible, this part of the game could be enhanced with audio cues to let you know where the Pokémon is and whether or not you’ve aimed the Poké ball properly. Niantic says that the upcoming Pokémon Go Plus accessory can be used to notify users of Pokémon in the area, and even automatically catch them for you (if you’ve already caught one of that type). Flinging the Poké Ball is a very small aspect of the game, and some sort of accessible alternative could be devised easily without degrading the quality of the experience.

Challenge: Battling in a Gym

A gym battle is a frenzied series of taps and swipes to try to reduce the opponent Pokémon’s health to zero to knock it out before it has a chance to do the same to yours. A  Gym battle is less about how effectively you can tap and swipe, and more about how well you’ve prepared your Pokémon before the battle. An accessible alternative, such as sound enhancements, could be devised.

Wrap up

Pokémon Go is irrationally fun. Nintendo has tapped into our innate desire to collect rare things and compete with each other. With a few simple enhancements to the game, this international phenomenon could be inclusive in ways never before possible, and even people with no visual access to the screen could engage with other players on a level playing field. Pokémon Go is leading the way to a new form of reality and virtual gaming, and this is an opportunity to be sure that gamers who are blind or visually impaired are included in its evolution from the very beginning.


Topics:
Arts and Leisure
Assistive Technology
In the News
Independence
Social Life and Recreation
Social Skills
Technology