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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 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.

Public Policy
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.

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

"Yours Is a Different Understanding of Architecture": Helen Keller’s House in Easton, Connecticut

Helen Keller and Polly Thomson, circa 1955

Image: Left to right, Helen Keller standing with Polly Thomson at the door to their home in Easton, Connecticut, circa 1955.

AFB is thrilled to publish the third in our series of posts focusing on newly digitized items in the Helen Keller Archival Collection. This week’s post is from historian David Serlin, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California-San Diego. Enormous thanks to David for contributing such a fascinating, thoughtful, and thought-provoking blog post.

In the late 1930s, Cameron Clark, the well-known regional architect, specially designed and constructed a house for Helen Keller and her friend and companion, Polly Thomson, on a parcel of land in Easton, Connecticut. Clark’s letter, dated 20 November 1939, is preserved at and digitized by the Helen Keller Archives at the American Foundation for the Blind, and is reproduced here. Although it was written as a "welcome" letter to Keller and Thomson following their move to Connecticut from their longtime residence in New York City in the fall of 1939, the letter also suggests the degree to which Clark and his colleagues endeavored to meet Keller’s multiple requirements—only a portion of which directly addressed her status as a homeowner with a disability.

For a person with a visual impairment, the necessity of having a living environment with predictable physical features and interiors is imperative. One can memorize the flow of interior walls and doorjambs, or the point where a kitchen counter stops and a refrigerator door begins, or the location of a stair banister in a narrow hallway. Interior decoration—how a library or living room might be arranged—becomes equally vital to physical comfort and security. “Yours is a different understanding of architecture than that of my other clients,” Clark wrote, suggesting that Keller’s subjective needs were also a key to her understanding of space in general. Furthermore, Keller’s senses of touch and smell were essential components of her domestic experience, not unlike the way she used her multiple senses to navigate cities such as New York and Paris, accounts of which feature prominently in her books and journalism, as well as in her personal diaries. The house’s emphasis on natural light and fresh air—the warmth and light of the sun felt through large windows, the physical intimacy of relaxing on a small terrace—were more than luxurious amenities for Keller.

To this end, these domestic features reflected other aspects of Keller’s aesthetic sensibility, since in many circles she was a well-known taste maker and figure of fashion. “The house has many of the features of the old Colonial houses,” Clark wrote reassuringly, “which have been adapted to modern requirements.” Clark was proud to have combined the house’s Colonial Revival style—columns, gabled roof, symmetrical “wings” emanating from a central hall—with modern conveniences such as central heating and a washing machine. Clark also boasted of the house’s ability to maintain the "character and harmony with the other houses nearby, and…the contours of the land." Clark was not being merely descriptive here. Indeed, Clark used the letter to take a jab at Modern architecture, then widely in vogue. “There are houses of other types," Clark asserts, "but many of us in Connecticut feel that harmony is to be preferred to more individualistic and extreme design."

One imagines Clark bristling at the designs of contemporary European architects like Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier or Americans like Philip Johnson. Yet Clark’s distaste for the rectilinear glass and steel boxes of Gropius and Johnson must be put into perspective. During the Depression Era, architecture with a regional or historical flavor was enormously popular. In fact, Art Deco skyscrapers along with streamlined trains and Zeppelins thought to symbolize the “Machine Age” of the 1930s were in the minority compared to sites like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or the Henry Ford Village in Dearborn, Michigan, all products of the early twentieth-century’s fascination with colonial Americana. In this sense, one could say that Keller was very much a product of her time. She was able to find an architect sympathetic to her particular impairments as well as an ally who could help meet her desire for modern country living.

In the fall of 1946, while Keller and Thomson were traveling abroad, a fire destroyed their house, as well as a large amount of written manuscripts and personal effects. Miraculously, one of the few items to survive the devastating fire was Clark’s letter. Keller’s house was rebuilt based on the original plans. This second house, at 163 Redding Road in Easton, bears the plaque of the National Register of Historic Places, and stands amidst a conglomeration of similarly landmarked buildings in Easton’s Aspetuck Historic District. The house, like Clark’s letter, is a testament to architectural empathy as well as to the precarious legacy of archival documents.

Recommended Resources

Arts and Leisure
Getting Around
Helen Keller
Home modification
Orientation and Mobility

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.

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

Transcribing Digitized Letters from the Helen Keller Archive: A Transcriber's Account

Frontispiece of The Story of My Life

We are delighted that our next post in this series of posts devoted to the Helen Keller Digitization project is contributed by Susan Pearce, a volunteer transcriber, and a very valued member of our "Captains of Transcription" team.

From Susan Pearce, transcriber:

This is an unbelievably interesting project. I have been getting to know Helen Keller better. Miss Keller travelled the world and affected so many people's lives. What has been wonderful to transcribe are the handwritten letters from young students in school who thought of her as a heroic person and also had read her books; notwithstanding the many wonderful cards and letters that were also written to Miss Helen Keller.

The condolence letters that were sent after hearing the news of Miss Keller’s death were so heartfelt and inspirational; it was like they knew Miss Keller personally. For instance, there is a letter from a Miss Davis’s 5th grade class from Illinois. The date of the letter is June 12, 1968. The students had read the story of Helen Keller’s life in the reader "Vistas" by Scott Foresman "&" Co. As they finished the story, Miss Keller had passed away. [Helen Keller died June 1, 1968].They had talked about Miss Keller quite a bit and had wanted to send $2.00 for Miss Keller’s birthday, but upon hearing the sad news the 30 students and teacher used the funds for a donation to the American Foundation for the Blind, Inc. in her memory. The money had come from the 5th grade club Treasury. It was such an endearing story. According to the letter, Miss Davis was planning on teaching her students the following year about Helen Keller. Miss Davis and her students considered Miss Keller to be a great American!

Another letter was from Deborah Hirsh from Brooklyn dated June 2, 1968. Miss Hirsh was so inspired by the work of Miss Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy that she decided that she would work with the blind and/or deaf. Miss Hirsh felt that Miss Keller was a great woman and had shown that if you work hard enough you could achieve your goals. When Miss Keller died Miss Hirsh wrote that we all lost the greatest woman of our time.

You can easily find the letters that our wonderful transcriber is writing about by searching under "Miss Davis" and "Deborah Hirsh" in the Helen Keller online archival collection.

By volunteering to be a transcriber, you are actively helping to promote Helen Keller’s legacy and the freedoms that Helen so passionately believed in. If you wish to volunteer please email Helen Selsdon at Thank you!

Image: Frontispiece and title page of Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life. The book has been translated into over 50 languages since it was first published in serial format in 1902. It continues to be read by millions of children and adults worldwide.

Related Links

Arts and Leisure
Helen Keller