Friday, June 29, 2012

Social media helping autistic children ‘navigate the world’

From The Globe & Mail in Canada:

Jordan Hilkowitz (pictured) is layering household products into a beaker for his latest science experiment.

Right beside his mom’s coffeemaker on the kitchen counter, he is preparing a video entitled Layers and Density, describing each step for his 3,800 YouTube channel subscribers and more than 1.5-million viewers. It’s an extraordinary feat considering that five years ago, the 10-year-old autistic boy was non-verbal.
Jordan, better known as Doctor Mad Science, also has an audience of researchers who are intrigued by the fact that social media could be useful therapy for children with autism.

“I just want to say thank you to everyone who has written nice comments about my video’s [sic],” he posted on a previous video. “I sometimes have a hard time making friends and I now know there are some nice people out there.”

One in every 150-160 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, neurological conditions that affect communication and social interaction.

But a growing number of children and young adults are harnessing the power of social media to bring them out of their shells, bolster their confidence and tell their stories – giving scientists a new and potentially transformative avenue to explore in the already extensive field of autism research.

Autistic children have long been drawn to technology, but what is it about these new forms of social media that changes behaviour?

“That part is very much a mystery. But it’s certainly attracting the attention of researchers,” said Peter Szatmari, a leading autism researcher, who is the head of child psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at McMaster University and McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont.

One theory, Dr. Szatmari said, is that the human face doesn’t have the same drawing power for an autistic child, and that something about technology triggers the motivation that’s lacking in face-to-face contact. “This can really have a big impact in helping people with ASD navigate the world and be able to do things that we never thought possible before,” he said.

Marc Sirkin, vice-president of social marketing at Autism Speaks, an advocacy group in the United States, said Jordan and others are using social media in such astounding ways that those who work with them are forced to take a second look. Carly Fleischmann, a non-verbal autistic teen from Toronto, for example, tweets about her disorder and other topics to more than 24,000 followers, and Nichole Lee, a 21-year-old from Utah, has a YouTube channel where she posts video blogs and speaks about autism.

“We think about people with disabilities [as] being intellectually disabled. As it turns out, there’s a large part of the autism community that’s not intellectually disabled. They’re just unable to communicate,” Mr. Sirkin said.

Jordan began posting science experiments on YouTube a year ago with the help of a babysitter. His interest in science came at an early age – he collected rocks, worked on circuits and, at one point, installed pulleys all over his house. When his focus turned to experiments, his babysitter suggested he appear on camera because she thought it would force him to work on his speech and perhaps gain confidence. Jordan searches for kid-friendly science experiments online, conducts them before the camera, and helps edit the videos. He’s made about $2,200 through his YouTube business, with the goal of earning enough to buy a Macbook.
For Jordan’s mother, the greater value is emotional.

Stacey Hilkowitz remembered that she once needed the help of security guards at the mall to remove Jordan when he was having a screaming fit, and how he would smash his head against the floor. “I’m so embarrassed,” Jordan piped in, covering his face with his hands. Ms. Hilkowitz quickly turned the conversation to how Jordan has changed, crediting that transformation to his appearances on YouTube. He’s loud and confident, his speech has improved, he has friends, and even served some time in school detention this year. “I know it sounds funny, but those are the types of things we want to see,” said Ms. Hilkowitz, who has an older daughter also diagnosed with autism.

“This is a good year for you, Jordan, a very good year,” she said to her son.

Sometimes Jordan has wanted to quit. He has been hurt by comments about his voice and the fact that he doesn’t enunciate well.

These days, Ms. Hilkowitz deletes damaging comments early in the morning. Viewers try to boost his confidence as well. “Six dislikes?????? Don’t worry you can always knock back their job applications in twenty years time,” one wrote.

Jordan is buoyed by those comments. “It really gets to people,” he said. “Like with my disability, it really gets people realizing that anyone can do [anything].”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Guatemala Launches Central America’s First Braille Newspaper

From LatinaLista:

GUATEMALA — “You don’t need to see to be able to read” was the message Guatemala sent to the world last month when it launched Central America’s first ever Braille newspaper.

Together with the Committee for Blind and Deaf People in Guatemala (Prociegos), Publinews produced 2,500 copies of the newspaper, which were distributed to visually impaired people throughout the country.
The project, which is financed by four supporting businesses, will continue as a free monthly medium with the aim of giving blind people their own access to the latest news and current affairs.

“It’s important for visually impaired people to have access to different forms of communication and to feel a part of society. They have the same human rights as everyone else and should be granted them by the state,” says Edilzar Castro Quiroz, Director of Education at Prociegos.

It is estimated that more than 110,000 people in Guatemala suffer from a visual disability – a problem that is magnified in rural parts of the country, where access to medical care and special resources are limited.
Jorge Mario Cifuentes lost his sight 20 years ago after he was diagnosed with pigmented retinopathy and now works at Prociegos as the Sports and Recreation Programme Coordinator.

“Having a visual impairment in Guatemala, like any other kind of impairment, is very difficult. Most institutions that deal with this issue are private and the state’s reaction to this subject is very limited – especially on the theme of education. For me to be able to hold a newspaper in Braille is a reflection that society is gaining an awareness of the needs of blind people,” says Cifuentes.

Around eight months ago, Publinews started working with focus groups to find out what specific articles and sections would be of most interest to visually impaired people – and it tailored the content accordingly.

The Braille newspaper has the same 16-page format as Publinews’ flagship version, but features articles that have been specifically adapted to suit the interests of blind people. Prociegos says the newspaper opens up a door to blind people who are more than qualified to contribute to journalism by writing articles and helping with the production process.

“The idea was to create a project that went along the lines of what Publinews represents, which is a positive media for Guatemalan society,” says Hugo Perez, Director of Marketing at Publinews. “We detected that the visually impaired community had been a little forgotten about and we wanted to support them and prioritise their rights; it’s a little drop of water, but it’s making a lot of waves.”

As well as covering the latest international, national, technology and sports news, the paper also features an “Inspirational Person of the Month”, with the aim of motivating other blind people to achieve their potential. This month the focus is on Brandon Aspuac, an athlete who will be representing Guatemala in the 800m and 1500m events in this year’s Paralympic Games in London.

Publinews launched Latin America’s first ever Braille newspaper in Chile two years ago and have been building on the experience in Guatemala. This most recent version has been so popular that Prociegos is already in talks to send it to El Salvador.

“The paper has been very well received by the visually impaired community and there have been lots of people coming directly to our offices asking for it. It’s a complex project that requires a lot of hard work, but that effort is nothing in comparison to what it gives the blind community,” says Castro Quiroz.

Sonia Hernandez works as a telephone operator at Prociegos: “I’ve always been a fan of the news and enjoy reading more than listening. I used to listen to the radio at work, but it was difficult as the phone would ring and I’d lose the thread of the story. When they first gave me this Braille edition, I just sat down right then and there and devoured it. I’m really happy with it. It’s a normal newspaper that speaks about national and international issues – the only difference is that it’s in Braille,” says Hernandez.

Publinews and Prociegos both agree that the most important step now is to increase the newspaper’s circulation and also its frequency, but say that in the short term it will continue as a monthly newspaper thanks to the support of their four sponsors.

Who Stole Helen Keller?

from Common Dreams: 

By Ruth Shagoury (Author bio: Ruth Shagoury teaches new and veteran teachers at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She collaborates with teacher-researchers who serve largely immigrant populations as they create curriculum to teach for social justice. She has been an active member of Portland Area Rethinking Schools for 15 years, and contributes to the Zinn Education Project and Rethinking Schools magazine, most recently with an article co-authored by Maika Yeigh and Andie Cunningham, "Testing What Matters Least" (Summer 2011). She has written numerous books and articles, including Living the Questions: A Guide for Teacher-Researchers (2012, with Brenda Power) and Raising Writers: Understanding and Nurturing Young Children's Writing Development (2009). Shagoury holds the Mary Stuart Rogers Chair of Education.)

In these times of vast economic disparities and ecological crisis, children need examples of people throughout history who committed their lives to justice -- to bringing more equality and fairness to the world. Helen Keller, whose birthday we celebrate this month -- June 27th -- could be one of those role models. Instead, textbooks and children's literature distort her life's work, and miss key opportunities to inspire young people to make a difference in the world.

Helen Keller worked throughout her long life to achieve social justice; she was an integral part of many social movements in the 20th century. Yet today, she is remembered chiefly as a child who overcame the obstacles of being deaf and blind largely through the efforts of her teacher, Annie Sullivan. While she may be hailed as a "hero" in lesson plans for today's children, the books recount only a fraction of what makes Helen Keller heroic.

Several years ago, I investigated and wrote about the image of Helen Keller in picture books for children in an article called "The Truth About Helen Keller," published in Rethinking Schools magazine, and posted at the Zinn Education Project website. According to these picture books, Helen should be remembered for two things after she grew up: her "courage" and her "work with the blind and deaf." Of course, both are true. But none of the many books I reviewed mentioned her work as a socialist and suffragist -- movements that framed most of her life and were connected to her advocacy for people with disabilities. As Keller wrote in 1913, "The way to help the blind is to understand, correct, remove the incapacities and inequalities of our entire civilization."

As I continue today to search for thoughtful curriculum on people who worked for social change, I returned to more recent texts and web information on Helen Keller, hoping the last decade had served to renew an interest in her true heroism. Sadly, her life -- and life's work -- continue to be distorted.

"Who was Helen Keller?" asks the jacket cover of the latest, and best-selling children's biography of Helen Keller: Who was Helen Keller? by Gare Thompson, illustrated by Nancy Harrison. In keeping with today's emphasis on standardized tests, the book presents readers with a multiple-choice format for the answer:
[ ] A woman who could not see or hear
[ ] A best-selling author
[ ] A famous world traveler
[√] All of the above!

"Find out more about the real Helen Keller in this fun and exciting illustrated biography!"
This "teaser" for the biography is an example of what historian James Loewen calls "lying by omission." Within the text itself, the distortions of her life story are even more blatant.

On August 18th, 1919, Helen Keller took part in a strike called by Actor's Equity -- joining the picket line against the debut of the silent film Deliverance, about her own life. Not only did she join in the picket line, she spoke at the union's strike meetings in support of their dispute with management regarding their wages. She declared she would "rather have the film fail than aid the managers in their contest with the players."
(The New York Call also was the first newspaper to publish Keller's article, "How I Became a Socialist," in 1912.)

What a lesson for young people: Here's a woman who turned her back on individual fame and glory to stand in solidarity with workers who were struggling for higher pay.
And yet here is how Gare Thomson "retells" the event:
Helen was so successful on stage that some people invited her to make a movie about her life and her feelings. Helen and Annie went to Hollywood and made the silent film Deliverance. Annie and Helen dreamed of the money they'd make from the film. They hoped to become rich and famous like movie stars. But the movie was not a success. Disappointed, Helen and Annie returned to Wrentham.
What? I'd call this flat-out lying -- and not even by omission.

Gare Thompson's stance of turning Helen Keller into a passively "courageous" woman is repeated over and over again in the resources I found on the Internet, as well -- where many educators go for curriculum. For example, Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan are listed together at the site: "The Real Heroes Club," where you can purchase "Real American Hero Trading Cards." One side features the important virtue we can learn from these heroes, COMMITMENT:
When Helen Keller was a child, she became very sick and lost her hearing and her sight. Fortunately, Anne Sullivan became Helen's teacher, and devoted herself to helping. Anne's total COMMITMENT to her student totally changed Helen's life.
And on the other side are quotes, such as "Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow." And the personal connection to ponder: "How can you show you are devoted to others who are very special in your life?"

If I were creating Hero trading cards for Helen Keller, I would include her passionate work for women's voting rights, and against war and corporate domination. And I'd include her courageous quotes where she asks tough and impolite questions: "Why in this land of great wealth is there great poverty?" she wrote in 1912. "Why [do] children toil in the mills while thousands of men cannot get work, why [do] women who do nothing have thousands of dollars to spend?"

Sounds to me like the mother of today's Occupy Movement.

From publishers like Scholastic Teaching Resources -- which uses her life events to "give children practice reading a timetable" by asking insipid questions such: "How can you use the first two dates to figure out Helen's age at the time she got sick?" -- to St. Aidan's Home School pages, which encourages teachers to show "the Disney version of the The Miracle Worker," the information on-line portrays the same individualistic and socially empty Helen Keller myth.

It takes a little more digging, but I encourage parents and educators to turn to resources like the small press book Helen Keller from Ocean Press's series Rebel Lives, which includes excerpts from her writings on disability and class, socialism, women, and war, or the fine young adult biography Helen Keller: Rebellious Spirit by Laurie Lawlor. It's time to share with children Helen Keller's remarkable adult life. As a defiant rebel, she could be a true hero for 21st century activists.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

In Ohio, guerrilla marketing for 'Crippled Girl' comedian results in arrest

From The Cincinnati Enquirer:

Forest Thomer walked up to a small group of people at a May 23 Party in the Park event, pointed to a slight, wheelchair-bound woman next to him and asked, “Do you want to laugh at the crippled girl?”

The politically incorrect question wasn’t intended to demean Ally Bruener and her battle with congenital muscular dystrophy but rather to promote her next gig as a comedian. After Thomer asked the question, Bruener wheeled her chair up to the group, told them a joke and where she next was performing.

Thomer’s guerrilla marketing, though, erupted into such a to do that he was arrested by Cincinnati police and charged with disorderly conduct, punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Now, Thomer (pronounced Toe-mer) and Bruener insist they are in a free speech fight.

“The police are trying to censor us. They’re trying to tell us how we can or can’t promote my comedy,” Bruener said from her Alexandria home.

“I don’t know when it became a bad thing for just saying words,” said Thomer, 25, of Cold Spring.
Bruener, 23, wants to break down the stigma the word “cripple” connotes and engage those who think because her body confines her to a wheelchair she’s mentally deficient.

“They assume I have no common sense,” she said. “There’s a lot of harsh stereotypes against people with disabilities.”

After graduating from Campbell County High, Bruener received an academic scholarship to the University of Louisville. She dropped out seeking a career in comedy. She’s appeared in several clubs and comedy events in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, making her disability part of her act.

“I want to open the door to the conversation,” Bruener said. “People don’t expect the crippled girl to talk about it. When I bring it to light, it makes me more comfortable.”

Her self-mocking website is replete with references to and jokes about muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that usually affects voluntary muscles, and her life in a wheelchair.

The Party in the Park marketing was going well, once those approached got over the shock of “the crippled girl” question, Bruener said.

That’s when, she and Thomer said, a member of the event staff told them to move on. Within minutes, Cincinnati police were on the scene.

Court documents show police accused Thomer of “walking into people and shouting obscenities at them” and when told to stop “persisted in yelling and shouting causing annoyance and alarm to others.”

“We don’t allow anyone to hand out promotional materials at our events,” Chris Kemper, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber spokesman, said. Kemper was told Thomer “disrupted the event because he was videotaping our guests without their approval” in the public park.

That’s not true, Thomer and Bruener said. When Thomer asked police why he was asked to leave, he said they gave him no reply. “They never made any effort to find out what was going on,” he said.

Thomer was arrested, threatened with a Taser and being walked to the cruiser to be taken to jail, he said, when he told police he was Bruener’s only ride home. They released him but ordered him to court.

“They told me I needed to be more selective about who I associate with,” Bruener said. “I gave my business card to the cops and they looked at it and laughed.”

“They talked to Ally like she was mentally challenged,” Thomer said.

Police wouldn’t explain their actions. “I’m not going to try this gentleman in the media,” Cincinnati police spokesman Lt. Anthony Carter said, declining to talk about the case.

Bruener and Thomer believe the police response was typical of those exposed to a wheelchair-bound person who fights against being labeled and demands to be treated like any other.

“I will not sit back and allow anyone trample over my right to show and tell the world that I am proud to be crippled,” Bruener said.

Thomer’s court case is scheduled June 20 before Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Russell Mock.

Sprout Film Festival acquires "The Eighth Day" starring actor with Down syndrome, Pascal Duquenne; will be available for purchase through sproutflix

From Sprout Film Festival:

Sprout Film Festival has received the rights to sell the award-winning film, The Eighth Day (Le Huitieme Jour) on sproutflix.  This 1996 feature-length Belgian film tells the story of a chance friendship that develops between a divorced businessman (Daniel Auteuil) and a young man with Down's syndrome (Pascal Duquenne) who ran off from the institution he lives in.
This film was nominated for the Palme d'Or award, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It won the Best Actor award that year, which was given to both lead actors.  This was the first time in the Cannes Film Festival's history that two actors shared this award.  
We are pleased to be able to include this film on sproutflix and I strongly encourage you to see it.  At times deeply poignant, while also brilliantly funny, The Eighth Day (in French with English subtitles) is not to be missed.
We continue to add films and free streams to our sproutflix site.  You can now see a free stream of Sheri and Paul on sproutflix. A couple shares their personal thoughts on love and marriage in this candid and touching portrait. I made this film in 2004 and I’m delighted to announce that they are still together and as happy as ever.

Lastly, the Sprout Touring Film Festival in partnership with The Arc, continues its tour to cities throughout the country and we will be presenting a program of films at The Arc’s upcoming National Convention in Washington, DC on Thursday, October 25, 2012.
To see if our film festival may be coming to a city near you and to be kept updated on other news related to our film programs, please 'like' us on facebook:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Golfer Casey Martin Returns to U.S. Open, Where a Cart Is Waiting

From The NY Times:

SAN FRANCISCO — The symbolism and juxtaposition were not lost on Casey Martin on Monday when he returned to the Olympic Club for the first time in 14 years. 

In 1998, the last time the United States Open was contested at Olympic, Martin was among the most notable participants not for his golf but because he had successfully sued golf’s establishment for the right to use a cart in a tournament. Martin, who has a rare circulatory condition in his right leg that makes him unable to walk long distances, won his case but only after some of the game’s biggest names testified or spoke out against his cause. 

During his first 1998 practice round, the cart provided to Martin broke down. Martin, then 26 years old and without much professional pedigree, continued with a quiet aplomb — despite sleepless nights, he said — and finished a respectable 23rd in the event. It was a highlight of the prime of Martin’s career. For some in golf, it is an episode not eagerly recalled. 

Martin was warmly greeted Monday by tournament officials, who showed him a strategic hole-by-hole route map for where he could ride his cart during the competition. He was assigned a cart caddie, someone who will helpfully bring the cart from an area near the green to the next tee while Martin is putting. 

Fans cheered him on the Olympic grounds, and the United States Golf Association hosted Martin for a standing-room-only news conference. 

“Everyone has been overly accommodating,” said Martin, now 40. “The controversy fades, and maybe because in some way, there is an appreciation. I’m just somebody trying to pursue his dreams like anybody else. I’m just trying to play this great game we all love.” 

That Martin was back at Olympic was a nearly magical confluence of diligence and destiny. Martin had not played in a bona fide golf competition for six years when he decided to enter the demanding qualifying process for this year’s United States Open. That the event was at Olympic was a motivating factor. 

But Martin, who became the golf coach at the University of Oregon shortly after he retired from professional golf in 2006, had almost no recent playing experience. 

Martin has Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, and while his right leg has not gotten drastically worse, it continues to be painful. He said Monday that 14 years ago he probably expected that his leg would be amputated by 2012. 

“But not playing the last six years has been a reprieve for my leg,” he said. “It’s not great, but it’s hanging in there.” 

In the qualifying last week, Martin shot back-to-back 69s, scores that were aided considerably in the second round when an errant tee shot that appeared lost was discovered all but hidden in mud just as Martin was heading back to the tee to hit again — with a penalty stroke. He clinched his United States Open spot by one stroke. 

“That is when I thought that something was going on here,” Martin said Monday. 

The time since has been a whirlwind with thousands of people sending their congratulations, including his former college teammate Tiger Woods, who posted online: “Simply incredible. Ability, attitude and guts. See you at Olympic, Casey.” 

Martin joked that it was not long after he qualified that he began to wonder what he had gotten himself into.
“I am very excited to be here,” he said. “But there is a borderline fear factor. 

“It’s a great challenge for anyone, let alone a disabled 40-year-old golf coach.” 

Looking back on his court case, which reached the United States Supreme Court, Martin says he rarely thinks of the negative reaction his stance attracted. 

“I try not to focus on it too much and I don’t take it personally,” he said. “I realize that there is another side to my story and people can certainly — we can agree to disagree. But there’s a lot of people that are pulling for me.” 

If Martin still feels stung by the overwhelming chorus of golf voices who lined up in dissent against him, he does not show it. 

“Life is too short for that,” he said. 

Instead, on Monday, Martin told stories about gambling games with Woods on the Stanford golf team and how Woods once had to give him a check for $192. Martin had a copy of it made, which his mother put in Casey’s scrapbook, and then he cashed it. He added that he might play a practice round with Woods on Tuesday and give him a chance to win his money back — or not. 

“I know that it’s tough to get that wallet out,” Martin said. “That’s what I’ve been told.” 

More than anything, Martin was clearly happy to be back, and with no regrets, even if his professional career never led to the PGA Tour victories or the on-course acclaim some in golf predicted for him. 

“I am here at 40,” he said. “Even though I’m not playing for a living, I’m still playing. So I am grateful for that.”

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Debut issue of new magazine for amputees now available to all online

From Amp It Up magazine:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The premiere issue of Amp It Up! - The Health & Lifestyle Magazine for Amputees Who Want to Live More Fully - is now available online at

“Amp It Up! magazine offers amputees important information on how to improve their health and prevent secondary conditions, including the amputation of a second limb,” said Rick Bowers, vice president of Eureka Custom Media ( and editor-in-chief of the new magazine. “And because one of the reasons people want to be healthy is so that they can enjoy all that life has to offer, Amp It Up! helps amputees accomplish that important goal as well.”

With rapid advances in the medical and prosthetic fields, the nearly 2 million amputees in the United States need to remain up-to-date and constantly learning. Amp It Up! intends to be an important source of current information relevant to this audience. It will help address both the significant lack of amputation-related information available and the inability of existing publications and organizations to reach more than a small percentage of amputees in the U.S. and worldwide.

The first issue of Amp It Up! includes information on how to “amp up” your life as an amputee, how to deal with “the amputee energy crisis,” how to acquire the appropriate prosthetic devices and pay for them, and how to deal with the “de-amping effect” of the mind. It also provides information on relevant books, camps, free recreational opportunities, and much more.

“Because many problems that amputees face can be alleviated by knowledge, access to relevant information is essential for this community,” Bowers said. “It would be a tragedy if such a simple and cost-effective method of changing lives were not available. This publication is certainly needed.”

With the support of readers, advertisers, sponsors, volunteers and contributors, the Eureka Custom Media team hopes to continually improve the magazine in the coming months.

“With this first publication, we have taken a giant step forward in partnership with the amputee community and hope to continue to build upon that relationship over the coming years,” said Michael Shannon, president of Eureka Custom Media and creative director of the magazine. “So that everyone can benefit from this publication, we have decided to post it online in its entirety free-of-charge.”

“Over time, we believe that Amp It Up! will become an important information resource, a far-reaching communication tool, and a highly effective community-building platform for amputees,” Bowers said. “We hope that amputees everywhere will consider it a valuable asset and will help us make it a huge success.”

“We encourage everyone to spread the word about this publication,” said Shannon. “Tell your support group about it. Send it to your friends. Share it via Facebook and other social media. That is the best way to help it grow.”

University of Houston students develop portable sign-language translator

From University of Houston in Texas:

Sign Language is definitely a boon to deaf people when it comes to communicating with each other, or with non-deaf people who are trained in the system. If a hearing person doesn’t regularly deal with the deaf, however, then there's an obvious communication barrier. In order to address that situation, a group of engineering technology and industrial design students from the University of Houston have created MyVoice – a prototype American Sign Language (ASL) translator.

MyVoice is a portable device that incorporates a microphone, speaker, soundboard, video camera and monitor. The idea is that it would be propped up on a hard level surface, where it would use its camera to “read” the hand gestures of a deaf person. A microprocessor would recognize the individual signs, and would then audibly “say” the message to the hearing person via the soundboard and speaker.

Conversely, it could also listen to a message spoken by a hearing person, which it would then translate into a series of images of ASL hand signs, displayed on its screen. In this way, it could be used by both deaf and non-deaf people, to understand one another.

So far, it is only capable of translating the phrase “A good job, Cougars.” Even that was a lot of work, as each of the signs in that phrase consisted of 200 to 300 images that had to be recognized and/or reproduced. It was enough, however, to win the device first place among student projects at the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) - Gulf Southwest Annual Conference.

Although the students have since graduated, it is hoped that work will continue on my MyVoice. “We got it to work, but we hope to work with someone to implement this as a product,” said team member Sergio Aleman. “We want to prove to the community that this will work.”

An already-existing product known as the AcceleGlove works as a one-way deaf-to-hearing translator. It uses built-in accelerometers to determine the signs being formed by the wearer’s hand, and expresses those in written text or spoken words.

Service dogs ignite debate across U.S. Army posts

From the Killeen Daily Herald in Texas:

Fort Hood, along with other posts across the country, has become a battleground in an Army-wide debate on what constitutes a service dog and who needs one.

Soldiers within the 1st Cavalry Division received a counseling statement last month that prohibits most from bringing service dogs to work. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder were particularly disappointed about the announcement.

"We're just trying to fight this because we're really confused," said Spc. Andrew Malsack of the division's 1st Brigade (pictured), which includes four other soldiers with health care provider-prescribed service dogs. "We're trying to consolidate different recommendations from our doctors and get sworn statements from our chain of command who have been around us long enough to see the improvements we've made getting the service dogs."

But the service dog issue is a complex one, with some describing it as a nexus of competing interests that involve medical care, civil rights and illegitimate service dog organizations looking to capitalize on a booming trend.

The division's counseling statement, however, does echo new Army guidelines issued in late January after a boy was mauled to death by a service dog at a home near Fort Campbell, Ky.

Before the Army's directive, military service dogs were governed by the same regulations as civilian service dogs — those within the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act defines a service dog as one individually trained to work or provide tasks for a person with disabilities, including psychiatric ones.

The new Army policy also requires that soldiers obtain a prescription for the dog from a primary care provider. Their dogs must be on their permanent medical profiles, and their dogs must have accreditation from Assistance Dogs International partner organizations.

In April, Fort Bliss released an even more restrictive policy on service dogs. The El Paso post requires service dogs as a treatment of "last resort," after all other options have been exhausted. With 25 service dogs, the Southwest Texas post has the highest concentration in the Army, according to post officials.

Fort Hood officials said they are considering drafting their own policy, too.

Helping soldiers

Malsack, 25, was diagnosed with PTSD by Fort Hood health care providers following a 2009-2010 deployment to Iraq. His job was to help clear roads of dangers to U.S. troops. Since getting his service dog, a Great Dane-Dutch shepherd mix named Cosmo, during the winter, the soldier said his anger and anxiety have declined significantly.

His wife, Axli, agreed. "The biggest thing before (Cosmo) was this high level of irritability," she said, in addition to paranoia about new people — even neighbors. "He was drinking quite a bit, too, and all those things have cut back 90 percent since he's had Cosmo."

Sgt. Kristina Alonzo, a soldier in Malsack's unit who served as a combat medic in Iraq, said she benefited equally as much from her dog, an American bulldog named Tara.

"I have really bad anxiety, so she's really good about nudging me and getting me to rub her ears," said Alonzo, 28. "And when I'm standing in line, she sits down facing backward to make sure nobody's coming up behind me."

Malsack, Alonzo and other soldiers said their mental health care providers authorized their dogs for temporary periods that have since expired, and the health providers now say they were not authorized to permanently write dogs into their profiles.

In the January memo, the Army defines "service dogs" as typically being assigned to patients for life. By contrast, "therapy dogs" spend short amounts of therapeutic time with soldiers but don't live with them and remain the property of the military treatment facility.

Although Alonzo and Malsack said the sights and sounds of Fort Hood can trigger their medical conditions, both soldiers have left their dogs at home since the division's announcement. According to the division's counseling statement, only soldiers with recommendations for service dogs written into their permanent profiles can bring them onto post, and those dogs must be accredited by Assistance Dogs International.

The accrediting body's minimum standards mandate that a service dog perform at least three tasks to mitigate the veteran's disability and receive six months of follow-up contact after placement. Application and accreditation fees cost more than $1,100.

Growing interest

Although the service dog concept stretches back at least a century, canines that serve people with PTSD got a poster "dog" in 2011 with the publication of the best-selling book, "Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him," by Luis Carlos Montalvan. The memoir tells of the former Army captain's downward spiral following four combat tours — until he met the dog, Tuesday.

Nowadays interest in PTSD dogs for active-duty troops is skyrocketing, and there's no doubt they make a difference, said Ed Lesofski, a Montana-based activist and consultant for service dogs for veterans.

Lesofski, a Navy veteran who used a service dog for PTSD, said his favorite story about the dogs' usefulness happened around Christmas — normally a difficult time for wounded veterans. An agoraphobic veteran's wife called him, sobbing. He was worried that either the veteran or his new service dog had died. Then the woman's next muffled phrase was: "He bought me a bathrobe."

"(The veteran) went to Walmart in the middle of the night, him and the dog, and bought it," said Lesofski, adding that the shopping venture signaled progress.

Because the dogs can have such a profound impact, Lesofski said it's dangerous for the Army to prohibit active-duty troops from using them during the day. He added that philosophical questions also have risen over the Army overriding ADA regulations, which he called "the law of the land" — and which still applies to civilians working on Army posts.

Certification issue

Another problem, said Lesofski, is the Army's sudden stipulation that dogs come from organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International. The rule dramatically decreases the number of dogs eligible for access to posts.

In Texas, there are only three ADI-accredited organizations, and all focus on mobility assistance — dogs for civilians and veterans with physical disabilities — over PTSD dogs.

Bart Sherwood, owner of San Antonio-based Train a Dog, Save a Warrior, said he'd opted not to become ADI-certified because he trains dogs — usually dogs rescued from shelters — to a wounded warrior's needs, and the accrediting group doesn't differentiate between mobility and psychiatric assistance dogs, thus PTSD-specific dogs might not need to train for the same length of time or in the same manner.

"If a dog drops out of the (seeing-eye) dog school training program, he may be preferable for PTSD," said Sherwood. "You've got to gauge it on the warrior. Sometimes a goofy dog with personality (will work because) that's what makes a warrior laugh."

ADI-North America President Corey Hudson, CEO of the California-based Canine Companions for Independence, said in an emailed statement that the accrediting group was fine-tuning new standards for PTSD dogs and was preparing to release them next month.

Both Malsack's and Alonzo's dogs were trained by Sherwood's organization, a nonprofit that doesn't charge soldiers for their dogs.

More training dogs

The wait-time for a PTSD service dog is long, and the short supply and high demand has longtime trainers reporting that more organizations are entering the specialized field and some are less than reputable.

Rockwall-based Patriot Paws owner Lori Stevens said she's working with a veteran in California who was charged $10,000 for an untrained puppy by an organization in that state. "He was a 9-month-old doodle, and the (veteran's) doctor said, 'Get rid of it, it's too much for you,'" said Stevens, adding that service dogs should never be placed before 18 months.

Stevens' nonprofit organization places service dogs with wounded veterans without charging them. The canines often are trained by female inmates at the Texas Department of Correctional Justice facility in Gatesville.

Locally, Spc. Jamika James of Fort Hood's Warrior Transition Brigade said she was temporarily authorized a service dog by Fort Hood clinicians for PTSD and sought one through Great Woof Lodge and Doggie Day Camp, which opened last year in Killeen.

James, 30, said after she signed a contract, Great Woof staffers told her she would be charged $550 for her dog, a medium-sized female mixed-breed named Chance.

Although James said she wants to keep Chance, the dog was not trained as a service dog before it was released into her care. She said Chance urinates when she's scared, and James thinks the dog was abused before she was relinquished to a shelter and adopted by Great Woof.

James said because she missed ongoing training classes due to work and has an outstanding bill, Great Woof has threatened to take Chance back. "It's not right," she said. "I love this dog. I'm not giving it back."

Great Woof Lodge did not return calls for comment.

Questioning need

Besides quality training concerns, there are increasing questions about the proliferating need for service dogs.

While some soldiers legitimately need assistance from dogs, others may use them as an excuse to get out of mandatory duties such as physical training, said James Hamm, owner of LoneStar Dog Trainer and a command sergeant major with the 1st Cavalry Division.

Lesofski agreed with Hamm: "Some fake it," he said. "We all know that."

Hamm, a longtime dog trainer, said soldiers who need service dogs have been transferred to the Warrior Transition Brigade to seek assistance in getting one.

But within deployable Army units, he added, the service-dog bug can spread.

At Fort Hood, most of the service dogs are within Malsack's and Alonzo's brigade. Alonzo's husband also has a dog.

The three soldiers are being medically retired from the Army and only want to take their dogs to work until that process — which can take up to a year — is complete.

Kristina Alonzo said being barred from her dog during the day demonstrated a lack of understanding of PTSD. She added that soldiers on medication for PTSD aren't told to leave that at home during the day.

"They don't take into consideration our problems," she said, "We're so attached to our dogs and rely on them so much."

Army reviewing issue

Despite the controversy surrounding military service dogs, the issue isn't going away anytime soon.

Col. Bob Walters, director of the Defense Department's Veterinary Service Activity, was at Fort Hood Thursday to discuss service dog policy with post officials, according to the department. He was at Fort Bliss earlier in the week for the same reason. Details about the meeting were not available from Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center.

Sherwood said he'd attended a May 1 summit on the service dog issue in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the U.S. Army Medical Command.

He also said he was consulted by III Corps prior to the Thursday meeting. Army officials are considering developing a program to validate the dogs. Sherwood said the idea might help the military's supply-demand problem.

He recommended a temporary duty assignment model, in which those soldiers who need service dogs report to a central location for a period of at least three months to meet, train and take home military-certified service dogs.

The Department of Veterans Affairs might be exploring this option already. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has proposed successful legislation that funded the VA to explore creating a partnership with nonprofit service dog organizations.

Despite the immediate need for more service dogs, Stevens said soldiers should approach training organizations with caution, and that it is worth the wait for the right dog. Service dogs, she added, cannot be mass produced.

"My biggest fear is that somebody won't do it right," she said. "Something bad is going to happen, and we're all going to pay for it."

Saturday, June 9, 2012

'Little People, Big World' sneak peek: The Roloffs celebrate Amy's 50th birthday in June 10 show

From zap2it:

While "Little People, Big World" star Matt Roloff had a giant party for his 50th birthday, the family is thinking about something a little more intimate for mom Amy's milestone.

The latest TLC special about the Roloff family focuses on the celebration of Matt and Amy's 25th wedding anniversary and Amy's big birthday.

In this exclusive Zap2it First clip, Matt and his kids try to plan a birthday surprise for Amy's 50th birthday. "You have to come up with something you don't want to do," says son Zach, suggesting something a little more daring than Matt would usually pick.

"It doesn't matter what I do as long as I participate," asks Matt. Pretty much. Check out the clip below.

The "Little People, Big World" special airs Sunday, June 10 at 8 p.m. on TLC.

European Union report says disability rights 'not being respected'


A new report says that discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities and people with mental health problems "persists" throughout Europe.

The report, by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), said this is the case despite the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) by the EU and 21 member states.

The FRA says the report "captures the experiences of exclusion and discrimination" of people with intellectual disabilities or mental health problems.

The agency says it "highlights the need to move from institutional to community-based living arrangements and to "reformulate" laws and policies to make them "more inclusive".

FRA director Morten Kjaerum said, "Much still remains to be done to realise the rights of Europe's 80 million people with disabilities.

"The UN convention sets out an ambitious path to improve the situation of people with disabilities. The challenge now is to implement it.

"FRA's research illustrates that the fundamental rights of people with disabilities are lagging behind legal guarantees, particularly as austerity measures begin to bite.

"This work provides the basis for discussions of practical measures that will make a difference to their daily lives."

The FRA looked into the experiences of independent living of people with intellectual disabilities and people with mental health problems in nine member states.

It found that they often face difficulties in their daily lives, including laws and policies that do not enable people with disabilities to live independently.

Another problem was "negative attitudes and prejudice that do not recognise the contribution people with disabilities make".

Kjaerum added, "The report shows that for independent living to be successful, deinstitutionalisation needs to be coupled with social policy reform in education, healthcare, employment and personal support options.

"People with disabilities have to be involved in the development of these policies."

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Blind cook's competitive spirit burns on Gordon Ramsay's 'MasterChef'

From The Houston Chronicle:

When chef Gordon Ramsay gets angry - and he always does - his face turns crimson, the lines in his forehead triple and the muscles in his neck jut like the bones of a crown roast.

But menacing expressions alone won't intimidate contestant Christine Ha (pictured), the first blind contestant to compete on Ramsay's "MasterChef" series. The 33-year-old Houstonian lost her vision at 19 to a rare autoimmune disease called Neuromyelitis optica.

Ha distinguished herself from among the nearly 30,000 aspiring chefs who auditioned for season three of the Fox show, earning a spot among the top 100 that will be winnowed down to 36 over the course of the two-day premiere Monday and Tuesday. Finalists compete for a $250,000 grand prize.

"I'm always one to take on challenges. I like to push myself to see how far I can get in life. It's just my personality," said Ha, a graduate of Alief Elsik High School who is now pursuing a master's degree in creative writing at the University of Houston.

Ha described her tryout as beyond intense.

"I have never been so nervous in my life. Even on my wedding day I wasn't as nervous," she said. "My stomach was turning."

But she made the cut that got her on TV with the chance to show her cooking chops.

For her audition she prepared braised catfish in a clay pot, a favorite dish from the Vietnamese cuisine she grew up eating.

"My mother is my culinary inspiration. I was an only child and she was a very good cook. When you grow up like that you take it for granted. You think everyone eats like that."

Ha said she regrets that she didn't learn recipes from her mother, who passed away when Ha was 14. Her father, an electrical designer, retired and moved back to Vietnam around the time Ha was auditioning for the show.
Still, Ha said she had long been interested in cooking. She considered culinary school but instead opted for an undergraduate degree in finance and management information systems from the University of Texas at Austin.

That didn't stop her from learning to be a good cook, though. She enjoys cooking for her husband and friends, and says her repertoire of dishes is "comfort food" - "I like the things that are down home and people grew up eating."

So how does she work a kitchen without the benefit of sight?

"It takes a lot of organization. It helps to know where everything is and how the kitchen is laid out," she said, adding that tools such as talking scales and talking thermometers assist the vision impaired.

She also relies on her other senses to direct her: the sound of water sizzling in a pan to know if it's hot enough for meat; the fragrant smell of garlic cooking to catch it before it turns bitter.

Can she cook completely unassisted? "Yes, I can. Maybe it will take me a little longer than a sighted person, but yes, I can."

It's that can-do spirit that might prove beneficial to Ha as she tries to prove herself to Ramsay and his fellow judges.