Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sochi isn't fully equipped to accommodate athletes with disabilities for Paralympics

From The AP. In the picture, a door frame raised from the floor lies across an entrance to wheelchair seating at the Bolshoy Ice Dome at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

SOCHI, Russia — After $51 billion, it should be easy to get around at the Olympics — for everyone.
Organizers have repeatedly touted accessibility for people with disabilities as one of the chief lasting benefits of hosting the Winter Games in Sochi. But with less than three weeks until the Paralympics, infrastructure around Olympic Park and its venues are not entirely barrier-free.

Wheelchair access ramps at Laura Cross-country Ski & Biathlon Center aren't easily visible, while stairs for walking access are steep and icy. Door frames raised from the floor are all over the venues, including doorways leading into lower seating areas and wheelchair seating at Bolshoy Ice Dome.

Wheelchair lifts at some of the hotels being used for the games only work on one side of the stairs — and instructions are provided only in English. One trailer with two restrooms for people with disabilities outside the Iceberg Skating Palace doubles as a storage closet, filled with janitorial supplies and a large trash can.
As the world saw when the Olympics opened Feb. 7, not everything is finished or polished — there are certainly hurdles for people with disabilities.

Nearly 1,500 athletes are coming to the Paralympics right after the Olympics. It's a much smaller scale than the games happening now, but in a country that's never hosted the Paralympics before. Despite preparations for years, issues remain for an infrastructure that won't be fully tested until athletes from the 43 countries and their supporters arrive. The Paralympics, starting March 7, include 72 events in fives sports over 10 days.
Ahead of that, people strolling around Olympic Park with wheelchairs, walking sticks, crutches or other aids have been difficult to find during the Sochi Games. Walkways are often blocked by cable protectors that create awkward bumps 5 or 6 inches off the ground. In many places, ramps are simple sheets of thin plywood, not always flush with the ground and almost always added on to the structures they connect rather than being built in during initial construction.

Arly Velasquez, an Alpine ski Paralympian for Mexico and analyst for Claro Sports, said buses are accessible to those in wheelchairs but drivers frequently don't know how to use the lifts, forcing him to either demonstrate himself or wait for another bus. And when he arrived at his hotel one night, the wheelchair lift leading to his room wasn't working, so he had to improvise by strapping himself to his chair with a belt, he said.

"I just put my computer on the top of the stairs," he said, "and I just climbed with the hands."
Craig Spence, spokesman for the International Paralympics Committee, said the problems "are totally relevant but hopefully they'll be ironed out before the Paralympics start."

All venues for the games and infrastructure have been built in accordance with an IPC accessibility guide, he said. The issues themselves, Spence said, are a sign of how far Russia has come since winning the games seven years ago.

"That the lift is there in the first place ... is a step in the right direction," Spence said.

A smooth run is key to long-term plans for the games to encourage more access for people with disabilities throughout Russia. The last time the nation hosted the Olympics in 1980, it refused to stage the Paralympics, saying the country did not have people with disabilities.

Evgeniy Bukharov, head of the Paralympic Integration Department for the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, said he is confident the venues and the athletes' villages are fully accessible for athletes, spectators and families. Organizers plan to transition from the current games to the Paralympics by adding more seating capacity, transportation and pathways for people with disabilities, he says.

Organizers have been trying to work with developers, construction companies and fire officials, among others, to prioritize accessibility issues while meeting their needs. Raised door frames, for example, are required in some areas by fire officials so air can't get under the door, he said.

Bukharov said bus drivers for the games were hired relatively last-minute but will train more for the Paralympics on using lifts on buses.

"I hope that these games will be very convenient for people with disabilities, particularly for athletes, because everything was built to create a good atmosphere to support them to achieve that (high) level in competition," Bukharov said.

Russian officials have made an effort in recent years to make transport and public buildings accessible to people with disabilities. Some metro stations have lifts or ramps for people in wheelchairs but the application is scattered. Public buses are built low to the ground, but often have no lifts and are therefore not accessible to people with disabilities traveling without assistance.
As recently as September, a Human Rights Watch report said the more than 13 million people with disabilities in Russia have significant barriers in trying to go about daily life. As a result, they rarely leave home.

Disability rights researcher Andrea Mazzarino, who wrote the report, said people in Russia generally want to help those with disabilities but often suggest personal help rather than infrastructure changes that would allow people with impediments to get around on their own. "It sort of reflects this idea that it's not important and it's not expedient to allow people to use public services independently."

The IPC did an audit of the Sochi venues in January, Spence says, and it plans to assess the situation on the ground at the venues when staff begin to arrive Friday, suggesting changes as needed. "We're not expecting too many surprises," he said.
But he acknowledged that the biggest test of any infrastructure comes when people using it arrive. And, he said, guests shouldn't have the same expectations outside of Olympic Park, despite the strides Russia has made.

"Outside the venues, there will be some issues," he said. "You can't change an entire city in the seven years that you go from winning the games to hosting the games."

Hundreds of buses with disability access used around Olympic venues, for example, are expected to be put to use around the country after the games end, Spence said.

But Mazzarino said Russians haven't seen improvements so far. "Residents outside the tourist zone have not benefited significantly," she said.

Officials for several national Paralympic organizations declined comment, saying they would get impressions of Sochi on site when they arrived. Tiina Kivisaari, secretary general of Finland's Paralympic Committee, said the country's staff and athletes didn't notice any serious problems during visits over the last year, but almost everything was under construction.
"From our Olympic team, we have heard that there's been some problems, e.g., with elevators, but we still trust and hope that villages, venues, etc., will be accessible when (the) Paralympic Games start," she said in an email.

Things visually look accessible in Sochi, but aren't as practical as they seem, Velasquez said. He said he's been able to make things work, navigating ramps that lead to dead ends or stairs and doing wheelies to get over cable protectors.

"I can do that, but not all of the wheelchair users can do it," Velasquez said. "I can do it because I am an athlete and also because this chair is very good, but not all of the people will have this kind of wheelchair."
Athletes, he said, want to be independent.

"More than anything, you're just looking to do things by yourself," Velasquez said. "You don't strive to be depending on someone else because it just takes time and just takes someone to be there."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Disability moving into the spotlight as companies embrace inclusion in their advertising, marketing

From Chicago Special Parent. In the picture, Grace Driscoll was part of a photo shoot for the Infantino and Step 2 campaign "Everybody Plays."

When retail giants Target and Nordstrom opted to include children with Down syndrome in their print advertising, marketing pros suggested the corporations were savvy, tapping into an audience of 53 million who collectively control $200 million in annual buying power.

Others suggested it was a risky move that ultimately benefited the corporate giants while enhancing the profile of children with disabilities.

Both corporations made the move in favor of inclusion in 2012 without calling attention to it. It was the special needs community that quickly sat up and took notice. Blogs lit up with the news that, after years of being excluded, the walls corporate America had built were finally-and notably-coming down.

Just as quickly, questions surfaced whether the practice could be seen as exploitative or as pandering to an audience advertisers had long ignored.

It was a theory that never gained traction.

Those who work to promote inclusion are pleased with what they have seen so far, and would like to see it expand to include other companies and even greater exposure.

Toys 'R' Us followed the lead of Target and Nordstrom, taking it a step farther when they produced a toy guide for differently abled kids in 2013 using the children as models that the toys were designed to help.
Late last year, Hollywood actress Tori Spelling-with her Little Maven clothing line-became the first high-profile boutique children's wear company to declare inclusion the standard.

Advocates say these corporate decisions are validation of just how important special needs families are in society today while providing another venue to mainstream children with special needs.

"We have noticed what we believe is becoming a trend toward inclusion, not only in advertising, but also in television on shows, like Glee which has a teen with Down syndrome in a recurring role, and in films," says Ann Garcia, family support coordinator at the metro Chicago-based National Association for Down Syndrome.

Lauren Potter plays Becky Jackson, the co-captain of the Cheerios on the popular program and is one of four individuals with Down syndrome who have been cast in roles on the show.

"It is gratifying that after more than 50 years of advocating for children with Down syndrome we are seeing our efforts continue to bear fruit," Garcia says. "These corporate entities no longer believe that having a child with Down syndrome in their advertising is risky. They ... are beginning to take notice of the many gifted individuals, who happen to have Down syndrome."

Increasingly, Garcia says organizations such as NADS receive calls from unexpected arenas-such as textbook publishers looking for models-and take note.

"This movement is gathering momentum because of people, such as Prince William and Kate Middleton, as well as others who are making conscious decisions that positively influence public thought," she says.

Although the royal couple typically shun gifts, they gratefully accepted a painting of Rupert the Flying Bear, painted by Tazia Fawley, an adult with Down syndrome in England, in honor of the birth of Prince George. The move was seen as significant in helping reverse the stigma that has historically followed those with the disability in that country.

As a professional working with the Down syndrome community and a parent with a teen daughter with the chromosomal abnormality, Linda Smarto sees the benefits of corporate inclusion from a host of vantage points.

In her role as program coordinator for NADS, Smarto's job is to champion Chicago's Down syndrome community.

"Every time we see an individual with Down syndrome featured alongside what are considered traditional models, it becomes easier for the next child and the child after that," she says. "Our kids are building on those successes and doing things today people would never have imagined even 10 or 20 years ago."

Inclusion has provided Smarto's daughter, Julia, with dreams that have expanded her horizons, giving her the courage to aspire to do anything other teens her age are doing.

"My daughter performs as part of a dance troupe with other girls who want to raise the bar, to show the community what teens with Down syndrome can do," she says. "... These girls... perform at venues, such as Great America and in retirement homes or at the mall, just like other girls their age."

That point of having the opportunity to be like any other child is one Smarto drives home whenever she talks about the importance of inclusion, of giving every child the opportunity to live up to their abilities and realize their dreams.

It is a dream parents are learning they can have as soon as they have a child who has been born with Down syndrome.

"Every time someone opens a magazine or sees a commercial that includes children from the Down syndrome community, it builds awareness," Smarto says. "That helps make it less scary for parents with newborns because they have seen the beautiful faces of people with disabilities who are out there leading wonderful and fulfilling lives, the kind of lives they dreamed of for their child before they knew they had Down syndrome."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

U.S. Paralympic sled team special debuts on PBS Feb. 24


The 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team will be the focus of a one-hour documentary entitled "Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey" that will debut Monday at 10 p.m. ET on PBS.

The 2014 Sochi Paralympics will begin March 7 at Shayba Arena in Sochi. The United States is coached by former University of Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer, who is in his third season with the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.

The PBS program follows the 17-member United States sled hockey team across North America as it prepares to defend the gold medal it won at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics. The program will profile the accomplishments and determination of each individual on and off the ice.

The documentary also will be available online in its entirety beginning Feb. 25.

All U.S. games will be streamed live at NBC and NBC Sports Network will also have Paralympics coverage. The U.S. begins play March 8 against Italy at 7:30 a.m. ET. The gold-medal game is scheduled March 15 at Noon ET.

The U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team currently is training at Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail, N.C., through Feb. 22. Final preparation for the Paralympics will take place in Colorado Springs, Colo., with Team USA holding practices Feb. 26-27 before leaving for Sochi on Feb. 28.

There are seven returning players from the 2010 U.S. squad that captured the gold medal in Vancouver, including goalie Steve Cash, who was named the top player at his position four years ago after not allowing a goal in five games. Additional returnees include defensemen Taylor Chace, Nikko Landeros and Andy Yohe, and forwards Taylor Lipsett, Adam Page, Josh Pauls and Greg Shaw. Cash, Chace, Lipsett and Yohe also earned bronze medals at the 2006 Turin Paralympics.

The youngest player on the roster is Brody Roybal, who turned 15 in May and will be making his U.S. National Team debut. Yohe, 35, is the oldest player and will serve as the team's captain. Four members of the team currently serve or have served in the U.S. military -- Jen Lee is on active duty with the Army, Rico Roman is an Army veteran and Paul Schaus and Josh Sweeney served in the Marine Corps.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

New York Fashion Week features first-ever wheelchair-using model

From Women eNews:

NEW YORK --The fashion industry is coming under steady pressure to widen the spectrum of beauty ideals.

Ad campaigns have called out unrealistic beauty standards, major department stores are adding plus-size mannequins and New York's recent child model laws are designed to protect all models under the age of 18 from exploitation.

But there's still plenty of room for more inclusion, said Danielle Sheypuk, Ms. Wheelchair New York 2012.
"People with disabilities are an untapped consumer market in terms of fashion," said Sheypuk, a clinical psychologist in New York. "We read the magazines, shop in stores, but nothing is ever pitched to us."

On Feb. 6, the first day of New York Fashion Week, which ends Feb. 13, one designer in particular seemed to understand. Carrie Hammer decided to shake things up and feature Sheypuk (pictured) as the first person to "walk" the runway in a wheelchair.

"I made the decision to cast 'role models not runway models,'" Hammer said in an email interview. "It is so important to me that women have positive body image and are empowered in work and their life. My line makes dresses to fit women. We don't make dresses that women need to fit into."

Sheypuk, who has used a wheel chair since age 2, said she has a longstanding interest in designer clothing. But there was always something missing: enough role models. "People with disabilities need to see it. It's a confidence booster. It's like, 'if she's doing it, I can do it. Who cares about my wheelchair?'"
Hammer said during her show everyone had "chills" and "left very empowered."

Sheypuk said she was thrilled to be on the runway and felt natural and confident. "I was just another model in a show, and that's exactly what I wanted."

Sheypuk has more fashion-world engagements ahead. She is currently involved in the Raw Beauty Project, where high-profile photographers are shooting sexually alluring images of women with disabilities. The project can be seen online and will be exhibited in a Manhattan gallery in the spring.

Others Follow Trend
Other designers are also starting to reach out to people who love shopping and fashion, but feel excluded.
On Feb. 9 DKNY also used "real people" on the runway alongside professional models.

And in January, Diesel, the Italian ready-to-wear design company, rocked the industry with its "We Are Connected" campaign, featuring 26-year-old Jillian Mercado in one ad.

"Just because we have a disability doesn't mean we have to stay home and hide away from the world," said Mercado, executive editorial director of WeTheUrban Magazine, a fashion magazine based in New York.
Mercado, who was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy at age 12, has also loved fashion since a young age. "I wanted to be in the fashion industry before even knowing what the fashion industry was," she said.

Mercado, who uses a wheelchair, attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, earning a degree in fashion merchandising management. "It kinda blows my mind that when I first started [in the industry] I didn't have anyone to look up to and model after," she said.

'Blessing in Disguise'
Mercado said her time in the spotlight of the Diesel ad was a "blessing in disguise."

At first she was scared and "prepared for the worst" from people who "sit behind computers" and troll the Internet spraying abusive comments. However, after the ad ran she found an inspiring outpouring of support. "Now that I have this opportunity, that the spotlight is on me, I have the obligation to tell the world there are people like me," she said.

Mercado said the Diesel ad is just the beginning. "Look out," she said. "This not going not be five minutes of fame. The world is going to see more of me."

The push to diversify role models is showing up in a variety of media.

In September 2013, beer giant Guinness featured a group of men in wheelchairs in one of their commercials.
A couple of months later, for the United Nations' International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the advocacy group Pro Infirmis teamed up with Bahnhofstrasse (the upscale shopping street in Zurich, Switzerland) to display mannequins who were modeled on real-life people with disabilities. An emotional video of each person seeing him/herself as a mannequin in an actual store window quickly went viral.

"The fashion industry was a hard nut to crack . . . but I think there is progress," Sheypuk said, referring to the growing celebration of diverse ethnicities, sizes and shapes. "It's just time to include people with disabilities. It's 2014."

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

FCC draft does not mandate penalties for cable operators, broadcasters who don't comply with closed-captioning rules

From Broadcasting & Cable:

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has teed up a vote on a three-part closed-captioning item that will require cable operators and broadcasters to make best efforts to improve their closed captions, but as currently constituted it will not propose fines or include specific standards, as some disability groups had sought, and will defer some tougher calls to the further notice.

The new rules go into effect Jan. 1, 2015.

A new draft is expected this week reflecting possible commissioner and general counsel office tweaks, but sources inside and outside the FCC were not looking for drastic changes.

According to sources familiar with the item, which is on the agenda for the FCC's Feb. 20 meeting, it is still a moving target—as one cable lobbyist put it—and could well change by a second draft, expected sometime next week. But an FCC source said the change would likely not make the requirements more stringent.

‘Last’ Russian orphan, who has spina bifida, blossoms in U.S. home

From ABC News:

MOSCOW – What a difference a year makes. And love and care, too.

Last January, Polina Skaggs (pictured) was a 5-year-old Russian orphan with spina bifida caught in a geopolitical minefield.

After Russia cut off adoptions to the United States in December 2012, her adoption by an American family, already approved by the Russian government, was upended. For weeks it was unclear whether she would be allowed to leave the country. Finally, she was one of the last, if not the last, Russian orphan to be allowed out.

In her orphanage in the town of Dmitrov, about 45 miles outside Moscow, she was dismissed as an “invalid.” The stigma of disabilities in Russia that likely landed her there often left her isolated and ignored by caregivers. Two broken legs went untreated.

Today, Polina is thriving. She has friends and goes to school in her new home in Arkansas. Her development is now on track.

“The change in her body, in her skin, and her hair, the thickness of her hair, is just incredible. Just how much healthier she is just based on nutrition and being with a family,” her adoptive mother Kendra Skaggs said. “It makes all the hard times worth it.”

And they were very hard times in the beginning. Polina threw tantrums nearly every day.

“She had self-mutilating behaviors. She, especially at bedtime, would bite herself, spit, kick, rip my necklaces off. Just very difficult transition times and attachment issues,” Kendra recalled. “She was really just trying to pass on the pain that she felt inside of her to me.”

But things gradually got easier.

“It was a good 10 months at home before she finally accepted that she’s going to be here forever and it’s OK to become attached to these people and they aren’t going to abandon me,” Kendra said. “Now it seems like she has always been in our family.”

A year after arriving in America Polina now speaks nearly perfect English. The Skaggs tried to keep up Polina’s Russian language skills, but it became too difficult during the transition. Now that things are easier they are taking her to Russian classes twice a month. The Skaggs have also added some Russian recipes to the family cookbook (even though Polina now requests pizza, chocolate and cheese at every meal).

She still talks about her time at the orphanage, but makes it clear she does not want to go back.

In August she had surgery to repair her club foot and last week she went under the knife again to repair damage to her legs after those broken bones went untreated for so long.

Kendra Skaggs is a special education teacher and recognizes that Polina is one of the lucky ones. She has founded a group called Polina’s Promise to bring professional therapists from abroad to train Russian caregivers and families on how to deal with children with special needs. With adoptions still banned, she sees it as the only way to help those orphans with disabilities left behind. Many wallow in facilities ill-equipped to deal with their special needs.

“I just feel like I owe that community something,” Kendra said. The group’s first trip to Russia is scheduled for June.

“We really want to change the stigma and let Russian people know that it’s a huge challenge to have a kid like this in Russia, but you can do it and this is what it’ll do for the child and this is how the child will change your world. For as much as we have changed Polina’s world, she has changed our world.”

As for Polina, she sailed through her latest surgery and is looking ahead to the summer when she’ll go to camp for the first time. She’ll also attend a spina bifida convention at Disney Land in California and hopes to go surfing with an organization called Life Rolls On. She rolled a 5K race (with mom pushing most of the way) on New Year’s day and wants to do more.

Kendra does not rule out Polina walking one day.

“She could walk with walking canes and bracing. She’s pretty determined,” she said.
And after that?

“She’s going to do something. I have no idea what it is,” Kendra said.

Oh, and one more thing. She wants a sister.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Popular British TV show, 'Call the Midwife,' to feature storyline about disabled couple falling in love, having a baby

From The Mirror in the UK:

It will be Call The Midwife’s most controversial storyline yet – and one of its most heartbreaking.
Next Sunday more than 9million viewers will see how a romance between a disabled man and woman, and the baby it produces, causes disgust in 1950s London.

The couple, who live in an institution, are immediately separated from each other. And the love between Jacob Milligan, who has cerebral palsy, and ­pregnant Sally Harper, who has Down's Syndrome, is branded unnatural.

The discomforting plot, inspired by writer Heidi Thomas’ personal ­experiences, will shatter the usual easy, heartwarming pace of the BBC show.

And today the disabled actor and actress at the centre of it reveal how, even in our supposedly more ­enlightened times, there is still discrimination to overcome.

But in an uplifting interview, Sarah Gordy and Colin Young say their roles in the hit series have left them grateful they were not born in post-war Britain.

“It made me feel such anger when I read the script,” says Sarah, who has Down' Syndrome. “Back then people did not want to admit they had a disabled person in the family. They would say it was ‘bad blood’.
“I know how lucky I am because I’m not institutionalised like they were then. I live with my family in Sussex. I do my acting and I work as a Mencap ambassador.

“I get to have my own life and I don’t see myself as different from anyone else. In those days they were treated as though they were incapable of making their own decisions – even when it came to relationships.”
Sally falls in love with Jacob, played by Colin Young, after both are sent to an institution by their parents. Jacob is ridiculed by Sally’s mother and father for getting her pregnant.

And Scottish actor Colin, 27, says he knows just what it feels like to be judged by strangers.

Colin, who grew up with cerebral palsy in Edinburgh, recalls: “When I was six I was walking down the street with Dad and someone shouted, ‘why would you bring someone like that out with you?’

“My dad told him: ‘He’s actually my son’. I remember things like that because they’re hurtful.

“But I went to a mainstream primary school and spent a few years at a secondary and I wasn’t bullied there.
“It was hard because I had to watch from the sidelines as people played sport. I wasn’t included in everything, but I’ve always strived for my ­independence.

“It’s what I value most in life. As a kid, I never realised how hard it would actually be to achieve. Just getting the support and practical things I need to live independently takes a lot of patience. But it’s what I always strived for.”

Old-fashioned attitudes towards sexual ­relationships between disabled people have moved on, but Colin says it’s still not an easy subject matter.

That’s why both he and Sarah, 25, are glad Call The Midwife’s writer Heidi Thomas was keen to tackle such a difficult love story after ­experiencing disability first-hand when her late brother was born with Down’s Syndrome in 1970.

And they have called on other TV shows to tackle similarly sensitive issues – to help end discrimination for good.

Colin says: “Heidi told me she wanted to write this episode for a long time.

“She wanted to express the difficulty of disabled people wanting to find love. I would say attitudes are still similar towards sex now.

“I’d like to find a partner and have a family of my own one day. My relationships have mostly been with other disabled people, because I've found there’s often a kind of mutual understanding of life but it all depends on the person.”

Sarah says that unlike Sally she has no desire to fall pregnant.

She denies it has anything to do with her Down’s Syndrome – a genetic disorder affecting around 1 in 1,000 babies in the UK.

She says filming her pregnancy scenes was made easy by “warm and friendly” Miranda Hart (Chummy Noakes) and Bryony Hannah (Cynthia Miller).

Sarah adds: “Miranda was the biggest hoot. She wandered in from make-up one day wearing a thin midwife’s uniform and with one leg of her Long Johns down one ankle and the other hitched above her knee.” But playing the part didn’t change Sarah’s mind about having a baby of her own.

She says: “I’ve never wanted one. I have friends with disabilities who have families and it is so tough, but it’s not even about that. I would just prefer to focus on my career.”

Jacob, who studied politics at ­Loughborough University and now lives in a flat in Glasgow, wants more TV dramas to involve disabled actors.

“I am just a part of society and that should be represented on our screens,” he says. “I am so glad Call The Midwife isn’t afraid to tackle sensitive issues.”

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Good Convo-sation: Video chat app for deaf people, by deaf people

From CNBC:

While attending a holiday reception at the White House two months ago, Jarrod Musano was being introduced to President Barack Obama when the president realized Musano is deaf.

"President Obama took one look at my interpreter, made eye contact with me, shook my hand and said, 'I want you to know we're looking into the interpreter situation that happened in South Africa,' " recalled Musano, a New York entrepreneur.

"It was so quick of him that I was stunned and forgot what I had planned to say, so I replied, 'The deaf community is also working on it,' " he said. "The president said, 'That's important because we need to work with the community on this.' "

That "situation" was the public relations debacle that ensued earlier in December, when the purported sign language interpreter assigned to translate Obama's remarks at the funeral for former South African President Nelson Mandela was exposed as a fraud.

His "signs" had been little more than gibberish to the hearing impaired watching in person and on TV. The incident embarrassed Obama and outraged the deaf community, which has long struggled to overcome isolation.

While the incident was a setback in that struggle, Musano and his company, Convo, have been working for several year to improve the ability of the deaf to communicate with the hearing—and in ways that can broaden their career options.

Convo's technology, known as a video relay service, or VRS, lets a deaf or hearing-impaired person call a hearing one via a smartphone or Internet-enabled computer and talk to the other person through an American Sign Language interpreter.

There are several other VRS providers for the deaf, including Sorensen, Purple, Communication Axess Ability Group and Global VRS. Their services, like those of privately held Convo, are government-subsidized, so calls are free to users.

Andrew Phillips, a lawyer in the Law and Advocacy Center of the National Association of the Deaf, said, "NAD believes that VRS has been a great equalizer for deaf and hard-of-hearing people as it has given them independence to easily contact their children's schools, work colleagues and places of business.

"VRS allows a more natural and real-time conversation through telecommunications for ASL-fluent individuals," he said. "Convo ... and the other VRS providers enable our community to have access to telecommunication services on nearly equal footing."

Convo's marketing strategy is to differentiate itself by focusing on the fact that it is owned by deaf people and that provides an app designed by deaf people.

Founded in 2009, the company also touts that it trains its interpreters to convey the mood and tone of a call's participants.

The goal is for the translator to effectively "disappear" from the conversation, Musano said. "We train the interpreter to 'be' the person."

During an interview with, Musano demonstrated the Convo app on his smartphone. A split screen popped up, with the interpreter on the top and the caller, Musano, on the bottom. The app dialed a relative of his—a private investigator named Bill Stanton—who was told verbally by the interpreter that she was going to translate a call from a deaf person.

"Billy, can you hear me now?" Musano signed with his hands to the interpreter, who then spoke those words to Stanton. When he replied that he could "hear" Musano, the interpreter then signed that response back to Musano, her face reflecting Stanton's laugh.

Their conversation went smoothly and much more quickly than it would have with text telephone, or TTY, an older phone-based technology. That system required the deaf person to laboriously enter words on a teletype machine, which were then relayed to the hearing person by a human facilitator, who would then have to type the responses.

He recalled working for his father's real estate management firm and how challenging it was to deal with contractors and others on the phone.

"People have no patience for me to type something down," Musano said. "Most people, when they hear that they're getting a teletype call, they hang up. Especially in New York—they ain't got time for nothing."

But after VRS began being rolled out on a widespread basis in the early 2000s, "I installed it in my office," he said. "What it did for me: I was able to move my business faster, getting things done quicker."

Because of the newfound ease of communication, Musano was able to start and expand several businesses, including a maintenance company and a construction company, as well as running his dad's real estate operation. Without the technology, he said, he likely would not have had those opportunities.

He invested in Convo in 2010 and became CEO last March. It operates five call centers around the country, offering customers round-the-clock service.

The company's biggest challenge is ensuring the quality of interpreters because of the premium Convo places on having callers fully understand the tenor of the caller.

"It takes a lot of training," Musano said.

But it's worth it, he added.

Musano mentioned a customer who used Convo to call his father. After the call, the father texted the son to say that for the first time he sensed his son's "voice," Musano said.

Brian Hertneky, a leader of the Deaf Gamers Network, an online community, echoed that reaction.

"When I talk with hearing people ... they tell me that they like the relay interpreters for Convo because they forget that they are speaking through an interpreter to talk with me," he said.

Glenn Lockhart, who is deaf and lives in Washington, D.C., said he used Convo several weeks ago when "a pipe burst and my kitchen flooded."

"I got a plumber and called a nearby store to see if they had water vacuum cleaners, and did both using Convo on my phone," he said. "All that occurred while I was looking for the shutoff valve, moving my stuff on tables and chairs, throwing towels and sheets to divert water, and panicked stuff like that. As floods go, I waded through this just fine, and the calls I made were seamless. I didn't give them any thought throughout."
If Musano has his way, many more deaf people in the U.S. and elsewhere will be using Convo for similar situations—as well as another one.

"I'm planning to travel around the world," he said, "to spread the word about our technology."

Friday, February 7, 2014

In New York City, description technology extends Broadway theater’s thrills to blind patrons

From The NY Times:

“I DON’T know why you people have to go to the movies,” the man had barked. “You won’t get anything out of it anyway.” 

The “you people” was the blind in general and Vicky Winslow (pictured) in particular. The man at the cinema some time ago hadn’t cared for her way of watching: with her ears, and a friend’s whispered puffs of description.

On a recent evening at a Broadway theater, she had a different approach. She was swathed in a brooch-fastened cape, sitting above her trusty German shepherd, Jet, ready to take in “The Lion King” — and etching a mental picture of Simba and his savanna with the help of a single foam-wrapped earpiece that made a noisy whisper buddy unnecessary.

It was several minutes before 8, and the audience was chattering and waiting. But for Ms. Winslow, 51, the show had already begun. Her ear was filling with advance word of what others would learn only later: the color of Zazu’s feathers, the bounce in Simba’s dreadlocks. It was important to stock up on character descriptions now, to permit a focus on plot later. She savored each description the way some people sip wine, holding it for a time, swirling it in consideration.

The voice’s description of Simba’s golden belt made her laugh. When it mentioned a wooden lion head in the theater, she said, “Oh, I’d like to see that!”

The theater can feel forbidding and overwhelming even to those with five senses. But in recent years an experiment on Broadway started testing whether theater’s thrills can be extended to patrons who see with their ears. A service called D-Scriptive translates the visual language of raised eyebrows, waist-high leg kicks and soft kisses into the language of sound. An evening with Ms. Winslow suggested that a show digested this way isn’t without its pleasures. 

Fostering that pleasure takes technological trickery. Because every live performance is slightly different, playing a single audio track wouldn’t work: before long, the action would outrun or lag the description on the tape. D-Scriptive solved the problem by dicing up its narration — into more than 600 audio files in the case of “The Lion King.” An individual file, or cluster of them, is assigned to a particular cue given by the theater’s stage manager. After an actor utters a certain line, for example, the manager speaks the next cue into the microphone, which in turn tips off D-Scriptive’s computer to broadcast the corresponding bit of explanation to its patrons’ earpieces: “On the left are two giraffes and a cheetah”; “Rafiki holds the cub up to the bright light once more.”

D-Scriptive, initiated in 2006 with “Wicked,” is now available at six shows on Broadway, with more in the pipeline. Theatergoers used the service 2,717 times last year, 541 of those for “The Lion King,” according to Carl Anthony Tramon, director of special services for Sound Associates, the company behind D-Scriptive. Leased by the theaters, the service is free for users.

The first time Ms. Winslow tried the system, to take in “Jersey Boys,” she was hooked. “The details that they gave were things that no one else — not even people who know me and describe things to me — would think to tell me,” she said. And, she noted, causing a disturbance on Broadway is even worse than at the cinema: “Remember, unlike the movies, you’ve paid an awful lot for your seat and you can’t just go look for another one.”

A few seats down from her, Kirk Brouwer, 15, a sophomore at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, N.J., had his own reasons for loving the service. He had his first eye surgery at one week old and has had 300 or so operations since then; today his left eye has no vision and his right eye has 20/100 vision with glasses (enough to gaze into his cellphone from up close and to pursue his passion for shooting and editing videos). It used to be that whenever he went to a show with his family, he said, his three younger brothers would discuss it on the ride home and he would remain silent. Sitting beside his mother on this night, he said the descriptions helped him socially by giving him something to toss into conversations with family and friends. For his mother, Eileen, it was a short break from her usual habit of describing every last thing around them, “to be sure Kirk doesn’t miss any details in life,” she said.

As “The Lion King” began, Mr. Brouwer and Ms. Winslow were already full of information. The challenge facing them was to hold these descriptions in their heads, listening to D-Scriptive’s account of the action in one ear and following the music and dialogue heard by everyone with the other ear.

If the sighted theatergoer has the luxury of being in the moment during a show, the partly or fully blind patron must enjoy it differently. The descriptions preload in the brain before the show begins, the progressive narration of dance kicks and kisses tends to come several seconds before the actual deeds, and the dialogue arrives last. Assembling a mental picture of a scene often requires that information heard at several different moments be merged. 

Sometimes Ms. Winslow laughed in sync with the crowd; sometimes the D-Scriptive failed to relay a funny bit and the crowd laughed without her; sometimes the audio description was funnier than the visual action, and she laughed all by herself. She was more sensitive to wordplay than most, chuckling alone when Pumbaa the warthog spoke of a sandwich “with a side of flies.” That’s easy enough compared to what she used to do as a social worker in a homeless shelter, using her ears to sense when tears had rimmed a client’s eyes and a tissue box needed extending.

“There are some things that eyesight would give me,” said Ms. Winslow, who was born blind. “But I hear things that other people don’t because they’re not focused on hearing.”

There was too much to hear at times. The words and images beamed through the earpiece sometimes came at her like digital machine-gun fire. A song about not being able to wait to be king was especially overloaded, with seemingly every dance step and twirl itemized. So it goes when a thronging boulevard of a performance must be jammed into the single lane of auditory perception.

Ms. Winslow, though, has ways of coping. “My mind sort of censors for what I’m interested in,” she said.
It was another story with her immediate neighbor to the right — me. Just as the houselights went down, she leaned over and issued a gentle order: “Close your eyes.” It was an invitation to try to know something of her experience that night, and for that I had also secured one of the devices.

At first, I found myself cheating without intending to, keeping eyes closed during run-of-the-mill descriptions but opening them when something sounded especially beautiful. Later I lasted through full scenes in the way that Ms. Winslow had asked. To try to process it all was to understand that a Broadway show is, in the end, a giant information ball, a dense nugget made of millions of disparate kinds of facts. Seeking to turn them all into verbal facts is a heroic intention that can never be fully realized.

At one point actors in hyena costumes entered the theater from the back of the house and walked right past Ms. Winslow. She perked up as she felt their presence, with the earpiece revealing what they were. Her guide dog didn’t need to be warned about hyenas. Jet, ordinarily possessed of a New Yorker’s seen-everything cool, leapt up, snapped to attention and seemed to place himself on war paws — because, well, hyenas.

Ms. Winslow wouldn’t mind if services like D-Scriptive popped up for other arts. “I don’t do ballet, because that would be pointless,” she said. But she loves the opera and loves the movies, which is what she can afford mostly, being out of a job and the economy being what it is nowadays.

“I sometimes feel like asking for half of my money back, because I miss a lot,” she said.

She has heard of apps that seek to do for films what D-Scriptive does for Broadway shows. She’s skeptical. “I’ll believe it when I do it,” she said.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Thousands of India's disabled people protest to demand equal rights

From AFP:

NEW DELHI, India -- Thousands of disabled people protested in the Indian capital on Feb. 3, demanding parliament pass long-awaited legislation that gives them equal rights including to education and employment.
Thousands with intellectual or physical impairments gathered to support the bill drafted for the country's 40-90 million disabled people, who have long been among the most excluded and stigmatized in society.

"We have been waiting since independence for this, some of us even longer," National Association of the Deaf president Zorin Singha said of the country's estimated 18 million deaf people.

"This bill will change everything for us," he told AFP, sitting in front of India Gate among a crowd of supporters waving placards that read, "We want our rights, not your charity".

Indian political boss Sonia Gandhi has pledged to push for the bill's passing when the national parliament sits this week for the final session before her ruling Congress party faces general elections due by May.

But its introduction and passage through the chaotic parliament is uncertain, with 126 other bills already pending in the parliament which is set for a 16-day session.

Singha singled out the right to education as a highlight of the bill, which will guarantee that disabled students are entitled to teachers trained to meet their needs.

"Basically my school taught me nothing at all. The school had no teachers for deaf students and there were no alternatives. They just kept trying to force me to speak even though they knew I was deaf," Singha said.

Some disabled groups have opposed the bill, which would replace one from 1995. They say the latest draft has been watered down, and for example does not define people with psychosocial problems as disabled.
But Mohammed Umar, who contracted polio when he was three and walks with crutches, said the bill would increase the chances of disabled people finding jobs.

"We are pushed into the margins of society. People won't give us jobs, even our own families consider us a burden and this is especially so in rural areas," said Umar from Jais city in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state.
The bill, modeled on the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, raises the quota of government jobs reserved for people with disabilities from three to five percent.

It also makes private companies accountable for creating a disabled-friendly environment for employees and visitors.

A World Bank study in 2007 said people with disabilities were among the most marginalized in Indian society, and 50 percent of people surveyed for the study saw disability as a "curse of God."

Saturday, February 1, 2014

NBC's 'Growing Up Fisher' offers twist to family comedy as show creator reflects on family with a blind father like his

From USA Today:

PASADENA, Calif. — NBC's Growing Up Fisher is another family comedy, but there's a difference: the father, Mel Fisher (J.K. Simmons), is blind (pictured).
It's not arbitrary. Fisher, which premieres following Olympics coverage on Feb. 23 (10:30 p.m. ET/PT), is based on the childhood of series creator DJ Nash. It moves to its regular Tuesday slot (9:30 p.m. ET/PT) on Feb. 25.
"My dad went blind when he was 11 and hid his blindness (to) pretty much everyone outside the family" until he and his wife divorced and he got a guide dog, Nash said Sunday at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. A scene where the father cuts down a tree with a chainsaw is based on his own experiences.
Fisher's premise is not a gimmick, said executive producer Jason Bateman, who provides the voiceover for Mel's son, Henry, looking back on his youth. "It's his true story. Cynicism, be gone," he said.

The show, which is set in the present day, looks at the Fisher family after Mel and his wife, Joyce (Jenna Elfman), decide to divorce. They remain "amazing parents" to teenage daughter Katie (Ava Deluca-Verley) and 11-year-old son Henry (Eli Baker).
There were challenges to the situation at the time, Nash said, but "looking back, I wouldn't change a thing."
Simmons, who is not blind, said he had help from Nash, a visually impaired consultant and another consultant in learning how to play a man who can't see.

"Your whole life is naturally fixed on picked-up movement, so it's a simple case of throwing your eyes out of focus," he said. "The main things I learned (were) all the other bits of behavior, how you handle things, what you do with your hands, how you interact physically with other people."

Although Mel's blindness may stand out initially, Nash said that's only one aspect of the character's personality and one element of the family's story.

Some viewers may "see the first thing about Mel is that he's blind. My dad being blind is like the 17th thing wrong with him. He's stubborn. He hugs too much. He's a lawyer. There's a lot of craziness going on over there," he said. "I don't want this to be every visually impaired person's story. ... We're trying to tell Henry's perspective of what that was like and how it informs who he is as a father today."