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Life Changing Technology for People with Disabilities

When most of us think about eye tracking technology, it sounds pretty interesting, but it’s not something that’s going to change our lives. Eye tracking allows users to move a cursor around a computer or mobile device simply by moving your eyes and head.

Oded Ben Dov initially used eye tracking technology to develop a video game that he showed off on Israeli TV. The next day, he says, he got a phone call from a man who told him: “I can’t move my hands or legs. Can you make a smartphone I could use?”

That was the moment that Ben Dov realized that his eye tracking technology could actually change lives.

“For me, that was a calling to put my skills and knowledge to good use.” He went on to found Sesame Enable, a company that sells smartphones for people who can’t use their hands.

Sesame Enable, which is based in Israel, was in Mountain View, California earlier this month for Google I/O, the annual conference for developers who make products using Google technologies. Sesame Enable is getting support from Google.org ­ the company’s charitable arm.

Eve Anderson, who leads accessibility across Google, says Google.org has given out $20 million to organizations that use technology to help people with disabilities. She even says that a lot of technology that is focused on helping people with disabilities actually comes out of well-designed technology aimed at all consumers.

Although, taking existing technology and making it useful for a disabled person often does require new designs. Tomglobal.org ­ a nonprofit that brings together technologists who want to solve problems for people with disabilities, gets financial support from Google.org.

One of the products that has been generated by tomglobal.org during a hackathon was on display at the I/O conference. It’s a special sensor device for people in wheelchairs who face the problem of “pressure sores.” It was developed by Paul Herzlich and some of his colleagues. Herzlich works in the legal department at Google and he uses a wheelchair.

These sores develop when someone sits in the same position for too long and blood circulation decreases in that area and eventually leads to a breakdown of the skin in that area. The sensor device he developed fits easily on a wheelchair seat and it’s connected to a smartphone app via Bluetooth. If the app recognizes that the person in the wheelchair hasn’t moved in a while, it will notify the user as a reminder to move. This is raising awareness for the user because they’re often paying attention to other things throughout the day and don’t remember to move.

Tech companies realize that the market for products that have a variety of accessibility features is large. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion, out of approximately 7 billion people in the world, experience a disability.

As much as disabled people benefit from technology developed for regular consumers, it also works the other way around. It’s been seen that when the focus is on users with disabilities, the products get better all around for all users.

While it’s great news for disabled people that tech companies are increasing their interest in making products for them, there’s still a long way to go. It’s still rare for companies to have an accessibility team, and that’s especially true for smaller startups. But if companies can focus some of their time and energy into making their already created products and services accessible to those with disabilities, the number of users could potentially push them into a better financial standing. Creating technology for all is almost mandatory in this age, but at this point, it shouldn’t even be a question.

Whole Foods and the Pre-Peeled Orange Debacle

Back in March of this year, Whole Foods Market became the center of an internet firestorm when a customer, Nathalie Gordon, tweeted a picture of pre­peeled and packaged oranges with the caption “If only nature would find a way to cover these oranges so we didn’t need to waste so much plastic on them.” Snarky? For sure. Correct? More or less. Humorous? Yeah, you can’t lie about that. Warranted? Probably not. Most consumers felt that this was the ultimate bourgeois thing that could be done and the epitome of Whole Foods in one solitary product, calling it “lazy”, but while they were busy firing tweets at the company, others were praising them for a reason that many wouldn’t expect.

Consider disability studies scholar Kim Sauder, who blogged about the product:

As a person with limited hand dexterity, I look at this and see an easier way to eat healthy food. I actively avoid eating oranges, not because I dislike them (they are definitely tasty) but because I have so much difficulty peeling them. Any attempt to peel an orange is likely to result in an unappetizing mess because I’ve squeezed the orange to hard while trying to maneuver it for peel removal.

I don’t have access to peeled oranges from my grocery store though I’d probably take advantage of them if I did. I do buy pre­cut vegetables all the time because it is more convenient and safer for me to do so. …

Anything that helps make my regular acts of daily life safer and more convenient is always a plus. So I was one of a number of disabled people who pushed back against the wholesale shaming of pre­prepared foods.

Sauder wasn’t alone in her appreciation for the newly accessible product. Others took to Twitter after Whole Foods had tweeted about the products removal saying things like “this is terrible. There are a lot of people who, for many reasons (arthritis for one) would have great diff(iculty) peeling an orange” and “I’m so sorry you’ve decided to do that. I have rheumatoid disease and it’s often impossible to peel an orange,” another wrote.

Sometimes, people are quick to judge something that makes life easier, much like peeling an orange, but don’t forget that there are several other items in the same realm that are pre­cut and packaged. You never hear anyone complaining about sliced watermelon in the produce section of a grocery store or a frozen bag of onions that can help with a quick dinner. These things are never brought up, and sure, it mostly has to do with the fact that Whole Foods does have an unhealthy relationship with plastic, but most people are missing the point. Like Kim Sauder said, if she had access to more pre­prepared fruits and vegetables at her local grocery store, she would probably take advantage of it. The point is giving disabled people easier access to healthier food.

If we take a step back and remove all of the preconceived issues we may have with Whole Foods from the picture you can see what they’re trying to do. Yes, they’ve sold “asparagus water” which was ridiculous, yes, they utilize plastic far more than they should, but at the end of the day, the prepackaged orange is a good thing, even if some people can’t see it. Disabled consumers don’t get a lot of help from grocery stores with foods that come in peels or must be cut, so to have something like this is great for anyone in need.

Fighting to be Understood: Living with ‘Invisible Disabilties’

Sometimes, a disability is more obvious than another. They can be immediately apparent, especially when someone relies on a wheelchair, walking cane, or crutches. Although, there are other types of disabilities, considered ‘invisible disabilities’, which are not as easily understood. People who live with them face a completely different set of challenges in their workplace, home, and community.

The types of diseases that are categorized into the invisible column are things like chronic pain, chronic fatigue, mental illness, and plethora of others. Although these diseases can’t be seen, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t as debilitating as any other disability. Carly Medosch spoke with NPR about her life with Chron’s disease and how it affects her daily life. Chron’s disease is an inflammatory bowel condition that Medosch has had since she was 13. She recalls times where she would lay on the bathroom floor and think to herself “Am I going to die? Should I jump out in front of traffic so that I can die?” just because of the pain that her disease has caused her.

Recently, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that leaves Carly in a constant state of full ­body chronic pain and intense fatigue.

For Carly and others who struggle with an invisible disability, occasional stays at the hospital and surgeries are not what they would consider the hard part. Mundane and seemingly normal activities are what can be much more difficult.

“Washing my hair, blow­drying my hair, putting on makeup ­ those are the kind of activities that can exhaust me very quickly,” she says. “So you kind of blow­dry your hair and then you sort sit down for a little bit.” Things like walking to the subway or bending down to pick something up can take a lot out of someone in Carly’s condition, but you would never assume that from the outside.

It’s difficult to know the number of Americans with an invisible disability, but it’s estimated that there are millions. Their conditions may range from lupus to bipolar disorder or diabetes. The severity of each person can range from case to case, and the fear of stigma means that most of those suffering would often prefer to not even talk about their illnesses.

Although, in employment discrimination charges that were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2005 and 2010, the most commonly cited conditions were invisible ones, according to research done by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute.

“You know, it’s that invisible nature of an illness that people don’t understand,” says Wayne Connell, founder and head of the Invisible Disabilities Association. He started the group after his wife was diagnosed with Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis.

He recalls how they would park in handicapped parking spaces and his wife wouldn’t use a wheelchair or a cane, and the looks and disapproval from other people who assumed they were taking advantage of something that an actual disabled person could use.

Medosch has had similar experiences with her handicapped parking tags. She also says that she’s even faced challenges obtaining accommodations from a prospective employer.

Carly says that she’s comfortable talking about her disability now because she’s well protected at her current job. She hopes discussing her own experience will help boost understanding, but acknowledges invisible disabilities can be hard to fathom ­ especially when so many people who live with them seem, outwardly, at least, to be just like everyone else.

Combat Veteran’s Run for Office

A military veteran from Jupiter, FL by the name of Brian Mast is running for the Republican nomination in the House district of southeastern Florida. One thing that people will always notice about Brian is that he is always in shorts. He wears shorts with T­shirts, polo shirts, and even with a coat and tie. But these questions ­ which have much more to do with the fact that Brian has two prosthetic legs, the most eye catching mark of his military service in Afghanistan, than his sense of style ­ did not start until he began his run for Congress.

Mast embraces his identity as a veteran. He does so proudly through images of himself on his campaign website where he is draped in Army gear, reading the names on the National September 11 Memorial, and as he runs down a suburban street in the Florida sun with the main point of focus being his prosthetic legs.

But when Mast announced his endorsement of Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and also a combat veteran, a few people began to express their skepticism: Does Mr. Mast have to wear shorts to accommodate his prosthetics?

“Or is he purposely using his disability for his campaign?” the commenter said. “What I know about him, I like him, but this bothers me.”

In a year when many people are throwing political correctness out the door, military valor, often an almost unassailable political credential, is being scrutinized with the same frankness and, in some cases, even scorn as other aspects of a candidate’s biography.

This comes after presidential hopeful Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, belittled Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said in July. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Mr. Mast doesn’t mind the questions about his legs if they are asked in the right spirit, he said on a sunny afternoon as he sat overlooking numerous golf courses on Florida’s Treasure Coast. His clubs resting nearby, he had just finished playing in a tournament to benefit a veteran’s organization.

He explains why he wears shorts with the rapid cadence of someone who has recited this many, many times: His prosthetics have sharp edges that tear his pants when he falls ­ a daily occurrence, but “I just suck it up,” he said ­ and he cannot bend his feet.

Many other veterans in Brian Mast’s district stand behind him regardless of his choice of attire. Bill White, a veteran of the Navy said that he appreciated the commitment veterans had demonstrated to their country, a willingness to make sacrifices that spoke volumes about them. “If I don’t know either candidate that was running for Congress, the veteran would get my vote,” he said.

It’s clear that some do have a problem with the way that Mr. Mast has been running his campaign, but at the same time, he does seem to have plenty of support from the veterans community. As for his shorts, his answer is valid and one that surely several others have experienced at some point. More and more wounded veterans are paving the way for disabled people to make a place for themselves in government and hopefully the new surge of disabled politicians and public servants can help address the long ignored issues facing the disabled community.

A More Important Bathroom Conversation

Recently, there has been a major discussion about public restrooms that has caused an all out riot on the internet and in the media. The “Bathroom Bill” requires that people over the age of 7 use the restroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates. While the law is aimed at transgender people, disability advocates worry that it also could affect people with disabilities who, because they need assistance from an opposite sex caregiver or parent, also use opposite sex bathrooms.

Parents of children with disabilities say that their children’s disabilities require that the parent and child stay together at all times. “They’re not very high­functioning” said Jennifer Eldredge-Bird of Miami, whose sons, ages 11 and 15, have autism. Other parents agree that sending their disabled children into a public restroom alone is out of the question.

For Laura Rossi and her 13­ year­old twins, using public bathrooms became more challenging as her children have gotten older. Her son, Matt, has Tourette syndrome, accompanied by a significant impairment of fine motor and social skills. When her twins were “little and cute” they were greeted by smiles and nodding heads, but as they got older, she began to see criticism when she took them into the women’s restroom. “Matt’s needs are invisible, and he got tall very quickly,” she said. “If there’s not a family bathroom, we got a lot of looks and comments, you know, meant for you to hear but not really ‘to’ you ­ like ‘this is not the boys’ room.’”

With bathroom access a popular topic at the moment, many people with disabilities and their families are hoping that conversation extends to expanding access to public facilities for every person.

For many of the nearly one in five Americans with some disability, lack of access to public toilet facilities challenges their ability to take part in ordinary daily life and for some, the challenges are primarily physical.

Stalls that aren’t wide enough, doors that swing in instead of out, and various other things are part of a long list of things working against people who have disabilities that use public restrooms. Some have even had serious injuries due to insufficient space inside the stall to where they have fallen and hit their heads on poorly positioned toilet paper holders.

For other ­ parents of teenage and adult children with physical disabilities, some of whom use diapers, or of older children and teenagers with autism or other cognitive and emotional difficulties ­ the challenges have to do with their ability to assist family members.

Family members of people with disabilities say large, multi­stall public restrooms present the biggest challenge. Some large retailers now offer family bathrooms, which are ideal because they are private but large enough to accommodate multiple family members as well as wheelchairs and strollers. Individual bathrooms also work better for everyone, but space and cost constraints mean that many public spaces don’t offer them.

Eric Lipp, executive director of the Chicago­based Open Doors Organization, which advocates for people with disabilities in the travel and tourism industries, says there is a slowly growing movement to offer facilities for changing a diaper on an adult or an older child ­ a large, stable surface, ideally with a life, like those designed by nonprofit Changing­places.org.

Accessibility has unintended consequences that are good for everyone, and how we something as simple as a restroom can say a lot about how we think of people with disabilities in general.

Design for All, Universal Design

Design for All is the intervention into environments, products, and services which aims to ensure that anyone, including future generations, regardless of age, gender, capacities or cultural background, can participate in social, economic, cultural, and leisure activities with equal opportunities.

Design for All, also known as Universal Design, should be implemented in all areas because the human beings are diverse and everyone has the wish, the need, and the right of being independent and choosing the own lifestyle without facing physical and social barriers.

There are several pieces to this Design for All puzzle and each piece is just as important as the last. If one piece is missing, nothing really works. Here’s a short runthrough of the criteria for Design for All:

● Respectful: it should respect the diversity of its users. Make it so that no one feels marginalised and everyone should be able to access it.

● Safe: it should be free of risks to all users. This means that all elements forming part of an environment have to be designed with safety in mind.

● Healthy: it should not constitute a health risk or cause problems to those who suffer from certain illnesses or allergies. Also, it should promote healthy use of spaces and products.

● Functional: it should be designed in such a way that it can only carry out the function for which it was intended without any problems or difficulties.

● Comprehensible: all users should be able to orient themselves without difficulty within a given space, and therefore the following are essential to success:

○ Clear information: use of icons that are common to different countries, avoiding the use of words or abbreviations from the local language which may lead to confusion.

○ Spatial distribution: this should be coherent and functional, avoiding disorientation and confusion.

● Sustainable: misuse of natural resources should be avoided to guarantee that future generations will have the same opportunities as us to preserve the planet.

● Affordable: anyone should have the opportunity to enjoy what is provided.

● Appealing: the result should be emotional and socially acceptable but always bearing in mind the seven precedent criteria.

Ensuring a usable space for all individuals can be a challenging task, but entirely possible. Following these guidelines and methods can help make for a long lasting and widely functional space, product, or service.

Living with Epilepsy

Living with epilepsy is more than just suffering from seizures. People with this condition and families face a wide array of daily challenges to normal life that vary with severity and nature of the disorder. The negative effects on quality of life can be severe and involve family and social relationships, academic achievement, and opportunities for employment, housing, and the ability to function independently. Family and community support is critical across a range of services. Understanding how epilepsy can be triggered and the affects it has on the person suffering can provide you with a way to face the day to day. Adjusting to how “normal” life is now to be lived can improve their quality of life exponentially.

Quality of life is a person’s subjective sense of well­being that stems from satisfaction with one’s roles, activities, goals, and opportunities, relative to the individual’s values and expectations, within the context of culture, community, and society. Adjusting to this new way of life can be a bit startling, but can be made into an easy transition.

By law, people with a new diagnosis of epilepsy must halt driving immediately. Individuals with a driver’s license must declare they they have epilepsy to the an issuing office. They will then be advised on when it may be possible for them to resume driving again. This will usually be after a year free of seizures.

It is not uncommon for the driving issue to be a factor in deciding whether or not to come off of medication. If you have not had a seizure for two or more years, you may be considering whether to try without medication. However, if you stop your medication and have a seizure, you will be forced to stop driving again.

Working can be somewhat of a tricky situation, but not all hope is lost. Only a few jobs exclude people with epilepsy; like pilots or people working at heights. However, there are many jobs that are still completely possible to be performed with epilepsy. Occasionally, you may run into a problem of being able to find a job due to discrimination or ill informed individuals. The Disability Discriminations Act (DDA) means that people with epilepsy should now be protected from this type of discrimination.

If you’re the type who enjoys travel and leisure, be aware that epilepsy can alter your ability for travel, but if you take proper precautions, you could possibly avoid any issues. If you’re taking medication, make sure you are stocked up for the duration of your travel. Be mindful, long journeys and jet lag may make you tired and more prone to seizures more often. Someone you’re traveling with should be made aware of your situation in the event of a seizure.

Life with epilepsy can seem like an unending battle, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Adjusting your life to fit epilepsy in isn’t as daunting of a task as it may seem. You can easily adjust your routines to avoid any mishaps. Seizures are scary and even scarier if people are not aware of what to do. Make sure you are vocal about your condition and inform others on the facts and signs of an epileptic seizure. Being prepared is the most important part of this condition, and it really doesn’t take that much effort. Living with epilepsy is something that will take some getting use to, but it should not be viewed as the end of the world.

Kmart’s Catalog Featuring Children with Disabilities

In Australia, Kmart is taking big steps to promote the inclusion of disabilities into everyday life.

In their latest catalog, the store features children with disabilities like Cooper, a child who is living with dystonic quadriplegia cerebral palsy. Cooper and his mother replied to a casting call in Melbourne Australia and soon after, Cooper snagged an audition and later a modeling job for Kmart. His mother says it’s something that he’s always wanted to do and now he’s earned the opportunity.

Cooper says that the best part of the experience was going to the studio and getting wear cool clothes for the photoshoot. “I got to choose some music to listen to, and the photographer and all the people made me laugh a lot,” he said.

Cooper’s mom hopes that when people see the ad, they look past his disability and just see a normal kid. She says that it’s a big deal that the mainstream media are finally including children with varying abilities. She hopes that one day soon it won’t be a big deal and it will be nothing out of the ordinary. Although for now, she wants them to just children like Cooper as a child looking forward to Easter who happens to use a walker because he happens to have a disability. “Disability is not something to be pitied. [The ad] ‘normalizes’ things a bit, and it gets conversations started about inclusion and disability, which is always a good thing.”

This is not the first time that a major store like Kmart has included a child with disabilities in an ad.

In October of 2015, Target mailed a new product catalog to customers that featured a girl with disabilities dressed up as Elsa from the Disney movie “Frozen” and was supporting herself with crutches. Along with her princess gown and crutches was a smile. A smile that told the story of a happy child that at that moment feeling no different than anyone else.

Jeff Jones, Target’s chief marketing officer, said in an interview that it’s important to the company to include people with disabilities in its advertising campaigns.

“At Target, our core beliefs regarding diversity and inclusivity are reflected in our advertising and in our business overall,” Jones said. “We’ve included people with disabilities in our advertising for more than 25 years and we’re humbled by the support we’ve received recently. We look forward to a day when diversity of all types in advertising is no longer a topic of discussion, but a way of life.”

Parents across the countries of Australia and the United States both expressed their appreciation of Kmart and Target’s advertisements. By including images of people with special needs, these companies are doing their part to eliminate the label of “different” on anyone who lives with a disability.

Aging in Place

Aging in Place is simply a matter of preserving the ability for people to stay in their homes and neighborhoods for as long as possible. Sometimes, people are forced out of their homes due to disabilities and their needs, but most prefer to stay right where they are. Changing healthcare needs, loss of mobility, financial concerns, home maintenance, and increasing property taxes, however, present significant impediments to this simple and primary desire.

Aging in Place is a diverse range of programs that address these impediments, seeking to retain senior citizens and people with disabilities as integral and productive members of their communities. By providing the appropriate neighborhood based health and housing alternatives. Aging in Place initiatives increase the personal dignity and functional independence of people with disabilities and senior citizens. Many small changes can work together to allow an individual to stay in their community as they age. These can include a range of actions from altering the length of a stop light to re­imagining healthcare delivery. Just as individuals have different needs, the communities that serve them will find that there are ways that they could change to help these community members.

In several communities, the healthcare and supportive systems and the available housing options do not adequately meet the needs of affected community members. With more and more citizens affected by this lack of care, the situation will only continue to exacerbate the current inadequacies. As the population ages in an aging housing stock, it becomes difficult to distinguish a health concern from a housing concern. As individuals continue to age in place, the building must not only promote the wellbeing of the occupant, but enhance their day to day life.

When Aging in Place is in question, the loved ones and the resident must consider nearly every aspect of the home and its safety. Types of flooring, handrails, thresholds, and everything in between are considered for their safety and accessibility. These things along with emergency vehicle access, street planning, sidewalk access, and several other aspects of life are to be considered with Aging in Place.

It’s one thing to say that Aging in Place is possible, but it’s also something that has to be fostered by loved ones and the resident as well as the community. Creating a livable space is the most important for the day to day of the resident. Engaging in partnerships from different disciplines and agencies can assist the resident by planning ahead, improving the housing options available, addressing issues in and around the home, and creating a secure space for everyday life.

Disney’s Updated Disability Access Procedures

Providing a wonderful experience to every individual that visits a Disney park is of the highest concern. That’s why Disney is always trying to keep their procedures for disabled visitors up to date and accommodating.

In April of last year, the Disability Access Service Card went completely digital at Walt Disney World in Florida. Rather than write down return times for rides and other attractions on a card, cast members now scan visitors’ tickets or MagicBands.

The change allows for the disability accommodation to be integrated with My Disney Experience, a website and app for visitors of the park.

The switch to the electronic process doesn’t alter the procedures for guests that utilize the Disability Access Service Card, however. Disney said that visitors with disabilities will still need to visit each attraction in order to obtain a return time based on current wait times.

Disneyland in California had previously adopted the digital system in November of the same year.

Changes to Disney’s accommodations in recent years for people with disabilities have been highly controversial. In 2013, the company decided to do away with its Guest Assistance Card which often let individuals with special needs and those they were traveling with skip to the front of long lines for theme park rides.

Instead, the Disability Access Service Card now allows people with disabilities to obtain a return time for one attraction at a time.

Dozens of families sued Disney alleging that the policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and doesn’t properly address the needs of their children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Most recently, the Florida Commission on Human Relations found reason to believe that Disney discriminated against theme park visitors with developmental disabilities after changing its policy.

Disney officials have repeatedly insisted that their policies and practices for accommodating those with disabilities are in full compliance with the law. Ensuring that visitors have a magical time at any Disney park is a big concern, but another big concern is the just treatment of all visitors. Hopefully Disney can continue to keep their procedures current and ensure that they are continuously accommodating to everyone.