Thursday, July 2, 2015

Empowering young people with disabilities in Cambodia to be heard

From the UNICEF blog:

The nineteen faces in the room showed a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Many of these young people were about to do something for the very first time: operate a video camera. “This is a totally new experience for me, I’ve never held a video camera before!” 21-year-old Saron told me eagerly.

It was the first day of the One Minutes Jr. workshop organized by UNICEF in Kampot, southern Cambodia and I was there to capture stories from this special event. Over the following week these young people would learn how to tell their stories by producing a storyboard, directing a film and capturing all the action on camera.

One Minutes Jr. is a film-making workshop, but it is about a lot more than making films. The participants here were all students from UNICEF Cambodia’s partner Epic Arts, an inclusive arts organization supporting children and young people with disabilities. They received guidance throughout from expert trainers from the One Minutes Foundation. The workshop provided an opportunity for the participants to learn new skills, support each other as members of a team and to tell a powerful story about something important in their lives.

Every student wrote, directed and filmed their own short movie, each exactly one minute long. These films will now be available for viewing across Cambodia – and the world – giving a voice to young people with disabilities.

People with disabilities are often among the poorest and most socially excluded in Cambodia. Access to education is often a struggle – only 56 per cent of adults with disabilities can read and write, compared to 80 per cent of the total population. Health care providers often have inadequate skills to support people with disabilities and care can be extremely expensive. Families affected by disability in Cambodia are twice as likely to suffer extreme poverty due to health care costs.

A person does not have a disability because they find it difficult to see, walk or hear. Disability occurs when physical, social and legal barriers prevent someone with impairments from taking part in community life on an equal basis. Watch the powerful and poignant films created by the young people during One Minutes Jr. and you will be left in no doubt about the extraordinary array of talent on show. UNICEF hopes that these films will challenge the viewer to see ability, not disability.

“Children and families living with disability have equal rights and equal potential to participate in all aspects of daily life,” says Tomas Jensen, Chief of Local Governance for Child Rights at UNICEF Cambodia, who has led the organization of this initiative. “This workshop has provided an opportunity for young people with disabilities to demonstrate that they are fully up to the task of being included and contributing as active citizens to the socio-economic development of Cambodia.”

UNICEF promotes and protect the rights of children and adults with disabilities in Cambodia and is developing the capacity of local decision makers to make governance and community development disability-inclusive. UNICEF also supports disability-focused NGOs, like Epic Arts, to provide services for people with disabilities.

On the final day of the workshop, every young person’s film was shown on the big screen during a special event at the Epic Arts centre. It was a nerve-wracking yet exciting moment for the young film makers. 22-year-old Sokna, who is deaf, created a film showing that making connections with people is not just about talking.

“I was very scared to see my film on the screen. But when I watched it I had shivers and was very happy. Such a big audience got to see my film!” Sokna communicates using Cambodian Sign Language (CSL), but the vast majority of the 51,000 deaf people in Cambodia have never had the opportunity to learn CSL. An estimated 98 per cent of deaf people are without sign, written or spoken language.

 It is clear that there is a long way to go before every child born in Cambodia has a fair start in life. However initiatives like One Minutes Jr. are empowering young people with disabilities to be heard and to show their capabilities – a vital step on the road to ensuring that every person in Cambodia is valued and supported to reach their full potential.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Motion Light Lab at Gallaudet University translates research into tangible educational products for Deaf kids

From NPR:

In a small, sparse makeshift lab, Melissa Malzkuhn practices her range of motion in a black, full-body unitard dotted with light-reflecting nodes. She's strapped on a motion capture, or mocap, suit. Infrared cameras that line the room will capture her movement and translate it into a 3-D character, or avatar, on a computer.

But she's not making a Disney animated film.

Three-dimensional motion capture has developed quickly in the last few years, most notably as a Hollywood production tool for computer animation in films like Planet of the Apes and Avatar.

Behind the scenes though, leaders in the deaf community are taking on the technology to create and improve bilingual learning tools in American Sign Language. Malzkuhn has suited up to record a simple nursery rhyme. Being deaf herself, she spoke with NPR through an interpreter.

"I know in English there's just a wealth of nursery rhymes available, but we really don't see as much in ASL," she says. "So we're gonna be doing some original work here in developing nursery rhymes."
That's because sound-based rhymes don't cross over well into the visual language of ASL.

Malzkuhn heads the Motion Light Lab, or ML2. It's the newest hub of the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center, Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) at Gallaudet University, the premier school for deaf and hard of hearing students.

Using high tech to translate research into tangible educational products has been the goal of ML2's all-deaf team since it launched in 2009.

In its latest venture, the team wants to pair original ASL rhymes with a 3-D signing avatar, a concept that could eventually be rendered into a signing cartoon animal on a kids show, for example.

The lab's new equipment was funded by a grant VL2 recently received through the Keck Foundation. Part of the lab's role is to design visual stimuli for a 6- to 10-month-old to study how and when deaf infants are ready to learn.

Though the hearing are auditory and the deaf are visual, how we process the language goes to the exact same center of our brain, Malzkuhn says.

"I think often, people don't realize that, which leads to the assumption that deaf people are lacking something," she says. "People think, 'How can you learn a language if you don't hear it?' "

But VL2 research has shown that language delay can have negative outcomes later in life. Early exposure to bilingualism and learning through narrative structure are critical to cognitive development for both the deaf and non-deaf. A recent study, which measured the effects of watching Sesame Street, supports the idea that narratives can have a positive, lasting impact on kids academically when delivered at an early age. Nursery rhymes in particular can aid children's memory and prediction skills.

ML2's largest strength is its storytelling, Malzkuhn says. And for the hard of hearing, that means storytelling must be visual and integrated early on.

Most kids learn their ABC's through the classic song, but English nursery rhymes don't translate well to ASL. The sign language grammar structure is much different from that of English.

"Think about it," Malzkuhn says. "English has a very sound-based way of rhyming [...] and it helps them to be able to think and memorize things and then express language because they're used to hearing those patterns and rhythms of the language."

To translate rhymes to a non-sound based language, she adds, the team keeps repetitive rhythms available through the use of common handshapes.

Motion capture tracks these "temporal rhythms" of hand gestures and reflects the data on a dual monitor like a polygraph, which acts as a blueprint for the 3-D signing avatar. (In ASL, signage and facial expressions work to translate what might be compared to vocal intonations in English.)
The team has also experimented with virtual reality devices like Oculus Rift and Kinect to take advantage of the 3-D landscape.

"Sign language is a 3-D language," Malzkuhn says. "We use the space in front of us, the space around us."

Stacy Abrams, who coordinates a deaf mentorship program in Arizona, thinks capturing the 3-D data in its "truer form" would improve a child's learning.

"You can see the motion better. You can see the rhythm," she says. "Some parents struggle with handshapes or fingerspelling."

Take the tricky example of the word for "chair" versus "sit." Both have the same handshape in ASL, but the sign for "chair" has a smaller double movement, while "sit" has a larger, single movement.
"3-D would have to clarify that," Abrams adds. "3-D will help understanding structure and grammar within sign language. It's closer to a real live person."

ML2 has also been developing bilingual storybook apps for the iPad. Signers can analyze facial expressions, expand vocabulary or mimic the signs within the tablet app.

Even if the parents are new ASL signers, they can access the story through the English component. More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing families.

"It's a huge process for a hearing person to first learn that they have a visually oriented child, and how do they best provide the access to the child," Malzkuhn says. "I think that's where we as a research hub come in."

Gallaudet has a rich community and a history of generations of people who are deaf. But some deaf people don't sign, which can limit their ability to be part of the culture.

Deaf mentor Stacy Abrams has seen what kind of impact limited accessibility can have on deaf kids. The families she works with often have no access to ASL or deaf mentors, and some of the children have never seen other deaf children.

But when they are able to borrow or check out an iPad, apps like ML2's are a gateway to language accessibility.

Arthur, a 3-year-old boy with hearing parents that Abrams mentored, came from a rural area in New Mexico and refused to look her in the eye.

"He was very shy, not understanding how to use eye contact to communicate" since he had been refusing to use sign language, she says.

When she showed him the storybook apps, he was hooked. So she added the iPad as a tool to get his attention. Before she would hand over the tablet, she had him copy her signs and look her in the eyes.
"This engaged him in learning, but it's not enough to leave him alone without community," Abrams says. "He moved to the deaf school and is making progress."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Disabled Geeks: Improve Representation of Disability in Wikis

From the Disability Visibility Project:

Calling all geeky crips! Do you have a favorite comic book character with a disability?

Do you find wiki posts about disabled comic book characters ableist, inaccurate or devoid of a disability perspective?

If so, we’re looking for you!

Dominick Evans and Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project are looking for volunteers to update various entries in comic book wikis.

How to participate:

1. Select a Wiki that has an entry of a comic book character w/ a disability. Here are a few:

2. Update an entry of your favorite character, adding your perspective and interpretation as a disabled person.

3. Let us know by tweeting us the link of the updated wiki entry: @dominickevans @DisVisibility with the hashtag #FilmDis or email Dominick: geekycripswiki@gmail.com

Don’t know what a wiki is? Check this out: http://www.teachersfirst.com/content/wiki/

In Britain, Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington leads disability campaign with help of his cousin

From The Independent in the UK:

Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington (pictured) has issued an emotional plea for people to educate themselves about disabilities.
Harington's cousin Laurent has Down's Syndrome, and Harington lamented the fact that people sometimes feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities.

The actor who plays Jon Snow in the hit HBO programme said: "My cousin Laurent and I are similar ages and grew up together sharing many things, the same sense of humour and the same passion for film and theatre being chief among them. We had a wonderful loving upbringing in the same family and had a great time growing up, many times under the same roof and became close friends as well as cousins. My only major difference with Laurent is that he has Down’s Syndrome.

"My cousin is one of the 1.4 million people in the UK with a learning disability. From spending time with Laurent and Mencap and being witness to the work they have done together, I know there is still a long way to go before people with a learning disability are treated as equals in our society. From finding it harder to get into work, being victims of hate crime, or receiving poorer quality of healthcare, society has a responsibility to help remove these challenges.

"Many of the obstacles like these that my cousin faces are due to people feeling uncomfortable around disability and afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and therefore ignoring and turning a blind eye to these issues. Whilst this is in some ways understandable, it is also ridiculous.

"Learning Disability Week is the perfect opportunity to challenge this. We need to give people a far greater awareness and understanding of what learning disability means. That's exactly what Mencap wants to achieve with this years learning disability week and why I'm asking as many people as possible to get involved."

Learning Disability Week ran June 14-21; for more information, visit the Mencap website.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

[dis]ABLED Inside Out art project aims to take 3,000 portraits of disabled individuals in New York City to celebrate ADA 25th anniversary

From Mashable:

On March 12, 1990, disability rights activists gathered in Washington, D.C. to fight for the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which would prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. After the main rally, 60 activists approached the U.S. Capitol Building, leaving behind their crutches, wheelchairs and other mobility aids before they began to crawl up the 83 steps in protest.

"ADA now," they chanted, during what would later become known as the "Capitol Crawl." Eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, who was born with cerebral palsy, famously said, "I'll take all night if I have to," as she ascended the steps.

The Capitol Crawl not only empowered those with disabilities, but was also seen as a success — later that month, the ADA passed House, and was subsequently passed in the Senate and signed by President George H. W. Bush that July.

Now, 25 years later, a new and ambitious project is working to once again change perceptions of people with disabilities — not with political activism, but through the arts.
Actors and filmmakers Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes and Diego Osorio are spearheading [dis]ABLED Inside Out, a photography project branching from the global Inside Out project — "the people's art project" — founded by photographer JR, which focuses on personal identity.

[dis]ABLED Inside Out specifically aims to take 3,000 portraits of disabled individuals in New York City through a series of pop-up events, gatherings and private sessions over the next several months.
It will all lead up to a special commemoration of the ADA's 25th year in October — Disability Awareness Month — when the portraits will be publicly posted on the sidewalks of a currently undisclosed, symbolic place in New York. The first "Gathering Day," which encourages everyone to show up at a specific location and get their portraits taken, will take place Saturday at downtown Manhattan's Brookfield Place. They want to eventually host events in all five boroughs of New York City.

"The idea is really to reunite everyone," Huyghues Despointes told Mashable at [dis]ABLED Inside Out's coworking space in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood. "Reunite every foundation, every organization, every person with disabilities possible. We really think that if we gather all these portraits, these humans, we can actually call for change."

Although Saturday is the first Gathering Day, there have been several Pop-Up Days already, when the team went to certain disability events and set up photo booths. So far, they've taken about 250 portraits at events such as the Ability Expo and the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation Conference.
Huyghues Despointes was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) disease, often known as brittle bone disease, usually categorized by fragile bones and other bone and muscle issues. Although she's always used a wheelchair, her mother raised her and her sister, who was also born with OI, to be incredibly independent. She was encouraged to do anything other children could do — she went scuba diving and horseback riding, she's traveled the world and has done other things people might not expect.

But Huyghues Despointes realizes that many disabled people don't grow up with that kind of support or mindset, and now hopes to empower them.

"When you see people on the bus and you see someone in a wheelchair and a kid's staring, and the mom says, 'Stop staring' — this is the complete opposite," Osorio said. "We're taking it to the other level. We're saying, 'Come, show us who you are.'"

"Be seen, be heard," Huyghues Despointes added. "Usually people with disabilities are put in a closet, seen as a problem or issue for society. Pity — that's what we're trying to break. And people are so excited to be a part of this. It's amazing."

She explained that people often look at those with disabilities and don't think they're cool. "I'm sorry, I'm cool," she said with a laugh.

So while the project aims to show the struggles disabled people face, it also conveys the personalities of people who have overcome those struggles. That's why, beyond the portraits, [dis]ABLED Inside Out is also creating a documentary.

The project, and the encounters they've had so far, have also affected Huyghues Despointes and Osorio in great ways. For example, Huyghues Despointes said that before three months ago, she had never stood up out of her wheelchair in front of a camera.

"With this project, I stood up, because you have to. It's just amazing, and it feels good. You just want to stand up for the cause," she said.

But people without disabilities can also support the cause — anyone who has friends or family affected by disabilities and wants to effect positive change is welcome to participate.

"Once again, the Inside Out project is the people's project," Huyghues Despointes said. "We want everyone to participate, and we hope everyone will show up on Saturday and have their portrait taken."

Monday, May 25, 2015

What TedxSydney got wrong with #StellasChallenge

From Jax Jacki Brown for Daily Life in Australia:


May 21 TEDXSydney launched the #StellasChallenge campaign at the Sydney Opera House. Despite being billed as "a major initiative designed to contribute to the social inclusion of people living with disabilities", the campaign has caused outrage in much of the disability community.

Named after the late disability activist Stella Young (pictured), #StellasChallenge encourages members of the public to ask people with disabilities a series of questions or conversation starters like such as "Would you mind if we talked about your disability first, so that I can understand how best to refer to it, and would you mind if we explored how it has impacted your life?"

Well, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, I hear you say. It's good that people want to learn more, right? But as Stella's friend and a wheelchair user myself, I have experienced first hand how reductive (and frankly repetitive) these questions can feel. Stella and I have spoken many times about the fact that it's not our disabilities which have impacted our lives, but the structural and economic exclusion surrounding it.

As Stella summed it up in her widely shared 2014 TedX talk, "Life as a disabled person is actually somewhat difficult. We do overcome some things. But the things that we're overcoming are not the things that you think they are. They are not things to do with our bodies. I use the term disabled people quite deliberately because I subscribe to what's called the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled… by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses."

So it's particularly disappointing that TedXSydney appears to have misunderstood this important part of her message.

For one thing, the wording of #Stellaschallenge seems to suggest that all she was advocating for was a change in attitudes. But if you have read Stella's work, or if you had known her as a friend, she made it clear, repeatedly, that she believed we deserved much more than an awareness campaign.

Indeed, the act of "questioning what you think you know about disability" calls not so much for a literal inquiry of facts, but the dismantling of presumptions, stereotypes and misconceptions you may hold about people with disabilities, what our lives are like and even questioning the structures and institutions in society which have taught you to think that way.

More importantly, it means questioning how we can address disability disadvantage and then actually implementing the changes that will improve our lives.

In Australia, almost one in five people have a disability and yet 45 percent of us live on or below the poverty line. A landmark report by Women with Disabilities Victoria into women with disability experience of violence in 2014 found that we are at least twice as likely to experience violence as women without disability, with 90 percent of women with intellectual disability having experienced sexual abuse. These are the issues we desperately need to address for people with disability. Not asking us questions but taking action.

Last week, a petition has been launched to call for these concerns to be addressed in #Stellaschallenge. So far, it has attracted almost 1,000 signatures.

We are angry, and we are deeply saddened that Stella's name is being used to spearhead a campaign that is not being led by or co-designed by people with disabilities. Instead, TedXSydney had chosen to consult with disability service providers and charities that are not run by people with disabilities.

Stella was not a supporter of the onus being placed on people with disabilities to tell strangers about our conditions. She was also not a fan of portraying disability as a tragedy.

As disability activist group Crip Army states, "An awareness campaign will not allow us entry into the job market, or make the built environment accessible, or stop abuse, or discrimination. An awareness campaign will not find us accessible housing, or a way out of poverty, or opportunity to make our own decisions about how we live our own lives."


It's not rude: These portraits of disabled vets are meant to be stared at

From NPR:

It's impolite to stare. But when it comes to severely injured soldiers, maybe we don't look enough; or maybe we'd rather not see wounded veterans at all.

That's the message you get from photographer David Jay's Unknown Soldier series. Jay spent three years taking portraits of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but before that — for nearly 20 years — he was a fashion photographer. His stylish, artful images appeared in magazines like Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

"The fashion stuff is beautiful and sexy — and completely untrue," he says.

Truth became the focus of Jay's work for the first time about 10 years ago, when he started The SCAR Project, a series of portraits of women, naked from the waist up, with mastectomy scars. Around the time he was taking those photos, he was also trying to comprehend the news coming from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We hear about 'this number of men were killed' and 'this many were injured,'" Jay says, "and we think of them — maybe they got shot — or we don't really picture what these injured men look like."

So Jay visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., and one of the first injured soldiers he met there was Capt. Nicholas Vogt. In 2011, an explosive device detonated under Vogt's feet in Afghanistan, nearly killing him. His legs had to be amputated.
"I had never seen anything like it," Jay says. "It appeared that he ended at his waist."

He asked Vogt if he would be willing to be photographed.

"And Nicholas was very kind and said, 'Listen, I understand what you're doing but I don't think I can take part in that, certainly [not] right now,'" Jay recalls.

About a year later, Jay was back at Walter Reed and from across the room he heard someone yell, "Hey, photographer!" This time, Vogt wanted to participate. He'd been working hard at his recovery and seeing results. He was swimming a lot and he had a girlfriend (a nurse at Walter Reed who is now his fiancé). Vogt gave Jay permission to take his picture, but he had some parameters.

"I wanted to make sure there was action, it was movement," Vogt says. "Because I didn't want to portray myself as someone that's just waiting for medical retirement and going to be stationary for the rest of my life."

David Jay delivered. In his portrait of Vogt, he captures that sensation of jumping into a swimming pool and feeling your body descend to the bottom. Vogt's arms are stretched out and his eyes are tightly shut. Beneath his black swim trunks, there is nothing.

Vogt doesn't know how other people will react to the portrait, but he's glad he did it. "I just know I felt fulfilled afterwards," he says. "I felt like it represented me as a person. Yeah, I was happy with the result."

Other portraits in Jay's Unknown Soldier series are more graphic.

Take Army Spc. Jerral Hancock (pictured): On his 21st birthday, a roadside bomb hit the tank Hancock was driving in Iraq. The explosion sent shrapnel into his spine, paralyzing him.

Jay's photographs of Hancock show him with his young son — in one, their eyes are fixed on each other; in another, they're looking at the camera. In both, the veteran is bare-chested, revealing his tattoos and the mangled skin and bone where his left arm was amputated.

Then there's Sgt. Joel Tavera: When a rocket hit his Humvee in Iraq, he received third-degree burns across two-thirds of his body, including almost all of his face.

Jay believes these wounds belong to all of us: "You can imagine how many times each of these men and women have heard a parent tell their child, 'Don't look. Don't stare at him. That's rude.' I take these pictures so that we can look; we can see what we're not supposed to see. And we need to see them because we created them."

Jay believes seeing is one step closer to understanding.

The Library of Congress has acquired images from his Unknown Soldier collection as part of its visual documentation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Educating with comedy - Jokes from the Comedians with Disabilities Act

From KALW radio:

It’s Thursday night and Nina G (pictured) is about to get on stage for a comedy set.

“I'm a little too overwhelmed to be anxious,” she tells me before taking the stage.

Normally she performs in clubs and bars, but tonight she’s at SOMArts - a cultural center in San Francisco. The gallery is crowded with people and with art. A sign language interpreter is on stage signing her whole performance. Nina G introduces herself.

“I am America's only female stuttering stand up comedian.” 

And then, she gets right into it.

“People come up to me all the time, because I also have dy-dyslexia, that stuttering and dyslexia those aren't real disabilities and I shouldn't be in the Comedians With Disabilities Act. And I explain to them if you look at the definition of what a disability is, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's a physical or mental impairment that substantially results with having to deal with assholes.”

Comedy As Social Commentary

Tonight is the opening of a gallery show that features artists with disabilities and the Comedians With Disabilities Act are the live entertainment. Their name says it all. And Nina G’s first joke about people not thinking she’s disabled enough brings up a common problem for the members of her comedy troupe.

“Michael - who uses a wheelchair - people tell him that he doesn't really need the chair, they tell Steve he's not really a little person, and Eric that he's not really blind. I can only s-speculate but I think part of it might be is that they may see us as peers and if we're peers then how can we have a disability.”

She sees herself as part of a line of comedians who use comedy as social commentary. Think of Chris Rock’s comedy:

“Have you ever been face to face with a police officer and wondered ‘Is he about to kick my ass’ If you follow these easy tips, you’ll be fine.”

Nina G explains her connection to him.

“I’ve learned so much from him about being Black in America. How do you talk about these really difficult things, but in a funny way?”

It’s a balance between being funny, being edgy, and educating people. 

“How many disabled people does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

The audience responds: “How many?”

“One to screw it in and 5 able bodied people to say ‘You are such an inspiration!’” Nina G says. 

Back at the show, Nina G finishes up and Eric Mee - a comedian who’s blind, begins his set as he takes the stage.

“Alright - hey I found it! That’s my whole set goodnight.”

Wheelchair Comedian

This performance featured most of the comedians in The Comedians With Disabilities Act. The group performs together around Northern California about every two months, the rest of the time, they are solo acts. Michael O’Connell founded the group back in 2010.

“We're kind of like the Avengers in a way. They have their own individual movies, but every few years we get together for the big, world saving stuff.”

O’Connell refers to himself as a wheelchair comedian, as he explains on stage.

“Because frankly I’ve just gotten tired of people snickering when I tell them I’m a ‘stand-up comedian.' Some people out there really like to push wheelchairs. The problem is when complete strangers decide they want to try it out. I want you to think of the handles on the back of a wheelchair as breasts - if you don’t know the person they’re attached to, probably shouldn’t be touching them in the first place.”

He feels his identity and his jokes are wrapped up with one another.

“I will get angry if someone puts me as a comedian - I'm like no, no, no...‘wheelchair comedian.’ That's my thing. I want people to know that. In comedy you can't go up there and not address what is different about you.”

Laughing and Not Laughing

And sometimes the audience reacts to this specific difference by not laughing. O’Connell explains.
“People - you know god bless em - they've been raised to think that laughing at disabled people is not nice. And that kind of screws things for us in the comedy field.”

At this show at SOMArts, people were laughing, but every performance is a bit different. Afterwards Nina G explains that when an audience tries to be politically correct it can be awkward.

“No, you not laughing at us shows that you still have remnants of discrimination and and and bias, because you're not treating us like everybody else. At an open mic once there was a woman who was in the audience and she was covering up her eyes and she wouldn't look at me and so I got the mic and I got right in her face and I did eh-eh-eh and I stuttered and then it broke the ice it was good." 

It worked that time. But does their act work other times? Can one night of comedy change a person’s behavior? Michael O’Connell says that after a show in New York someone came up to group member Steve Danner.

“And admitted, 'I used to be scared of little people!' You would think that's offensive, no not for us. Steve was like, ‘how do you feel now?’ and she's like, ‘great!’ and gave a big hug and everything.”
That’s what O’Connell and the rest of the group hopes to see.

“That's what we do as human beings, that which we don't know is what we fear. And that's what's so beautiful about this show that we do is that a lot of people have never met someone in a wheelchair, or a blind person, or someone who stutters, it's fearful it's unusual. And once we finish our show they feel like they actually do know somebody who's blind or in a wheelchair.”

A few jokes can be a good way to talk about things that maybe aren’t getting enough attention, while having a fun evening at same time.

Learn more about the Comedians With Disabilities Act here.
 

How the Apple Watch is opening up new ways to communicate for disabled people

From Mashable. Pictured is Alex Jones, a Deaf American who works for Ai Media, a captioning company, speaking at the Apple Store in Sydney, Australia.

While the first iteration of the Apple Watch has received mixed reviews, one group is excited about the new level of accessibility it could offer — the disability community.

From using public transport to communicating via touch with another person, smartwatches are creating an even playing field for those with different needs.

David Woodbridge, who is blind and the Senior Adaptive Technology Consultant at Vision Australia, said he was pleasantly surprised how simple the Apple Watch is to use, at an event in advance of Thursday's Global Accessibility Awareness Day at the Apple Store in Sydney on Tuesday. He particularly praised the usability and linearity of its interface.

Woodbridge told Mashable Australia he regularly uses apps like TripView — a Sydney transport timetable platform — on his Apple Watch. The watch speaks to him and lets him know when the next train is coming, without having to remove his iPhone from his pocket.

Alex Jones, who has been deaf from birth and works for Ai Media, a captioning company, has also found the device useful because it works with touch. "Deaf people rely on sensitivity, on feeling," Jones said.

For him, the Apple Watch's haptic technology — or what Apple is calling its "Taptic Engine," to deliver taps to your wrist — has been particularly helpful for navigation.

"I use the haptic technology to tell me when I arrive in the city ... with the deaf community, we can feel the pulses whether to go left or right," he added. "If I’m running, it’s good because I can feel the vibrations — I can feel how fast I’m going, whether to slow down or go quicker."

The Apple Watch's capabilities also have a more personal appeal. "You can hold your fingers down onto the face of the watch, and send a heartbeat to a loved one," Jones said. "That’s quite an intimate experience."
When Jones grew in the U.S., there was no technology for deaf people to communicate with. Over time, deaf tele-typing developed, but the units were big and expensive. With programs like SMS and Skype, the community is edging towards equality, he suggested.

Woodbridge agreed. "When we had the iPhone 3 in 2009, I literally felt like I went to heaven," he said. "Not only could I use an iPhone, it was mainstream technology. I paid the same price as everyone else."

Jones' use of video technology to speak with others via sign language on apps like FaceTime on the iPhone — and hopefully soon on the Apple Watch — have also lowered barriers to communication. "That instant communication gives us equal access ... now I feel like we’re on equal footing," Jones said.

And what additions to the Apple Watch would Woodbridge and Jones like to see in the future?
Holograms, according to Jones. "You could do some signing in mid-air, that would be great," he said. "Maybe in five years I want that hologram."

Woodbridge hopes other developers follow Apple's example in designing for broad accessibility: "I want other developers to take on what Apple does as just a matter of course."

"[The Apple Watch is] basically a mainstream device, it raises the bar," he said. "I hope other manufacturers will follow suit ... If Apple can do it, the rest of you can as well."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Deaf actress Audree Norton, who paved way for Deaf actors, dies at 88

From The NY Times:

Audree Norton, a deaf actress whose fight to be cast on a television show in the late 1970s effectively ended her career in the medium but greatly helped the careers of deaf actors who followed her, died on April 22 at her home in Fremont, Calif. She was 88.

Her death was announced by her alma mater, Gallaudet University, in Washington. At her death, Ms. Norton was an emeritus professor at Ohlone College in Fremont, where she taught English, psychology and drama.

Ms. Norton was a founding member, in 1967, of the National Theater of the Deaf. The company’s formation was a watershed moment in the employment of deaf actors, who had enjoyed steady work in the silent-film era but had been marginalized with the coming of talkies.

The National Theater of the Deaf was the first company to present regular productions in American Sign Language. Today used by hundreds of thousands of deaf people in the United States and parts of Canada, A.S.L. arose spontaneously among deaf Americans in the early 19th century. But by the 1960s, it had long been stigmatized as a crude pidgin English. At the time, its myriad grammatical complexities — as rich as, though quite different from, those of English — were only dimly understood.

Ms. Norton acted in many of the company’s productions, including two evenings of one-acts that came to Broadway in 1969. The first included an adaptation of “The Tale of Kasane,” a Japanese work, in which she played one of a pair of lovers on whom the action centers; the second included signed renditions of poems by William Blake, Lewis Carroll and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with Ms. Norton signing Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”

In both productions, narrators translated the action into spoken English for the benefit of hearing audience members.

Ms. Norton, often described as the first deaf actor to be cast on a network television show, had guest roles on several staples of the 1960s and ’70s. Among them were “Mannix,” on which she played a deaf woman who reads the lips of a man in the act of plotting a kidnapping; the long-running sitcom “Family Affair”; and “The Streets of San Francisco.”

In the late 1970s, she and her husband, Kenneth Norton, who is also deaf, auditioned for the roles of the mother and father in “Mom and Dad Can’t Hear Me,” an ABC Afterschool Special about a hearing teenager (played by Rosanna Arquette) with deaf parents.

As Ms. Norton recounted in “Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry” (1988), by John S. Schuchman, the show’s casting director told her, “Of all the people, you and your husband won the roles,” but added, “But you are out because the director is afraid to use deaf actors and actresses.”

The show was broadcast in 1978, with the parents played by two hearing actors, Priscilla Pointer and Stephen Elliott. The Nortons responded with a public battle, filing a complaint with the Screen Actors Guild and rallying other deaf actors to the cause.

The protest was of no direct help to Ms. Norton, who — possibly as a consequence — did not work in television again. But by raising public awareness of the work of deaf actors, it demonstrably helped pave the way for the generation that followed, including Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar in 1986 for “Children of a Lesser God.”

In 1989 The Los Angeles Times reported that before the fight over “Mom and Dad Can’t Hear Me,” only 33 percent of deaf characters on TV were played by deaf actors, compared with 78 percent a decade later.
Audree Lauraine Bennett was born on Jan. 13, 1927, in Great Falls, Mont. When she was 2, a bout of spinal meningitis left her deaf. With her mother, she moved to Minnesota, where she attended what is now the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Gallaudet College, as it was then known, in 1952, and married Mr. Norton, a classmate, that year. She received a master’s in rhetoric and public address from California State University, Hayward, in 1976.

Ms. Norton began her acting career at mid-century as an on-camera model, appearing in TV commercials for Kodak and Royal Crown Cola, accompanied by a hearing actor’s voice-over.

Besides her husband, Ms. Norton’s survivors include a daughter, Nikki; a son, Kurt; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. Another son, Dane, died in 1990.

She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet in 2012.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

"Ethan Saylor Bill," in which disabled self-advocates will train police, signed in Maryland

from WUSA9:

FREDERICK, Md. (WUSA9) -- The state of Maryland took a big step forward for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities on May 12.

Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill that turns up the volume for the voices of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by mandating that self-advocates become involved in the training of police officers.

For more than two years, Patti Saylor of Frederick, Maryland has been channeling her pain into fueling change. Patti Saylor says it was done in her son Ethan's honor,"This will be the Ethan Saylor alliance for self-advocates as educators and its essence is to recognize that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities should be at the table for anything we discuss."

It was January 2013, when Ethan died in police custody after being removed from a movie theater by three off-duty Frederick County Sherriff's deputies moonlighting as security, for not having a $12 movie ticket.

The Medical Examiner ruled Ethan's death a homicide by asphyxiation. A grand jury found no wrongdoing on the part of those deputies.

Patti Saylor's fight for justice and police training has included a civil lawsuit, petitions and the appointment of the first-ever Commission for the Effective Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Now the people she's fighting for will be able to help train police and have a voice.

Law enforcement training has already started in the state with all new recruits. Now, Patti Saylor hopes self-advocates from the intellectual and developmental disability community will be involved in that training.

"Self advocates have a voice and we need to listen to them. It's their life," Patti Saylor said.
The bill signed goes into effect July 1st, Maryland is the only state in the country that has such a bill.

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Hampshire bans lower-than-minimum wages for workers with disabilities

From New Hampshire Public Radio. In the picture, Governor Maggie Hassan, just after signing Senate Bill 47 into law, May 7, 2015.

Governor Maggie Hassan has signed into law a measure banning employers, in most cases, from paying workers with disabilities at a rate lower than the minimum wage.

Decades ago sub-minimum wages were considered a way to help individuals with disabilities find work. But advocates say those wages have been used to exploit workers instead.

The governor said it’s fitting New Hampshire should be the first to ban sub-minimum wages, because the state has a long tradition of greater inclusion over time: “This generational progress toward including every single one of us into the heart and soul of our democracy, our communities, our economy, has a great ripple effect, not only for individuals and not only for their families, but for our economy, too.”

The governor says New Hampshire has been getting calls from other states about the law. While no New Hampshire employers had been paying a sub-minimum wage, disabilities rights groups have estimated more than 400,000 workers with disabilities are paid such wages nationwide.

The law includes an exception for some training programs and for family-owned businesses.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Obituary: Toronto Star reporter Barbara Turnbull, disabled by debilitating injury, carved out superlative journalism career

From The Toronto Star. She also wrote the 2013 book, What I know: Lessons from my 30 years of quadriplegia.

Barbara Turnbull, who died May 10 at age 50, is remembered for her "strength, her bravery, the depth of her independence, her writing talent and her vibrant personality.”

Retired Toronto Star editor Nick van Rijn admits that when he first saw reporter Barb Turnbull in the newsroom, he thought: “What is she doing here?” 

Years earlier, a teenage Turnbull had been shot in the neck during a robbery, severing her spinal cord and rendering her a high-level quadriplegic.

“She wasted no time showing me what she was doing here,” van Rijn recalled Sunday. 

Despite “my accident,” as Turnbull called the 1983 shooting during a robbery in the convenience store where she worked, she graduated with honours from Arizona State University’s journalism school as class valedictorian in 1990. She was subsequently hired by the Star, where she became a champion of disability rights and organ donation over her incredible career at the newspaper. 

Former Star managing editor Mary Deanne Shears hired her in the early ’90s. “Little did I know then of her strength, her bravery, the depth of her independence, her writing talent and her vibrant personality. But the Star newsroom came to know all of that, and many of its journalists became her friend, as did I. She was smart and feisty and kind and determined to make every day and every assignment count. I shall miss her so much.”

Former Ontario Attorney General Roy McMurtry befriended Turnbull shortly after the shooting. 

“I admired Barb so much. She was without a doubt the most courageous person I had ever known,” he said.
Newsroom colleague and close friend Joe Hall said he was shocked by how quickly Turnbull made people see her as she wanted to be seen.

“The miracle of Barb was you lost the chair. A whirring, lumbering, 300-pound contraption — the legacy of a cowardly crime and catastrophic injury. Yet if you knew her, it disappeared. Gone, in the glow of a sublime spirit.”

“Barb was exceptional in the way she conducted her life,” said another former colleague, Leslie Scrivener. “She used positive language, the language of the able-bodied, so that she was not set apart. Because of that we didn't set her apart. She walked to work. She had lunch with you. The relationship was collegial, not dependent.”

Torstar board chair and former publisher John Honderich said Turnbull’s work was exemplary.
“She was a great journalist. She wrote some tremendous stories. This is someone whose name had transcended virtually everything, and so people knew the story of Barbara Turnbull. 

“And yet she was insistent, always determined to be just considered, she was a journalist doing her job, she wanted to do great stories, she wanted to do stories that mattered. She cared about the paper. In those respects she would be like any other reporter. 

“But she wasn’t. She wasn’t every other reporter and that’s what made it so special.”

Monday, May 4, 2015

Many in French deaf community outraged by hearing actors playing main deaf characters in 'La Famille Bélier'

From The Independent in the UK:
 
If any country is in desperate need of a feel-good film this Christmas, it is an angry, struggling France. If any cinema industry is in need of a box-office office triumph after a flat 2013-14, it is the French cinema industry.
The advance buzz for La Famille Bélier, which opened across France tonight, has been extraordinary. "Here is a film that makes you laugh, makes you think and occasionally makes you cry," said the newspaper, Le Parisien.

Even before it opened, based on advance viewings and test screenings in the provinces, the movie was predicted to be the next big French hit, following in the steps of The Artist (2011), Intouchables (2011) and Amélie (2001). On the basis of the trailer alone, the film has been sold to 85 countries. A Hollywood remake is planned.

The film tells the story of a deaf-and-mute farming family with a 17-year-old daughter who can not only hear and speak but sing, beautifully. Paula Bélier's decision to leave home to become a professional singer is a sweet calamity for her parents. Their daughter is their mouth and ears. They want her to succeed but cannot comprehend her talent.

Advance acclaim for the film has, however, fallen on deaf ears in one constituency in France: the five million French people who have hearing difficulties and the 500,000 who cannot hear at all. Some – but not all – activists for the deaf are angry that two well-known actors with perfect hearing were cast to play Paula's parents who are Deaf Sign Language users. They also complain that the deaf characters are the main source of comedy in the film.

Karin Viard (who plays Paula's mother, Gigi Bélier) and François Damiens (her father, Rodolphe Bélier) were given a crash course in sign language. The results to those fluent in signing are said to be absurd, as if James Bond were to say "shaken not stirred" in a deep Russian accent.

"The actors sign like pigs," said Emmanuelle Laborit, a deaf French actress, who is director of the International Visual Theatre. "It is as if they were foreigners who can't speak French properly. Would we allow actors to black up to play a black character?"
 
Several senior figures in the French deaf community have decided to boycott the film. Hélène Champroux, who campaigns for French sub-titles in French cinemas, was disturbed by what she saw at an advance showing. "All the deaf characters are over the top. The hearing characters are more normal. Why is that?" she asked.

Other deaf people disagree, vehemently. They say that the comical body language of the actors accurately conveys the way that people with impaired hearing sometimes have to exaggerate their movements to be understood.

Viguen Shirvanian, a deaf cinema critic, says: "I found François Damiens especially to be astonishingly believable in his gestures. There is nothing shocking in casting non-deaf actors. Did anyone complain when François Cluzet played a paraplegic in Intouchables?"

Karin Viard is a popular comedy actress in France and often plays nervous, in-your-face characters. Her portrait of Paula's mother Gigi – an aggressive, funny, emotional woman with a heart of gold – is a typical Viard performance.

She makes no apology to her deaf critics. "Deaf people don't go in for politeness and diplomacy," she says. "They are like energetic clowns, who use their bodies to express themselves. Just like me."

Both Viard and the Belgian actor François Damiens have won high praise for their performances from hearing critics and filmgoers. So has Louane Emera, the 18-year-old newcomer who plays Paula Bélier.
The film's director, Eric Lartigau, had great difficulty in finding a young French actress who could also sing. A friend advised him to look at tapes of The Voice, the French version of the television talent show also seen on UK screens.

He stumbled on Emera, from a large working-class family in norhern France, who was eliminated in the 2013 semi-final. Lartigau went to see her the following day and told her that she was starring in his next film. She accepted enthusiastically.
 
The other star of La Famille Bélier does not even appear in the film – Michel Sardou, an ageing, middle-of-the-road French crooner who is scarcely known outside the Francophone world. The music teacher who recognises Paula's talent (played by Eric Elmosnino) is an unconditional Sardou fan.

He tells his doubting class: "Michel Sardou is to French song what Mozart was to classical music." All the numbers sung by Paula – in a raw but beautiful voice – are Sardou classics. The most moving – "Je Vole" (I am flying) – is about a young person leaving home and moving on, just like Paula Bélier.

Whatever British cinemagoers make of the film next year, they will reach for their hankies in their thousands when Emera as Paula is asked by her deaf, bearded dad to find some way to convey to him her love of singing.

She sings "Je Vole" into his mouth while he hugs her so that he can feel something of the rhythm of her voice through the contact between their bodies.

French filmgoers are perverse. Films that are flagged as blockbusters often flop; some of the great successes of recent years, such as Amélie, received little advance hype.

La Famille Bélier, like many French comic films, lacks subtlety and polish. All the same, as Shakespeare says – "You've seen how it can rain while the sun shines?" – laughter and tears are an irresistible double act.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

MDA Telethon, subject of disability rights protests for decades, finally ends

From The AP. Pictured is a sign from the anti-Jerry Lewis Telethon protest.

NEW YORK — The Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon is ending its annual Labor Day telethon, a television tradition for decades that has slowly disappeared from view since the sudden end of Jerry Lewis' role as host following the 2010 show.

The telethon was a relic from a different age, a tuxedoed Lewis oozing show biz schmaltz and hosting stars from Frank Sinatra to Jennifer Lopez over 45 years, pushing through his exhaustion to sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" as a tote board rang up millions of dollars in donations.

From 21 and a half hours in Lewis' final year, the show had been reduced two hours the last two years on ABC.

"It's not a 21-hour world anymore," said Steve Ford, MDA executive vice president, on Friday.

With television time costly, the MDA's fundraising efforts will move primarily online, he said. The success of a viral event like "The Ice Bucket Challenge" proves this is a potent area for philanthropy, he said.

"The real heroes have always been our families, and what we need to do is make sure that every dollar we raise is spent working for our families," he said.

The Labor Day tote board hit a record of $65 million in 2008, a figure Ford said reflected a full year's worth of fundraising activities capped off by the telethon. The MDA says the telethon itself has been responsible for more than $2 billion in giving.

Lewis' abrupt exit, announced by the MDA a month before the 2011 telethon, was never fully explained. There was no immediate comment on Friday's announcement from the 89-year-old comedian's spokeswoman.

His history with the charity goes back nearly to its beginning: the MDA was started in 1950 and, a year later, Lewis and his comic partner Dean Martin mentioned the charity on their NBC show. The two comics hosted a 1956 telethon before breaking up. Lewis began hosting it regularly in 1966, starting on a single television station in New York.

The telethon was not without controversy; in the early 1990s it was picketed by a handful of disabled people who said people with the disease were being made objects of pity by Lewis in order to raise money.

Yet his roster through the years represented a who's who of entertainment, including a post-Beatles John Lennon, Michael Jackson singing with and without his brothers, Liberace, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Celine Dion. Former Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon filled the same role with Lewis on Labor Day for many years.

In 1976, Sinatra engineered a reunion of Lewis with Martin, his estranged former partner.
With years of telethon tapes, the MDA has the equivalent of years of show biz gold in its vaults. Ford said the MDA has been discussing with Lewis ways to release some of this archived material.