Tuesday, November 18, 2014

People with communication disabilities speak out about needed technology

From Public Source:

Her voice and hands sapped by ALS, Mount Lebanon resident Mara Sweterlitsch (pictured) uses a speech-generating device to write and print out questions for her next doctor’s appointment.

Jennifer Lowe, a 46-year-old Brighton Heights woman with cerebral palsy, handles email and phone calls through her communication device to work as an education consultant for students with disabilities.

Isolated in a public housing unit in the North Side of Pittsburgh and paralyzed by ALS, Vaughan Thomas hears about school from his two preteen kids by texting with them from his device. With his eyes, he selects each letter in notes delivered to his children, who live with their mothers.

“Texting, emails, social media, blogs, they make me feel like I'm part of the world,” said Thomas, 46.

For the better part of a year, people who have speech impairment or loss, feared that a sudden, and painfully literal, reinterpretation of Medicare policy would diminish their abilities to communicate. Their advocates and the makers of communications devices also worried about how the changes might affect them.

Since 2001, Medicare has paid for the basic communications device, which costs an average of about $6,000, and the beneficiary could pay for upgrades, like the Internet, phone or functions of a TV remote or thermostat.

Beginning in April, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said beneficiaries could not get upgrades for the devices until after a 13-month rental period.

Then, the agency said that as of Dec. 1 they would no longer approve devices on which these functions were ever possible. In other words, even if the beneficiary wanted to pay for the add-ons, they couldn’t.

Medicare wouldn’t explain why they were doing this, not to PublicSource and not to about 200 lawmakers who sent a letter to CMS in September.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who represents parts of Southwestern Pennsylvania and is chairman of a subcommittee with public health oversight, sent a letter Nov. 4 demanding answers for what he called a “cruel and uncompassionate” act.

Two days later, Medicare backpedaled on the tough-guy approach it had taken for several months, calling for a 30-day public comment period as it considers updating the coverage policy to include beyond-speech technology. The comment period ends Dec. 6.

CMS expects to issue revisions to the policy in July.

While some are taking this as a good sign, Lewis Golinker, director at the Assistive Technology Law Center in Ithaca, N.Y., is not as trusting, and he says there are other concerns that are still not addressed, such as routine denials of eye-tracking technology.

“One can view this notice as an attempt by CMS to appear responsive to all the concerns expressed, but to take no action that has any substantive effect,” he said.

CMS’ move may actually extend the confusion. Some manufacturers began sending out devices with the add-ons blacked out months ago as the policy’s meaning was debated.

They didn’t want to give already vulnerable people a preview of what might be quickly taken away from them. Without a definitive answer from CMS, more people with speech loss could be denied opportunities to communicate like any other person.

Someone who already owns their device wouldn’t be affected unless the policy does ultimately change and they have to get it replaced.

‘A lifeline’

Many people with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease), cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, aphasia and various neurological conditions rely on speech-generating devices.

Medicare has paid for 2,000 to 3,000 devices annually in the United States since it started covering them in 2001.

At that time, gaining the ability to have a face-to-face conversation was a godsend. Many of the technological innovations were available then, but not so ingrained in society as they are now.

Following the 2001 Medicare coverage policy literally would have effectively eliminated any glimmer of independence that many people had become accustomed to.

About 75 percent of people who use speech-generating devices from manufacturer Tobii Dynavox, which has a headquarters in Pittsburgh, unlock their devices. Tobii Dynavox president Tara Rudnicki equated taking away the extras to saying, “You are not important enough to engage in society.”

Andrew Jinks, a speech pathologist at the Center for Assistive Technology in Pittsburgh, said the ruling would force manufacturers to time warp the devices back to the 1980s. “It’s like having a smartphone and taking it back to two tin cans and a string,” he said.

Face-to-face conversation is often too difficult to arrange for these people when a child goes off to college, or when trying to coordinate care through several caregivers and support services. And forget ever having a private phone call; without phone functions on the device, someone else would have to start and end the phone call, and they must talk over the speakerphone.

“To them, it’s not a toy; it’s a lifeline and it’s not frivolous,” said Shelly DeButts, a spokeswoman for United Cerebral Palsy. “It’s difficult for people to understand how restrictive having a disability can be socially and economically.”

CMS hasn’t indicated that cutting these functions is designed to save money.

“[We] have yet to find out the rationale for the change to a policy which, for 13 years, had operated without known fraud and abuse,” said Amy Goldman, co-executive director of the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University.

The potential changes are also affecting the business of speech-generating devices. Tobii Dynavox, one of the largest manufacturers of communication devices in the country, would have to drop two device models that could not permanently lock extra functions.

“Which means a beneficiary does not have the opportunity to have the device that works best for their needs,” Rudnicki said.

Taking devices away

Medicare enacted another policy change in April, creating a 13-month rental period before the user owns the device. They used to become owners right away.

Doesn’t sound so bad, but that means the user can’t get email, text or other upgrades for 13 months. Valuable time for someone with any of these devastating conditions.

Another potential consequence has intimidated people who use communication devices: If the user is admitted to a hospital, nursing home, hospice or any other assisted living facility while it’s still a rental, the device will be taken away.

“Those are critical moments to express what kind of care they need,” said Marie Folino, director of care services at the ALS Association’s Western Pennsylvania Chapter.

Sweterlitsch, 47, said her device was crucial to communicate what she needed and what she was feeling during her last hospital stay. “When I was in the hospital, I needed to speak up about errors,” she said.
Medicare provides a fixed payment to facilities, and the facilities are expected to provide equipment during the person’s stay there.

However, a communication device is often customized to work especially well for that one person and it takes time to make the adjustments and for the user to learn to use it. Plus, many facilities don’t have the budgets to provide them.

They generally range from $5,000 to $12,000 retail. Medicare pays for the devices at a discounted rate.
CMS spokesman Aaron Albright said few people who use the devices are admitted into facilities. For example, he wrote in an email, only about 300 people who use speech-generating devices are admitted to skilled nursing facilities per year.

Bruce Baker, the founder of Minspeak, a language system used on many devices, said the rental structure has also put a financial strain on his Castle Shannon company, Semantic Compaction Systems. They’re used to being paid for the device outright, which allows them to make frequent technology upgrades. With the payments spread out, Baker said they’re having trouble keeping up with waves of new technology.
Baker is optimistic that an updated coverage policy will reverse that change.

“I just can’t believe the federal government would do something quite as negative,” he said. “I think reason will prevail.”

Eye tracking

Speech-generating devices are needed by people with multiple disabilities.

Some people, like Mara, use a head-controlled mouse. Others may be able to use their hands or even their toes.

And then there are people like Thomas, who is almost completely paralyzed. He can still smile, especially at any mention of his children, but otherwise, he mostly conveys his thoughts by darting his eyes at the appropriate letters or icons.

Eye-tracking technology is one of the most advanced and expensive ways of accessing the communication device.

Though Medicare hasn’t explicitly said it’s not covering eye tracking anymore, manufacturers and assistive technology experts say they’ve recognized a pattern of denials.

In fact, Tobii Dynavox, a leader in eye-tracking technology, has taken at least a $1.6 million hit in the last 14 months because it has not been reimbursed by Medicare for the eye-tracking technology it has provided to beneficiaries, Rudnicki said. “You can certainly see how much we have put in and how much we don’t want the beneficiary to suffer.”

It’s unclear why it’s being denied. Again, CMS wouldn’t say.

But manufacturers have heard the technology has caused CMS to bristle because it is becoming a hot item in commercial products and anyone can use it, so they might wonder if people who don’t need it are jumping to ‘the cadillac’ when they could still be using a head mouse or another cheaper option.

Thomas doesn't see it as a luxury — it bridges the divide between his mind and body.

“It allows me to keep my mind sharp and active instead of dwelling on this disease and sinking into a deep depression.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Contest seeks developers to create transit apps aimed at New Yorkers with disabilities

From NY1:

Like any New Yorker, Quemuel Arroyo knows the ins, the outs, the ups and the downs of mass transit. He rides the subway, after all.

"My MetroCard is the closest I'll get to a driver's license," Arroyo said.

As a rider with a disability, moving around requires more than a little effort to navigate an old system where fewer than one-quarter of the 468 stations are fully accessible.

"Every day, I have to map a route and cross-reference that route with the New York City Transit website to make sure that those elevators are hopefully working," Arroyo said.

So on Wednesday, he joined officials from the MTA, AT&T and Transit Wireless to announce App Quest 3.0, a contest that invites developers to mine the authority's data to create apps for commuters.

"This technology has the potential to revolutionize the way that people use our system, from tourists trying to find their way to people with disabilities to lifelong New Yorkers who want to be in the subway car closest to the exit they use every day," said MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast.

The contest offers $50,000 in prize money from AT&T, and for the first time, one of the prizes is a $10,000 payout for creating the best accessibility app for commuters with disabilities.

"Developers can come up with helpful ways for disabled communities to find the entrances and exits more easily, to understand where elevators are and where they're not, to understand when you get off a subway, which way to turn to find the nearest exit," said Marissa Shorenstein, president of AT&T New York.

Arroyo said having real-time information in a system where more stations are getting wireless reception would be a huge boon for the 850,000 New Yorkers with disabilities.

"The main challenge is elevators and escalators, knowing when they're out of service and knowing where they are," he said.

The challenge, in turn, for the tech-savvy set is to convert data about the subway system into easy-to-use apps that fit in your hand.

App developers have until February 3 at 5 p.m. to submit their apps for consideration in the contest. Winners are set to be announced in mid-March.

Comcast launches ‘Talking Guide’ for blind people

From Lost Remote:

Comcast announced a new feature to help the blind and visually impaired better watch television and use the Comcast X1 platform.

The “talking guide” will be released over the next few weeks to Comcast customers. Customers don’t have to download anything or buy new hardware; the feature is available just by tapping the A button twice on the remote control. The “talking guide” is a female voice that reads the guide, with program names, networks, and time slots, as well as On Demand and DVR information. It will also read program information and ratings that Comcast features from Rotten Tomatoes and Common Sense Media. They plan to have search functionality included in future versions of the talking guide.

Comcast hired a Vice President of Audience in 2012, Tom Wlodkowski , to specifically focus on increasing usability for people with disabilities. According to Comcast and the United States Census, about 19 million household include a person with a disability, 8.1 million of those with a visual impairment. Cable companies and Smart TVs are a good place to start innovating for them.

Wlodkowski said in a statement: "The talking guide is as much about usability as it is about accessibility. We think about accessibility from the design of a product all the way through production and this feature is the result of years of work by our team including customer research, focus groups and industry partnerships. For people like me who are blind, this new interface opens up a whole new world of options for watching TV."

You can see how the guide works in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kky3i1MxxAY

Thursday, November 6, 2014

For Russian kids, disability often means life in an orphanage

From NPR. (Note: Vladimir Putin banned Americans from adopting Russian children in 2012, which could mean the early death of disabled children in Russian orphanages.)

Dasha Daunis (pictured) is a lively 15-year-old who loves animals. She talks with her mother, Anastasia, about a recent trip to the circus, where they saw her favorite, bears.

Dasha was born with Down syndrome, and Anastasia says the doctors at the hospital told her that her baby would never thrive.

"Everyone was saying, the most reasonable decision is to abandon the child, because it's a cross you'll have to bear all your life," she recalls. "This child will never even understand that you are its father and mother. And your friends and your family will turn away from you."

Anastasia says she couldn't bear to leave her child behind, and after more than a year, she brought Dasha home from the orphanage. She never regretted her decision.

Instead, she thinks the doctors who advised her were in need of help and better information themselves.
But this Russian habit of placing disabled children in orphanages has changed little over the years, according to a new report highlighting problems with Russia's treatment of disabled kids.

Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based group, says that nearly 30 percent of Russian children with disabilities live in state orphanages.

"We do believe that people are still being advised to institutionalize their children," says Andrea Mazzarino, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, which recently released its report. "We spoke with several parents who heard that advice within the past two years in Moscow alone."

Instances Of Poor Treatment

Mazzarino says that once disabled children are consigned to state orphanages, there's little chance that they'll be given the attention needed to thrive. In many cases, she says, they face ill treatment.

"We visited 10 institutions across Russia, and in the vast majority, we either heard about, or we witnessed firsthand, severe forms of violence and neglect," she says, including children being tied up and sedated, or beaten, or doused with cold water.

She says children with severe disabilities are confined to so-called "lying down" rooms, where they spend their days in cribs, kept in diapers and fed through tubes. Photos from her report show teenagers with the physical development of preschoolers after years of confinement.

Even in the most developed countries, advocates struggle to obtain civil rights and humane treatment for disabled people, but Russia seems to be moving slower than most.

Andrei Dombrovsky, an activist for the rights of disabled people, thinks the problem dates back to the Soviet period, when the official ideology called for the creation of an ideal society.

"The country was striving toward something very perfect, in which you cannot see disabled person, because he is not perfect," says Dombrovsky, who is based in St. Petersburg. "And that's why all disabled people were living in the institutions."

He volunteers to help young adults make the transition from institutions to life on their own.

From A Children's Institution To An Adult Institution

For most disabled children who grow up in Russian orphanages, the only transition they'll make is to another institution that takes them when they're 18, such as the adult facility outside St. Petersburg.

It's a sprawling labyrinth of hallways with locked wards. Some residents, mostly very old, doze in chairs, or make their way slowly down the halls.

With her pink hair and punky clothes, 18-year-old Anya is a whirlwind of energy in this place, when she's let out of the women's ward to meet visitors. But Anya has virtually no education, and limited prospects for getting out of the institution.

Evgenia Shtil is the founder of a charity called Children of Pavlovsk, which helps young people who have aged out of one of Russia's biggest orphanages.

Russian law actually calls for the state to provide apartments for disabled people who are capable of living on their own. The catch, Shtil says, is that applicants have to prove to a panel of experts that they're ready for life in the community.

"It's really hard for a person like that to prove to the panel that they're able to cope with everyday life," Shtil says. "The only reason for that is that for the first 18 years of their lives, nothing was done to help them achieve that goal."

Russia says it's taking some steps to address these issues and help children in institutions to move into the community. The government has an "action strategy" that it says will bring Russia into compliance with the international Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Advocates like Shtil and Dombrovsky are working to help rescue the young people who are products of Russia's orphanages for disabled children. But they say, and human rights groups agree, that Russia's reforms will need to address the entire lives of disabled children, from the moment a they are born.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

For month of November, Comcast is including 10 films from The Arc & Sprout Film Festival/Sproutflix free On Demand for all Comcast/Xfinity subscribers

From the Sprout Film Festival. Pictured is "The Girl With the Tuba," in which a young autistic woman details how playing a tuba in the streets of Atlanta has helped her define her voice as an activist.

We are very excited about a new partnership between Comcast and The Arc & Sprout Film Festival.

For the month of November Comcast is including 10 films from The Arc & Sprout Film Festival/Sproutflix free On Demand for all Comcast/Xfinity subscribers.

Two of the films: One Question and Sheri and Paul were made by Anthony Di Salvo through Sprout’s Make-A-Movie Program.

For Online – the films can be viewed at: http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/watch/Sprout-Film-Festival/8164424342502163112/full-episodes#episode=8164424342502163112

For Television - go to On Demand, click into the Specials folder and then click into the folder labeled Disability Awareness. At the top of that page click on the folder labeled Sprout Film Festival.

This is a wonderful opportunity to create awareness with the general public about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Film is a valuable tool to entertain, educate and enlighten. Please help by watching the films.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Work of outsider artist Judith Scott sheds beautiful light on living with disabilities

From The AP:

NEW YORK — Institutionalized for more than three decades and largely deaf and mute, Judith Scott found her voice through art, forming intricate sculptures of yarn, fabric and other fibers tightly wrapped around an array of found objects.

Born with Down syndrome, the late artist is getting her first solo museum exhibition in the United States. "Bound and Unbound" opens Friday at the Brooklyn Museum featuring 60 of her cocoon-like works.
But the honor would not have fazed Scott, who died in 2005 at 61. It was the creative process — not accolades — that engaged her.

Scott was single-minded about her work. As soon as she finished a piece she pushed it away to signal she was done and immediately moved on to her next project. Found or salvaged objects, everything from fans to shopping carts, gave shape to her wrapping and weaving technique.

Born in Cincinnati, Scott was largely isolated for 35 years until her sister, Joyce, became her legal guardian and introduced her to the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, in 1987. While Scott had shown no artistic aptitude, Joyce Scott felt the facility for adults with developmental and mental disabilities would be a nurturing place for her.

It took nearly two years for Scott to begin expressing herself artistically, after a teacher brought some textiles to class and Scott picked up some sticks and began wrapping them. From then on, she was given free rein to select her materials. Gradually, her brightly-colored pieces got more complex. Some got quite large including a fiber-encased shopping cart, one of the few pieces where the object is not disguised.

"Her work had nothing to do with art therapy," said Frank Maresca, whose Chelsea gallery champions self-taught artists. "She was born with a gift of creativity" that's about form, color and process — "all the things that contemporary and modern artists are about."

Even though her work has been shown in other museums and art galleries and several major museums own some of her pieces, he said she remains largely unknown to the general public.

Maresca said he was bowled over by her creativity the minute he met her some 20 years ago and immediately decided to showcase her work at his Ricco Maresca Gallery.

"My sister was considered worthless and effectively cast aside for 35 years by society," said Joyce Scott. "It is a tribute to her inner resilience that once given the opportunity she was embraced as an artist of outstanding ability and originality."

But she said Judith Scott couldn't have realized her potential without Creative Growth.

"Judith's life and work really follows the change in disability culture and the arts that we have seen in the past few decades," said its director, Tom di Maria. "For Judith to go from an institution to the highest level of cultural achievement "is a testament to how far we have come."

Co-curators Matthew Higgs and Catherine Morris said the exhibition's goal was to build on the work Scott created for nearly 20 years.

"It's a larger narrative around the question of the relationship between creativity and disability," Higgs said.
The exhibition runs through March 29.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Aussie girl group with disabilities, The Sisters of Invention, on their way to being YouTube sensation

From The Daily Mail in Australia:

A gutsy girl group with a difference have unveiled their first music video which aims to challenge the way intellectually disabled people are often treated like ‘little kids’.

The five stars of The Sisters Of Invention all have learning disabilities, ranging from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, blindness, a mild intellectual disability and Williams Syndrome.

They also all have fantastic voices – with Annika, who is blind, possessing pitch-perfectness, a skill envied by musicians around the world and singer Aimee’s Williams Syndrome working in her favour, with hyper-musicality an attribute of her disability.
In their first professionally produced release called This Isn’t Disneyland, Aimee, 28, is dressed as Snow White, Annika, 28, is Cinderella, Caroline, 29, is Tinkerbell, Jackie, 25, is Pocahontas and Michelle, 24, is Rapunzel – but it is no fairy-tale dress up competition, they are making a clever point.
In the catchy electro-pop tune the Adelaide-based band sing: 'This isn't Disneyland I'm not a novelty this is a real as it gets.' 

‘Sometimes people treat us like we are little kids. We wanted to say we are not; we are more than disabled people. The video goes to show we are not novelties,’ Aimee told Daily Mail Australia.

‘We are here to change opinions of disabled people in general,’ she added.

The band’s producer Michael Ross, who worked with the five women to write the songs on their upcoming album, said people have been surprised by the video.
‘When people think about a girl group with learning disabilities they paint a picture in their mind straight away.
‘But when they watch it they see it is not “second class”, they see it’s not “s**t” and they are surprised and they are like “oh my god I actually like this.”, he explained.
‘We want people to really like it and get something out of it.’

Michael has been working with the band for four years, to get them to the point where their natural musical talents have created broadcast standard records.

The Sisters Of Invention describe their music as alternative pop and they write all of their songs from personal experience – both the happy and the heartbreaking.

One of the brave stories of how they wrote their songs comes from Jackie, who has Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

During the writing of their tenth song, she came into the studio with the heartbreaking news that her cousin who was ‘as close as a sister to her’ had committed suicide. She was just 14-years-old.

‘Heidi had lived with us since she was a baby and committed suicide. We weren’t expecting it. So we wrote a song about Heidi, it’s called Tsunami Of Kites,’ Jackie said.
‘For a singer-songwriter to sit down and be brave enough to use that story and that experience in a song is incredible.

‘To put your ultimate truth and honesty directly in to those lyrics, there is nothing childish about it,’ Michael explained.

Meanwhile, Annika used the time when her school principal told her parents she would never be able to learn anything as the basis of another song. 

Michael said when people talk about intellectual disability they start saying words like ‘retard’ and ‘infantile’.

‘They think that you will forever be a child. So for these girls to actually be singing gutsy, blatantly honest, emotionally mature songs and to sign them so beautifully that in itself is enough to make people go “oh”.’
He hopes that next time people talk to someone with a learning disability they instead think ‘I have no idea what your are capable of, you might be able to do something just as amazing as The Sisters Of Invention’.

‘Here are five women who actually have a career as singer song-writers,’ he added.
The women have all been singing separately for years but got together as a group three years ago and named their band The Sisters of Invention ‘because we are all sisters and support each other and that’s what friends do,’ Aimee explained.

Annika added: ‘We are reinventing the rules of how people see us and so people can see us for what we are capable of instead of what we are not.’

The Sisters of Invention are from an Adelaide-based arts organisation called TUTTI, which gave them a chance to develop themselves professionally. Follow The Sisters Of Invention on Facebook and download their first single on iTunes.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How tech advances are helping innovators develop more accessibility tools for people with disabilities

From GeekWire:

Inside a small office on the sixth floor of the University of Washington’s computer science building, Richard Ladner starts talking about Google’s self-driving cars (pictued). The longtime professor is so excited about the innovation that he lets out a big laugh.

But Ladner isn’t joking around — rather, he’s jazzed up about a better future for people with disabilities.
“This is an accessibility tool,” Ladner explains. “Can you imagine a blind person taking their cane, walking to the car, telling it where to go, and it goes there? I think that’s going to happen.”

Using technology to help people with disabilities isn’t a new phenomenon, from the advent of speech recognition systems, to hearing aids, to power wheelchairs — the list goes on and on.

But Ladner and his colleagues say there’s been a recent increase in attention to the assistive technology, which is encouraging, because they also think that there’s much more that can be done.

“There is a lot of room for this space to grow,” said Ladner, who’s dedicated more than a decade of his life to accessibility research.

That’s the same sentiment shared by Jenny Lay-Flurrie, a senior director at Microsoft who leads a team that focuses on accessibility, privacy, and online safety. Last week, Lay-Flurrie was in Washington D.C. where she was among ten people from around the nation who were honored as the 2014 “Champions of Change” — people helping to make workplaces more accessible and creating job opportunities for people with disabilities.

“Is there more technology can do? Yes — and that’s what is so exciting about being in the tech industry,” she told GeekWire. “The sky really is the limit.”

Ladner and Lay-Flurrie represent two pillars when it comes to the creation and implementation of accessible technology, from research at places like the UW, to the products built by companies like Microsoft.
But Ladner, who grew up with deaf parents, noted that these innovations haven’t always been of great importance for researchers and companies. For example, Ladner explained that though the first iPhone was a massive advancement for most of us, it left out people with disabilities — particularly those with vision impairments who had relied on physical mobile phone keyboards and were all of a sudden left with a flat touchscreen.

But a couple years after the first iPhone release, Apple decided to get serious about making the iPhone accessible. The company developed voice-enabled tools and other innovations that made the device more usable by people with disabilities.

“It was a company commitment to accessibility,” Ladner said. “That was a turning point, I think. No company had ever done that before.”

Today, most of the big tech companies — from Google to Yahoo — have teams dedicated to building out technology that is accessible to everyone. Lay-Flurrie, who is deaf, leads the Trusted Experience Team (TExT) at Microsoft that focuses on accessibility, while she also chairs the Microsoft Disability Employee Resource Group.

This past July, the winning team of a company-wide hackathon at Microsoft was the “Ability Eye Gaze” group, which leveraged technologies including Microsoft Kinect and Surface to create a series of new features to make it easier for people with ALS and other disabilities to control a tablet with their eyes.

That team worked on the project with Steve Gleason, the former NFL player who has ALS, who also appeared in Microsoft’s first Super Bowl commercial earlier this year. 
Lay-Flurrie said she’s spent a lot of time with Gleason recently and recited a phrase from him when asked about the power of technology helping people with disabilities.

“One of the things he says a lot is, ‘until there is a cure for ALS, technology is a cure,'” Lay-Flurrie said. “It really brings home the power of technology.”

So what more can be done? For starters, Ladner said there needs to be more people with disabilities pursing careers as coders, engineers, and designers — people who know exactly what a disabled person may need in a product.

“They will understand the value of what they are doing,” said Ladner, whose research includes MobileASL and the Tactile Graphics Project. “They will see the nuances.”

For that to happen, Lay-Flurrie said more awareness about disability employment is needed. Companies need to have a strong understanding and approach to hiring people with disabilities, she said.

“That means creating a safe environment where people can self-identify and be honest about their disability and what they need to be successful,” Lay-Flurrie explained. “Then empowering and encouraging them to do more, be more and bring ‘all’ of themselves to work every day. If you empower people to be successful, they will bring that perspective to work and use it to create great products.”

Ladner also noted that more and more researchers are starting to ask disability-related questions when the latest gadgets come out. How would a blind person use Google Glass? How might a deaf person interact with a virtual assistant like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana?

And with the aging baby boomer generation, Ladner said there’s a huge market to tap into for companies — in fact, there are more than 1.2 billion people with some type of disability today.

“I feel like there will be a huge surge in interest for this kind of research just because there’s more customers,” Ladner said.

It’s also important to keep in mind that some of these accessibility innovations actually end up benefitting the entire population. Lay-Flurrie recalled how technologies like talking books or even door handles were at first created for people with disabilities.

“Some of the best products have been designed with disability in mind,” Lay-Flurrie said.

When asked what she’d like to see happen over the next decade in the disability field as it relates to technology, Lay-Flurrie brought up Star Trek. She grew up watching the show and seeing Geordi La Forge — a blind character — use technology to get a leg up on his peers.

“His visor basically gave him the ability to see more than anyone else on the crew — imagine that,” she said. “That’s got to be the goal of technology. Disability is a strength — believe that, and the rest will follow.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Blade runner Oscar Pistorius banned from Paralympics for five years

From USA Today:

LONDON (AP) — Oscar Pistorius will be ineligible to compete in Paralympic events during the entirety of his five-year prison sentence.

The double-amputee South African runner, who has won six Paralympic gold medals, was given a five-year jail term Tuesday for killing Reeva Steenkamp.

Pistorius could be released after 10 months to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest.
The International Paralympic Committee said, under its rules, "the sentence means Pistorius is ineligible to compete for the entire five years regardless of where it is served."

That would rule the 27-year-old Pistorius out of the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In 2012, Pistorius became the first double-amputee sprinter to compete at both the Olympics and Paralympics in London.

The International Olympic Committee called the case "a human tragedy for the family of Reeva Steenkamp and also for Oscar Pistorius," but declined to comment on his eligibility to compete.

"We hope very much that time will bring comfort to all those concerned but at this stage we have no further comment to make," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.

The International Association of Athletics Federations said: "The IAAF has no comment to make about Oscar Pistorius."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Women, old people, disabled people still under-represented on TV, says British diversity study

From The Guardian in the UK:

Women and older people are still starkly under-represented on television according to a report which revealed that disabled contributors are barely seen on some of the UK’s biggest-rating shows.

The study of small screen diversity said television was far younger and more male than the population at large, with large gaps in the representation of disabled, ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Broadcasters have been united in their public determination to improve diversity both on screen and behind the scenes but the report by the Creative Diversity Network highlighted how far they still had to go.

Its analysis of some of the most popular programmes on BBC1, Channel 4, ITV and Sky1 said just 15% of women featured were aged 56 or over, half the actual make-up (30%) of that demographic in the UK.

Men outnumbered women by a ratio of almost 3:2, with women more likely to be aged between 20 and 39 than their male counterparts.

It said older people were “considerably under-represented” with over-55s accounting for just 8% of entertainment presenters and 12% of lead roles in drama.

Ethnic minorities were relatively well-represented but tended to be clustered around certain types of shows, including ITV’s The X Factor and BBC1’s The Voice.

Lesbian, gay or bisexual people comprised 1% of the overall TV population, said the report, against a nationally representative figure of 1.5%.

Miriam O’Reilly, the former Countryfile presenter who won a landmark age discrimination case against the BBC in 2011 and is deputy chair of the Labour party’s commission on older women, said: “By not doing more broadcasters are making it possible for discrimination to thrive.

“Since television has the power to shape prejudice they really – particularly the BBC as state broadcaster – should take a long hard look at the implications for our society.”

The Creative Diversity Network, which is backed by all of the UK’s main broadcasters, looked at the five most popular programmes in drama, entertainment and factual between October last year and April this year, with a maximum of six editions of each show.

The survey, completed last month, was part of plans to come up with a long-term tool for measuring diversity across all broadcasters and follows criticism by actor and comedian Lenny Henry of the “appalling” percentage of black and Asian people in the creative industries.

BBC1 scored best, albeit marginally, with its representation of women and also over 55s, accounting for 22.5% of all its on-screen contributors, double Sky1’s 11.2%.

ITV had the most minority ethnic faces with 16.5% (against 12.9% recorded in the 2011 census), ahead of BBC1’s 12.2%, and also the most disabled contributors, with 3.5% ahead of Channel 4, which came bottom in the disabled category with just 1.4%.

The broadcaster, which was home to the Sochi winter Paralympics as well as the Paralympics in London 2012, has previously said it has gone “further than any other broadcaster in putting disabled presenters at the heart of what we do”.

A Channel 4 spokesman said: “As the CDN has made clear, the small sample within this pilot study is not representative – it covers just 2% of the Channel 4 schedule – and it serves to highlight how valuable the CDN diversity monitoring tool will be in measuring and increasing representation across all programming going forwards.”

BBC director general Tony Hall has made improving diversity a key tenet of his time at the BBC. “The BBC gets much right on diversity, but the simple fact is that we need to do more,” he said in June.

“I am not content for the BBC to be merely good or above average. I want a new talent-led approach that will help set the pace in the media industry.”

A BBC spokesman said: “Clearly the huge range and variety of our programming can’t ever be captured in a sample of 15 programmes, and we’re working with the industry to develop a more consistent and rigorous monitoring tool.

“However, like other broadcasters, we recognise that more needs to be done to ensure all audiences are reflected on screen which is why we’re taking action to increase ethnic minority and disability representation and will continue to do our very best to improve in these areas.”

Responding to criticism by Henry and others, culture minister Ed Vaizey has called the lack of black and ethnic minority faces on UK television as “frankly weird”. BSkyB pledged earlier this year to take 20% of talent from black, Asian or other minority backgrounds.

Sky entertainment director Stuart Murphy said: “The results of the report highlight once again the need for us to tackle the lack of diversity on our screens.

“Sky has publicly committed to ambitious targets to make this happen. TV will be much better for all customers when it starts to reflect the Britain and Ireland in which we live.”

An ITV spokesman said: “As chair of the CDN we are committed to working with the other broadcaster, and non broadcaster members, to jointly take steps towards real shared action – which includes monitoring.
“Diversity, in its broadest sense, is important to us at ITV and we are committed to maximising the growth of diverse talent as well as increasing diversity on screen.

“We are also working on a social partnership with producers, as part of the commissioning process, that will challenge us all to think collectively about the impact we have on the people, communities and environment in which we operate, and represent within our programmes.”

Monday, October 13, 2014

New York Times 'Boys in Bunkhouse' series wins disability reporting award

From the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University:

A New York Times story about a group of men with intellectual disabilities who worked in servitude for decades has won top honors in the 2014 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

The second-place award went to the Anchorage Daily News. Judges also awarded an honorable mention to the Kansas City Star as well as to a student-created deaf and hearing newscast at Arizona State University.

The contest, the only one devoted exclusively to disability reporting, is administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. It was created in 2013 under a grant from Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist who has been blind since birth and who also supports the national Schneider Family Book Awards.

First place went to Dan Barry, Kassie Bracken and Nicole Bengiveno of The New York Times for “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse,” which describes in text, photos and video the lives of men who for 30 years worked in an Iowa turkey processing plant for almost no pay. The story raised questions about the federal law that permitted the men to be underpaid for doing the same work as their non-disabled colleagues, explained how regulators effectively sanctioned the exploitation and detailed the squalid living conditions and mistreatment the men endured.

The New York Times team spent most of 2013 documenting the men’s experience, which was first revealed in stories in The Des Moines Register in 2009. Barry wrote and reported the winning story, utilizing court records and company documents and conducting the first interviews with the men. Bracken produced a half-hour documentary that accompanied the project, and Bengiveno was the lead photographer.
Other New York Times’ staff members who contributed to the project were Chuck Strum, deputy national editor; Meaghan Looram, deputy picture editor; John Woo, video editor; and Justine Simons, senior producer.

Barry will accept the award and a $5,000 cash prize on behalf of the Times’ team Nov. 3 at the Cronkite School, where he also will deliver a talk on his work to students, faculty and the public. The talk, part of the school’s Must See Mondays lecture series, will be held at 7 p.m. in the school’s First Amendment forum. It is free of charge and open to the public, and a sign language interpreter will be on hand.

Contest judges awarded second place to Kyle Hopkins and Marc Lester of the Anchorage Daily News for “State of Intoxication – Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.” The pair will share a $1,500 prize for the series, which provides an intimate portrait of children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. As common as autism, the disability is widely misunderstood and underdiagnosed in the U.S.

Eric Adler of The Kansas City Star was awarded honorable mention and $500 for “Denise’s Decision,” which chronicles the legal, medical and emotional ordeal of placing a loved one into long-term nursing care.
Finally, judges awarded special recognition and a $500 award to Peyton Gallovich and Melissa Yingst Huber of ASU for their startup enterprise, a television show that delivers the news for both deaf and hearing audiences. It is the first newscast to employ sign language, voices and captions to relay the news, allowing families to watch the news together. The bi-weekly show is available online and on stations in the Phoenix area.

Judges for the contest said they were impressed by the breadth and depth of the reporting on a range of disability issues but singled out Barry’s work for both the quality of the storytelling and the critical issues it unveiled.

Judge Jennifer LaFleur, senior editor for data journalism at the Center for Investigative Reporting, called the winning entry “a beautiful narrative that tells the horrific story of how the rights of more than two dozen disabled men were denied and how the system designed to protected them failed. ‘The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse’ is an important contribution to disability journalism.”

Barry said, "We are humbled and honored by having been chosen as recipients of the 2014 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability. From the start we knew that the voices of the men of Atalissa needed to be heard, and we are just so fortunate that the men — and their many advocates — gave us their time, and their stories. Thank you so much."

Judges reviewed 89 entries from journalists around the world. In addition to LaFleur, the judges were Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and former vice president for news at Knight Ridder; Tony Coelho, former U.S. congressman and primary author and sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act;. Jennifer Longdon, a disability rights advocate and former chair of the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues; and Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at the Cronkite School and former editor and senior vice president of the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper.

In 2013, the inaugural Schneider award went to Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, part of The Center for Investigative Reporting, for a series exposing the routine failure on the part of police to protect the developmentally disabled at California care institutions.

The contest seeks to recognize journalism that sets a new and higher standard for reporting on disability issues and people with disabilities, said Kristin Gilger, associate dean of the Cronkite School and director of the NCDJ. “This year’s winners did that far beyond our expectations, and they did it by telling compelling human stories and by holding power accountable,” she said.

Schneider pointed out that millions of people have some form of disability, yet they are frequently under-covered by the media or they are depicted in stereotypical ways. In establishing the contest, “I wanted to help highlight good stories, and I chose to work with the NCDJ and the Cronkite School because of their commitment to fair and accurate journalism that includes diversity,” she said.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Russia-USA Media Enabled Musketeers project teaches people with disabilities how to use journalism to talk about their lives

From Russia behind the headlines:

Even as political relations between the U.S. and Russia reach lows not seen since the Cold War, joint social and cultural projects continue. 
The Media Enabled Musketeers, part of the U.S.-Russia Social Expertise Exchange, presented their first festival of short films in Moscow on Sept. 19. The goal of Media Enabled Musketeers is to train people with disabilities to tell stories about their lives through short documentaries. The project unites professional journalists and film directors with people with disabilities. 
In addition to learning journalism skills and making films, the partners in the project, which include the Journalism Advancement and Support Center in Moscow and the Downtown Community Television Center in Manhattan, conduct community training seminars on disability sensitivity. 
American journalist and documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert, who is also the co-founder of the Downtown Community Television Center, told RBTH that the idea for the project came in summer 2013 when he was taking part in a Skype conference with Olga Kravtsova from the Journalism Advancement and Support Center in Moscow and Karina Chupina, an expert trainer-consultant of the Council of Europe on youth participation and disability issues. 
What Russians think about people with disabilities What Russians think about people with disabilities The initiative received funding from the U.S.-Russia Peer-to-Peer Dialogue Program, which is funded by the State Department, the Eurasia Foundation, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Sony and private donors, including one of Russia’s best-known hockey stars, Vyshevslav Fetisov, who helped purchase cameras. 
As Alpert, Kravtsova and Chupina continued to develop the idea, they began looking for participants. In addition to people with disabilities who would be interested in taking part, the group needed professionals on the ground who would help make the films. 
“We asked here in Russia, who would like to work with us?” said Alpert. “We got no reaction in Moscow, but TV channels in Sergiev Posad (a Moscow Region town about 40 miles outside the city) and Krasnoyarsk (in Siberia, 4,000 miles east of Moscow) became very excited about the project,” Alpert said. 
In January 2014, Alpert took part in two training sessions for local journalists in those cities. At the presentation of the films on Sept. 19, Alpert further explained his interest in developing this cross-cultural filmmaking project. 
“We like this project, because every country in the world can do a better job fighting for peace and friendship. Both Russia and my country can do a better job for providing equal opportunities for its citizens. Media can be important part of building friendship, peace and opportunity.” 
The project eventually included more than 60 participants from both Russia and the U.S. The American participants traveled to Moscow for the Sept. 19 event, and the Russian group will visit the U.S. for the American debut in October. 

Jonathan Novick, who made a short documentary called “Don’t Look Down on Me” about his life in New York with dwarfism, participated in the program from the American side and presented the American participants in the project at the event on Sept. 19. Don't Look Down on Me.
“This entire experience has been nothing less than amazing. First of all, coming together to make films that share the perspective of people who might be not heard and focusing on issues we might not know about – it was extremely gratifying. But more amazing is to come here, all the way to Moscow and watch films on a big screen with all of you.” 
 To make his film, Novick film used a hidden camera in a shirt button to display the harassment, condescension, and ignorance he faces on a daily basis. He posted the film on YouTube on Aug. 7, and the eye-opening six-minute short has already been viewed more than 2.5 million times. 
The 13 films shown in the festival were divided into several categories: little people, people with autism, visually impaired and deaf people, sports and disability in mid-life. The creators of the films addressed different issues in their everyday lives, such as choosing a career, taking care of a sick baby and falling in love. 
After the screenings, American and Russian participants were able to meet one another for the first time – during the course of the project, they communicated with each other online. Mariam Magomedova from Moscow spoke for the Russian group: “I’ve heard about this program from Jon (Alpert), who I knew for long time through the American Cultural Center [in Moscow]. We went to a workshop in Sergiev Posad, and he showed us how to work with the camera. Karina Chupina hold a workshop on understanding disability imagery in the media and common mistakes that journalists or people working with disabilities make,” said Mariam, who made a film about living with cerebral palsy. 
“We spoke about terminology for disabled people – like what is correct and what is not. My tutor was from the Sergiev Posad local television station, and with her I was able to feel like a real film director, although she did the montage.” 
On Oct. 17 this unique collection of films will be shown at HBO’s theater in New York, and later some of them will be broadcasted on local public television stations. Alpert is optimistic about the future of the project, although at the moment he is not sure if it will continue next year. 
“I didn’t expect that the films would be so good. I think everybody worked hard and over-fulfilled any expectations. I’m really happy. If everybody will be equally helpful, and we receive the same basic funding, I’m sure we will do it again.” 
Regardless of what happens in the future, Alpert said that the initiative has already made a lasting impact in the lives of the participants and the partner organizations. 
“What is really cool about this,” Alpert said, “is that now the local TV station in Sergiev Posad is doing an investigative report as to why there is no single accessible room for disabled people in the main hotel. They do it on their own now!”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

'Raw Beauty Project' in NY City empowers disabled women

From The Today Show:

When she was 19, Wendy Crawford’s life as a model changed forever, after a car accident left her a quadriplegic. Thirty years later, she’s not only posing in front of the camera, but empowering other women with disabilities to discover their own Raw Beauty.

The co-creator of The Raw Beauty Project NYC told TODAY.com that after her accident — she was hit by a drunk driver — she initially remained optimistic that she could have a future in modeling with a disability, but was disappointed that the industry wasn’t as receptive to the idea.

Wendy Crawford is one of the people behind The Raw Beauty Project NYC, a photo exhibition designed to empower women with disabilities. 
Crawford, now 49, went on to found the mobileWOMEN advocacy group for women in wheelchairs in 2002, and in 2006 she helped created “Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty,” a Miami exhibit featuring photos of 20 disabled women that aimed to create new perceptions, shatter stereotypes and raise awareness for women with physical challenges.

“[Models] become empowered by it, and realize there are so many other things they can do,” Crawford said.

This year, mobileWOMEN.org partnered with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation to develop The Raw Beauty Project, a spinoff that features 20 women with disabilities to emphasize their "beauty, empowerment and sensuality," according to the project's website. Showcased last month at ACA Galleries in Manhattan, photographs from the series have been sold to benefit the Reeve Foundation, which raises money and awareness for people living with spinal cord injuries and paralysis.

Dixon, the lead photographer for The Raw Beauty Project, told TODAY.com she’s inspired by the models who have participated: "These women are role models, visionaries, and it's just an honor to be part of shattering the traditional and cultural definition of what beauty looks like.”

Solman, the model outreach coordinator and co-chair of The Raw Beauty Project, said the models’ stories are just as powerful and transcendent as the photos. “Since it is our belief that everyone has obstacles and challenges in life, because the models’ [disabilities] in life are visually obvious, the audience sees powerful examples of women overcoming obstacles, so they can be inspired in their own lives,” she added.
Some of the models to participate in The Raw Beauty Project shared their thoughts about participating in The Raw Beauty Project with TODAY.com.

Deborah Mellen, a paraplegic, said the project presented an opportunity for her to realize how she felt about herself. “I had become used to feeling that most people who meet me do not see my joy because they cannot imagine someone in a wheelchair feeling this way,” she said via email. She calls this photo "perfect" and says, "I am full of joy. I came away happy I pushed myself and proud to be part of an exhilarating group of women.”

Danielle Sheypuk, who lives with spinal muscular atrophy, said she reveled in illustrating the “raw” in the Raw Beauty Project. “I was thrilled to pose my body in beautiful, sensuous angles in front of the camera to support the project and its significant message: normalizing being beautiful and glamorous with disability,” she said.

The experience was a breath of fresh air, says Monique Stamps, who has a spinal cord injury: “This experience has given me more strength to embrace who I am and my disability, move forward boldly in life and continue to always uplift others.”

Christy Cruz, who has cerebral palsy, said she was happy to “showcase elegance from a different perspective,” one you won’t often find in fashion magazines: “I was thrilled to see women with various physical disabilities unite with one another to bring forth a renewed attitude about the misconceptions of our lives.”

Maggie Redden became a paraplegic after a bout with polio, and found it difficult to break into the modeling business. She praised The Raw Beauty Project, because “elegance, strength, and beauty are what truly make each model beautiful, and that’s what each photo captures.”

Aimee Hofmann, a paraplegic, said she wanted to work on the project so she could be an inspiration for all women, not just those with disabilities. “Sometimes having a physical disability can make one feel physically ‘locked,’" she said. "However, the Raw Beauty Project made me realize, I can unleash that beautiful, confident woman once again.”
Blogger and advocate Emily Ladau (pictured) didn’t want her Larsen Syndrome, a bone disorder, to make her self-conscious during her shoot. “Participating in the photo shoot and being part of the gallery proved to be a transformative kind of activism for me — a way to act on my mission to change society’s perceptions of disability,” she told TODAY.

Cheryl Price, who’s lived with a spinal cord injury since birth, said she grew up not wanting to stand out from the crowd, but now views her disability as an opportunity to create change: "Yes, I am standing out, and it feels beautiful.”

Crawford hopes the project leads to improved access, education and outreach to women with disabilities, while empowering them to feel sensual, ambitious, creative and confident.

“These women, the reason they’ve been able to overcome their obstacles is because they believe in themselves and they love themselves,” Crawford said. “I was stuck for a while, and I didn’t feel that way, originally. Even though on the outside, I appeared OK, on the inside, I didn’t accept myself. So, that was a new journey, and once I could do that, then I feel like doors opened for me, and the whole universe opened.”

Thursday, October 9, 2014

'Baby-Sitters Club' author Ann M. Martin's new book takes on autism

From CNN:

It's been almost 15 years since "The Baby-Sitters Club" held its last meeting, when author Ann M. Martin decided it was time to move beyond Kristy, Claudia, Mary Anne, Jessi and their friends from the popular book series.

But Martin has continued to write about adolescent experiences, from first loves to dyslexia and bullying. Her latest book, "Rain Reign," out Tuesday, is told from the perspective of a fifth-grader with high-functioning autism.

Rose Howard is obsessed with homonyms, prime numbers and following the rules -- something her teachers, classmates and single father don't understand. She feels most at ease around her dog, Rain, but everything changes when a superstorm hits their small town and Rain disappears.

"Rain Reign" isn't the first time Martin has included autism in one of her books, but it was a new experience for her to write using the first-person voice of a child with autism.

Below is a transcript of our interview with Martin, edited for brevity and clarity.

CNN: Where did you get the idea for "Rain Reign"?

Ann M. Martin: I would say that it's been a long time in the making. The character of Rose has been percolating for a while, but the very beginnings of this story go back decades to the 1970s when I was in high school and college. I was fascinated with autism, and I began working the summers at a school in Princeton, New Jersey, for kids with autism. The interest has never left me. I minored in special education when I was in college. I wrote twice before about kids with autism but never from the point of view of the person with autism. Rose was the first one, and I just could almost hear her voice in my head, and her obsessions and idiosyncrasies were becoming clearer and clearer to me.

My editors Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla and I had been talking about my writing another dog story. We had talked about a superstorm in some way because here in Ulster County (New York), where I live, we were hit incredibly hard by Hurricane Irene. It was very devastating in this area. All of these things came together at the same time -- a dog story, Rose and the storm -- and eventually the pieces came together.

CNN: How did you develop Rose's voice?

Martin: I thought it was going to be difficult. When I wrote "A Dog's Life," which was the first dog story I wrote, I had to experiment for a long time. It was told from the point of view of Squirrel, a dog, and I had to do quite a bit of experimenting with her voice before I settled on it. Rose's voice seemed to come to me more naturally. I think already knowing what her obsessions were, not only homonyms but prime numbers and rules, helped because her interests crept into her voice and helped shape it. So it wasn't as challenging as I had thought it was going to be.

CNN: Rose details her favorite homonyms throughout the book. What is your favorite homonym?

Martin: I have a lot, because I am just almost as interested in homonyms as Rose. The more different the spelling is for a pair of homonyms, the more interesting it is to me. One of my favorites that Rose discovers and mentions towards the end of the book is "soared" and "sword."

CNN: What did you enjoy most of working on "The Baby-Sitters Club" series?

Martin: Once I found a rhythm and developed the characters, I liked not having to say goodbye to them at the end of each book. On the other hand, by the time I wanted to end the series, I really felt it was time. I had told everybody's stories as well as I wanted to, and it was finally time to say goodbye and let them graduate from eighth grade. I also wanted to spread my writing wings and try different things, write in different time periods. I think we all felt it was time to end the series. But I love hearing from adults who read "The Baby-Sitters Club" books as children.

CNN: You worked with other writers on "The Baby-Sitters Club" series after the demand became too great and sent them outlines for future BSC books. What was that process like?

Martin: I really enjoyed it. I had been an editor before I became a full-time writer, so this was like putting my editorial hat back on. I am a huge outliner. I outline everything. The authors that my editors, and I chose to write the other books in the series were people who either I had worked with or the editors had worked with before and we felt that they could continue the voice of the characters. We kept the number of other writers very small to try to maintain this consistent voice for the series, and each of the authors had read all of the books in the series up to the point from which they would be writing so they would have the background. I trusted the writers we had chosen, and I felt that we worked really well together. I almost didn't have a choice, because there is no way I could have written all those books myself! I felt that this was the best of both worlds because I couldn't do it myself, but this was the schedule that Scholastic wanted, so it became what I thought was a very nice group effort.

CNN: What do you think of the status of middle school fiction right now and where it's going?

Martin: It is different from where it was when I first started writing. There is more fantasy, more sci-fi adventure and vampires, and I think it's interesting. I have a feeling in a few years, things will take a turn. The most important thing is, as long as kids are interested and turn into readers, especially avid readers, I think that's fabulous. Most kids become eclectic readers, which is great, and that's my hope for any reader, to find things that they love and hopefully those will lead them to other things.

CNN: You've tackled a lot of different issues in your books. What are some other things you'd like to cover in the future?

Martin: I would like to think maybe about writing fantasy in the near future. I've touched on it when I write the "Doll People" books with Laura Godwin, but she is the one with more of a handle on writing fantasy. So to write fantasy, even a light fantasy, would be a real challenge. I was thinking more in that direction than touching on another issue, which is not to say I won't do it; I just haven't been thinking about it.

When I was growing up, some of my favorite books were light fantasy, like the "Doctor Dolittle" books, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach" and "Mr. Popper's Penguins," but for whatever reason when I began writing, the stories were much more realistic. So, I think it would be fun to tackle fantasy on my own.

Raleigh, N.C. science museum launches app for visitors with disabilities


The N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh has launched the first-of-its-kind app for visitors with a disability.

NC NatSci is available now to be downloaded for free from the Apple App Store. Liani Yirka, the museum's curator of special populations, and SAS employees developed the app, which aims to make the museum more accessible to all, a press release says. It's being called the first of its kind for museums.

“This app allows visitors with visual impairments the ability to mentally map the Museum and know what exhibits exist so they can decide what they want to spend their time doing here and better plan their visit,” Yirka said in a press release. “But the really rewarding aspect will be the freedom this app will allow visitors with disabilities when visiting the museum.”

I downloaded the app on my phone and cruised around. It has basic information like the hours and directors. There's a list of exhibits and maps so you can plan your time. It lets visitors know where there are interactive exhibits so they can take advantage of all that the museum has to offer. There are graphics with text-based, audio or rich multimedia content specific to each exhibit space, the release says.

While the goal here is to help visitors with disabilities, the app is great for anybody, including school groups, families and others trying to map out their visit to the museum. If you don't have an Apple iOS device, the museum has 15 new iPod Touch devices that are available for use upon request.

Also, congratulations to Yirka and the museum. It recently won the Ken Franklin Citizen Involvement Award, which was announced at the Raleigh Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities Annual Awards Banquet last week. The committee recognizes employers, businesses, agencies and individuals in Raleigh who work to make the city accessible to all.