Help me support the “Love After War” documentary and raise awareness about Intimacy barriers for disabled Veterans returning home

You will never hear about the most problematic plight transitioning disabled Veterans face from Veteran Organizations, elected officials, the VA, or anyone else. It has nothing to do with efforts to thank and recognize Veterans. It has nothing to do with VA services and benefits. It would not even be evaluated as part of establishing goals for educational opportunities and employment. The most significant barriers facing my fellow disabled Veterans and I involve reestablishing trust, intimacy, and relationships with our loved ones.

Ensuring all Veterans are able to feel loved, Dr. Mark Schoen and Dr. Mitch Tepper established the ground braking documentary, “Love After War.” Dr. Schoen is the critically acclaimed director and producer of several documentaries on sexuality and relationships. Dr. Mitch Tepper is a world renown researcher, advocate, and sexologist. Dr. Tepper devotes his life to assisting individuals with disabilities achieve independence within their relationships.

Spend a moment reflecting upon the last time you heard anything discussing services or information on intimacy related to Veterans. Most of us, even members of Veteran communities and mental health professions, never even received an email or glanced across a Facebook post discussing intimacy. Yet a contributing factor in the elevated rates of Veteran depression, anxieties, and even suicide involves missed opportunities to reestablish bonds of friendship, trust, and intimacy within our own families..

Watch the trailer for “Love After War” to understand the importance of rebuilding intimacy between disabled Veterans returning home and their loved ones.” This issue impacts all types of service related disabilities from combat injuries to military sexual trauma. It does not matter if the individual lost their limb(s), lives with Post-Traumatic Stress or Traumatic Brain Injuries, loss the ability to see and/or hear their partners, or sustained injuries to reproductive organs, the pain associated with the loss of love, trust, and intimacy is very real to us.

The “Love After War” documentary will resolve the gap in available information related to the loss of intimacy for our disabled Veterans. It will feature the first-hand accounts of Veterans and their families describing the struggles they faced upon returning home. And these stories will move you to tears.

In my own experiences, the roughest part of going blind from combat injuries has nothing to do with blindness. Rather the toughest part revolves around a horrific four year period when I failed to connect in a meaningful fashion with my wife. The primary barrier was the inability to express what was going on inside my head, while she did not know how to rebuild our relationship. While I did trust her, I opted to withdraw and lock myself away. Not until we managed to reevaluate our marriage, associated roles, and redefine intimacy did we find a more meaningful method to connect.

I need your assistance in ensuring that the stories of my fellow disabled Veterans, our families, and myself cease to happen. The “Love After War” documentary is only the first step along this path, and we need you to finish the project.

An anonymous donor presented the documentary team with a matching grant challenge.. We strive to raise at least $50,000 this week. This would allow the “Love After War” team to finish production and release the film. This goal is only feasible through your tax-deductible donations to the cause.
matching challenge.
, we have this week to raise $50,000

For more information or to stay up to date on “Love After War” visit us on Facebook, Twitter, and visit the campaign.

Forget Resilience, but show me how you transcend adversity and become a Transilient Veteran

Being a Veteran means that at some point in our lives we consented or were drafted to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Some of us faced our adversaries abroad, while others received debilitating injuries from their fellow Service Members. Some of us have the scars, badges, and medals denoting bravery, while other bravely served but did not face combat. Regardless of how one served in the military, we all served.

A major piece of military service comes from the numerous transitions we each experience. Entering the military, Drill Sergeants or Instructors strip us down to our core and reforge us into the values of our respective service component. During our military service, we travel throughout the country and world, leaving behind old battle buddies and finding new comrades to watch our backs. Eventually, we each leave who military and transition back into civilian life. Each of these movements requires us to evaluate ourselves and our identities.

The term resilience commonly appears in news and research articles to describe a key strength of military personnel and Veterans. This is very true, we are able to bounce back during each of the transitions we face during our military service and beyond, but I feel this term is very limited when thinking about a Veteran’s greatest strength and goal for each of the transitions we process through.

Transilience, however, offers us Veterans a much better gauge to measure our accomplishments by. While this term only appears in the literature of the social sciences in a study from a nurse in the mid 1990’s about the strengths displayed by the children of alcoholics and the writings of my mentor, Ed Canda PhD, transilience offers us a critical concept to strive for. In its most literal definition, transilience is the developmental leap of transcendence. This means the biological, social, cognitive, and spiritual growth we do not just aim for, but exceed.

I break down transilience a little differently. To me, transilience is our ability to transcend resiliency and create a new life and identity for ourselves following a transition in our lives. After going blind, I tried to be resilient and return to the person, husband, and Army officer I was before being injured. This did not work. Not until I assessed and altered who I truly was deep inside and discarded the old me to become the new me, was I able to find peace and belonging in my life.

This is what I hope all Veterans aim to become, more than who you were, but evolve into who you are now but do not stop there. Keep evolving who you are with each new experience. Do not feel afraid to venture into the unknown, but boldly advance into the unknown and learn.

Families, friends, and support services do play a significant role in this process. We need you all to allow us the chance to grow and be there for when we fall. We need you to support us transcend from how you used to know us, and grow with us into our new lives together. This is not easy, but no path ever is easy. If the journey of life offered us no challenges, then we would not be having this conversation, rather we would all be the same.

On this Veterans Day, I implore each of you look at yourselves and figure out a solution to become more than who you think you are, but display just how Transilient you are.

harms way, while others served honorably without stepping into a combat zone.

A community enables one to conquer the 200 mile #DirtyKansa gravel race as a blind tandem team

Nothing beats the thrill of finishing a 200-mile gravel bike race than being surrounded by the people who made it happen. For many, cycling is an individual sport featuring a single person atop of a bike pedaling to their heart’s content. If you look at the words, “teamwork” and “tandem,” there is no room from an “I.” This is exactly where my Captain, Mike, and I found ourselves at 2040CST crossing the finish line and surrounded by our friends and family. It’s through our friends and family we with disabilities owe much of our achievements, since our independence requires a bit of dependency on others.

So how did this all unfurl? Through teamwork, volunteerism, compromise, and focusing on tangible goals.

This time last year, our team could not have guess they would be celebrating together. However, one person possessed the idea and will power to see it happen. With less than 20 miles left during the 2016 Dirty Kansa 200, Mike Reynolds, and Emporia-based ophthalmologist, received inspiration to complete the the 2017 race with a blind stoker. The idea occurred while crossing an old wooden bridge thanks to the euphoria endurance athletes commonly feel. Us in the military may experience similar emotions upon completion of training ruck marches, completion of a successful mission, or the day we recognize the positive accomplishments of our service.

Over the next five months, Mike remain committed to completing the Dirty Kansa 200 with a blind stoker on his Calfee Tetra. However, he struggled to identify a partner, despite contacting blindness organizations, tandem clubs, and even Paralympic training programs. Nothing would sway Mike from this goal.

During this time, my fellow University of Kansas student Veteran, Matt, shared a Facebook post about finishing some other gravel races. This caught my attention, since my visual impairment eliminated any chances for me to ride independently. Matt proposed we enter the Emporia Veterans Day Freedom Fest spur challenge. The 5k run, 40-mile gravel ride, and obstacle course occurs the weekend prior to Veterans Day. It represents everything Veterans Day activities should include, community building celebrations, military and Veteran outreach and education, and furthering local Veterans-based initiatives. The fact that Emporia is the home of Veterans Day makes this an even more special event to support.

At this point our team has yet to come together. Both Mike and I recognize the only way to accomplish our respective goals require the assistance of others. The reliance on another is not weakness or burdensome, but a chance to establish a meaningful connection that lifts the team to new heights. Endurance sports athletes learn this lesson rather quickly. Running or cycling across the country requires pacers, support vehicles, and communities to aid them through easy days and overcome dark moments when failure is a breath away. Marathon runners require the various volunteer stations along routes to provide energy drinks and gel packets to push their muscles to the brink. Cyclists need a mechanic to keep their bikes moving for other riders along the route to lend a spare tire or pump.

Disabled athletes likewise learn the importance of assistance to compete. Visually impaired runners rely on pace groups and volunteer stations along course routes just like sighted runners. However, one would not even be able to register without lining up sighted guides for training and on race day. Hand cyclists involve mechanics in maintaining bikes, and will request other cyclists to give them a little bump to crest a hill. Deaf swimmers focus on visual cues to announce the start of a heat. The beauty of these arrangements stems from the sheer enjoyment and celebratory feeling that spreads throughout the entire team upon finishing the event.

Returning to the Emporia Freedom Fest 2016 Spur Challenge, Mike, Matt, and I find ourselves a part of the few tandem teams. Demonstrating his competitive nature, Matt scoped out the field of tandem bikes staged for the second component of the Spur Challenge. He described to me the amazing Calfee Tetra’s, and the other Salsa Powder Kegs on the racks. When we completed the first part of the challenge, a 5k run, most of the tandems remained on the racks. This provided us with much optimism for the 40-mile gravel grinder, even though we rode a road tandem. My introduction to Mike and his wife Joyce occurred roughly two-thirds of the way through the course when they easily overtook Matt and me. Let’s say it’s very difficult to miss a shiny white carbon fiber tandem rolling along upwards of 20mph on a flat of hero gravel. It sounds like a fast-moving car, you just wish to draft. But Matt and I could not even keep up, despite trying for a short moment.

After the race concluded, Mike asked Leland, the lead for Gravel City and both the Freedom Fest and Dirty Kansa, who the other tandem team was. After finding out our information, mike hunted us down and proposed the question if I would like to accompany him on the DK200.

This simply took my breath away. First, I never knew a 200-mile bike race existed. Watching Mike leave us in his literal dust imposed a second mental block. Simply stated, I doubted my ability to serve as Mike’s stoker. However, Mike displayed a tremendous degree of patience and understanding by providing me a couple of months to think it over.

One of the important pieces of teamwork involves the team’s strength. My apprehension instilled a self-induced barrier. Representing the truest definitions of selfless service and team work, Mike believed in me and gently nudged me to believe in myself without breaking me. The chain strength comes from the capabilities of each link. Stress the weakest link to much, and it breaks. Tandem cycling is exactly like the chain. The Captain and the stoker works in unison to propel the team forwards. A cadence maintains the speed, the pair feels each other out through verbal and nonverbal cues. 

Mike’s desire to see us succeed became very clear while training for the DK. Being split between Emporia and Lawrence places much trust on each part of the team to prepare themselves when separate and optimize times when riding together. Mike provided training plans and tips. When it came to riding together, Mike continued to demonstrate selfless service by venturing out to Lawrence or picking up and taking me to Emporia to ride parts of the DK route. During the training rides, we established a goal and pedal are hardest to achieve it, while trying not to risk any injuries.

Our first time riding together is one for the memory books. We hoped to ride the first leg and back of the DK, while also posing for some action shots by the DK photographer. Accompanying us was Todd on a fat bike. Given the February timeframe, one might hope for a beautiful day, but Alas the temperature barely rose above 30. We made it to the Cattle Pens, took the pictures, and then headed home. Yes, the cold weather was too much for this Army Veteran to handle.

Though our next two rides paired us against cold temperatures and decent winds, we manage to ride 60 miles and then our first century. The 60-mile ride allowed us to get loss around Lawrence as what should have been a simple route ended up going from Lecompton, over to Eudora, around Clinton Lake, and then back to my house. This is what happens when you trust navigation to a GPS that just refused to connect and then rely on a blind back seat stoker driver with Blind Square on the iPhone. At this point, I struggled to contemplate how we could even complete the race, then we rode our first century. Completing the 3rd and 4th legs of the DK invigorated us, and we found our groove.

The next two century rides when off without a hitch. We realized that as a team, we would be able to complete the DK. Our spirits would not even be hampered by the troubles on our final training ride along the 2nd leg of the DK. During this ride, the rear tire sprung a leak. Mike attempted to patch then replace the tire, but nothing seemed to work. Despite this, we felt strong coasting into Eureka for a pickup.

Finally, we arrive at the DK itself. Mike and Joyce graciously hosted my Dad, Jessie, Brent, and myself. Our SAG consisted of Joyce, Tom, Davao, Peggy, and Brent. Mike, Jessie, and I rode the 4 miles to the start line to warm up. Yes, even in a 206-mile race, you really do need to warm up before starting, and 4 miles is a drop in the bucket. When we reached the starting area, we stood out. Just about everyone knew Mike and bid us good luck and many individuals wondered how I could see with my entire face covered. Mike lined us amongst the front row of cyclists. The starting line consists of many rows of 30 bikes across with barely enough space to wave hi. The atmosphere resembles a New Year Eve ball drop, but at 0545 in the morning. Like the New Year’s Eve, once the clock hits zero, its organized pandemonium.

Our starting strategy involved taking it easy and allow the sprinters and fast movers the chance to go around us. Well, when you have roughly 1,100 cyclists, it’s better to play it safe and then catch them on the back end of the course. The move payed off, as the first couple of turns, though still congested, provided us with the room to maneuver the tandem safely.

Each leg presented its own challenge for our team. The first leg featured us crashing. The second leg forced us to check our rhythm. The third leg demonstrated why a milk shake might not be a suitable halfway point nutritional splurge. The fourth leg proved what is possible when properly motivated.

Wondering about those crashes, well each is funny. During a river crossing, Mike played the nice guy and let another cut in front of us. The individual just about stopped at the banks of the river, causing Mike to steer off to the left and off the crossing’s paved area. Mike flew off to the side of the tandem and I graciously maintained an upright position holding onto the tandem. When Mike returned, he looked at me in amazement that I was just standing there looking as if nothing happened. However, we would change fates on our next crash. Heading into the 1st Check Point, a series of gates and poles puts one’s balance to the test. Well that is great on a single bike, but an 8ft long tandem cannot make those turns, so we crashed. This time Mike showed me off and landed rather gently, got up, and started to run with the Calfee. Slight problem, I did not land so smoothly and barely managed to find and grab onto the back of the tandem. About 10m into the sprint, Mike realized this and slowed down enough for me to find the bike.

Well we were not the only entertaining couple of runners. Waiting for us at an entrance to pit row pinot, Daveo and Tom also seemed caught up in the excitement and started running next to us. Only caveat is both gave us conflicting directions to the break area. Well our SAG team rocked the entire Check Point, quickly conducting some bike maintenance, switching out our Camelbacks, and provider an update on Jessie and the lead group.

The second leg lack of crashes or disastrous situations contained its own elements of intrigue. After smoking the first leg, we needed to revisit our tempo and save energy for the second half. However, the pleasant weather, beautiful rolling Flint Hills, and our fellow riders made this a challenge. The DK’s tandem class is rather small, so to come across two other tandem teams introduced a balancing act between maintaining our pace while trying not to enter a race to the next check point. Technically we met both teams during the first leg, it’s during the second leg you try to find something to occupy your mind, like racing. The two tandem teams consisted of male and female partners. The first set we came across hailed from Oregon, and the second from Columbia, Missouri. Both contained relationships with Veterans, as the first woman is a psychologist at the Portland VAMC, and the other tandem teams where Marines. Both teams aspired to beat the sun and was their first time entering the DK tandem class. Another facet of the second leg is the stunning rolling hills, groves of trees, river valleys, and ridge lines. We opted to walk up the final 50m of the Beyotch Climb, and cruised into Eureka at our fastest century time to date, 6:52.

Our support team once again enabled Mike and I to rest and refit ourselves. The Calfee received a quick once over and underwent a bit of tender love and care under Mike supervision. I opted to sit down, not that I have not been sitting all day so far, and enjoy a large Sonic milkshake from my Dad who walked the 3 miles to fetch it. 

The learning lesson is dumping a bunch of sugar and saturated fats into your body at the halfway point of an endurance race might not be the best idea. Most of the third leg remains a blur to me, since the ancient condition of dragging ass zapped my energy. Several times Mike asked me if I was awaking, to which I replied, mostly. The funniest part of the race occurred during this leg. A section of the route takes you by the former CEO of Dr. Pepper’s sprawling ranch with the most perfect white picket fence. The area features an amazing downhill portion across the front of the house and up onto a ridge. Mike and I discussed how awesome a Dr. Pepper pit stop by the CEO’s house would be. Not even a minute after this exchange, a rider who was resting on the side of the road opened his bottle of Dr. Pepper and started drinking it as we passed. This forced us to start laughing at how perfect the moment was. That rider was not the only one with the idea to rest in the area, with numerous riders resting on the road side, under trees, and in the creeks.

By the time we hit the third and final check point, the desire to finish strong prevailed. We hoped the stop would be a quick one, but that would not be the case. If a single rider places a lot of torque on the drive train of a bike, expect some wear and tear. Now imagine the torque from two riders. Luckily nothing broke, but the front cogs nearly fell off the bike as Brent lubed the chain and belt. We came very close to dropping out of the DK due to mechanical failure, but we figured we could hobble the last 50 miles. Before taking off, Tom FaceTime with my 7-year-old daughter, Abby, and we received our final pep talk from her. She of course knew we would finish and win, but then I know better than to argue or cast doubt against what she says.

And so, we took off on the final leg, racing against Apollo to the horizon. The fourth leg starts off with a nice downhill out of Madison and through some smaller hills. The main concern arose to our south, as large thunderclaps formed over the route for the first leg and stood there taunting us. This provided a bit of motivation to make it through several miles of dirt, which could become a mud bath. Once again, I created the weak link in the chain thanks to an Achilles injury flaring up. Fortunately, the ominous clouds retained their distance and rain content, and we crushed the Percy’s Punch climb and the dried mud beds. Only a couple of small climbs and about 20 miles of gravel resided between Team Tandem when Mike spurred us on. Growing frustrated with my tired talking, Mike upped our pace. Upon passing the Pastor’s Bridge and seeing the Emporia water tower, Mike checked our timing and announced the potential to challenge Apollo’s chariot, so we poured our remaining efforts into finishing the race strongly. 

If the race’s kick off sounded like the Time’s Square New Year’s ball drop, then the last half mile was filled with a ball drop at every corner and the finish line featured the ball drop combined with Independence Day. To showboat a little over the finish line, Mike took his feet off the pedals and allowed me to pedal the last stretch into the finish line. Every inch of the area contained cyclists, SAG teams, volunteers, DK staff, and the entire town of Emporia cheering on finishers This left very little room to navigate a normal bike, much less an extra-long Calfee. Well when you are blind and the loudness of the noise overloads your remaining sense of positioning, yelling for e to stop pedaling will get you nowhere. I should have probably warned Mike that I could not hear in loud situations, but he learned the best way, the hard way. I am pretty sure everyone jumped out of the way, for I did not feel us run over anything, and we did not crash, so go us.

Did we beat the sun? Yes, barely. The Official sunset on June 3, 2017 in Emporia, KS, occurred at 2043. Our official time over the line, 2040, meaning we completed the Dirty Kansa 206-mile gravel race in 14:40. Well, technically, 210 if you count the warm up. My daughter’s belief in winning the tandem class also came true, with the next team finishing about 30 minutes later.

Once we dismounted, Joyce, Tom, Daveo, Peg, Brent, and all our friends and fellow cyclists enveloped our team. Even my Daughter joined us on Face Time cheering us on and crying out of happiness. This moment will remain engrained in my brain, as this type of celebratory bonding rarely occurs over one’s lifetime. During the DK awards ceremony, we would feel the sharing of gratitude, applause, and celebration by everyone. The awards ceremony pays tribute to the top five finishers in various categories. Jessie took fourth in the males 29 and younger category. Todd took 6th in the fat bike category. When it came to the tandem class, we grew worried when we did not hear the names of the wonderful Portland VAMC Psychologist, but felt very happy when the Marine couple from Columbia took the podium. Then much speculation transpired between Mike, Joyce, Tom, Daveo, Peg, and myself before the announcement of the 2nd and 1st tandem teams. I thought another team was ahead of us in the timing and was shocked when the 2nd place team took the podium, leaving us as the champions of the Dirty Kansa tandem class.

When the announcement came, the crowd continued the joyous cheering for all of those who podium. When Mike, Tom, and I reached the stage with Mike as my sighted guide, white cane in hand, and Blinded Veterans Association shirt, the audience grew very silent. Personally, I think this is because everyone wondered if I would fall off the podium, after several other previous 1st place winners struggled to lift their legs high enough, or as one young male nearly fell backwards after attempting to show off with a one leg jump onto the 3rd place podium. I did slowly approach the podium, and did think, oh shit can I lift my leg high enough? Well the answer was no, so I kneeled and then stood up on the small square as Mike, resembling a trained gymnast, simply hopped up with little ease. Once everyone realized the Facebook Live feed would not be on America’s Funniest Home Videos, we all received a standing ovation. Know how I mentioned the loudness and rarity to be immersed in so much celebratory love and pride, well that moment beat the finish line moment. On a side, everyone realized why my floppy hat completely covered my eyes under the helmet. As one rider asked, “is it dark under there?” I replied, “all of the time.”

The Dirty Kansa ranks on my greatest lifetime achievements, and it’s all thanks to Mike, my captain, and coach,’ Joyce, his wife and our lead SAG supporter’ Tom, my Dad who drove us around all over and was always there to ensure we were ready; Daveo and Peg, for showing us some serious love at the SAG’s and taking some photos of the ride; and Brent, for repairing what we broke and enabling us to keep pedaling. This story would not have been possible without the support of Matt, who served as my first tandem captain on the Freedom Fest Spur ride; Chris who is my sighted running guide; and Richard Hunter, who started me thinking about becoming a blind athlete through the California International Marathon. 

A single rider cannot complete the Dirty Kansa by themselves. Heck, you cannot even register without listing who will support you. 

The DK requires a team mentality. Teamwork appears between the cyclists and their SAG team keeping the bike rolling and nutritional supplies stocked. Team building develops between cyclists throughout the course, inspiring everyone to pedal just a little harder or to lend support to a fallen rider. Teamwork is a necessity both on the tandem and around the tandem, since tandems require a bit of respect for everyone safety. The team mentality filters throughout all the communities, individual farms, volunteers, supporters, and so many other countless and unnamed individuals who go out of their way to support every aspect of the Dirty Kansa. 

The Dirty Kansa is not for an individual to demonstrate their prowess, but for everyone to come together and support each other achieve their independent goals.

If you wish to be apart of a team who supports blind athletes achieve goals like this. Check out these links. We in the blindness community requires the support of our volunteers who make it possible for us to compete. If you wish to be apart of this movement or want more information, feel free to contact me.

Help Arizona State develop devices and methods for blind travelers to navigate and orientate themselves to their environments through this study

The Arizona State University’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing requires the feedback from blinded individuals related to traveling preferences. The study aims to learn more about how we navigate and orientate ourselves while using canes, guide dogs, and sighted guides. The goal of the center’s studies involves developing next generation devices and methods for us blind travelers to successfully navigate our environments.

I request that if you are a visually impaired individual over the age of 18 and utilize a cane, guide dog, or sighted guide to navigate, click here to participate in the study.

Note, the link for the survey has been updated and works now.

Spend Today Recognizing Life with Blindness or a Visual Impairment Through Our Goals and Not Our Sight

Throughout the United States, October 15th celebrates White Cane Day. Dating back to President Johnson’s 1964 Presidential Proclamation, today allow us with a visual impairment to demonstrate possibilities. Whether you think of today as White Cane Day, White Cane Safety Day, or Blind Americans Equality Day, I request you set aside any preconceived notions you may possess about blindness and learn how we each view today.

To me, blindness is only a term describing my inability to utilize my optical system fully established by evolution. Yes, blindness is not a term that describes the inability for an individual to receive any light, rather blindness refers to a range of conditions impacting one’s ability to do things like read normal print, use peripheral or central fields of view, recognize colors, or a host of other barriers to pursue a specific goal..

Therefore, calling today Blind Americans Equality Day makes more sense. Not all the conditions encompassing blindness or visual impairments requires a white cane. Even those who may benefit from a white cane may not rely or even use a white cane to achieve personal independence. Rather, we each employ different tactics and tools to achieve our personal goals. So today is about treating us with a visual impairment equally.

Yes, this counters efforts to recognize the white cane as the symbol of blindness. Not everyone who is blind looks at the cane as a piece of their identity. Likewise, not everyone who is possesses a visual impairment even acknowledges themselves as blind. Therefore, we need to approach those who are blind or visually impaired just like you would anyone else. We are no different than anyone else.

To assist a blind individual, achieve independence, I request the observance of a few guidelines:

  • Do not assume we are all totally blind, rather 85% of those with a visual impairment possess residual sight
  • We hear you just fine, so do not shout
  • Do not take our arms or grab our hands if we look lost, rather ask how you may assist
  • We are fully capable of making decisions, so do not turn towards our companions to ask what it is we would like
  • Guide dogs guide us, so just completely ignore them
  • Introduce yourself when speaking to us, since many of us do not possess the magical ability to recognize you by your voice
  • Focus on our goals

What to Expect from #iOS11 for #VoiceOver and Zoom Users

The frenzy to download and update your iPhones and iPads to iOS 11 is upon us. The update brings a host of new features from cutting edge Augmented reality capabilities, apps which incorporates machine learning to improve accuracy of responses over time, searching with handwriting, Siri becomes a translator to English, and Voice Over stability tweaks. For a full list of updates, visit Apple’s official press release here.

It is my opinion that iOS 11 is safe for Voice Over users to download and install. I have been using iOS 11 on my primary iPhone 6 128GB since the start of the Public Beta release at the end of June. My main concern is for individuals with devices older than iPhone 6. My iPhone 6 behaved rather sluggish throughout the beta and even after the official release. This is even after reseting it to factory defaults and installing iOS 11. So if you use an iPhone 5S, Mini 2, and similar aged products, Voice Over may not react very smoothly all of the time.

Just like earlier iOS updates, Apple included some new features, changed existing ones, and even preformed some updates that you will not realize but improves the overall functioning of your device. This review will focus on accessibility updates, new iOS features, tips on using new features, and conclude with thoughts on taking the plunge. Before we delve into exploring iOS 11, many of you might be wondering two things, is my device supported and how much space will iOS 11 need. iOS 11 supports iPhone X, 8 Plus and 8, 7 Plus and 7, 6S Plus and 6S, 6 Plus and 6, SE, and 5S. iOS 11 will support iPad 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2nd and 1st generation, 10.5-inch iPad Pro, 9.7-inch iPad Pro, iPad, Air 2 and original, iPad 5th generation, iPad mini 4, 3, and 2. Finally, the iPod touch 6th generation is also supported.

Next, some of you might be wondering how much space will iOS 11 consume. Those with an 16GB device who are pressed for space need not worry. iOS 11 received a significant amount of attention by Apple that not only decreased the amount of room you might need, but almost cut the need for this discussion. iOS 11 requires roughly 1.8GB to download. This should not be a problem, thanks to the attention provided those cramped for storage. iOS temporarily uploads apps into the cloud, installs the update, and reinstalls any removed items. 

Once you finish the iOS 11 update, head over to Settings > iPhone Storage, and see what is taking up space. Here you will notice two new options, the ability to offload apps while keeping app information and clear out messages over a year old. The offloading choice is a nice feature if you have some apps you might access once in a great while, but otherwise really have no need to keep it on your device. When you reinstall the app, all the earlier settings will be in place. The Messages clean out is like spring cleaning. On my personal iPhone, this saved me 300MB of storage on my device. While looking at iPhone Storage, glance through the list of apps. You will see all the apps on your device, the amount of storage they consume, and the last time you accessed it. If you tap on an app, you will see more details about the app, and have a choice to offload the app individually. on your device. If you do offload an app, the amount of space consumed will be updated and the offload button will be replaced with a re-download button.

Accessibility Updates

Voice Over

Voice Over gained the ability to drag and drop single or multiple items. The best place to test this out is on the home screen with your apps. Do a one finger double tap and hold for a moment. Now switch the rotor to action and swipe up. You will have the ability to select items, drag it, place it before or after an app, create a folder, or place an app in the folder. IOS 10 did possess a similar feature for arranging apps on the home screen, but iOS 11 enables you to do this with multiple apps. Add as many apps to the drag session by navigating to another app, swiping up or down and add it to the drag session. You will be ablating do this within an app for moving around items. iPad users will find they will be able to drag and drop items between apps when in split screen mode.

The Rotor received several new features based on the app you are in. If you are on text, an option will allow you to find misspelled words. When you land on the word, the predictive typing above the onscreen keyboard will provide you some options, or you can find the Edit in the rotor and swipe through the same list of alternative spellings.

In the mail app with threaded messages, you can swipe down to expand the messages so you may read each individually. Additionally, the More action in Mail will allow you to just reply, forward, or a couple of other options straight from your messages list. 

When you are looking at a photo in the Photo app, the Show Facial Features rotor option will allow you to find faces, noses, eyes, mouthes, and more. Just swipe up or down on a picture, and double tap on Show Facial Features. There is another option for Show Details, which highlights various meta tags of the photo.

If you are on a news website or blog site with posts or articles, turn the rotor to articles. This will allow you to jump to the next article on the page, without having to worry about heading navigation or running into ads.

IF you enjoy plain around with Verbosity settings, bring up Voice Over’s settings and check out Verbosity. Apple placed toggles to speak hints, punctuation, speak detected text, table output options, and whether Voice Over speaks other formatting options.

The most common Voice Over bug we encountered involves hearing Voice Over’s clicks and swipes but no voice. While no one is sure why this happens, fixing it requires you to just turn Voice Over on and off.

Zoom and iOS’ Visuals

Zoom did not receive any major updates, but iOS received many visual modifications. If you do not have Voice Over on, you can now place a finger on the menu or status bar, i.e. battery indicator, time, etc.…, and iOS will magnify it. The Calendar app’s font is much easier to read and other minor tweaks reduces some of the eye strain reported by many users. Apple even polished the icons of many of its apps, so they appear cleaner and easier to read.

Other Accessibility Features

IF you encountered trouble answering a call, tighter phone, or FaceTime, you may let your device automatically answer. Navigate to Call Auto Routing and tap on Auto Answer Calls. You may toggle this on or off and set the amount of time in seconds for the call to be answered. During this time period, you will be able to dismiss the call. Personally I like this feature and leave it on during the business day.

iOS Updates

Siri 

Apple advances Siri’s abilities to personalize your entire iOS experience. In the release notes, Siri will continuously learn how to better serve you and provide recommendations based on what you consume in Safari, Calendars, Emails, questions to Siri, and a whole lot more. Apparently, the personalization will carry across to all of the devices you signed into with your Applied. These changes become clear when noticing Siri’s settings read, Siri and Search. IF you now have a meeting appointment, flight, or contact update in Mail, Messages, etc.… you will have the option to place it in the appropriate place. Yes iOS 10 rolled out a similar feature, but iOS 11 improves upon it.

Specifically targeting individuals with hearing and speaking impairments, Siri gains a new accessibility setting, Type to Siri. This feature removes the ability to speak to Siri and offering a text box when you press and hold the home button or say, “Hey Siri.” Also in Siri’s accessibility settings, you can set how Siri reacts when you toggle the side ringer option, aka mute switch.,

Looking for a universal translator? If your Siri language is set to English, ask Siri to translate something into Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. You will then hear Siri repeat what you asked in English and then speak the word or phrase in the desired language. Below this command in the Siri card, you can tap on the play button to hear the word or phrase again.

In the never-ending quest for realistic voices, Siri’s default voices sound much more natural. You will need to head to Siri’s settings to sample and download the new voices. In my opinion the American female voice resembles an early 20-something, which may be difficult for those who struggle with higher pitch vocals. However, the American male, and all of the British an Australian voices are nice.

Control Center

Control Center received some significant updates. These include the actual structure to the Control Center when you bring it up and the ability to customize what appears in the Control Center. Let us start with what appears in Control Center. First, we have several new buttons, the ability to turn cellular data on and off, access to media controls on the Control Center’s main page and not buried on page 2, and the standard buttons that appeared in Control Center at the bottom which you can now customize. Overall, Control Center regains its usefulness with options and buttons to control various aspects of your iOS experience.

iOS users finally have control over Control Center. Yes, that pop up that appears when you place VO’s focus on the Menu bar and then do a three finger swipe up, can be customized. In the Control Center menu, a new button states Customize. Two headings appear on this page, Include and More Controls. VO users can perform a one finger swipe up or down to remove items, or a double tap and hold on the reorder button to rearrange items. To add a control, double tap on the insert a control button. Here is a full list of all of the controls available:

  • Accessibility Shortcut will bring up the accessibility shortcut )Triple Click Home) if you more than two or more items controlled by the Accessibility Shortcut
  • Alarm
  • Apple TV Remote
  • Calculator
  • Camera
  • Do Not Disturb While Driving will prevent alerts, calls, and other notifications from appearing on your iPhone if it detects you driving
  • Flashlight
  • Guided Access
  • Low Power Mode
  • Magnifier turns your iOS device into a digital magnifier
  • Screen Recording
  • Stop Watch
  • Text Size provides fast control over the size of dynamic text

TV and TV Providers

The TV app and TV providers arrived in iOS 10, but iOS 11 improves these features. The TV app serves as the central point to find a particular movie, show, or episode from across all of those TV networks’ apps. However, the awesome bit of news comes from supported TV Providers. This might be why many did not realize about this app, since few if any providers signed onto Apple’s program. Now you should really check out TV Providers and link your cable subscription to TV Providers. Then head over to the settings for TV, and toggle on those network related apps. No longer will you be limited to wondering what is on and when, rather the TV app will become the center of your entertainment life.

Emergency SOS

Our iPhones demonstrated how they may save lives thanks to Siri and tracking our locations. iOS 11 advances these capabilities through Emergency SOS. If you push the power button five times, your iOS device will contact emergency services and provide your location. If you set up your Health app and listed some emergency contacts, they each will receive a text message and your location when Emergency SOS activates. You may turn this feature off, so when you press the power button five times, iOS 11 presents the lock screen with a Power Off, Emergency SOS, Health ID, and a cancel button.

Conclusion

We at Blind Vet Tech who tested out iOS 11 definitely enjoyed it. Yes, it contains bugs, but none of them drove us away. Even the most problematic bug with Voice Over’s muted voice is easy to resolve. For a complete analysis of the bugs in iOS 11, check out what AppleVis.com noted.

If you have any questions about iOS 11, join us on our next Blind Vet Tech Monthly Tech Talk, and let’s talk about it. These talks are open to anyone interested in learning how the blind uses various tech solutions and devices successfully.

Service and Guide Dog Etiquette Recommendations

Service and Guide Dogs provide an invaluable service for their disabled handlers. Each may stem from a special breeding program and undergoes training for this most important job. There are guidelines people should follow when in the presence of a Service or Guide Dog promoting the safety and wellbeing for all. Disregarding these guidelines can distract the dog, which can create a dangerous situation for the dog and its handler. Aside from the Americans with Disabilities Act, KSA 39-1103 protects the rights of individuals to utilize Service and Guide Dogs. Interference is a misdemeanor in Kansas under KSA 39-1103. Other states and commonwealths possess similar types of statutes to protect the safety and rights of Service and guide dog teams. For more information about Service and Guide Dogs, click here to visit our resources page.

  • Please don’t touch, talk, feed or otherwise distract a working Service Dog.
  • Do not let your pets freely roam neighborhoods, front yards, or other public spaces, something most communities, townships, associations, etc… mandate.
  • Don’t treat the dog as a pet; give him the respect of a working dog.
  • Speak to the handler, not the dog.
  • Some handlers will allow petting, but be sure to ask before doing so.  If allowed, don’t pat the dog on the head, stroke the dog on the shoulder area.
  • Do not attempt to give Service and Guide Dogs commands; allow the handler to do so.
  • Service and Guide Dogs team have the right of way.  Don’t try to take control in situations unfamiliar to the dog or handler, but please assist the handler upon their request.
  • When walking with a Service and Guide Dog team, you should not walk on the dog’s left side, as it may become distracted or confused. Ask the handler where you should walk.
  • Many Service and especially guide Dogs receive training to walk on the left side of paths, sidewalks, streets, etc… This is for the safety of the handler, so permit them the right away.
  • Do not allow your pets to challenge or intimidate a Service and Guide Dog.  You should allow them to meet on neutral ground.

These pearls of wisdom originated from the Guide Dog Foundation’s Service and Guide Dog etiquette recommendations. Please visit this link to read the original. Also, consider donating to either the Guide Dog Foundation or America’s Vet Dogs. Both provide efficacious Service and Guide Dogs to individuals with disabilities.

Google Announces Pilot Disabilities Support Team

The Eyes-Free Google Groups recently announced a new accessibility and disability answer desk at Google. The project is in a beta version with efforts focusing on the limited user base from the Eyes-Free discussion group. The service aims to  serve individuals with disabilities fully utilize the various Google products and services, like Google Docs, Android, Hangouts, Gmail, and the various other platforms.

I am very excited for Google’s ongoing commitment to enhancing both the accessibility and support for individuals with disabilities, and hope we each may assist in the development of the new platform. Before you consider sending a note to the Google’s accessibility email, please read the below email that announced the creation of the service from the Eyes Free Google Groups. The group started several years back to develop things like Talk Back and has been the go to source for Blind and Visually Impaired Google users. Here is the forwarded email:

Forwarded Email Message follows:

I’m excited to announce that Google has a new dedicated disability support team who can be reached at disability-support-external@google.com. The support team will be available Monday through Friday, 8am-5pm PT, to answer any questions you may have about accessibility features within Google products, general accessibility and assistive technology questions.

While we’ve been testing internally for some time now, like any new product/project, we still have some kinks to work out. Therefore, we’re hoping the eyes-free community can help us

Read more to learn about the team and frequently asked questions.

What is the Google disability support team?

The Google disability support team currently consists of agents supporting all things accessibility related to Google. This means, any question(s) you may have with regards to accessibility within Google products or accessibility at Google overall can be emailed to disability-support-external@google.com and you will receive an answer to your question, feedback or concern by a support representative within 72 hours. Please note: At this time, the team will not be able to assist with product specific questions that are not related to accessibility.
The support team will be launching with email only, English only, Monday-Friday, 8-5pm PST.

Why is the Google accessibility team launching this?

Additional support and resources is one of the most frequent feature request we receive from customers, community members, Twitter followers, etc. This will be just one step further towards our long term goals of connecting more with the community and providing additional support.
For those who wish to have a more personalized experience with a Google accessibility expert, this will be a great option!

How can I help test and provide feedback?

That’s right, we’re still testing and we could use your help and feedback!
Simply email disability-support-external@google.com with any Google accessibility question (especially questions you may already know the answer to as this will help to provide feedback on the quality of the answer) and determine whether or not the response was accurate, timely (within 72 hours) and helpful. The feedback survey will be provided in the email from the support agent, simply fill it out at the end of your interaction with the team.

Want to know more? Check out some of the FAQs below:

Why the name “disability-support-external@google.com?”

Unfortunately, the word “accessibility” is often misunderstood as “access.” For multiple reasons, we needed to rule out “accessibility”, “access”, and “assist”.
“Support” and “External” are currently required. Eventually we’ll move towards a hyperlinked “Contact Us” throughout our support pages and Google accessibility site.

Why email only?

While we’re launching with email only, we have plans to quickly move towards additional support channels such as chat and phone. However, because this is a testing period, email allows us to take the time we need to ensure our responses and resources are as accurate as possible before moving to live support.

How long will the team be testing for?

We’ll be testing with just the eyes-free and accessible communities over the next month before launching more publicly.

What is Google trying to learn from this pilot?

Everything! Perhaps most importantly, what types of questions do our customers have and where can we improve our resources and external communication.

What are the next steps after the pilot ends?

Continue scaling! As mentioned above, we’ll be looking to add in additional support channels such as chat, phone and hangouts. Expanding support hours, languages and much more!

AIRA Enhancing Independence Through Human Interaction

Our community of blinded veterans continues to grow. The population of older veterans who are more at risk to develop vision issues is living longer. In addition, with improved battlefield medicine we see greater numbers of survivors of injuries, many of them vision-related.
These men and women are returning home from the most recent conflicts and are attempting to enter the mainstream of society and take their rightful place within that mainstream.

One organization believes that the answer lies at the intersection of technology and human interaction. We believe that this opinion may be absolutely correct. Aira, a San Diego-based technology and services innovator, has created a solution that further enhances independence for our already independent blind and low-vision community.
The concept underlying the solution is simple: When given equal access to visual information comparable to that of a sighted person, the blind or low-vision person can operate more independently and with even greater confidence. Such a visual assistant should think like a set of eyes rather than as a brain. Blind or low-vision persons are perfectly capable of making decisions and need access only to missing visual information in order to make informed decisions. They should not necessarily have to rely on prescriptive directions from a third party on what to do with such information.

Have you wished for an on-demand sighted assistant to guide you while shopping, cooking, or just walking around the neighborhood? Many of us reside with family members or have nearby friends and other individuals to aid in these tasks—but not all of the time. Even after completing training from a Blind Rehabilitation Center and becoming equipped with portable Optical Character Recognition solutions, money readers, and the countless applications on iPhones, we as visually impaired veterans may still overlook or completely miss part of an address or the “Entrance Only” sign for the door of an office building.

The solution outcome has been Aira’s services platform, which incorporates Smart glasses, broadband services, and an agent network, into a fully integrated solution that provides immediate access to information about surroundings or elements within those surroundings. Users wear a pair of Smart glasses with an embedded video camera, an audio headset, and a GPS tracker. They are supplied with broadband network services which enable remotely located agents to view the users’ surroundings, get a precise location on those users, and then provide information that is relevant and helps them decide what actions to take.

Although technology is the key, it is the Certified Agents that provide the all-important human interaction many veterans prefer. Aira agents are trained on how to find and provide information through a proprietary agent dashboard based on location, time of day, obstacles to travel, nearby venues, and other important elements for the user to factor into a decision.

Access to the agents is a simple process. An Aira user presses a button on the glasses or the application on the Smart Phone to initiate a session with an agent. The response is immediate. A user can interact with an agent that is randomly contacted, or he/she can specify one with whom there is already a relationship. While the service is not yet available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the goal is for this to occur by end of the year. Agents are available currently from 4:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

Additionally, agents remotely serve the role of visual assistant, able to read labels, menus, instructions, or other items that may be important to the user at any given time. Most importantly, agents and users create relationships over time and establish confidence in one another.

It matters not if you prefer the white cane or a guide dog, this will certainly not change while using AIRA. In fact, the company’s founders claim that they will never suggest that their services become a replacement for a service animal or family member serving as a visual assistant. Despite this, we are finding any number of activities that Aira enables that are simply not otherwise possible. Here are a couple of them to consider:

  • Paul, as a totally blind veteran, used the service to shop in a big box retailer. The agent helps him navigate the aisles and then locate items on the shelf. It even reads labels via the glasses. Additionally, the agent is able to identify special deals through the store’s website and makes Paul aware of them.
  • An anonymous veteran of whom we are aware used the service to assemble a piece of furniture. With the agent identifying parts from 500 miles away and relaying directions found online, the blinded veteran user performed the assembly work. This dynamic team of three, two individuals plus the Internet, was able to achieve a task that simply would not be possible otherwise.
  • Other users arranged an Uber ride from their house to Walmart. The agent notified the individual when the driver approached the house. The agent also informed the individual of the Uber driver’s location. Once the agent received the individual’s shopping list, they quickly picked up all items on the list. The agent even described items on sale or nearby alternative items based on the individual’s preference. completion, the agent hailed an Uber ride back home, alerting and guiding the individual to the car.

There are many uses for the Aira service and virtually no limit as to what the agent and user can accomplish together. In the words of noted speaker and 9/11 survivor Michael Hingson, he himself blind, this is a game changer.
At present, Aira services are modestly priced to ensure broad access by the blinded veteran community. They are not yet available as a prosthetic device through VA Blind Rehabilitation Service, efforts between AIRA and the VA’s Prosthetics and Blind Rehabilitation Services are negotiating the particulars. We must remember AIRA is a subscription-based service. Currently two sites started evaluating AIRA. Once adopted, blinded veterans will be able to request information about Aira.

Personally, I am looking forwards to adopting AIRA to assisting in achieving several personal goals. First and foremost, AIRA will enable me to understand and engage with various activities involving my daughter. I am looking forwards to hearing play by play when she is on the soccer pitch or at a swim meet. I am now looking forwards to running down to the store and grabbing a few items for dinner or just perusing aisles independently. Finally, AIRA will allow me to break barriers when reading research articles littered with graphs, tables, and charts. OCR fails to recognize or often destroys these graphical depictions of data, forcing me to miss crucial points. I do not expect every agent to interpret these items perfectly, but it beats the complete inability to handle such information.

This article was crafted by Amy of AIRA, Paul Mimms, and Timothy Hornik.

Introducing the Victor Reader Trek, Part Stream Part Trekker Breeze

How many of you miss the Trekker Breeze? Yes, I must admit some longing for Humanware’s awesome GPS and way finding solution. No other way finding device provided the blind with an easy to use tactile interface. However, Humanware faced a horrible dilemma when manufactures stopped producing many of the components of the Breeze, and users expressed their outrage.

Humanware spent the last year or so deliberating how to reinvent the Trekker Breeze, and did they ever. Imagine if the Victor Reader Stream and the Trekker Breeze hooked up at a bar, and produced a child. That is what the Victor Reader Trek is, the body and functionality of a Victor Reader Stream with way finding and points of interest capabilities of a Trekker Breeze.

The Victor Reader Trek brings everything you love about the Trekker Breeze into the Victor Reader Stream. Now you may leave your iPhone in your pocket as you head out for a walk, and listen to a Blind Vet Tech podcast or a book while receiving turn by turn directions.

The Victor Reader Trek retains the menu structure and button arrangement as the Victor Reader Stream. All of the Trekker functions will be accessed through various buttons, like the 5, pound sign, record button, and several others. Also apart of the Trekker update, Humanware goes wireless through Bluetooth 4.0, allowing pairing with headsets like the AfterShokz Trekz.

The Victor Reader trek dropped one of the Victor Reader Stream’s most beloved features, an integrated microphone. The GPS antenna now occupies the microphone’s space. If you wish to record audio with the Victor Reader Trek, connect or pair a headset or external speaker with a microphone and press the record button.

The Victor Reader Trek will sell for $699, and will be released later this year. For those attending any of the national conventions, stop by Humanware’s booth to preorder the Trek for the introductory price of $599. If you are not able to attend, contact Humanware directly and ask about pre-ordering the Victor Reader Trek at this limited time offer.

Check out Blind Bargain’s podcast on the Victor Reader Trek by clicking here. All information from this post comes from this podcast.

@USABA Announces the Competitive and Recreational Community Sports Integration Project for Visually Impaired Veterans, a @VAAdaptiveSports Grant Funded Program

Military service, regardless of the era, emphasizes physical fitness and exercise. Remember all of those long ruck marches, unit fun runs, and PT tests? Yes, like many of you I try not to as well, but one cannot argue against the amount of research and information about the benefits of exercise to combat adverse health and mental health conditions. More importantly, organizations like USABA; Team Red, White, and Blue; Achilles, and your local sporting groups built tremendous communities with a vested interest in our wellbeing. Participation only requires your interest in trying it out.

USABA just rolled out a new program aiming to encourage visually impaired Veterans’ participation in local adaptive sporting and athletic events. The Community Sports Integration Project funds visually impaired Veterans registration and travel, so that they have the opportunity to participate in competitive and recreational sports in their local and regional community. Through a VA adaptive sporting grant, USABA will provide Veterans reimbursements for entry fees for the following events:

  • 5k to marathons
  • Cycling events
  • Triathlons, (Sprint and Olympic distance only
  • Powerlifting meets
  • Rowing regattas
  • Challenge events like Tuff Mudders and Warrior Dashes
  • Swim meets
  • Other competitions and tournaments for golfing, bowling, sailing, and other sporting and athletic events

Please note, multi-day events, camps, and ‘tours’ will not be considered. Likewise, events utilizing funds from the VA Adaptive Sports Grant will not be covered due to VA policies. Veterans will be provided t-shirts and other apparel to wear while competing when sport applicable.

Any visually impaired Veteran may apply, regardless of your age, whether you are recreationally participating or fighting to win, or location. Funding is available on a first come, first serve basis for any event starting July 1st until September 30th, 2017. If this interests you, here are the project’s guidelines:

  1. Contact the project coordinator with information about the event you wish to participate. The coordinator will provide initial approval, along with a packet containing USABA apparel to wear during the event.
  2. Participate in the event wearing the USABA apparel and share a photo of you on social media with the tags, @USABA and @VAAdaptiveSports/. If you do not have any social media accounts, send the project coordinator a photo of you so they might perform this step.
  3. Submit your official result to the project coordinator. This can be submitted as a link to race results or a printed result.
  4. Mileage stipends will be considered for events more than 50 miles away one way. Stipends will be capped at $75. Please seek approval before regional events from the project coordinator.
  5. Reimbursements must be submitted to the project coordinator by the 10th of each month to receive the same month. Reimbursements may cover the registration costs for both the Veteran and their sighted guide (if the activity requires one) and travel up to $75 (waivers are available).

If you have questions, please contact the project coordinator before your event. The project coordinators are:

Timothy Hornik
timothy.hornik@gmail.com
(785) 330-3503

Ryan Ortiz
Assistant Executive Director, USABA
rortiz@usaba.org
(719) 866-3025

Mindfulness for the Blind? It is up to you

Anyone following the latest medical research for back pain to common interventional strategies for Post Traumatic Stress hears about mindfulness practices. Some may involve spending five minutes and focusing on your breath, through apps like 3 Minute Mindfulness, the VA’s PTSD Coach, or the Breathe function on an Apple Watch. More complex strategies integrate yoga practices, which are made accessible for the blind through Blind Alive’s Eyes Free Fitness programs. In its simplest form, mindfulness practice is nothing more than anything enabling you to ground yourself in the present moment. There is no right or wrong way to incorporate mindfulness into your life, just as there is no right or wrong practice methods.

On a personal level, I found it difficult to even contemplate a plan for a regular  mindfulness routine. The initial struggles stemmed largely from believing mindfulness is that thing zen masters do in the full lotus position while surrounded by a completely still environment where they reach into the inner depths of their being. Well, this mystical belief set me up for failure before even starting off. First off, I did not know what the full or even half lotus position looked like due to the lack of verbal descriptions in Youtube videos and books. Secondly, no part of my life or household remains silent or still for more than five minutes. Finally, what does it mean and how does one even reach deeply into their deepest aspects of their soul or consciousness.

After reviewing the below materials did I finally devise my own definition for mindfulness and how to achieve it. This should be everyone’s first goal, define mindfulness for your self, and what it will look like. Develop a place where you will practice and a regular time(s) during the day which you will attempt your version of mindfulness. Finally, accept that you may stumble at first or struggle to clear your mind, but this is perfectly normal and actually is part of the practice.

So what is mindfulness to me? Well its a period during the day when I attempt to be in the present and allow my mind to enjoy the moment. I sometimes do this under a window in my office on the bus or in the car, when waking up or trying to go to sleep, or while out for a walk or run. During this period, I generally focus on my breathing through a routine known as a square, where you breathe in for five seconds, hold the breath for five seconds, let the breath out for five seconds, and hold for five seconds. The time period is up to the individual, just as long as the ratio is even. While breathing I  focus on each breath and smile, allowing any thought to enter my mind and let it go. Imagery is not necessary, just the ability to focus on the simple act of breathing and your smile. Now there are other breathing patterns, but the ultimate thing to remember is focus on your breathing. Notice there is no mentioning of sitting position, since any comfortable position will work. Sitting upright in a chair, lying on your back, or even in the full lotus position, the key thing to remember is comfort. If you are not comfortable, then how can you turn your attention towards your breath?

When walking or running, breathing methods do not really work, so I focus on my stride, feeling the ground beneath my feet, sense what my guide dog is trying to tell me, and listen to the environment around me. Once again it is important to keep your mind on the present moment and what is around you. It can and will wander to something else, so let it go and then bring it back. Best part of practicing mindfulness while walking stems from all of our orientation and mobility training through blind rehab. Notice how the routine requires you to do nothing more than focus on your surroundings to ground yourself n the moment. We do this precise actions to orientate ourselves, so you already know one mindfulness method without a mystic guide.

Books

Mindfulness might be found throughout all bookstores and libraries, making it difficult to recommend a particular title. Since this is a blindness related review, I will focus on those items found in the National Library Service BARD program.

The miracle of mindfulness: a manual on meditation DB44957, by Thích Nhất Hạnh

Thich Nhat Hanh writes on meditation and mindfulness in one of the most straight forwards and realistic ways. His status as a venerated Buddhist monk provides a level of credibility unmatched by most of the other authors writing on the subject. He understands the everyday person may only possess a couple of moments to practice, so his insight targets how to introduce mindfulness into daily situations.

Wherever you go, there you are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life DB64586, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Before stumbling upon Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon introduced me to the world of mindfulness in realistic ways. The title captures the fundamental purpose of mindfulness, focus on where you are now, not in the past or in the future, but in the present moment. 

Other Writings by Thich Nhat Hanh

  • How to relax DB84150,
  • Silence: the power of quiet in a world full of noise DB80777

Thich Nhat Hanh captures the wonderful essence of mindfulness in two quick reads. Like his other published works, he addresses how to incorporate mindfulness into daily life. There is no need for guided imagery audio or cliche meditation music here, since everything you need to practice mindfulness resides in you.

So you want to be a Jedi?: Star wars : the empire strikes back DB83214, by Adam Gidwitz

Surprisingly this remake of the Empires Strikes Back from Star Wars nicely portrays mindfulness in a simple easily understandable method. Each chapter starts with a brief method which Luke must practice to gain control over the force, and then uses it in the storyline.

iPhone or iPad Solutions

Just like Apple stated in their older iPhone ads, there is an app for that. With mindfulness, you definitely have a wide range to select from. Unfortunately its difficult to identify one that is fully accessible with Voice Over. In my searching, only two stand out from the pack.

3 Minute Mindfulness

This app targets breathing and developing a routine for mindfulness. It is completely accessible with Voice Over and utilizes both a real voice and chime to indicate what you should be doing. Though the title states 3 minutes, it can by customized for shorter or longer sessions.

Youtube

Youtube possesses many videos on mindfulness. I am including it here, since you can search and find the one that fits your style. Just make sue to favorite it or save it so you can jump back to it.

Apple Watch

Since Apple updated the Watch OS to 3.0, my favorite app is Breathe. Through the haptic feedback engine, the Apple Watch will tap you on your wrist to indicate time to breathe in or out. The downfall is you need to be rather still.

Final Thoughts

Take the time to personalize mindfulness to fit your life. We each venture down this path for our own reasons following our own paths. No Sage, Yogi, or Zen Master knows why or how mindfulness may be successful in your life. Only you can define the rationale and methods which mindfulness may benefit your life.

Help the VA Revamp Its Digital Presence Through the US Digital Services Cohorts Study

Have you ever wondered how and why the VA developed their online interfaces? Many ask this question, especially since many pages and online resources might be accessible but far from usable. This is where the US Digital Services agency comes into play. The US Digital Services falls under the executive branch, after President Obama established it in 2014. The notable achievements of this self-described “SWAT Team of nerds” includes the Vets.gov, website to streamline Veterans experiences when accessing services, and saved the federal healthcare marketplace after its abysmal role out. Additionally, the team aids other state and federal entities, like the Department of Defense and various educational institutions, clean up and enhance usability of web-based an other electronic interfaces.

Based on early successes US Digital Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs decided its time to obtain the feedback from Veterans, caregivers, supporters, and other individuals who utilize VA services. The hope is to increase the number of Veterans who apply for benefits and services, which is at 10% for first time VA healthcare enrollees. Let’s face it, the reason stems from the VA’s over reliance on PDF’s and paper-based forms. These outdated communications methods not only impinge Section 508 compliance for the blind, but simply fail to address the evolving way our millennial’ Veterans interact within the digital landscape. The resolution is the new streamlined and accessibility healthcare digital application.

Ad Hoc spearheads the Cohort study on the behalf of the digital Services and VA. This is the team that created the previously mentioned online application for VA healthcare services, and now aims to expand to all other facets of VA programs and services. If you wish to contribute your experiences, please sign up by clicking here. This will take you to a webpage to learn more about the project. Then you will have to provide your basic contact information and preferred method of contact. The Ad Hoc team will then contact you.

Do not let this opportunity to restructure the VA’s digital presence slip by. To often do Veterans and caregivers comment about the usability of VA websites, and this is our chance to assist the agency which supports us through its benefits and services. I already signed up for the study, and I hope each of you do the same.

So what happens next? After signing up, you will be contacted by a person from Ad Hoc. The first call will just obtain some basic demographical information about yourself. The representative then mention possible upcoming sessions that will ask you to go through some websites and provide feedback. Once completed, you are then eligible for a $25 Amazon or PayPal gift card.

Important Items to Know

  • This has not been open to the general public, though all information cited above can be found through public access points.
  • Participation requires you to digitally sign a consent agreement. This is currently inaccessible for screen readers, as you cannot read the consent form and none of the text boxes are labeled.
  • The bulk of the assessment occurs through the VA’s e-benefits and Vets.gov websites, so make sure to have your DS account prepared

Trekking Through the Bataan Memorial Death March

The 26.2 mile Bataan Memorial Death March challenges your humility, endurance, and perseverance. The trial originates from the high desert trails consisting of sand, gravel, and paved roads admits the Organ Mountains on White Sands Missile Range. The 3,970ft average elevation of Las Cruces adds an extra bonus for those participating from lower altitudes.

The Bataan Memorial Death March commemorates the forced march of Filipino and American civilian and service members captured on April 9th, 1942. Approximately 10,000 individuals died along the roughly 62-mile route to the Japanese camps. The original participants consisted of the survivors from the battle for the Philippines, which started in December 1941. Reflecting upon the casualties from the original death march and what the survivors endured leaves me speechless. The stroll we do today keeps these brave souls alive. Listening to those around you and assisting your fellow marchers provides a glimpse into this tragic event.

Even more inspiring is the chance to meet and walk with the Veterans of the Bataan Death March. COL Ben Skardon was 24 years old when captured by the Japanese. This year marked the tenth time the 99-year-old walked 8.5 miles of the route, surrounded by family and friends. Along the route, I had the pleasure to meet a daughter of one of the Bataan survivors. Her story about her Dad carrying his brother, who later died on the route, left me absolutely speechless. When she thanked me for my service, tears came to my eyes as I attempted to convey my gratitude for the sacrifices made by her and her family.

Steve, Marshall, Nate, and Kevin talking during breakfast the day before the Bataan Memorial Death March.
My participation stems from efforts by Operation Peer Support of the BVA and Blind Endeavors. Nate Gorham, Steve Baskis, Lonnie Bedwell, Dan Standage, and I comprised of the first five man blinded Veteran Team. Nancy Fairbanks, Kevin Baskis, and Victor Henderson served as our guides and supports along the route. Terry and Maryellen Kebbel, hosted our group with the assistance from their friends Jim and Nina Schaeffer, Marie and Al Hughey, and Eileen and Harry Monahan. We also had the distinct pleasure to meet fellow blinded Veterans and hero, Marshall Lynch, who charged across an island with 75 Marines during island hopping operations but only 18 survived.
Jim and Tim discussing plans for the Bataan Death March the day prior over breakfast.
If you are wondering how five blinded Veterans navigate a 26.2-mile trek through the desert, let us say it required some trial and error. First, we used a combination of trekking poles, white canes, iTunes Music, and other vocal commands. Our formation possessed a center point consisting of Kevin and Steve Baskis walking in single file connected with a cane. Steve carried a Bluetooth speaker which pumped out a series of playlists from iTunes Music from his iPhone 7 throughout the entire time. The music allowed everyone else to orientate off the audio cues. Lonnie with his tremendous hearing followed behind Steve with a trekking pole and white cane. I floated either behind Lonnie or to Kevin’s front guided by Victor. I relied on either two trekking poles or a trekking pole with a white cane. Nate and Dan relied on their residual sight and canes with guided assistance as needed. Nancy, a VA bind rehab center instructor, ensured we stayed on point and not go wondering off through the desert. Amazingly many of our fellow participants did not fully realize we were blind, especially when Lonnie starts dancing mid trail.
Nate, Steve, Terry, Tim, and Guide Dog Black Jack sharing stories about being a blind Veteran over the generations.

Both the two trekking poles methods and a trekking pole and a white cane permitted me to independently navigate. The two trekking poles method requires each pole is extended so your hands and arms rest comfortably about chest level. Each time you swing your arm, place the tip of the pole in front and outside your foot by a foot. This aids in your balance and awareness of the trail. The trekking pole with a white cane preforms a bit differently. The pole reinforces balance with limited trail feedback, while using the white cane as normal. A pencil, ball, or hook tip will work, but keep a loose grip.

The The various types of sand, gravel, and roads presented different challenges. Two to three foot sand berms acted like bumpers but the loose sand and gravel made walking straight very difficult. The paved road was easy to navigate with the white cane, but very difficult with the two trekking poles. Finally the course contained many congestion points forcing us to rely on walking in tandem. . So just as we developed a groove, environmental factors prevented complacency. If anything, the variations frustrated my sense of independence by forcing reliance on guides.

The Bataan Memorial Death March is a huge highlight in my life for two reasons. The adventure permitted me to complete my first marathon, accompanied by my friends and fellow Veterans. Hopefully this will not be my last time storming through the White Sands Missile Range, learning about the sacrifices of so many and connecting with nature.

Self-Driving Bicycle? Yes Please!!!

The movement towards self-driving vehicles represents a promising future for the blind. The hope originates from our desire to independently travel to and from different locations. Right now, we must rely on transit services, family and friends, and companies like Uber. The most common barrier involves acquiring a ride when its needed. Yes, forward planning resolves many issues, but how many times do you leave the house in a rush due to life?

While the blindness community believes the self-driving car will eliminate transportation barriers for those who can afford it, our society must first establish various driving regulations and policies at local to federal levels. This only complicates the situation and why I predict the blind will not legally operate a self-driving car for daily situations until late 2020’s at the earliest. However, an alternative exists.

How about a self-driving bicycle? The University of Washington through an Amazon and other private funding opportunities through CoMotion Labs attempts to design one. The prototype consists of a tricycle and a two-seated model, 15-mile range, and max speed of 30MPH. The best part comes from the targeted price point of $10,000 and elimination of regulatory barriers for driver’s licenses and insurance.

Out of all of the self-driving concepts, the self-driving bicycle captures my full attention and pocket book. After all, the self-driving bicycle will provide an eco-friendly and affordable transportation solution for the blindness community. Most of us reside in residential and urban areas for proximity purposes, so the mileage factor is not an issue. $10,000 is much less than the $30,000+ for even the cheapest proposed self-driving cars. Finally the chance to exercise independently will empower healthier lifestyles in general.

Responses to the #CriptTheVote Activism and Identity Questionnaire

Alice Wong recently posted the below series of questions related to disability identity and activities for the #CripTheVote movement. This movement aims to encourage individuals with disabilities to engage in the political process. #CripTheVote achieved its initial goal related to increasing the public awareness of topics and concerns shared by the disability community and increased the number of individuals with disabilities who voted. With the 2016 election cycle over, the next phase strives to increase the public awareness for disability concerns and ensure our voices remain heard as the new administrations and congressional representatives establish and pursue their own agendas.

The below questions comes from the #CripTheVote blog. While the post requests one to answer via twitter, 140 characters is not enough to answer these questions.

Q1 Community check-in: How are you feeling right now given the recent events after the Inauguration? How are you coping?
The events following the inauguration excites and concerns me. The editing part stems from the number of individuals who raise their voices in protest and celebration. I am excited by those who took to the marches to demonstrate opposition to policies and who cheer for these same actions. I am excited to witness so many individuals who finally escaped their silent cages and freed their voices and opinions. What makes freedom free is the ability to fight for your beliefs. We are not going to always get along, but we do need to acknowledge the existence of multiple perspectives, where the wrong views are those who wish to silence or repress others.

This is what concerns me. We have numerous elected officials to private individuals minimizing or ignoring these very demonstrations of our right to speak, assemble, and publish news. We see more finger pointing and entrenchment of political beliefs. We are becoming more polarized than ever before. The cause originates from both parties, and I do not see anyone in the current administration who may forge a compromise.

I cannot support anyone still in a state of shock or disbelief regarding the elections’ results across the country. This thought lasted about 5 milliseconds after reading the results the following morning. After that moment, I started to investigate the actual positions and policies the elected officials would put forwards and started to investigate which coincide or run in opposition to my own beliefs.

Q2 What does activism mean to you? What kinds of activism are you involved with?
Activism is any action one takes to express their thoughts related to a topic. This may be informal conversations with your friends to strategic educational advocacy campaigns targeting those who possess the power to change situations. Activism may be letters, conversations, marches, Facebook posts, inaction, and any other method to convey your thoughts.

Personally, I have written numerous emails and attempted to call the offices of my elected officials related to local to national concerns. In each correspondence, my goal involved stating the subject, how it impacts my life, and potential solutions. Leaving any of these out enables the recipient to either fill in the blanks or discard the message.

Q3 Do you think of yourself as an activist or advocate? Why or why not?
I am a advocate. This is part of the professional identity I cultivated since accepting my blindness and establishing my disability identity. We all need to be our own advocate, since only you know what it is you believe.

Q4 How did your disability identity develop in relation to other identities you inhabit?
My disability identity evolved during my Masters in Social Work education. Until this point, I fought my blindness diminished my value as a military officer, husband, friend, and human. After all, I needed the assistance of others just to arrive at meetings on time or to read paper handouts. Social Work education instructed me on the importance of the right of self-determination, empowerment perspectives, and being your own advocate. This allowed me to see myself as a person with many more gifts and strengths to offer the world than what I lost from going blind.

The development of the disability identity transformed fly identities associated with the military, Veteran status, husband, father, friend, family member, and every other identity I possess. No longer did I feel my disabilities conflicted with other aspects of my self. The result is a congruent set of identities, where each borrows from another but none over powers the other. I am proud to call myself disabled, blind, Disabled Veteran, father, husband, advocate, son, guide dog handler, and Army retiree.

Q5 When did you become politicized? How are you shaped by your culture, beliefs, and communities?
The shift from political bystander to active participant required several years. Prior to my blindness, I barely knew the names of our senior elected officials and how legislation impacts my daily life. Following my injury, I started to listen to AM talk radio, talk politics with the strongly Christian conservatives military and GS office mates, and participate in online discussion forums. Naturally my political leans swayed conservative, but I was not able to acquire alternative view points from non-biased sources.

My political leanings steadily moved towards liberal views during my Social Work education and subsequent years. This stems largely from diversifying my friends and social contacts, promoting a richer understanding about the different layers to each issue. Then I learned how local to federal to international policies and agendas impacts my rights for an accessible and equal world, and embraced liberal stances safeguarding disability rights.

Q6 Not everyone is on Twitter or interested in political participation. How can we encourage disabled people to get involved?
Diffusion of an idea requires a multi level approach. Individuals with disabilities not currently engaged with the #CripTheVote movement requires their trusted friends and families to talk about the concepts of the movement. These trusted individuals start to cast light on the #CripTheVote movement, establishing credibility. Next an individual will need to consume content from the movement, solidifying the movement to the individual. Finally, the individual must experience the movement, affixing an emotional reaction to the movement.

Q7 What are some barriers that get in the way of more disabled people from participating in any form of activism?
Knowledge. Knowledge about the issues. Knowledge about how policies impacts the individual. Knowledge about ones role in the process. Knowledge about who to contact for more information. Knowledge about how to interact with elected officials and community leaders. Knowledge that they have the freedom to engage in activism. Knowledge different activism venues and methods are accessible. Knowledge that one will not lose benefits, rights, or supports by becoming active. Finally, knowledge that their voices are important and equal to all other voices.

Q8 There’s the phrase ‘the personal is political.’ If that resonates with you, what issues are hitting you hardest right now?
The nomination for the Department of Justice. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the Department of Justice’s interpretation for teeth. Should the Department of Justice loosen or eliminate consequences for ignoring the Americans with Disabilities Act, I will lose the only legislation permitting my guide dog in public establishments. I will lose trust in my elected officials and the department of Justice to support my rights as a disabled person. I fear accessibility will become voluntary, and digital interfaces will not have to comply to any web accessibility initiative guidelines.

Q9 As you look forward to the rest of this year, what do you need to sustain your activism? What will help?
Hope and trust. Hope the political pandering from both sides will subside and pragmatic evidence-based solutions will arise. Hope that activism will remain one of our freedoms, and the current administration and elected officials will not silence our voices through legislative actions. Trust in my fellow disabled friends and supporters will stand by my side even if we are persecuted for advocating for our rights. Trust in my own voice to remain consistent and responsive throughout the years.Hope

Tremendous Victory for Digital Accessibility Advocates

A suspension bridge spans the logo with the acronym BVT in the middle. Beneath the bridge the words Blind Vet Tech appears. The bottom of the logo contains morse code reading TAVVI.
Disability digital accessibility advocates rejoiced on January 18, 2017, when the US Access Board Updated rules for Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 255 of the Communications Act. March 20, 2017 might be the effective date of the update, but compliance is delayed until January 18, 2018 for Section 508 and the Federal Communications Committee must first adopt the new Section 255 rules. The change advances accessibility of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) employed by federal and other agencies abiding by these acts. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act pertains to computers, telephonic communications methods, copier printers, websites, published software, kiosks, transaction devices, and any electronic documents. 255 of the Communications Act covers telephones, mobile and smart phones, routers, set-top boxes, computers with modems, Voice Over IP (VOIP) software, and the underlying software for these items.

The update’s chief results empower individuals with disabilities to access digital, electronic, and telecommunications services and programs under Section 508 and Section 255. This occurs through easier to understand accessibility standards crafted by industry leaders. The most important aspects include:

For Veterans with visual impairments, the accessibility of digital content and interfaces will increase within the Department of Veterans Affairs, Medicare, and Social Security. Most notably, the VA’s check-in kiosks lack sufficient accessibility options for low vision and blinded Veterans. The Section 508 Team at the VA diligently works to correct this problem; the new rules will decrease the chances for this to happen again. The WAI guidelines for web interfaces and media content will advance accessibility guidelines to usability requirements for individuals with disabilities, a chief complaint of many accessing VA websites to Social Security online forms. Finally, provisions acknowledge and usher guidelines for emerging technologies, like smart phones and mobile devices, by noting their roles in the lives of individuals with disabilities and focusing on the how we use these items in accessing digital materials. Section 4 of the overview contains a complete list of each change and outcomes.

The ICT refresh represents the first steps into a world consistent with universal design principals. While this we celebrate this long fought victory, we need to remain active in advocating for digital accessibility throughout our entire digital life. We still face an uphill climb ensuring those covered under Section 508 and Section 255 comply with these rules and guidelines. While we evaluate implementation of the ICT, we also need to continue to pressure the Depart of Justice to adopt similar requirements, like WAIG, for entities under Section 2 and Section 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, like online stores to streaming media platforms.

Stay Informed

Stay up to date with the latest news and announcements from the Blind Vet Tech team, by doing one of the following:

If you have any questions, comments, or requests, feel free to send us an email here. All of our podcasts and other information related to Veterans, blindness, acceptance of a disability, and other resources may be found at BlindNotAlone.com

Don’t miss another Blind Vet Tech teleconference, click here to see a list of our teleconferences and others we support.

How to #CripTheVote and be a Voter with a Disability

A suspension bridge spans the logo with the acronym BVT in the middle. Beneath the bridge the words Blind Vet Tech appears. The bottom of the logo contains morse code reading TAVVI.
In this Blind Vet Tech Quick Guides and Tutorials podcast, we discuss different options for voting with a disability and demonstrate how to use the Electoral Services and Software Express Vote. Your vote as a disabled voter counts the same as anyone else’s, but our fellow Americans with disabilities face voting participation barriers.

The Department of Justice describes the numerous pieces of legislation and regulations protects and encourages our participation in the voting process. These safeguards includes:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act,, through Title II, mandates all aspects of voting, from registration to sights to casting ballots, is completely accessible for everyone.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965 permits disabled individuals to select who might assist while voting, including site staff to family members.
  • Voting Accessibility for the elderly and handicapped Act of 1984 requires accessible voting locations or alternative arrangements be made available, like curb side.
  • National Voters Registration Act of 1993 requires public offices and state services serving largely individuals with disabilities a chance to register to vote.
  • Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires every voting site possess at least one accessible voting system.

Click here to learn more about #CripTheVote and where the candidates stand on disability rights.

Thank you for listening to this Blind Vet Tech tutorial on how to vote and #CriptTheVote.

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Voting Blind through Accessible Voting Machines

Editor’s Note: This article comes from Terry of New Mexico. He describes a recent visually impaired support group of his where Veterans learned how to use the accessible voting machines. It is important we each exercise our voting rights. To remain silent on November 8th is to deny your opinions related to local to national issues.

By Presidential Proclamation, President Obama declared Blind Americans Equality day in October. “Each day, blind and visually impaired Americans contribute to our society, refusing to allow anything to hold them back. In order to ensure more Americans with disabilities can continue participating fully in our country, we must each do our part to promote equal opportunity for all. On Blind Americans Equality Day, we reaffirm the inherent dignity of every human being and recommit to forging a future in which all Americans, including those with visual impairments, can pursue their full measure of happiness. More than two decades ago, one of the most comprehensive civil rights bills in our history, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was signed into law. Ever since, the ADA has helped reduce discrimination and promote equal access to classrooms, workplaces, and transportation — and it is imperative that we build on the significant progress we have made for individuals living with disabilities.”

In celebration of the strides that people with vision disabilities have made, the Rio Grande BVA low vision support group reaffirmed the belief of our full participation in society. At our meeting on October 18, The Dona Ana County board of elections provided an accessible voting machine for our veterans to have a hands-on training in voting independently. The machine is available at all voting sites in our county and provides accessibility for people with physical and visual disabilities. Everyone at our meeting was amazed at how easy the voting machine is to use. The veterans learned that they can vote without assistance. The audio menu system is easy to navigate. Voting time can be reduced by downloading the ballot for your district in advance so that you can easily skim through the actual ballot.

Crucial Audio Reading Service for Blind Kansans Received $100,000 Budget Cut

The Kansas Audio Reader Network received a $100,000 or 14% budget cut in the latest string of efforts to reduce the Kansas deficit. The service is an extremely important part of thousands of Kansans lives with a visual impairment, blindness, or print related disability. The service relies on volunteer readers to read local and national newspapers, magazines, and books over the air or through streaming mediums. The cuts will force the largely volunteer-based organization to alter services and hope donations will cover losses.

 

The importance of the Kansas Audio Reader Network stems from its role in adapting to sight loss. For Blinded Veterans combating conditions like macular degeneration, diabetes retinopathy, and glaucoma, the Kansas Audio Reader Network serves as a gateway when learning about accommodations and accessible solutions. Listening to the Kansas Audio Reader Network, the Veteran learns about the various independent living programs or feels empowered to ask their Visual Impairment Services Team Coordinator about other Department of Veterans Affairs Blind Rehab Services. Even those of us advance computer and technology enthusiasts still stream the Kansas Audio Reader Network.

To illustrate this example, I have been a consumer of the Kansas Audio Reader Network since learning about it while on Active Duty. As a blind US Army Captain assigned to the University of Kansas to pursue a Masters in Social Work, my Visual Impairment Services Team coordinator and fellow Social Workers informed me about the Kansas Audio Reader Network. I used it to supplement my consumption of local and national periodicals from the Kansas Talking Books. After being reassigned to Fort Leavenworth and living on post, I turned on the Kansas Audio Reader Network every morning before heading to the office. One memory that sticks out is when a Australian volunteer reader finished a section about the housing market around 2010. He included a personal commentary that sent my wife and I laughing to hysterics.

With state and federal budget reductions for services for the disabled, the Kansas Audio Reader Network represents a service we cannot let suffer. You can assist in preventing the degradation of the Kansas Audio Reader Network by reviewing the different ways to donate. Two particular methods to consider involves a direct monetary donation and participating in “For Your Ears Only.” The direct donation method is processed through the University of Kansas endowment, so its completely safe and easy to complete. “For Your Ears Only” takes your gently used audio and music equipment off your hands for resale. The items will be sold at the annual “For Your Ears Only” benefit on September 9th and 10th at the Douglas County Fair grounds. For more information, please contact the Kansas Audio Reader Network at (785) 864-4604, like them on Facebook or @KUAudioReader on Twitter

The Dog Days of Summer: Safely Working a Service Dog in Summer

A Black Lab guide dog lies on a sidewalk. He wears a Ruffwear Cooling Vest under his leather harness.Unlike the fear inducing Game of Thrones statement. “winter Is coming,” Service Dogs handlers equally dread summer. Well, summer is upon us, which means we must take appropriate precautions to protect our dogs. This articles outlines 13 tips and tricks every service dog handler and even pet dog owners should consider when stepping outside in the summer. This is broken down into environmental considerations, caring for your service dog, and products for your kitbag.

Jenine from America’s Vet Dogs contributed information and the fact checking of this post.

Environmental Considerations

Venturing outside requires one to analyze a multitude of variables impacting the behavior of the service dog. Most notably, the air temperature, ground temperature, existence of shade along routes, and navigating through sprinklers impose unique situations to evaluate.

Hot is hot

There is a time and place when to use your service dog and when to resort to your cane. If it’s extremely hot outside, like the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory or warning, it might be time to leave your service dog at home and practice your cane skills. Consider working your service dog indoors at a mall, shopping center, or other temperature controlled environment. For exercise a treadmill goes a long way in keeping you are your dog in shape.

Paw safety

When you let your service dog relieve themselves before heading out, feel the pavement with your hands or walk outside bare footed. If you think this is crazy, your service dog probably is thinking the same thing. Consider walking your dog in the grass or in the shade to let them cool their paws. Avoid or minimize blacktop surfaces, and be aware of surface temperatures.

Walking in the Shade

Your service dog may choose during really hot weather to walk in the shade of trees, bushes or buildings. This may increase the chances of bumping into objects, like branches, doors or things sticking out from buildings. In urban environments, people may also stick closer to the shady building lines, both walking and… resting. If you find yourself running into overhangs or bumping things more often, think about where that shady area is and use the methods taught during your training to encourage your dog back to the center line or proper position. Be careful with heavy corrections since this negative corrective action forces the service dog into an equally negative situation, walking on super-hot pavement under the scorching sun.

Dancing through sprinklers

Yes, they are everywhere and in the summer heat you may find even more of them…sprinklers! Your dog’s face is right in the path of that spraying water and let’s face it, no one likes to get a face full or have to walk straight into a spray. Your dog may treat sprinklers as off curb obstacles. As long as the roadway is safe enough, navigate onto the street until you pass by. Try to keep interactions with the sprinklers positive, not overly correcting or dragging your dog through them. If you are having difficulty getting your dog to walk through an area with sprinklers, contact your school for help. Also let your neighbors know about how the sprinklers impact your service dog and request the sprinkling cycle concludes before the sun crests the horizon.

Your Service Dog’s Reactions to the Heat

Dogs are amazing animals for more than their intelligence to become service dogs. They possess physical capabilities to withstand the heat and different methods they indicate overheating. This section provides some tips for grooming to symptoms your service dog might be overheating.

Shaving is not for the dogs

Dog’s fur and hair serve as natural sun block. Yes, the coat insulates during the winter, but it keeps the skin from drying out. Therefore, do not cut your service dog’s hair or fur, rather stick with the basics of daily brushing. A shiny healthy coat creates more benefits then a high and tight.

Pad Safety

A dog’s paws and the pads are both natural shoes and a major component in cooling through perspiration. Hot pavement’s dangers go beyond burning paws, but may dry out pads leading to splitting, blistering, and other injuries. Check each pad before and after your walks for any signs of damage. If you have a dog with longer fur on the tops and bottoms of the paws, and you have the fur trimmed to prevent the ratty old house slippers look, remember that the fur can be insulating for the pads so leave it long on the bottom and nice and neat on top, but never shaved.

Wet noses are good, but dry noses spells trouble

Dog lovers often remark on the lovable wet nose kisses we receive alongside licks. Should the nose no longer feel wet, your service dog may be experiencing dehydration. While you are walking, take the time periodically to feel the nose and make sure it remains lovably wet.

Panting is natural, but a raspy or coughing panting indicates distress

Dogs lack sweaty armpits, rather they cool themselves through panting. While panting, the tongue drupes out of their mouth and actually becomes thinner and wider to increase the surface size of the tongue so more capillaries may deliver blood to be cooled. When the natural panting begins to sound labored or gagging, it’s time to stop, find shade or a cool spot, and let the dog rest. As your service dog ages, the likelihood of this will increase as heat tolerance decreases.

Ice Water is a no go

Did you know drinking room temperature water instead of ice water is better for you and your dog? Drinking icy water in the heat stresses your body and does not cool it. In dogs, ice water may increase cramps. When allowing your service dog to hydrate, opt for room temperature water and let the body cool itself naturally. Now ice, by itself, is ok to give your dog as a treat, since chewing allows the ice to melt and warm up. without the negatives of ice water.

Product Recommendations

Have you walked through the pet aisle at a store and felt overwhelmed by the available options? Don’t be fooled by marketing gimmicks and purchase worthless products. Below is a list of items recommended by service dogs users and touted as safe and effective items to protect and prolong working capabilities in the summer.

Famous Paw-Wear and Musher’s Secret

Dogs’ sweat through their paws much like we sweat through most pores throughout our bodies, thus the paw protection paradox. Well, here is a little secret, Musher’s Secret. This all natural paw wax protects those paws the same in winter and summer. Protection stems from keeping paws moist and supple, reducing pad splitting from drying out. If you are able to use dog boots, and not all dogs will let you, make sure the paws are able to breath. This reduces chances of your service dog from overheating.

Beat the heat, drink water

Plenty of foldable bowls to all in one water bottles and bowl combinations exist, so no excuse for not owning one or several. When you leave, the hydration kit is equally important as the harness.

Ruffwear cooling vest

Many cooling vest and collars line your pet store’s shelves, but none compare to the Ruffwear Cooling Vest. The vest cools your service dog the same way a swamp cooler works, while blocking the sun. Above is a picture of BlackJack wearing his Ruffwear vest in harness, and while it looks like a heavy blanket, it enables us to work or play longer. The vest requires you to soak it in water before heading out, and while out dumping more water prolongs effectiveness. For example, we walked a 5-mile route in 90 degrees with direct sun. At the end of the walk, his body felt cool under the vest and his nose and panting remained normal.
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Frozen Treats

A frozen Kong filled with treats will aid cooling while nourishing your service dog. Simply take a handful of food and let it soak in some water. Then fill a Kong up with the wet food, without mushing it, and freeze it. This becomes a frozen chewy treat

Conclusion

The best way to assist your service dog is to adjust your schedule. Exercise, play, or do your errands early in the morning or after the sun goes down. In nature, most animals rest during the middle of the day due to the sun and heat, proving animal instincts are smarter than humans. Remember your service dog serves you so long as you serve them.

Define Your Own Independence

Independence Day marks more than the date our country’s founders declared their desire for a free and sovrin nation. Independence Day represents all of the freedoms citizenship offers. We have the freedom to speak our minds, and we have the freedom to choose who to listen to. We have the freedom to responsibly and irresponsibly possess firearms. We have the freedom to practice any religion or develop our own definitions of spirituality. We possess the freedom to elect our political leaders to choose the regulations and laws at all levels of government. We may gather together to demonstrate injustices and political movements. We theoretically possess the right to a fair trial, though I prefer the restorative justice movement. As citizens, our freedoms are both boundless and bounded to numerous variables from our ethnicity to socio-economic-status to gender and many more.

I write this not as a negative critique of the freedoms one possesses as a citizen, but to showcase the differences in freedoms each person receives. As a disabled veteran, I enjoy the ability to exercise a significant number of freedoms due to benefits, social welfare systems, and entitlements either those who are not a Veteran or do not possess a disability may enjoy. Likewise, I am not able to fully exercise all of the inherent freedoms due to my disabilities, without the assistance of others or reliance on laws like the Americans with disabilities Act.

True freedom stems from your own internal definitions on what it means to be free and independent. No matter what our country’s doctrine stipulates, freedom comes first from within yourself. It is your ability to say I am free to choose how to feel about a situation, for or beliefs and emotions are all we truly control. As a blind individual I may not be able to assemble to protest violations to the ADA, but the internet allows me to feel involved in these activities. I may not be able to be a road warrior and celebrate the freedom to travel the country independently, but I find the ability to walk or run through town equally if not more enjoyable.

On this 240th celebration of our Independence Day, take some time to define and reflect on what you feel it means to be free. Do this without comparing yourself to another. Meditate on how to exercise your freedoms without judging how someone else portrays their freedoms.

Recapping My First Year with a Guide Dog

A selfy of Black Jack,  a Black Lab, and the Author Timothy smiling.One year ago, an energetic young black Lab stormed into my life. Immediately upon entering my dorm room at the Guide Dog Foundation’s facility, Black Jack lunged towards me, bestowing puppy kisses and licks all over my face, arms, and hands. Since then, I cannot imagine my life without him guiding me through our daily exercising routes, chasing my daughter, attending classes, and traveling throughout the country. This post will share a few of the highlights from this adventure.

When America’s Vet Dogs received my application, they faced a challenge determining if I walk fast or slow. Determining the handler’s walking style plays a significant role in the matching process, along with individual personality. Something informed them to select Black Jack, whose pace exceeded most of the other dogs. You have to understand a video of me using a cane fails to show I am actually a fast walker, a lesson everyone learned the first time Black Jack and I walked through the park. We quickly found our rhythm, a glide that forced our trainer to begin trotting to a jog just to keep up. Seeing this, the photographer just opted to wait for us to come around for his picture.

Our walking pace represents one of the key reasons why I opted to ditch the white cane for a guide dog. While my Chris Park white canes Created a level of independent travel, the tradeoff stems from the cane technique. The cane’s design and implementation forces one to tap objects for navigational cues. Differently, a guide dog does all of this just like you do when walking with sight.

This takes us to the next highlight, walking and running for leisure. Whether black Jack and I venture forth on a simple 3-mile loop hike in the park, or jog down a familiar trail, I have not experienced this much fun exercising since losing my sight. We have marked out everything from a quick mile loop to a complex six-mile jaunt through neighborhoods. Instead of relying on a ride to visit friends or family, we prefer to walk across town, often arriving much faster than waiting for a cab, ride, or bus. Even better yet, Black Jack inspired me to pick up distance running. These are all things I skipped out on with the white cane due to frustrations with sidewalks, routes, and obstacles. If I had to guess, we logged over 1,000 miles together.

While mostly positive, we have had our share of downsides. Employing a guide dog requires one to learn how to properly implement its training to achieve ones independence. The Guide Dog Foundation immediately sent a trainer of my house for additional home lessons. The trainer corrected my actions and provided some additional tips and tricks for operating in my neighborhoods. After all, Kansas is slightly different than Long Island. I am now happy to announce we have been mostly problem free since then, minus approaching large banks of doors with undergraduate students buzzing in and out of and not paying attention to the adorable black guide dog attached to the middle-aged dude trying to grab a coffee from the KU Union.

Thank you America’s Vet Dogs and the Guide Dog Foundation for introducing Black Jack and I. Thank you to the trainers, Jodi and Maria, for teaching me how to properly handle Black Jack. Thank you to the wonderful family from Fort Bragg who raised black Jack as a puppy and taught him how to be a part of a family. Thank you Black Jack for your willingness to be my partner in guide wherever we go.

Blind Dreams

Wondering what a blind person dreams? This article nicely summarizes some of what we see in blind dreams. Yes, I was surprised to read a Business Weekly article that made sense, but let us cover a few points.

Yes I dream with high definition video. Granted the people are generally wearing clothes and are portrayed by people from my past whom I have stored their likeness. Its great to ask my wife what someone looks like after dreaming about them and imposing theier voices upon a supermodel’s body or a bully’s face, but this based on who the person reminds me of. same goes with backgrounds, like one from last night that took place in a friend’s yard in Texas, despite the dream occurring in Florida. But whom am I to complain to if the wrong actor or backdropped is used.

So what about dreams featuring new situations? well, Van Gough and Salvador Dali comes to mind. The imagery ranges from non-descriptive images to abstract concepts based on feelings and relationships. These are actually interesting to reflect upon given the complex nature of the dreams.

If you place stock in dream analysis, Yes this is possible, too. this occurs a little differently. First off, I do not predict the future with dreams, rather I just reflect upon possible emotional reactions the dreams are in response towards. For example, my separation from the military was preceded with dreams filled with chaos and separation from my family should I elect to stay in. The dreams provided enough visualization to recognize these signs, but not precisely in a clear picture. In other dreams with little imagery like a few colors, My take aways stems from emotions. Most notably are repeating nightmares filled with raw emotions of fear and loneliness cast upon a pure black backdrop.

So us blind folks do dream with a degree of visual stimuli. This might be like a retro movie to an abstract painting. Yes we see in our dreams and yes we can sense our feelings in our dreams. What is different is the precise visualizations in our dreams.

Enjoying Audio Description Everywhere

Over the last several years, the AFB, ACB, and NFB tirelessly advocated for audio description in movie theaters, network TV shows, and streaming services. The ACB’ Audio Description Project’s website is the foremost authority on the current state of descriptive content, reviewing and summarizing our options for audio description in movies and TV shows. Thanks to these efforts, immersion into movies only requires knowing where and how to access this secondary audio programming (SAP) for the narrative track.

Audio Description in Movies

The larger chain cinemas around the country offers headsets for patrons with visual or hearing impairments. You may obtain a set by asking the staff at the ticket counter for a pair, but you must specify which one. For the blind, you will receive a device that plays a narrative track synced to the movie. For hearing impairments, the device amplifies various parts of the movie, and may offer a neck loop to directly insert into your hearing aid’s box. Its possible to use both devices together.

Audio Description on Network and Cable TV

Accessing SAP with the audio description feature on network TV often requires sighted assistance. This stems from the various methods from over the air to cable/satellite providers we might use. The simplest solution I can offer is to ask for sighted assistance to locate and enable the SAP, Descriptive Audio, or Audio Description setting within your TV, cable/satellite box, and TIVO. Some controllers come with this button, easing this process. For a listing of what shows possess our audio description tracks, visit  ACB’s Audio Description Project’s page.

Streaming Audio Described Content

My favorite method to enjoy audio description involves streaming services. In particular, Serotek’s SAMNet Veterans program, Netflix Audio description, and iTunes Movies each provides a cross platform method to experience audio description. Serotek’s SAMNet Veterans program contains thousands of TV shows and Movies as part of the System Access Mobile Network and iBlink Radio services and apps, accessible through Windows, Mac OS, Android, iOS, and AppleTV 4th generation devices. Have your VIST or CATS instructor visit this page to sign you up. The most popular streaming media provider, Netflix, embraced the ACB’s Audio Description project and now offers content with audio description from existing TV shows and movies to their own in-house productions. The number of choices offered changes each month, so visit the ACB Audio Description Project’s Netflix page for more information or locate Audio Description at the bottom of the page on Netflix after you log on. Additionally, check out my guide on enabling Audio Description for Netflix on iOS here. Finally, iTunes only recently started to add Audio Description to their movies and TV Shows. As of this post, there is no centralized list, and you have to read through the show’s description and listen for AD or Audio Description after the CC or Closed Captioning labels. I have primarily found this on newer releases, generally from Disney. As a runner up, Blindy.TV is an internet streaming radio playing several channels of audio described channels for free and even available on your Victor Reader Stream and HIMS Blaze.

Audio Description on DVD’s

Why venture out of your house or worry about scripting fees for Netflix when many of the DVD’s and Blue Ray in your private collections or public libraries possess these features. On the backside of these media, you may find SAP, DVC, DVS, or AD to indicate the existence of the narrative track. All you then need to do is enable SAP or describe video in the menu settings of your DVD or Blue Ray player and enjoy.

Final Thoughts

Audio Description removes the barrier experienced by the visually impaired to enjoy movies and TV shows by inserting a narrative track as a Secondary Audio Programming to shows. The ACB’s Audio Description Project started advocacy efforts targeting movie theaters, TV Networks, and streaming media services. Steadily the list of described content grows, forcing us to decide if we wish to watch a Netflix movie, new blockbuster, or a network TV show.