RISE-ing Up and Changing Lives in Northern Virginia

A few months ago, I blogged about my career journey
And my recent half-time contract working with the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia on our Project RISE youth transition program. I haven’t written much on the program here, partly since I try to keep the Weekly Wisdom blog content relevant to a national or international readership, and also to protect the privacy of individual students. However, since our program recruitment is in full swing right now, I wanted to take this chance to share a bit about what we’ve done, get the word out about our future plans, and perhaps inspire others to consider developing similar programs. (Plus, this is my professional blog, and Project RISE is a big part of my professional life at the moment).

This past spring and summer, we served 18 students ages 14-21 who are blind or visually impaired and live in northern Virginia. During monthly interactive group sessions, our students explored careers, wrote resumes and cover letters, practiced professional interaction, and learned nonvisual skills for independent living and travel. We also had a lot of fun! Students learned from each other and from our dedicated blind mentors who are all either working professionals or older college students.

This summer, I had the pleasure and challenge of coordinating work experiences for nine of our students. These included competitive summer jobs, volunteering, or internships geared toward specific vocational goals. We had a student intern in a medical research lab, another at a commercial bakery, and a law firm. A fourth student had a music internship tailored specifically for him, and I will get to see him perform his original music tomorrow evening. It was challenging to find positions for students spread out across a fairly wide geographic area and with a variety of specific vocational interests. But the reward for the students, for us, and for the employer partners has been well worth it.

Since the program started in February, the growth we have seen in individual students is striking. I’ve observed shy students who barely said two words to anyone at the first session, going up on stage to debate with their peers and reaching out to professional contacts on their own. Students with partial sight who voiced discomfort or disdain for their white canes at the beginning began willingly carrying them to our events. Older students modeling self-advocacy for younger students and honing their own leadership skills in the process. These gains may not be tangible at the moment, but they will undoubtedly translate into success at school, at work and in life.

As a pre-employment transition program, we have to provide a specific set of services under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Our curriculum may seem complicated, but when I think about what makes our program so impactful, the most important active component, in my mind, is something that is barely mentioned in the regulations. Yet it is something that resonates with my own past. The summer after 7th grade, I recall going to a day camp for nondisabled teens, coming home one night, and bursting into tears. Such melodramatics are very rare for me, and in fact, that was the last time I have ever seriously cried. It was a reaction to years of accumulated microaggressions and the sense that I didn’t belong among my peers, or even in the broader community where I knew few other disabled people. At that particular point, I had nowhere to go emotionally but up.
It was less than two weeks after that night when I first met
my blind best friend
And the tide began to turn. As I found a blind peer group, and later found blind mentors, I was reassured of my belonging. I stopped blaming my disability for frustrations in my life. And I gained the confidence to move beyond my comfort zone.

The community we have established in Project RISE is, in my view, directly responsible for the incredible gains we have seen. Many of our students may be the only blind or disabled person in their family, their school, or their local area. Some have grown up with the daily microaggressions of ableism. Others are losing vision and wondering if their dreams must be deferred. Through our community, they are getting the support to relinquish misconceptions and to embrace their identities as blind people. They are learning that there is a place where they belong and that their dreams are possibilities. As evidence of our community’s strength, 13 of our 18 students will be returning this fall.

Spurred on by the success of our first term, Project RISE will be having another full year of monthly meetings in the northern Virginia area. We are also expanding to offer quarterly meetings and mentoring to blind and low-vision youth across the state of Virginia. To learn more, check out
the Project RISE website
follow us on Facebook!

Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons [Repost]

“Still, we mustn’t get complacent. Paratransit has many deeply-rooted problems, and since it fills service gaps for so many people, we need to fix what we have rather than tearing it all down in a fit of cynicism, or dismissing those who still use it.”

One of the greatest challenges disability can bring is the inability to drive. Public transit is a viable alternative for some of us, but public transit in its current state carries a number of limitations making it an impractical option for many. For example, people whose disabilities limit how far they can walk, how long they can stand or sit outdoors, or how well they can orient in unfamiliar environments may find that public transit doesn’t meet their needs.

“Paratransit” is a door-to-door transit alternative available in many urban areas, designed for seniors and people with disabilities. Customers can get door-to-door transportation at a cost only slightly higher than the cost of the public bus or train. Many of us depend on paratransit to get to work, school, shopping, important appointments, or social outings. As this post illustrates, though, many paratransit systems have multiple problems that can cause significant hardship for customers-earning such unaffectionate nicknames as “para-stranded” or “Dial-a-Wait.” While some of the problems may result from systems not having enough money to go around, others may be fixed with better training and a change in philosophy.
Two Years of Paratransit: Sad Truths and Hard Lessons

Research in Brief: Defining Disability Employment Terms

One of my regular gigs is writing a weekly column called Research in Focus, which summarizes a recent disability-related research study in terms that make sense to non-academics; people with disabilities and their families, service providers, and policymakers. Recently I’ve begun writing a companion monthly blog called Research in Brief. These short blog posts define technical terms related to a particular research topic, and then link to Research in Focus summaries related to that topic.
Here is a link to our latest Research in Brief, which defines terms related to disability employment and transition:
Defining Employment Terms

From the Disability Wisdom Community: Tips and Tricks for Inclusive Event Planning

This week, I’m sharing some crowdsourced insights from the Disability Wisdom Discussion Group
A group member, who is a university professor, is planning a semester as a “faculty in residence” where she will live on campus and help to oversee student programming. She asked the disabled group members to describe strategies for making events and programs accessible. Here is the feedback she received, which will benefit anyone planning an event:

  • One thing that comes to mind is putting a phrase such as “if you have any accessibility needs, please ddon’t hesitate to contact so and so.” on the event advertisements. Others may not agree with me, but I take it as a good sign because I feel that the event host is at least being mindful that there are folks who may have accessibility concerns. Of course it depends on the event, but if I see such a phrase I usually contact and ask if they can make handouts available in an accessible format, ask if they have audio description available, etc.
  • Make sure there are some quiet events that people who get sensory overload can attend. Movie nights where the movies aren’t too loud, for example.
  • Sensory input boxes/fidget boxes/little toy things are wonderful. Have them at the entrance of the classroom. Yeah the students are technically adults. But having quiet spikey ball things to mess with in class saves a ton of people, not just autistic people, a lot of headaches.
  • Steep ramps: If you notice a ramp is ridiculously steep, say something to someone who can do something about it. Likewise, if you see some rooms are only available if you can climb stairs, say something. This isn’t just for classrooms. If Joe is having a get together on floor two of his dorm building, but no one bothered installing elevators, Jane is automatically excluded if she’s on crutches or is in a wheelchair.
  • Tree branches. Guide dogs are supposed to notice face-level tree branches. Not all do. Canes definitely don’t. Being whacked in the face by a tree sucks. Tell maintenance to get on face-level tree branches that are covering pathways.
  • Quiet zones. Going with my first two points. Having quiet areas on campus other than libraries are really important. Having a room with beanbags, a sensory box, and a giant SSHHH over the door. Bring your own noise-cancelling headphones. It can be a study room, whatever, but only quiet voices.
  • And letting students and other faculty know that you’re there as a point person about accessibility needs is good. There should be a disabled student services department, but they only cover certain students with certain specific needs. Generalized things are often overlooked. “Oh we have two dozen kids that all need golf carts to get from point A to point B. Best keep those golf carts.” Never realizing that maybe they should make an easier route between those two points.
  • Accessibility to information, places, and programs is very important, but it should be balanced with high expectations for all people with disabilities. We all need to find ways to contribute and to challenge ourselves if we hope to acquire any influence in any setting, accessible or otherwise.
  • I like the suggestions thus far. I would also like to add that when students are in control of programming they often don’t consider even the little things in their activities that might exclude people with various disabilities. Writing things on a piece of paper and having people guess who said what is fun, but how would a blind person or someone who physically can’t write put down their answers independently; How would someone with dyslexia be able to read it, or a blind person again. Movies often don’t have both captions and audio description. some physical games might be hard for a blind person, someone with a mobility issue, or someone who gets overwhelmed by a lot of motion and noise to deal with. And sure people can partner up with others for some of this stuff, but then it’s awkward being the only group while everyone else is playing individually. Spaces and accommodations need to be in place for students to even come, and I like the idea of students taking the lead in planning, but their plans also have to consider accessibility, too.
  • Also, on an unrelated note, it might be a good idea to also put a note about allergies on flyers. SOMETHING like, if you need any accommodations due to a disability or food allergies, please contact insert person here. THAT way you avoid the awkward issue of having pizza and Joe can’t have dairy, and Sally has a severe gluten allergy.
  • In person event can be a lot for those who struggle with social anxiety or social skills. You may want to include events that involve interacting online, like a gaming night or some kind of online scavenger hunt. This may help with accessibility issues for other disabilities as well.
  • So My biggest point of advice I learned from an amazing disability studies professor is that there’s absolutely no such thing as fully accessible to all because disabled people have varying access needs i.e a blind person vs a deaf person vs someone with sensory difficulties. All of this to say that you can always think of hickups with events, but as long as some key things are hit on, you are generally okay. Also, a variation of loud vs quiet etc events could be a way to include people of varying access needs in different events. So I fully echo the absolutes of always hosting in a wheelchair accessible location because that doesn’t inhibit anyones access needs and can only be inclusive, and always adding on top of event pages that if people have access needs/accommodations not to hesitate to email/call. Another big thing to me is that advertising not just be done on bulletin boards, and that advertising happen electronically.
  • Pick a room that’s wheelchair accessible. Picking a room that has tiers instead of seats is not wheelchair accessible. If wheelchairs and other mobility devices are forced to the back of the room make sure they can hear. Do you allow note taking on a laptop? Some people may need to do this. Is an interpreter available if needed? Braille writers click. Can you tolerate it? Is your handouts screen reader accessible?