Thursday, August 28, 2008

Captions for YouTube - A great benefit for the deaf

This just in from Webware: "In a move to make videos easier to understand without volume or for the hard of hearing, YouTube has given users the option of embedding closed captions." This is great news for the deaf and hard of hearing; YouTube has 34% market share according to ComScore, and I'm betting this figure doesn't include much of the deaf population. And this might not change if video makers don't choose to add captions to their videos - I'm guessing not many will, unless they understand the added benefit of captions for those with disabilities, or even non-English speakers.

There are a small handful of content providers already including closed captioning in their videos, including CNET, MIT, and the BBC. It would be great if broadcast networks (ABC, Fox, etc.) would do the same. Do we really need more regulations to make this happen? Just do the right thing!

Now how do we get podcasts to be captioned, too?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Watch your Tongue!

I'm always on the lookout for new devices. This one could revolutionize the field of assistive technology. It's called the Tongue Drive System. It's a tongue control pad, currently in advanced research at Georgia Tech, that could potentially be used to help quadriplegics control more of their equipment, including a computer, a wheelchair and any assistive technology they might use. The tongue is a serious muscle, and is attached to the brain, not the spinal cord, which is why it will work for those disabled from the neck down. TDS works by placing a magnet under the tip of the tongue, and the tongue operates like a virtual mouse, sending data to a receiver worn on the top of the head. The data is processed by software that converts the movement into commands. Researchers also envision moving beyond the tongue to "turn teeth into keyboards and cheeks into computer consoles," according to the Associated Press. Sure, the prototype is ugly, but early prototypes usually are. Design and software gurus will eventually be swept in to make TDS a viable option to the 'sip and puff' system (issuing commands by inhaling and exhaling into a tube). I like the fact that the magnet is removable. I can't imagine it being very comfortable, but I hope I'm proven wrong. (Look closely to see the man's tongue in the photo.) This research is being funded by grants from the NSF and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and I'm confident we'll see sprouts of success for this system.

Finding the Right Way To Disclose a Disability

This article that I wrote was published in today's WSJ in the Careers section. Here's an online version: Finding the Right Way To Disclose a Disability. I wrote this article because people often ask me if they should disclose, and I'm a believer that it will do more good than harm, as long as you choose a good company and understand how to approach your boss with the types of accommodations you require. I have a disclosure poll up on this blog that you can vote on - I'd appreciate knowing all your opinions.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What I Have in Common with a Ugandan Boxer

A New York Times Saturday profile, A Blind Boxer Inspires Uganda on Bashir Ramathan, a blind boxer from Uganda, sparked my interest, not just for the awe-factor: "Wow, a blind boxer!" but rather because of a statement he made towards the end of the article. Listing the good fortune that has befallen on him since his newfound fame on the boxing circuit, Mr. Ramathan said to the reporter that he would give it all up for two working eyes.

"They think I’m doing this for attention or for money. But I’m not pretending. I want to see, like them."

This is how a lot of driven people with disabilities really think, including myself. I'm a disability writer, but I'd give up a a graduate degree and professional writing career -- and yes, start over -- if I could have hearing in my two ears. I'm not regretful about my disability, but this kind of passion that I have for writing about disability topics stems from a life of being an outsider.

If I didn't have a disability, I'd still be a writer no doubt. But I have always wondered if I would be a better one. I'd have like to have tried my hand at investigative reporting for the New York Times or Washington Post, the kind that wins Pulitzers. Or I might have enjoyed the newswires, even, with their fast-paced days and tight deadlines. On the other hand I know of a deaf journalist in Chicago who is a Book reviewer (though he's probably not employed anymore, considering the demise of Chicago newspapers these days.) I didn't want to be a book reviewer when I started my career because it's basically an editing job, and I wanted to be a reporter. Two totally different jobs, as any journalist will tell you.

Mr. Ramathan is following his passion, despite his disability. Bravo, bravo. He tells the New York Times that his plan now is to start his own worldwide blind boxing league. I wish him all the best.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tropic Thunder: Oh, No, Here We Go

Ben Stiller’s new movie Tropic Thunder was written as a parody of actors who will go to any lengths to advance their careers. In one of the subplots, Simple Jack, we hear repeated use of the word "retard." One of the movie's lines is, “Are you a full retard?”

A coalition of disabilities groups believes Stiller went too far with the film’s repeated use of this term, which they're calling the "r-word." Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver and others have asked the movie’s studio, Dreamworks, to cut references to “retard”, but Dreamworks has refused. Now the coalition wants Tropic Thunder banned from theaters.

The word “retard” is hurtful to many people in America who have a mental disability, just like the “n-word” is insensitive to African Americans. In focusing his anger on a word, Shriver misses an opportunity to stand up for a more positive cause: The advancement of Americans with disabilities, despite their physical or mental limitations.

Starting with the Civil Rights era, America has provided special protection to racial minorities and women; protection that has been extended to the disabled through the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. There are good and bad points to such protective measures. For instance, the ADA has helped curb discrimination in the workplace, made private and public spaces more accessible, encouraged technological advances and created opportunities for the disabled to live more productive lives.

On the other hand, Corporate America, Madison Avenue and Hollywood have smelled the money and cashed in on these measures, giving us Hispanic marketing, women in the boardroom and tear-jerker movies about triumphant disabled folks like Simple Jack.

Tropic Thunder exposes the satire of American idealism, where our government creates protective laws and America uses them to make ads, grow their stock price and win an Oscar. These are not terrible achievements until their roots are exposed by special rights’ groups.

Shriver wants to shut down a movie that jeers at the inherent, capitalistic outcome of disability rights. Instead he should use his public podium to remain focused on how fruitful the ADA has been for the disabled, such as for the Special Olympics and Paralympics, which have been recognized as a chance for athletes to compete against those with similar limitations.

Let's pull off the blinders and talk. We'd all like to be perfect, but some of us need a helping hand, or at least different benchmarks. The Special Olympics cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can we shine only an uber-positive light on the plight of people with disabilities. Just because the Special Olympics and Paralympics are off-limits to criticism doesn’t mean everything else should be, too.

Shriver says he fears that, because of Tropic Thunder, mentally disabled kids will be teased on the playground. Kids don't need movie lines to say cruel things, and Hollywood shouldn’t need permission from disability groups to jeer at the lengths society will go to make a buck.

It's not the “r-word” that's being debated here, but the good things we’re trying to accomplish as a nation while still maintaining our sense of humor.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Really Difficult Reality of MS

I just finished writing a book proposal for a publishing company that wants me to write a book on Assistive Technology for those suffering with Multiple Sclerosis. The proposal itself really opened my eyes to the myriads of symptoms associated with MS, including numbness, difficulty walking and balancing, fatigue, vision and cognitive limitations, speech slurring, and more. I recently met with an executive at Pepsi who has MS and some of these symptoms. He showed me around his office, and showed me the kind of Assistive Tech that he uses to power his workday, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition with a wireless headset, as well as a power wheelchair. Pepsi is a really "disability-forward" company; they gave him a parking spot next to the loading dock so that he could slip into his office with ease, rather than having to park in the regular employee lot. Like many companies Pepsi does have handicapped parking spaces but few people realize that these spots still expose wheelchair users to potholes and slush and all those factors that can wreck an expensive power chair not to mention put the user in jeopardy of slipping and sliding all over the place.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Nike commercial with Oscar Pistorius

Watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing last night, and was stunned by Nike's commercial, titled "Courage." It was an emotionally charged advertisement that celebrated past Olympics winners and other notable athletic accomplishments. I was very, very proud to watch the end of the commercial: South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius running across a field track on his blades.
Click here to see the ad: Nike Courage

According to Nike, "The commercial celebrates courage as the essence of the ‘Just Do It’ spirit," said Joaquin Hidalgo, Nike Vice President of Global Brand Marketing. "The fast paced cut takes viewers on an inspiring journey highlighting obstacles athletes at every level must face and overcome." Go Oscar!

Friday, August 8, 2008

My Wall Street Journal Article

This WSJ article that I wrote, Support Grows for Disabled Workers, appeared on July 22 in WSJ's Career Journal - the lead story. It was intended to be a news story about LimeConnect, a fabulous new organization that links qualified (college educated, driven) disabled candidates with jobs at Fortune 500 companies - mainly companies that are taking a stronger stance at hiring PWDs in order to help diversify their employee base as well as better reflect their changing marketplace. As the article notes: "Corporations are casting a wider net for good reasons. With the labor pool shrinking, U.S. employers will face a shortage of 20 million workers by 2020 as baby boomers retire. What's more, one out of every 10 consumers is a person with a disability, representing $200 billion in annual buying power, according to the National Organization on Disability in Washington."

Please have a read and would love to hear your comments. Another WSJ article coming out soon.