Category Archives: Featured

YES Academy Week One: Cane skills, cooking and mock interviews

It’s been a lively week at LightHouse headquarters with our three-week Summer Youth Employment Series (YES) underway. The 10th and 11th floors have been warm with the chatter of blind and visually impaired youth attending four classes a day including orientation & mobility, technology, living skills and job readiness trainings.

Many of the students at YES Academy are getting their first introductions to life skills like using a white cane, cooking, doing laundry, interviewing for jobs and volunteering. But it isn’t all work and no play. They also explored the city of San Francisco, including a ghost tour of Chinatown and a scavenger hunt at Fisherman’s Wharf.

This week they’re headed to camp and kayak in Tomales Bay, and then they’re off to Enchanted Hills Camp to spend a few days breathing the fresh air and learning the fundamentals of woodworking with blind woodworker George Wurtzel. The final week, a select group will attend the National Federation of the Blind Convention in Orlando, Florida. Here, students will meet thousands of blind role models from across the country, network with the National Association of Blind Students, peruse the aisles of the exhibition hall, participate in a nation-wide accessible job-fair and attend informative seminars.

“When we picked up the students at the airport not a single one of them was using a cane,” says Youth Services Coordinator Jamey Gump when we asked him about the most gratifying aspect of leading the program. “Now many of them feel confident to use their canes. It’s an important landmark for them to be comfortable with themselves and be able to identify as blind to allow the public to understand their needs.”

Romesha Laird is one of the YES students who started off the week having never used a cane before. She’s quickly taken to the mobility training and has found it an incredibly useful tool as she goes through this busy week of fun and self discovery.

“I’m just learning to use a cane,” she says. “I used to trip a lot and the cane makes me feel more confident. After this week, I feel a lot more motivated to use my cane when I’m walking around.”

Romesha is a high school student from San Bernardino, and when she’s not learning to making quick biscuits in the teaching kitchen or learning skills that will help her toward her goal of attending a four year college, she’s an avid cheerleader.

This week she discovered a mentor in YES Academy Counselor Danielle Fernandez.

“I really look up to Danielle,” she says. “She taught me a lot and showed me around. She also has the same condition as me, so we relate and understand each other.”

Romesha has already made up her mind that she’ll be headed back to YES next year.

“I am going to come back next year to learn more and get more experience and visit everyone at the LightHouse,” she says smiling.

Here are a few photos of Romesha practicing mobility in downtown San Francisco and volunteering to braille business cards in the MAD Lab.

Romesha smiles as she walks down Market Street with her white cane.
Romesha smiles as she walks down Market Street with her white cane.
Romesha helps emboss business cards with fellow YES Academy students in one of the LightHouse volunteer rooms.
Romesha helps emboss business cards with fellow YES Academy students in one of the LightHouse volunteer rooms.

Stay posted for more YES Academy updates in the coming weeks!

New Movie Tech for the Blind and Deaf, Actiview, Launches with Disney’s Cars 3

If you’re blind or visually impaired, you know that going to the movies isn’t as simple as smothering your popcorn in butter and leaning back in a cushy chair. While you wait thirty minutes for the manager to locate and set up assistive devices, you’ve already missed the beginning of the movie — if the device even functions properly.

But over the last year, LightHouse partner Actiview designed and prototyped a mobile solution to this problem within the walls of the LightHouse headquarters, and even 3D printed their streaming devices in our Toyota Innovation Tech Lab as part of our startup accelerator. They have since moved their base to our Berkeley satellite location.

On June 16, Actiview launched in the App Store to offer widespread accessibility for the summer Pixar release of Cars 3.

The team and their direction were influenced by many hours of feedback from LightHouse blind staff. We supported Actiview through their beta version because we think it is a huge step in the right direction towards accessibility for all moviegoers.

There is a strong buzz about this new technology as the wider community understands that Actiview will be able to provide affordable access to thousands of movie screens. Last week, industry reporter TechCrunch wrote a fascinating feature on this LightHouse-supported technology. You can read the whole story here. 

The newest release from Disney•Pixar, Cars 3, will be fully supported by the Actiview app, delivering both amplified audio and audio description, free of charge, to anyone who downloads the app and shows up at the theater. Audio description is for blind users, with a voiceover track describing what is happening on screen. Amplified audio takes the audio of the movie and makes the dialogue clearer and louder, for hard of hearing attendees.

Here’s what to know:

  • Available on the App Store (http://appstore.com/activiewempoweredentertainment)
  • Audio Description for Blind and Low Vision
  • Amplified audio for Hard of Hearing
  • Captions and Languages coming soon
  • Works with Cars 3 in all US theaters
  • Assistive services are free

How to use Actiview:

  1. Download the Actiview App from the App Store.
  2. On June 16, Cars 3 assistive audio (assistive tracks will be available to for download in advance. Download over Wi-Fi before getting to the theater if you want to save on data use)
  3. Go to the Cars 3 screening of your choice, open the app, and choose either Audio Description, Amplified Audio or the two tracks combined.
  4. Give us your feedback by emailing comments to team@actiview.co or by calling our hotline at 1(844)-399-2789 to sound off!

Please note: The first time a user opens the app, there is a 30-second tutorial helping the user to understand how to navigate the app which requires headphones to go through.

Camper Spotlight: Billy Lei

Nineteen-year-old Enchanted Hills camper Billy Lei bubbles with enthusiasm as he describes his first session at EHC, saying, “I loved Enchanted Hills from the first moment I got there. I loved the space, the trees, the people, all of it!”

Billy moved with his family from China to Sacramento eight years ago. They moved in part to give Billy the education he couldn’t get in China, where children with disabilities are often shuttered away. It was a big change. He says, “I was just eleven when I came here. I didn’t know the language and remember having to adjust to the hotter weather and different food.” Despite these challenges, Billy began to sharpen his English, dig into academics and learn how to relate to his American peers.

And Billy wanted to do more than that. At first, he might have been mistaken for shy, but he explains, “…that’s not really my nature. I learned a lot in school, but I wanted to become more confident and push myself even more.” That is exactly what he did at Enchanted Hills.

Since 1950, Enchanted Hills Camp, sprawling across 311 idyllic acres in the redwoods of Napa, is the place where children and adults who are blind or have low vision try new things, experience the grandeur of wilderness and make lifelong friends. Each year Enchanted Hills offers more than 550 campers the chance to enjoy nature while learning all kinds of skills, from archery to tactile crafts, from campfire-building to horseback riding.

Billy jumped at the chance to go to camp. Once there he learned to navigate the undulating campus and enjoy all that the camp had to offer. He tells us, “There’s so much that I love about Enchanted Hills. I love nature – I love hiking and the feeling of open space, the sound of the birds – it’s a happy place to be and I can really relax my mind. I love all kinds of physical activity and I took my very first martial arts class there. I liked it so much that I continue to take classes here at home.”

Camp Director Tony Fletcher says, “Billy is a great role model for the younger campers and he always takes advantage of the opportunities offered to him. We’ve seen how EHC can be a gateway to the deep learning of the rest of the LightHouse. Billy has run with this. He really threw himself into camp life. Now he’s getting ready to take on the working world as an active member of LightHouse’s Youth programs. He is learning how to do a great job interview.”

This summer, hundreds of young campers will set up their cabins and meet blind friends, old and new. Together they will gain confidence and a sense of pride in who they are. Please donate to help us continue to make camp a place for blind kids to discover themselves.

View the full list of our camp sessions here. We still have spaces at our STEAM Camp, the special tech track in our youth camp session, from July 12 to 15 — learn more about this dynamic and educational session on our website.

A Blind Poet in the LightHouse Studio: Watch “Vision” by Leah Gardner

“I’m a woman who’s a blind, depressed lesbian,” says Leah Gardner, with a good-humored chuckle. “That’s who I am. That’s my reality and I’m okay with it.”

Leah is also a part-time tech trainer at LightHouse and a slam poet. She will be marching with our San Francisco Pride Contingent this Sunday, June 25 to #BeSeen.

Leah hasn’t participated in Pride in about 15 years — since she was a young poet in New Hampshire and Vermont — but when she heard about our blind and visually impaired contingent from our weekly newsletter, she decided it was time to march again. In her late 20s, marching in Pride offered her a lot of hope, along with a sense acceptance and celebration in who she was and what she offered to a community. After a tough couple of years, Leah is ready to feel that hope again.

“There’s a lot of excitement building for me, just in terms of being part of this,” she says. “Every time that I participated in the New Hampshire and Vermont marches, it was with wonderful friends but they were all sighted. It was not part of a visually impaired community, as key to me as that was in my life. This year carries this newness to it. It will be a completely original experience of sharing this day with people who are also blind and GLBTQ. So I’m really energized.”

We’re asking folks to use the hashtag #BeSeen and think about what that means in the context of Pride.

“I think a lot of people are very comfortable with talking about sexuality but the vision loss and the reality of that creates a lot of shame,” says Leah. “And in my case I also deal with severe depression, which adds some challenges in finding a way to form bonds with other people. We all have some shame about something, some facet of our personality. This ‘Being Seen’ concept to me has become about saying no to that shame.”

And Leah is no stranger to thinking about the intersection of blindness and sexuality. One of the poems she has performed most over the years is a poem called “Vision” about a gay friend who was losing his sight. The poem unpacks the shame and fear that often accompanies both sexuality and disability, and is a testament to the courage it takes to go through a world that isn’t always kind to people it deems outside of the norm. In advance of San Francisco Pride, we asked Leah to perform “Vision” in the LightHouse studio. Watch the video below.

Leah will present this poem live at our “All Eyes on Allies: Pride Training and Community Building” on June 22 where she also discuss what it means to show up to Pride as an ally for people with multiple marginalized identities. This training will also teach volunteers how to be effective human guides.

We hope you’ll volunteer to be part of our contingent. Sign up to march with us on June 25 at our Eventbrite page.

Blind Explorer Erik Weihenmayer on Occasionally Forgetting His Socks and Being a Blind Ambassador

The Cover of Erik's Book, No BarriersOn May 2, we’re welcoming blind explorer Erik Weihenmayer as our guest for the next installment of LightHouse Listenings — a live event “for ears only”. Erik will join Davia Nelson of NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters for a candid conversation about his work as an athlete, adventurer, author, activist and motivational speaker, as well as his new book (relaunched April 24) No Barriers

Many of us are familiar with Weihenmayer’s worldly feats — climbing Mount Everest and kayaking the Grand Canyon, to name two. But while it’s easy to focus on the dazzling peaks (literal and figurative) of Erik’s achievements, this doesn’t leave much room to talk about the nitty gritty, behind-the-scenes of traveling the world as a blind person. What goes into planning a trip like this? How do you ignore the haters? What silly things has he forgotten?

With our Holman Prize semifinalists filling out their proposals and preparing to embark on adventures of their own, we decided to grill Erik for more than just lofty inspiration. The Holman Prize Team collected some practical advice for blind travelers including fully immersing yourself in the experience, getting to know the currency and occasionally making time to do some adventuring in your very own backyard.

Here’s the full conversation:


Holman: When putting together the trip of a lifetime, how long should you take to research and plan? Any rule of thumb for time spent planning versus the actual execution?

Erik: What gets attention, and what people remember, is the summit, the big rapid or whatever that “apex” is – but I don’t think people realize for every hour of summiting, there’s a hundred hours of tedious planning. It’s sitting behind the computer writing everyone you know, trying to raise money, trying to understand the business side of how to make it happen, promoting it in the right way, and all the tedious hours that go into training.

Holman: When you walk out the door, what do you most often forget?

Erik: First of all, when I get on the plane I feel relief, I take a nap. One of the hardest parts – the planning – is over. Now it’s just put your plan into place – execute well, and that’s completely different from all the planning, all the worrying, all the anxiety, all the orchestration. You get on that plane and you’re like, ok, stage one of the adventure is done.

That being said, I’ve forgotten all kinds of things – even socks. Imagine going up Mount Everest and realizing “Oh my god! I thought you were going to bring all the socks!” and then you have four pairs of socks for going all the way up the mountain. Then there we were, looking for yak-wool socks in the markets of Namche Bazaar, and trust me, those aren’t as warm as SmartWool.

I’ve forgotten books. When you’re blind, and you’re not really getting stimulation from looking out the window, sometimes you need a good book to help you – with jet lag especially. If you have insomnia don’t forget those books, or music, or podcasts or whatever you need.

One thing I tell people is to be careful to separate the experience itself from the promotion of the experience. Of course you have to send out the travel blog or the video or the Facebook update, and that stuff’s important to spread the message, but there has to be a very clear line. You have to be ready to immerse yourself in the experience, and that’s a tricky thing in the modern world – being there to actually be there, not for your résumé.

Holman: What are the cultural considerations of traveling around the world as a blind person? Any tools you recommend for assimilating when moving from country to country? Any must-have items, besides the obvious?

Erik: In the developing countries I’ve been in, bringing a dog would be really hard. It’s kind of you and your cane. Going from America to a developing country, people don’t know about blindness. The blind people in their communities maybe don’t come out as much. In many places, blind people stay in their huts, cook, and are sheltered.

I went to Russia once and was getting ready to speak at a bank. All the people with different challenges – blind people, wheelchair riders, etc. – would come up in my talk, and they told me ‘You will shock people if you talk about them, because we don’t see those people in our culture.’ They’re hidden away.

For that reason, definitely try to connect with the local blindness organization. Stop in and share knowledge. When I was in Katmandu, I went to the association and it was great, we had lunch together and talked. It was wonderful.

Always go knowledgeable. Learn the money, learn how to identify the money. And if you speak the language, you are golden. If you know the language, then everyone is relying on you to translate and you’re getting pushed to the front to talk and interact with the local people.

Understand that when you go into one of these not-first world countries, there’s chaos. You’re stepping in pig poop, there’s open gutters with sewage, and it’s not ADA compliant. But that’s part of what makes it fun, too. I remember walking through the streets of Katmandu and a guy came by on his moped, and literally his moped bumped me. His hot tail pipe burned my leg. It wasn’t a disaster, you just have to be able to handle these sorts of inconveniences.

Holman: When traveling, how do you keep track of your story? Do you take notes, keep a journal, or somehow otherwise keep track of your milestones with a physical inventory, or do you keep it all in your head?

Erik: Everybody’s different, but writing in a journal throughout the trip is really great. Even bring a digital recorder and just jot notes down or turn it on and capture an experience you might want to remember later. And if everyone takes a journal, then you can go back and read everyone else’s, too. It become a collective consciousness type of thing. If you plan on writing about the experience, you can’t beat a firsthand account of how you were feeling on any given day.

Holman: Ever been an amazing adventure in your own community?

Erik: There’s incredible adventure all around us. Recently my wife and I rode our tandem bike up to this ghost town called Animas Forks, and explored all the old buildings where these miners lived through the harshest of winters. I went to South Carolina last year, to Beaufort, and we took a tour, learned about this language, almost like a separate language that the African-American culture spoke, based on their language from Ghana. There are incredible cultures and adventure right under our noses, you don’t necessarily have to go to the other side of the world.

Holman: Is it more important to do something first or do something best?

Erik: It depends on what your goal is. I’ve never looked at adventure in terms of “hey, I survived it!” The point of these adventures isn’t just to survive. You don’t learn anything from being in a survival stage. You want to be ready. I think it’s more important to take the time to flourish in these environments or cultures. What you’re trying to do is learn things.

If you can prepare for something, and be first, it’s pretty fun, but at the same time, you can be a pioneer without being the first. Because pioneering is mostly in your mind. It’s not about being the first “out there,” as long as it’s a meaningful experience for you. It’s icing on the cake – but it’s not quite enough in itself.

Holman: If people don’t believe in your ability to do something, how do you proceed?

Erik: It’s a tricky one, because even though I’ve done a lot of big cool things in my life, I may be sitting in the airport trying to figure out how to get on the right bus. You’re still  a human being, and still confused in that moment. It’s ok to ask for help and accept help.

It is a balancing act of accepting help and also being practical about what you can do and what you don’t need help with. Honestly, people could argue with this, but getting out there and flailing and bleeding is perfectly acceptable. People want to immediately grab you, and help you, people don’t want to see that flailing. You tap someone’s foot with the cane and they freak out. You have to say “No, that’s how the cane works.”

I think that you’re teaching by being out there and being positive. If you become the grumpy blind guy, you’ve lost. You’ve got to be graceful, and be the consummate ambassador, and if you’re lucky enough to have the time to educate people, do it in a nice way.

That’s not to say that if someone grabs me in the airport in some kind of wrestling move I won’t react. I actually wrestled, so I might instinctively do a move to free myself! But for the most part you have to be graceful, because people don’t know. And when it comes to ignorance, you’re not going to educate every person.

Meet Erik at LightHouse Headquarters on May 2 for his talk at 7:00 p.m. Reception begins at 6:00 p.m., with complimentary wine and beer included in your ticket.

The cost is $10 in advance and $15 at the door (cash only). Tickets can be purchased through our Eventbrite page.

If you are unable to buy your ticket via Eventbrite, contact Events Manager Dagny Brown at dbrown@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7311.