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250 Blind People Celebrate the Latest in Audio Description at Pixar Red Carpet Event

dozens of blind people stand in the atrium of Pixar Animation Studios
(all photos courtesy Morry Angell/Guide Dogs for the Blind)

On Thursday, December 10, 250 blind people and their pals gathered together at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville for a very special evening.

two men in navy suits with canes walk down the red carpet, one wearing a fedora

The event, which both celebrated audio description and showed the enthusiastic audience a sneak preview of a new mobile technology for delivering perfect, uninterrupted audio description in theaters and at home, was also an unprecedented gathering of blindness organizations from around the Bay Area. Dressed to impress, in cocktail attire and rolling down the 150-foot red carpet through the atrium of Pixar, we couldn’t have been more proud to see all the white canes, dogs and, most of all, a blind community dedicated to improving video description throughout mainstream culture.

A special thanks to the Blind Babies Foundation and Guide Dogs for the Blind for collaborating with the LightHouse on this first-ever gala video description event. Here’s to many more great movie-going experiences to come. Look for more details about the new technology in a future issue of the LightHouse eNews.

Check out some highlights below and check out all the photos from the event here.
several prominent female members of the blidnness community pose for the cameraa little girl hugs a dinosaur plush doll next to the red carpeta woman and her dog inspect a dinosaur plush dolla well-dressed boy with a white cane walks with his friends and family

Pixar is Throwing a Red Carpet Screening for the Blindness Community — Win Tickets Here

White Canes, Red Carpet - glamorous evening of audio description, tech, and access for all

In October, we wrote about the work we’ve been doing with Disney-Pixar to make their movies more accessible for the blind. Today, we’re thrilled to announce that next week, we’re throwing a party at Pixar Animation Studios, offering a sneak preview of their new technology at an accessible screening of their new film, The Good Dinosaur.

little caveman boy rests, eyes closed, on the Good DinosaurWe conceived “White Canes, Red Carpet” as a celebration — of audio description and technology, but moreover, inclusion and access for all. We believe that not having to contend and litigate for good accessible technology is not just a luxury, but a civil right, and seeing such an influential studio as Disney-Pixar take on the challenge wholeheartedly is truly something worth celebrating. What’s more, this will be an unprecedented gathering of blindness organizations across the Bay Area — and we’ve been working closely with the Blind Babies Foundation, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and several other agencies to ensure that as many groups as possible are represented.

So on the evening of December 10, the red carpet will stretch through the atrium at Pixar Animation Studios, and the majority of the hundreds of attendees will be blind or have low vision. The evening will culminate with a very special screening of The Good Dinosaur, and representatives from Disney and Pixar will speak and seek feedback from attendees on their new technology. It will be a grand evening, and the LightHouse is very proud to be a part of it.


If you love the magic of a premiere and the glitz of a new film — and especially if you’re blind or have low vision — enter our raffle by Friday, December 4th. In order to win tickets, you must answer the following, and email to lighthouseblind@gmail.com.

1. Full Name:
2. Number of tickets desired (including adult, teen, child):
3. Do you have an an up-to-date iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad?
4. Are you blind, have low vision, or affiliated with a blindness or accessibility organization?
5. Phone contact:

We will notify all ticket recipients by Monday, December 7. Unfortunately we do not have resources to notify all those who are not picked.

Press: please send any media requests to wbutler@lighthouse-sf.org.

Learn to Travel Blind with LightHouse Orientation and Mobility Instructor Katt Jones

Katt Jones works with LightHouse student George Montag in NapaThe following is one in a monthly series featuring the extraordinary people who make up the LightHouse staff.

“Being an Orientation and Mobility Specialist is a perfect fit for me,” Katt Jones tells us. “I love teaching one-on-one, and empowering people to live their lives. I also value people’s stories, which I get to hear as I teach them how to safely travel as a blind person. She adds, “There’s more to learn about O&M than white cane travel, like using auditory cues to know when to cross the street, or explaining how weather can change the skills a blind person should use to travel.”

Katt, one of our newer Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialists, reminds us that O&M is more than white cane travel. “I love nerding out about smartphone apps, GPS and other means of travel. Though I don’t teach in-depth technology training—that’s what our LightHouse technology specialists are for—I do introduce my students to technology they may not be aware can help them.”

Katt earned her Master’s in Special Education with an emphasis on Orientation and Mobility at California State University, Los Angeles. Before she worked for the LightHouse she gained experience working as an O&M Specialist, and also unofficially began to learn independent living skills, which allowed her to more easily spot when someone needs additional training.

When students work with Katt to enhance their O&M skills, they get someone who listens. She says, “At the University of California San Diego, I studied sociology and psychology to understand how the individual fits within society. This led me to running support groups, where people come together to share experiences, learn and grow. When I’m working with a student, lots of personal things surface. We talk about independence, which often leads to conversations about family and friends being overly protective and not understanding. For students who are naturally shy, we talk a lot about how to respond to strangers who offer unsolicited (though well-meant) help because they see someone with a white cane. Family dynamics come up a lot, and I listen to students’ stories and help them talk through solutions. Mostly, however, I remind my students that they are in control of their lives.”

She goes on to say, “People have so many ideas about what it means to be blind. If you’re new to blindness, it’s easy to let it consume your attention. When I’m with a student, I’m teaching them blindness skills, but I also try to remind them of their hobbies and interests. It’s ironic that students of mine spend a lot of time talking to relatives and friends about blindness, and when they come to me, we start talking about theater, dancing, and hiking. I tell my students that it’s ok to say ‘stop talking about my blindness!’ My first priority is O&M instruction, but sometimes people need to be heard—what they really need is someone who sees them as a whole person.”

Katt encourages her students to come up with locations of interest to travel to during their lessons. “Several of my students want to learn how to get to the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, or how to hop on the F-line and get out to Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf so they can check out the shops and the sea lions. They get really excited when they can show family members from out of town how to get to these iconic San Francisco locations. Just today I got to work with a student who has a membership at Cal Academy of Sciences and wanted some instruction on how to navigate the stair lifts when it is rather dark. I have another student who has been learning how to get to a San Francisco bakery so she can bring back delicious pastries and sourdough bread to her family back home in the East Bay. I try to let my students dream up any route they want or any location they want to get to so that they can focus on learning the skills while on the way to a place that they really would love to get to.”

Very much a people person, Katt runs a co-op in Oakland where she and five other housemates ensure a constant homey vibe. “We eat dinner together, share chores that we rename ‘spheres of influence’, and encourage each other.” In addition to creating a loving home, a portion of the co-op’s rent is given to nonprofits of their choosing. “Living in a co-op means we know how important community is, which is why we also support nonprofits that enrich and support the community around us.”

Katt truly embraces life and the people around her, from her students who are learning new blindness skills, to a team of performers in a local showing of the iconic film the Rocky Horror Picture Show. “I love music and dancing,” Katt says with a twirl of her head, “and I regularly attend live theater.” She reminds us all, “get up, get out, and get along.”

If you’d like to brush up on your O&M skills, or if you’ve been holding off on learning them, Katt has some words of advice: “Take the leap and let’s laugh while learning.” Contact the LightHouse at 415-831-1481 to get started.


BJ Epstein – Line Drawer Extraordinaire

BJ Epstein stands next to a braille printer


The following is one in a monthly series featuring the extraordinary people who make up the LightHouse staff

“I draw lines,” BJ Epstein, LightHouse’s Accessible Media Specialist, humbly states to describe her work at the LightHouse. To say BJ “draws lines” is like saying Luciano Pavarotti could sing—while true, it severely understates BJ’s skills and mastery of accessible print, braille, tactile and 3D media.

BJ is part of a team which has now made numerous maps of universities such as Berkeley, Stanford, San Francisco State and beyond. She holds a Master’s in Architecture and converts complicated maps, transit layouts and architectural designs into tactile models. She told us, “It’s surprisingly challenging to translate a printed map into a tactile one. For example, a map of the Civic Center BART station contains a myriad of information: two platforms, one for Muni and one for BART, several different ticket booths, multiple exits and entrances, elevators, stairs, escalators and emergency exits need to be represented. To complicate things, most official print BART maps contain even more information, most of which won’t fit on a tactile map. I have to work with agencies and the public to determine what must be represented on each tactile map, while always considering how I will represent such information.”

When BJ joined the LightHouse Access to Information Services (AIS) team in March 2011, she immediately set to work teaching herself braille. BJ emphasizes, “Learning braille takes commitment, but it’s not as hard as learning a totally new language. Really, it’s a different kind of alphabet and set of punctuation marks; you don’t have to learn new words or grammar rules, though braille contractions do take some memorization.” She urges people not to let their concerns hold them back from learning braille. “Our braille instructor, Divina Carlson, makes learning Braille fun and easy. You’ll make progress faster than you ever imagined.”

Braille translation and embossing is just one among many of BJ’s tasks. “My background in architecture enables me to translate blueprints, maps, and graphic designs into tactile and 3D representations, making complex print material fully accessible.” BJ reminds us, “Most people aren’t totally blind, so we also make designs that allow people with low vision to use both tactile and high-contrast, large print, low-clutter print representations of maps and designs.”

BJ’s skills and deep understanding of access to print materials for the blind has enabled her to lead several projects, like designing BART and Muni Accessible Station Maps. “I’ve also worked with UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon to produce maps for their blind students and visitors. LightHouse even designed maps for some world renowned theme parks,” BJ coyly states, “we can’t name the corporation, but I can tell you they have major theme parks on three continents, and are one of the world’s most recognizable brands.”

LightHouse’s accomplishments in the tactile map industry has exploded, thanks in large part to the work BJ does every day. She tells us, “We’re wrapping up a project with the Calgary, Canada transit system, and have been approached by other major transit authorities.” In addition to leading the industry in making tactile maps, BJ is also at the forefront of creating teaching materials and establishing a pedagogy for tactile literacy beyond braille. “We’ve found that people need to learn how to use our tactile maps. They need to familiarize themselves with the symbology and the different embossing techniques to better understand the maps we create. For some blind people, tactile maps are the first maps they’ve ever been able to personally experience. Many sighted people take for granted their acquired knowledge on how to read a map, orient themselves to a map, follow a route, and identify directions. Our teaching materials take into consideration the fact that some people need basic map usage instructions in addition to tactile literacy training.” One entertaining game our teaching materials use is the familiar “which of these is not like the other” game, where students learning tactile maps have to differentiate shapes and symbols by identifying the outlier in a group of symbols. BJ explains, “It’s a simple game with easy directions, and it teaches people how to refine their tactile perception abilities.”

BJ reminds us, “AIS has many projects going, and we’ve been fortunate to have some amazing volunteers and interns help us complete our projects. I actually started as a volunteer in AIS in 2010, helping to draw architectural maps of BART, and now I love working here and I love what I do. I can’t ask for more than that.”

BJ—part-cartographer, part-architect, part-braille transcriber—somehow finds time to pursue personal endeavors. “My husband and I recently discovered opera. We went from opera-ignorant to opera-enthusiast in one show: Cinderella (or La Cenerentola, in Italian). We’re excited for the upcoming season of the San Francisco Opera—planning to attend at least one performance of each show.”

And she and her husband have made a small herd of rabbits a part of their family, taking in bunnies whose humans have abandoned them. “When my husband and I rescued our first rabbits, all we had to transport them in was a Styrofoam cooler. We promised them that they were not, in fact, food, and that they’d soon be in a happy and loving home.”

If you need to have something translated into braille, or if you’re interested in having blueprints or maps translated into tactile designs, contact MAD Lab at madlab@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7349. And if you’re interested in volunteering with AIS, contact Justine Harris-Richburgh, our Volunteer Engagement Specialist at 1alturism@lighthouse-sf.org to sign up.

Google Announces “Day-in-the-Life” Study Following Blind Individuals

Google Logo, written in Braille

We’ve had a terrific summer getting to know the folks at Google who think deeply about accessibility on a daily basis, and as a product of that relationship we’ve been able to provide some great new opportunities for our students and community members, both in receiving training and providing feedback.

Now, on the heels of our highly successful July workshop, we’re proud to announce a new opportunity: Google would like to follow you around for a day — quite literally.

The announcement, direct from Mountain View:

At Google, our Android and Accessibility teams are studying current and future technologies that help people with visual disabilities. We are seeking to understand what works and doesn’t work with smartphones and other devices that help. We would like to deeply understand the emotions, hurdles, achievements and surprises that are involved in navigating the world with visual impairment. Familiarity with the Android operating system is not a prerequisite to contribute to this research.

The research will take place between Monday August 17th and Saturday August 22nd.

To participate in this research, there are 2 options: Full-day and partial-day. Descriptions are listed below.

Full day shadow:
– For this research project, one researcher would like to observe a typical day in your life, including one significant activity (like going to a museum or going grocery shopping). The researcher would meet you in the morning at your home, as early as you feel comfortable starting. She [these researchers happen to all be women] will generally sit quietly nearby as you go through your daily routine. She’ll ask questions, take notes and take photographs occasionally. She will accompany you on any events you have planned for the day.

In addition to the observation, we would like to also conduct an interview you with you and some friends, on the following day. You would invite one to two friends to meet together at a convenient time and place (e.g., your home, Google office), to chat together about your experiences with different tools and different situations.

For your time, you would be compensated $700. Your friends would each receive $150 for attending the 2-hour buddy session.

Partial-day shadow:
– “For this research project, two researchers would like to follow you through a significant activity in your daily life (like going to a museum, having lunch with friends, or going grocery shopping, etc.). The researchers would meet you at your home,and travel with you to the activity, to get to know you and also observe transportation experiences. They will ask questions, take notes and take photographs occasionally, but try not to be too disruptive to what you need to accomplish. You can choose which activity you would take them along to. They expect to spend about 3 hours with you. For your time, you would be compensated $300 for your time.”

Note: The quotes and photographs that we collect during our research will be kept confidential to our company, and never be used publicly. We will use the stories and experiences that we gather to build develop new opportunities for technology to help people with visual disabilities.

If you are interested, please click here and complete the survey. If you have any further questions, please direct them to LightHouse’s deputy director, Scott Blanks at sblanks@lighthouse-sf.org.

Start The Music: Accessible Festivals Are A Reality

the Accessible Festivals team

It’s summer, which also means it’s Music Festival Season, and last week a coworker at the LightHouse sent me a Salon.com article which I read with great interest. It was called: “‘You are not welcome here’: At concerts and music festivals, fans with disabilities are too often shut out, endangered and ignored.”.

As a blind/low vision person who makes music, wrote about it for a living, and has attended dozens of music festivals, I was eager to compare my own experience of concert-going with the author of the piece. As it turns out, she is a good enough writer, with optimism for an inclusive future, but the overall tone of the piece (most notably the title) greatly misrepresents the reality of the situation, and discredits how far musical events have come in the 25 years since the passage of the ADA.

The last several years in particular have seen tons of progress in the accessibility of music festivals, and if you read further, you may be convinced that, even if you’re completely blind, there is a place for you on the polo fields of Coachella, the ferris wheel of Treasure Island, or the foggy enclaves of Outside Lands.

First, it’s important to dispel the misattributions that support the Salon.com article. In the story, the author details several circumstances in which she was discriminated against as a disabled concert-goer: a parking attendant refused her a handicapped spot, an usher scowled and denied her an elevator, and so on. These instances are certainly regrettable, but to be bluntly honest, the problem does not actually seem to be with the venues themselves — which were equipped with said facilities — but are in fact caused by a lack of communication between humans.

If you have a so-called “invisible” disability, such problems will plague you not just at concerts and music festivals but literally everywhere you go — unless you come prepared with a communication device. Even if it’s just a little 10-second speech, well-rehearsed and easy to understand, you need to have a believable way of informing people of your situation. As blind and visually impaired individuals, we are fortunate to have the white cane, which accomplishes all of this crucial communication in a single sighted glance. And in all my experience at music festivals around the country, I have not only never been treated poorly with the cane, but I’d even argue that my experience was even better than most.

But it’s not just about blind people having a particular advantage. Austin Whitney, a law student at UC Berkeley and paraplegic since 2007, founded Accessible Festivals in 2014 specifically to ensure that people with disabilities — any disability you can imagine — are accommodated appropriately at music festivals in America and all over the world. Whitney first worked as a consultant, starting with Goldenvoice (who put on events such as Coachella and Hangout Fest), and eventually realized that his skills were not only useful, but in high demand. Now he works year-round in addition to attending law school, and employs dozens of people at individual events across the country, particularly in summer months.

Talking to Whitney, he says that the range of disability that he and his team can accommodate is only expanding. “It’s everything from 18 year olds with a temporary disability like a broken leg to 90 year olds with an air tank,” he said. Other disabilities also include dietary considerations, physical and mental differences, as well as deafness and visual disabilities. “90% of my work is just problem solving,” Whitney says, “It’s just talking to people one-on-one. What are the problems, how can we mitigate them, how can we make this work for you?”

By all measures, Whitney’s work has been a success. In the years since he’s started attending festivals, things have changed dramatically. In 2008, for instance, he and his wheelchair had to be carried, by his friends, separately down the bleachers of an entire football stadium in order to make it into the general admission area for the Electric Daisy Carnival Festival. Last year, Whitney went back to EDC and employed seventeen people to serve 200 attendees with disabilities — almost double the previous year’s number. Word, he says, spreads fast.

Accessible Festivals is not only trying to make sure festivals meet basic legal requirements, but ensure that the events are actually comfortable and enjoyable for disabled patrons in new and creative ways. “You can have an ADA compliant festival, but it doesn’t mean it’s very welcoming to people with disabilities,” he points out.

For people with visual disabilities or blindness, Whitney admits he’s still learning what the best accommodations are, but has come up with some great new solutions as of late to improve the blind experience of festivals to a great degree. The first of these is braille set times — because even though much of that info is available on smartphones, large music festivals tend to be black holes for cell reception, and nothing beats a hard copy when your iPhone battery is dead.

Whitney and his team have also started to offer blind and low vision festival-goers personal orientation tours of the festival grounds, in order to get them familiar and comfortable as the venue fills up and the lights get low. As soon as the gates open, Whitney or another employee will happily take a blind patron around the area, show them where everything is, and even go so far as to explore all the food options and talk about menus, maybe even meeting certain vendors, before the herds of people arrive later in the day. In the crashing din of a festival environment, often our usual methods of listening and talking can reak down, which could make an advance orientation particularly valuable. This, in my own opinion, is a great accommodation; It’s something that even your sighted friends might not think to do for you.

Whitney says it’s all about being a creative problem solver and not being intimidated by new situations. Recently, when a low vision girl and her boyfriend could not get close enough for her to appreciate any of Taylor Swift’s dance moves, Whitney recruited two of his staff and two more festival security employees equipped with flashlights to escort the two, VIP-style, to the front row. It’s not a typical accommodation, but as someone who’s toughed it out at lots of inaccessible festivals — riding on peoples backs and all — Whitney says it was a service he was happy to provide.

In all, Accessible Festivals will have a presence at 35 music festivals in 2015, and odds are there’s one near you. Whitney doesn’t want anyone with a disability to be scared anymore, even if things prove to be more difficult than they should be. “Festivals are making an effort,” he says, “Go out to them — I’ve been to a lot of festivals where my disability wasn’t accommodated but I still had a good time. Sometimes you just have to go with a good attitude. Some bull—- might happen, but I don’t look back on any of them as negative experiences.”

Questions, comments or feedback? Leave a comment below, or email Will Butler at wbutler@lighthouse-sf.org.

Google is Coming Back to the LightHouse, and You’re Invited

google chromebook

A couple weeks ago, we wrote about how Google came to the LightHouse in May to run a series of usability studies. Today, we’re happy to announce that they’re returning again in July for an even more in-depth workshop.

On Tuesday, July 21st the LightHouse for the Blind is hosting an all-day training facilitated by professionals from Google. The day will focus on how to use Chrome OS, as well as Google Docs and Drive Product suite using assistive technology. The event begins at 9 am. Lunch will be provided, and we will wrap up the day with a happy hour from 5 to 6 pm.

When: Tuesday, July 21, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Happy hour from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m.
Where: LightHouse San Francisco Headquarters
Lunch will be provided

Chromebooks are highly secure, speedy, and affordable internet-based laptops. Google Drive, Docs, Sheets and Slides are powerful productivity tools for creating content, sharing content and collaborating with others. These products are increasingly adopted by educational and business organizations, and it’s important for blind and visually impaired users and instructors to be familiar with the accessibility features and functionality.

This workshop will include demonstrations by Google staff, hands-on exercises on the Chrome OS and Windows platforms, time allocated to giving product feedback, and more. Lunch will be provided, and we will wrap up the day with a happy hour.

Space is limited so register early to ensure a spot! To RSVP, contact LightHouse Deputy Director Scott Blanks: sblanks@lighthouse-sf.org, or 415-694-7371.

Why Google Comes to LightHouse for the Blind

braille_logo (3)

Here at the LightHouse, we visit a lot of tech companies to find out first hand what they’re up to, how their offices look and feel, and ultimately to foster an open, nuanced conversation about what they are working on.

Last week was a little different because, on the occasion of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Google visited us instead. Ben Davison, a user experience researcher at Google, came to our office in San Francisco to chat with blind and low vision smartphone users about what works well for them and what could be improved when it comes to the Google product. This, we believe, underscores one of the most crucial take-home points of designing good, accessible tech — that is, just showing up and listening.

Ben’s work does not focus exclusively on accessibility but generally on improving the experience of technology for all users. On Thursday, he carried out what we hope will be the first of many usability studies with some of our current and former students, running them through everyday Google searches, then observing and recording to see where screen readers or magnifying software ran into trouble.

So what prompted this visit from our neighbor? The LightHouse has resources that Google wants to tap into: specifically a vast network of accessibility users, thinkers and innovators under one roof.

”Imagine you wanted to test your product with five people who use screen magnifiers,” says Ben. “In order to go about this, you would have to find your users in the area, build trust, collect five study agreements, work out transportation to the site, provide an accessible test site, and work out transportation back home. “

“The LightHouse has all of these on tap: a strong network, trust, a convenient location, and an accessible place. These kinds of partnerships are invaluable to a researcher like myself in understanding the needs of our users.”

Ben received his PhD from Georgia Tech with a focus on accessibility and spent time at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta. This experience has undoubtedly given him a special insight into the value of good accessibility for this community of avid technology users, and we’re glad to see that Google values this, too.

We look forward to the next time we can get together with Google, and more people like Ben from other tech companies, to share ideas and feedback on improving these valuable tools in a way that just works for everyone.

If you’re a technology developer, a visually impaired person, or just a conscientious user, please don’t hesitate to contact us about how you can benefit from our services.

Follow us on Twitter and read more at Google Accessibilitiy.