LightHouse Staff1 Commenton Oral History: Gil Johnson reflects on eight decades of blindness training, advocacy and community
A distinguished longtime board member and pioneer of rehabilitation services at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, there are few denizens of our community more respected and knowledgeable than Gil Johnson. Growing up as a confident, free-thinking young blind man and coming to the LightHouse during a pivotal moment for blindness in the late seventies, Johnson changed the course of our training services and defined the future of the then somewhat fractured LightHouse organization.
In honor of Johnson’s 80th birthday, LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin set out to record an oral history: to capture the nuances of Johnson’s early life, career, and ongoing journey after LightHouse. The result is nearly six hours of humorous, thoughtful reflections on the past, present and future of what it means to be or become blind.
The podcast series was recorded on three separate days and is broken into seven total parts below. Mp3s are available for download or to stream directly.
Part 1 (recorded November 2017, 2 segments): Gil talks about his childhood, development as a young blind man and the early career moves that brought him to the blindness field.
Part 2 (recorded December 2017, 3 segments): Gil discusses the state of LightHouse when he arrived in the late 70s, and goes in depth into the challenges and opportunities as he took on the task of innovating in rehabilitative training through the 1980s.
Part 3 (recorded August 2018): Gil discusses his transition away from LightHouse, taking on services for the blind in Illinois and the new era for the LightHouse and its community as the 1990s approached.
In 2013, Alex Harding moved to the US from Sierra Leone, by himself, with only a $100 bill in his pocket.
Alex was young, but full of curiosity and a desire to learn and grow in the US job market. Still, as a person with low vision, Alex was at a disadvantage. As his vision changed, it became a struggle to show employers that he could work. In 2016, he signed up for the LightHouse’s Employment Immersion Program, and today he manages the facility of one of the web’s most popular skateboarding brands, Braille Skateboarding.
This is his story.
Braille Skateboarding is a tenant of LightHouse for the Blind at the Sirkin Center in San Leandro. We established a rental agreement with Braille Skateboarding because of their commitment to employ blind people like Alex.
If you’re blind, have low vision or have just experienced a change in vision and you want to gain the skills and confidence to jump back into the working world, we have a new four-week program just for you. To sign up, email Angela Denise Davis at email@example.com or contact your local Department of Rehabilitation counselor and ask to be enrolled.
Need to capture some quick reminders on the fly? Want to record important information like phone numbers, prescription numbers, up-coming appointments, etc.? This pocket-sized and easy-to-use digital recorder has you covered, and it’s now available in our Adaptations Store.
Incorporating a high-quality microphone and and high-output speaker into a small, lightweight and compact design, this recorder is the perfect travel companion for those hoping to save info with the touch of a button. The MicroSpeak is rechargeable and offers 12 hours of playback time, so there’s no need to worry about changing batteries. This recorder also includes an on-board user guide, which explains the four-button layout. The also uses clear audible beeps and voice prompts to make operating the device a snap. Simply slide the two-position power switch to the “on” position to hear the battery status and begin using your recorder.
The MicroSpeak has 4GB of space to store your audio files, which can either be played back on the recorder via its internal speaker, or copied to a computer via the USB port located on the bottom of the recorder next to the power switch. The MicroSpeak has buttons on the left side to control volume, which can be liberally turned up without incurring distortion — we call it the tiny recorder with a big sound!
The MicroSpeak Digital Recorder sells for only $54.95 in the Adaptations Store. Stop by and pick one up today!
Burning Man has ten tenets — perhaps the first and foremost being “radical inclusion”. On their website, the first principle reads, “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”
It’s a philosophy that we share at LightHouse, and one that led MAD Lab designer and longtime Burner Julie Sadlier to debut a one-of-a-kind tactile Burning Man map two years ago. In other words, a Burning Man map for blind people .
This year, we’ve updated and improved the hybrid tactile-visual map for Burning Man 2017. We were able to complete the maps without a problem. The maps, with updated art placement, will be available at several locations in Black Rock City, including the Playa Information Booth, Mobility Camp and the CBT Project (at 7 and Fire), and here at the LightHouse headquarters starting August 23. To pre-order a map, contact our Adaptations Store at 1-888-400-8933 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Calling it “awesome, no matter your level of sight,” The Atlantic’s CityLab aptly pointed out that you don’t have to be blind to use our map. Complete with braille, visual, and tactile representations of the event’s streets, information booths, first aid tents, restrooms, bus stops, camping, parking, and notable attractions such as artwork, Mobility Camp, The Temple and of course, The Man, the map is a great tool for anybody getting to know the festival – and one that is equally accessible to those with no vision. Now that’s radical inclusivity.
The map’s creator Julie Sadlier, said the response at Black Rock City over the last two years has been incredible, so much so that the leader of Mobility Camp, “Rat Lady”, contacted her way back in February to make sure she would be designing an updated version of the map for 2017.
“I had multiple people coming to my camp, even when I wasn’t there people were dropping off brailled business cards so they could talk more about the map,” says Julie. “Someone at Playa Information dismantled one copy and hung it on the wall to spread the word.”
It’s this type of openness and inclusivity, we’ve found, that opens unexpected doors and embodies the spirit of the LightHouse for the Blind as well as Burning Man. We look forward to printing even more than last year and to hearing your stories when you get back from the playa!
To get a copy of our map, call the Adaptations Store (1155 Market St., 10th Floor, San Francisco) at 1-888-400-8933, or email email@example.com. If you or your organization would like to design a fully accessible, inclusive map of, well – anything – email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Live today at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired: A workshop about how to save money while still receiving benefits.
Please join the FDIC, the World Institute on Disability, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Independent Living Resource Center in San Francisco for a Forum on Banking & Financial Stability for People with Disabilities. This is a presentation about economic empowerment and how individuals with disabilities can save money through the Cal ABLE account program.
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.”
“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.
May 18th is the 6th Annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and today we’re hosting architects, engineers, educators and designers for a very special “Virtual Reality Tour of Blindness.” The UK-based startup Theia Immersive has developed a robust, nuanced set of virtual and augmented reality filters to simulate all types of visual impairment, from color blindness to glaucoma and more. Today, they present from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. in a mini-conference held at LightHouse’s headquarters in San Francisco. You can watch live, here:
On May 11 from 5:00 t0 7:00 p.m., LightHouse will host Be My Eyes and its blind or low vision users for an evening of creative use, feedback and even a bit of friendly competition. The Be My Eyes team will take blind users through the past, present and future of the technology, and share some incredible stories about the iPhone app that connects blind people to a network of sighted volunteers via live video chat. The event is free and intended for blind and low vision users – RSVP on Facebook.
We love our independence. Even if our vegetables are grown and picked by hundreds of hands, our cars designed by teams of closely collaborating engineers, and everything from our electricity to our government benefits kept running by vast networks of individuals — modern day technology and consumption are designed to make us feel self sufficient.
We are thus allowed to hold ourselves ideals of self-determination and rugged individualism that have been passed down over the centuries. As blind people, these values are challenged every day of our lives. When something is poorly designed or downright unusable, we confront a deep conundrum: going it alone or asking for help, and risking the perceived possibility of burdening others.
When Be My Eyes launched nearly two years ago, a new tool was born: a radically different way to ask for help. Be My Eyes introduced blind smartphone users to a whole new type of social support network, one unbounded by geography, bureaucracy, or even practical limitations, that allowed blind users to get sighted assistance via video chat.
Today there are about half a million sighted volunteers with Be My Eyes loaded onto their phones, with more than 30,000 blind users on the other end. These volunteers will do anything from help you adjust the thermostat to spending half an hour helping you pick out an outfit for a high-stakes presentation. But at it’s core, each interaction is random, at-will and obligation free. The free app puts no limit on the number of calls you can make in a day. If you really wanted to, you could call 100 different people and have each of them identify the exact same piece of art – and the service, as always, would be free.
Even though thousands of blind people benefit from this app every week, the platform can handle thousands more. I wonder often if our notion of independent living so engrained, so hard-wired that we have still have trouble asking for help, even when there are really no strings attached.
Be My Eyes is working toward a gold-standard for people helping people. They have hundreds of thousands of hours of free labor, given with good faith, at a moments notice from people all around the world. It’s truly a new tool – like a fishing pole that reels in assistance whenever you want it. But as the old saying goes, you have to “teach a man to fish” before he can really benefit from the tools at hand.
Last month, I challenged myself to re-consider how I use the app. Occasionally I will be somewhere, alone, and realize that I am struggling. We all do this, sighted and blind alike: make things harder for ourselves then they need to be.
For one week, I told myself, any time I needed help I would pull out the app and give it a spin. What came out of it was surprising. Watch the video below to see Be My Eyes in action.
Not only did I use it for things I never thought it could work for – like identifying house numbers as I walked through a neighborhood or even the types of fish on my sushi plate – but I met people who were patient, not overbearing, and curious as to what they could do to be helpful without being obtrusive.
No one asked me personal questions, no one tried to coach me on how to live my life, and above all no one grabbed me by the arm and steered me somewhere I didn’t want to go. When I got what I needed, I could politely say thank you and hang up without fear that being brisk with someone would have repercussions later. It’s all the value of having someone nearby without any of the additional worry of initiating contact, explaining yourself, and ultimately breaking free of their of custody.
Our understanding of “independence” is not truly about total independence, but instead about masking the assembly line of helpers which make up our lives: the tiny little micro-transactions where individuals step in to provide assistance, whether or not we have a disability. For blind people, this is a more obvious reality than for most.
The reason Be My Eyes is so remarkable is because it embraces this reality wholesale: You can get the tiniest bit of help and move on through your life. The safety net is huge, and yet doesn’t loom over you.
Maybe it makes sense, then, that the guys behind Be My Eyes hail from Denmark, where you’re much more likely to hear about a more “social” approach. And if we think of human interaction as give and take, as an exchange of ideas or assistance as a true social interaction – maybe Be My Eyes has created the first truly social network.
On November 6, the LightHouse held its first-ever soldering workshop for people who are blind or have low vision. It was a huge success, and we have the photographs to prove it! Scroll down for more.
Soldering is a fundamental skill in electronics work that involves using a hot iron to fuse metal to form a permanent connection between electronic components. The aim of the workshop was to help students make their own accessible continuity testers – one of the most fundamental tools for students working in electronics without vision.
While most continuity testers use lights to indicate the strength of electric currents, accessible continuity testers emit a range of tones — high for a free path and low for an impeded path. Unfortunately, accessible continuity testers cannot be purchased, and previous manufacturers have ceased production. Each student left the workshop with a fully-functioning accessible continuity tester for use in their future work; and the skills to solder it themselves.
“Blind people are makers. We can do things like soldering and building robots and woodworking,” says Dr. Miele. “We might use slightly different techniques, but the outcome is the same. The LightHouse is all about teaching these alternative techniques so that people can engage in the activities they love, whether they’re sighted or not.”
Here are a few lovely shots from the workshop, by photographer Erin Conger:
The LightHouse’s Innovation Lab will continue to offer workshops in STEM fields, so stay tuned. It is part of our mission to strengthen the representation of people who are blind or have low vision in the tech industry and other STEM fields.
For more information about future workshops visit the LightHouse Calendar or contact Director of Community Services Lisamaria Martinez via email at email@example.com or by phone at 415-431-1481.
Good acoustic design benefits everyone – that’s the best takeaway you could have from experiencing the new LightHouse for the Blind headquarters. San Francisco-based Arup, the consulting firm of engineers who fine-tuned the LightHouse’s new facility in downtown San Francisco, worked hard to ensure that not only does our new space assist in wayfinding and orientation for blind people, but that it is inviting, logical and appealing for people with all kinds of vision.
Watch the in-depth interview below, featuring LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin and Arup Senior Acoustics and Audiovisual Consultant Shane Myrbeck.