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Meet LightHouse Access Technology Specialist Amy Mason

The Lighthouse Access Technology Department offers up-to-date training in the latest accessible methods. Meet Amy Mason, one of our Access Technology Specialists, who trains students who are blind or have low vision on ways to make their phone, computer or other devices easier and more comfortable to use.

Amy began her journey with access technology while in high school in Cedar Bluffs, Nebraska, when her vision was changing. At first, she learned to use a rudimentary screen magnifier, then she moved on to using the popular screen reader, JAWS. But in college, although she used a computer, she had no idea how to set one up and did not keep up with newer versions of Microsoft Windows.

After getting her Bachelor’s degree, she continued her education at South East Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska, focusing on computer networking. She also taught computers to kids during the summer. It was important to her that her students learn not just how to use a computer but how to problem solve when their computer didn’t work. One of her teaching tricks was to unplug all the computers and disconnect the cables in the classroom. Her students were required to put them together before class, including troubleshooting if something wasn’t working. For example, if their computer wasn’t making sound, even with the cable for sound plugged in, Amy would prompt them with questions like, “Did you plug the auxiliary cable back into the right place?”

Amy has brought her sound techniques for getting students to problem-solve and explore to LightHouse. “It’s okay to try things,” she says. “It’s a lot like exploring a new neighborhood or cooking a new dish. You have to learn new skills, new information, and new landmarks, but a lot of your key concepts stay the same.” When students encounter something unfamiliar while using technology, Amy encourages them to apply the skills they’ve already learned and problem-solve.

Amy’s experiences have informed her teaching strategies. She relates how when she was growing up, her father brought a computer home with several tutorials, including one that taught computer basics. One sentence really stood out as she was going through the tutorial: “The computer is no more intelligent than a toaster.” Now, in explaining her approach to teaching, Amy uses the metaphor of a toaster to help her students understand the basic functions of a computer. “What you’re doing with a computer at its most basic level is no more complex than what you’re doing with a toaster,” she states, with amusement. “With a computer, you’re giving input, with a toaster, you’re giving it bread. Then you add in variables, such as ‘I want this input to be put out in this format’, or ‘I want the bread to be medium dark’. Then you execute the program. If you’re using the computer, you might get a spreadsheet. If you’re using a toaster, you get toast.”

During the course of training our students learn how to use a number of technologies. Among the things Amy can teach you are how to use a screen magnifier such as ZoomText, screen readers such as JAWS, your smartphone, email and other programs on your computer, and for braille users, how to use refreshable braille.

Amy is concerned with accessibility, but also has expertise in the user experience. Besides technology training, the LightHouse Access Technology Department works with developers to evaluate websites and mobile applications for accessibility. Amy likes to educate developers on the impact poor accessibility or a poor user experience has on a blind person. For instance, developers may not realize that many blind people do not use a mouse at all though the software they use assumes they do. As Amy explains, “if a someone has to press tab 52 times on a keyboard to get to where a mouse user can get with one click, well that is not a great user experience.”

Amy trains her students to become their own teachers, so that when they finish their training program at LightHouse, they are confident enough to problem-solve when their technology downloads an update. With her help she hopes they will be able to work through any changes the update brings because “they’ll have the tools they would need to explore.”

When Amy is not training you may find her hard at work on hobbies such as drawing and crocheting. Amy is owned by two especially opinionated cats.

Let LightHouse get you connected with access tech. If you are interested in Access Technology Training at LightHouse, visit our access technology webpage or email skuan@lighthouse-sf.org.

Coming soon – LightHouse East Bay expands services

LightHouse East Bay, our office at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, is growing, and along with it, our commitment to providing a continuum of programs and services. The LightHouse has welcomed students from the East Bay into our programs for many years, but recognizes that establishment of a consistent presence in the area will ensure we more effectively reach the large and diverse population of Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties.

Blind and visually impaired residents in the East Bay can look forward to a warm and welcoming location just steps above the Ashby BART station. Our attentive staff will be available five days a week to connect you with an abundance of services, including skills training and community events. LightHouse delivers individualized training in Orientation & Mobility, Access Technology, employment readiness, Braille, Independent Living skills, as well as hosting events to bring blind people together with one another and the wider Bay Area community.

This expansion coincides with the exciting news that we’ve been awarded a grant by the Senior Assistance Foundation Eastbay to provide training free of charge to residents of Alameda County over the age of 55. If you know of someone who qualifies, please contact LightHouse concierge Esmeralda Soto, at esoto@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7323.

We’ll have more to share on our progress at LightHouse East Bay throughout the coming months. If you have questions about LightHouse programs, contact Esmeralda Soto at 415-694-7323 or info@lighthouse-sf.org.

The best part about blind camp

By Annalisa DiLeonardo, Assistant Director, Enchanted Hills Camp

I’ve been attending Enchanted Hills Camp for nine summers now, seven as part of the staff. I have low vision, but prior to my first summer attending EHC, I’d never really met another person with low vision, except one gentleman in high school.

I owe a lot to EHC for making me into who I am today. In the sighted community I sometimes feel like a fish out of water. At Enchanted Hills I’m with people just like me. Everyone deals with the same challenges and we can share our stories, tips and tricks. We don’t have to worry about what people think of us.

Campers with white canes walk in front of peaceful Lake Lokoya.
Campers with white canes walk in front of peaceful Lake Lokoya.

Each summer, I make a point of taking a step back mentally when we all gather at the campfire together. This year I did my thinking during the dance competition campers have come to enjoy every year. While I could sing many praises to EHC and take many pages to tell you about the great things there, what really blows my mind is how we all come from so many different walks of life but are connected at camp through this one special thing – our blindness. For example, at this year’s Teen Camp session, campers and staff came from parts of the world as diverse as Australia, China and Poland, plus all over the USA. It was so amazing to see the dining hall filled with at least 100 people who are all immersed in the world of blindness in their own special way.

Yes, there are cultural differences between us, but that doesn’t matter at EHC. Language barriers don’t seem to matter either – we all come together to enjoy each other and the wonderful activities camp has to offer. We all “get” each other. This is truly the best part about Enchanted Hills Camp.

As our community knows, in a single afternoon in October 2017, half of Enchanted Hills burned to the ground or experienced fire and smoke damage. You can help us rebuild Enchanted Hills Camp better than ever. Thank you for your support!

Meet Alieu Jaiteh: Holman Prizewinner and Social Entrepreneur

Alieu Jaiteh is one of three recipients of the 2019 Holman Prize for Blind Ambition. The Holman Prize is awarded annually by LightHouse for the Blind to three blind individuals with ambitious ideas. With his award of $25,000, Alieu will provide blindness skills training to eighty people in rural Gambia.

Born and raised in The Gambia, Alieu became blind shortly after graduating high school. He was interested in being an accountant, but as he explains, “In The Gambia, when you are blind, you have two options: to become a teacher or a beggar. Well, I didn’t want to be a beggar, so I chose to become a teacher.”

After graduating from The Gambia College, Alieu applied and won a scholarship to kanthari international, an institute which provides leadership training for people who want to make social change. His instructors at kanthari were impressed with his work and leadership skills and secured funding to send him to the Louisiana Center for the Blind in the United States. At the Louisiana Center, Alieu learned rehabilitation and technology skills. “I had never cooked for myself before,” he explains.

After experiencing the services and opportunities available to blind people firsthand, Alieu knew that he wanted those same things for blind people in his country. “I said to myself, I have to change the system. I started dreaming and wondering what I could do for myself and all the visually impaired people in The Gambia. That is where the dream of Start Now began.”

Start Now Gambia, founded by Alieu, provides rehabilitation and technology training to blind Gambians. Start Now’s mission is to provide blind people with the training they need to work in a variety of fields. As word spread about his organization, Alieu was met with skepticism. “People said this won’t work. It’s a waste of time,” Alieu explains. Alieu’s response was frank. “This is about changing lives. These are services that are not available here.” Start Now Gambia has continued with the hard work of Alieu and other liked-minded people in The Gambia.

Alieu learned about the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition in 2017. He realized the prize would provide him an opportunity to expand his training outside of the capital of Banjul and into rural Gambia. He applied in 2018 and became a finalist but did not win. In 2019, Alieu considered applying again, but was skeptical about his chance for winning because of the caliber of the competition. Finally, with only two weeks left of the submission period, he applied. When asked what he did differently from the first time he applied, Alieu says, “I wrote a more focused, creative and detailed proposal.”

The Holman Prize is named for James Holman, a blind explorer who was the most prolific traveler of anyone, blind or sighted, before the era of modern transportation. The prize is about shattering misconceptions and changing expectations about what blind people can do. On winning the Holman Prize, Alieu says, “This is an opportunity to transform the lives of blind and partially sighted people in rural Gambia to become confident and independent. This award is a dream come true and obviously a motivating spirit for all my future activities.”

Alieu’s Holman Prize journey begins in October. Follow along at HolmanPrize.org or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Subscribe to the Holman Prize email newsletter by sending a message to holman@lighthouse-sf.org.

Reflections from the YES Academy Class of 2019

Each year, LightHouse offers an intensive summer program for youth ages 16-24, which includes time spent away from home. The Youth Employment Series (YES) Academy is a four-week immersive experience held at LightHouse Headquarters in San Francisco to gain first-hand knowledge about building confidence, being a “team player,” identifying strengths and interests, and finding direction through interactive work-based learning experiences designed to develop job-readiness skills.

In June, this year’s group tackled a blindness skills boot camp, met with blind mentors, visited college campuses, attended a blindness convention and completed work experience, which they traveled to independently.

Here are reflections from a few of the students from the YES Academy Class of 2019:

Jenn, who interned at the Exploratorium, a science museum, explained, “I got to oversee prototypes for a biology exhibit. As a Molecular Biology major, this was absolutely perfect! I got so excited reviewing the 3D models of cheek cells and giving my recommendations. The exhibit designer, Denise, was so enthusiastic and I loved engaging in discussion with her. We were really trying to take biological concepts and make them physical, tangible objects for the public to understand and interact with. The new exhibit will be displayed in October and will represent how cells ‘fit’ together to form tissues via a puzzle visitors must put together using the 3D printed models.”

Matt discussed the impact YES Academy mentors had on him. “After breakfast every morning, we had a “mentor spotlight.” These spotlights were my favorite aspect of the Summer Academy. I enjoyed how the mentors explained their stories about going blind, and also being successful. I learned extremely valuable information on individuals who have become blind later in life, which I can apply directly to my own life.”

Nikki talked about the independence he got to experience. “This was my first time doing the YES Academy. This summer, I decided to take the jump and sign up. I was really looking forward to the living skills component. My favorite thing over the last four weeks has been the amount of responsibility and the room to grow that you receive. You’re responsible for going to your work location on your own, without assistance. You’re responsible for buying your own food to make lunches. You’re responsible for reporting to your employers on time, in a professional manner and you’re responsible for completing all the assignments that your employer gives you. I had never traveled on my own before. There was true independence in this program.”

For more information about Youth programs at LightHouse visit the Youth Programs page or email youth@lighthouse-sf.org.

A Blindness Conference in Mexico Becomes a Catalyst for Change

From July 26-28, 2019, Holman Prizewinner Conchita Hernandez convened the first-ever blindness conference in Mexico led by blind people for blind kids and their families.

Conchita convened a team of fellow blindness professionals to host the conference she called Cambiando Vidas, or “Changing Lives.”

Held in Guadalajara, the Cambiando Vidas conference included breakout sessions on a variety of topics, including daily living skills, low-cost technology, employment expectations, an introduction to braille and more. 120 people attended the conference, including blind people of all ages, parents of blind children and educational and rehabilitation professionals.

“Many of the people who attended the conference hadn’t been exposed to training techniques and a blindness-positive philosophy,” says Conchita. Conchita describes witnessing the impact that this conference had on attendees. “One parent said she was anxious and upset when her daughter was born blind.” The mother’s views changed during the course of the conference. “Now, she sees the possibilities that there are for her daughter,” Conchita concludes.

Conchita shows a little girl how to use a long white cane at a school in Mexico.]
Conchita shows a little girl how to use a long white cane at a school in Mexico.

Conchita is the chair of Mentoring Engaging and Teaching All Students, or METAS, an organization that works to spread blindness training and advocacy in Mexico. Conchita and her fellow METAS staff hosted the conference this year and are working to secure funding to host the conference again. Conchita, however, has a long-term dream for the conference: “The conference needs to be run by people who live in Mexico.”

The first steps to achieve that goal have already taken place. “The conference was attended by people from all over Mexico,” Conchita explains. “At the end of the conference, people from different regions in Mexico formed a committee, to fight for change and legislation,” she continues.

Conchita was one of three winners of LightHouse for the Blind’s Holman Prize for Blind Ambition in 2018. The Holman Prize for Blind Ambition is about changing the perception of blindness around the world. Conchita’s Cambiando Vidas conference clearly did just that. By bringing people together, the conference helps to raise the bar for people who are blind. This has led to attendees advocating for more opportunities for blind people in Mexico. “When people come together,” Conchita says, “they can make a big change.”

Read about the rest of the 2018 Holman Prize winners here and learn about the newly crowned 2019 winners and their projects changing perceptions of people who are blind globally.

 

Announcing the 2019 Holman Prizewinners

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

San Francisco, CA, Thursday, July 11

All inquiries and interview requests to: press@lighthouse-sf.org.

LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s Holman Prizewinners will each use their $25,000 awards to promote blind empowerment by building a tool for blind people to find exoplanets, taking a plunge into public transit in six cities around the world and developing a network of blind mentors for the first time in rural Gambia.

In just a few months, three intrepid blind individuals will set off around the world in a daring series of groundbreaking adventures as the 2019 winners of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition.

We announce the three 2019 Holman Prize winners: Yuma Decaux, Alieu Jaiteh and Mona Minkara after a rigorous, multifaceted judging process. Each winning project embodies its own sense of adventure and ambition – Yuma plans to give blind citizens advanced tools to participate in astronomical research, Alieu will create a network of blind mentors in his home country of The Gambia, where this is unheard of, and Mona will immerse herself in an adventure on mass transit systems worldwide, documenting the experience on film.

Created to change perceptions and popularize the concept of “blind ambition”, the San Francisco LightHouse’s Holman Prize Holman Prize annually awards three blind adventurers up to $25,000 to support their ambitious dreams.

Now in its third year, the prize is named for James Holman (1786-1857), a Victorian-era adventurer and author. As the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe, he holds the further distinction of being the most prolific traveler in history, sighted or blind, prior to the invention of modern transportation.

“While many awards in the blindness field look toward past accomplishment, the LightHouse is determined to spark new initiatives for future growth by some of the world’s most ambitious blind people,” said LightHouse CEO Bryan Bashin.

The LightHouse was first introduced to the three applicants through their 90-second video pitches. You can see their original pitches here:

Yuma Decaux

Alieu Jaiteh

Mona Minkara

Yuma Decaux, Alieu Jaiteh and Mona Minkara were part of a competitive pool of 111 applicants from six continents.

View all 15 Holman finalists’ video pitches.

The three Holman Prizewinners will fly to San Francisco in September 2019 for a week-long orientation before starting their project year on October 1. Once they land in San Francisco, the winners will not only meet and learn from each other, but they will engage with other blind teachers, technologists and leaders from LightHouse’s extended network. The winners will also create comprehensive plans to document and share their experiences along the way through video, audio, writing and other media. 

Our 2018 prizewinners are each in the final stages of their Holman projects. Stacy Cervenka launched the Blind Travelers’ Network last month, Red Szell successfully completed his extreme blind triathlon and Conchita Hernandez will soon host a blindness workshop in Mexico. 

LightHouse is still interested in finding corporate or philanthropic supporters for the 12 finalists who we found irresistible but simply couldn’t fund this year.  For possible support please contact Jennifer Sachs at jsachs@lighthouse-sf.org 

Applications or the 2020 Holman Prize will open in January 2020. Please consult www.holmanprize.org for details.

 The Holman Prize is determined by a prestigious international group of judges, all of whom are blind.  

The prize is a flagship  program of the LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco, who will salute each winner in an annual gala now set for the fall of 2020 in San Francisco.

Meet the blind judges who picked the winners. 

About the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition

In 2017, LightHouse for the Blind, headquartered in San Francisco, launched the Holman Prize to support the emerging adventurousness and can-do spirit of blind and low vision people worldwide. This endeavor celebrates people who want to shape their own future instead of having it laid out for them.

Created specifically for legally blind individuals with a penchant for exploration of all types, the Prize provides financial backing – up to $25,000 – for three individuals to explore the world and push their limits. Learn more at holmanprize.org.

About the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco

The LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, is actively seeking sponsorships and support for the Holman Prize, including donations of equipment for the winner’s projects. To offer your support, contact holman@lighthouse-sf.org. Individuals may donate any amount using LightHouse’s secure form. For sponsorship inquiries, email us or call +1 (415) 694-7333.

For press inquiries, contact press@lighthouse-sf.org. 

LightHouse’s Taxi Vouchers program

We can provide free taxi rides for people with disabilities. With the support from the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services eligible San Francisco residents can request up to two vouchers for round trip fare per month.

Eligibility Criteria:

  • Must be a San Francisco Resident
  • Must have certification by a physician that applicant is permanently disabled and unable to use public transit.

These vouchers may be used to go to:

  • Medical appointments
  • Therapy appointments
  • Rehabilitation
  • Legal appointments
  • Food Pantries
  • Benefit counseling
  • Programs and meals at community centers

Request an Application:

Call 415 694-7321 to request an application. Please provide your name and complete mailing address.

 

Student Profile: Marie Vuong

On Monday mornings, adults gather at the LightHouse for The Business of Blindness: Coffee With Mike Cole. Mike, who is blind himself and retired after a long career in the field of blindness, chats with attendees over different issues related to blindness from daily living, to dealing with getting benefits to blindness philosophy.

One of the regular attendees of Mike’s class is Marie Vuong, who has been coming to the adult daytime programs at the LightHouse since 2011. In 2009, Marie’s optometrist noticed something unusual in her left eye and urged Marie to see an ophthalmologist. Marie found out that her retina had detached. She soon developed cataracts on both eyes.

With her vision changing, Marie decided to research various senior centers, most of which offered medical services and support groups for seniors with changing vision. But Marie was looking for something different: She was drawn to the LightHouse because of its recreational activities. “I came to the LightHouse because I wanted to learn things,” she said firmly.

Serena Olson, Adult Program Coordinator at Lighthouse, explains that when people first come to the LightHouse for services, some are ready to jump right in to intensive one-on-one training offered by Rehabilitation Services or Accessible Technology. Others are looking for social interaction, to form relationships with other blind adults. Serena works hard to ensure that social recreational programs “put learning and growth in the context of something fun.”

One of the programs is Stronger Seniors, an exercise class that is taught by LightHouse Health and Wellness Program Coordinator Amber Sherrard. Amber leads a class that leaves her students energized no matter their fitness level. Says Marie of the class, “A lot of good things come from Amber’s class. The exercise is very helpful.”  

Marie’s participation in LightHouse classes motivated her to become a more involved community member. She is a regular at LightHouse’s Thursday knitting class. She and other students have knitted beanies and blankets for premature babies at Kaiser Permanente. Marie enjoyed her visits to Kaiser to drop off the beanies and blankets so much that she was motivated to volunteer at Kaiser’s information desk. Marie feels fortunate that the city she once dreamed about visiting is now her home, though her path to San Francisco was not easy. 

Marie grew up in what was formerly South Vietnam. She was working in Saigon when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. After several years, she made the decision to leave the country as tensions in the region remained high after the war. 

Marie and her four year-old son tried to leave Vietnam three times. In September 1981, they were finally successful in walking hundreds of miles across Vietnam, staying in a series of safe houses along the way. They boarded a riverboat not meant for the open seas. With only a few pounds of rice for the 28 people onboard and mostly rain water to drink, they made the perilous journey to a Malaysian island. On the way they encountered pirates who took personal possessions from the passengers including money they had hidden in their clothing. When Marie and her son finally reached a refugee camp, she had a medical examination and found out she was pregnant. 

After five and a half months, a Canadian immigration official was able to get her in touch with her brother who was already in America, and Marie and her family were able to emigrate soon after.  

Marie’s vision has changed over the last nine years, but she puts it in perspective when she reflects on fleeing Vietnam. “I’m happy with what I have done,” she says.  “When I have to face a problem, I always look back at leaving my home in Vietnam behind and coming to the United States. If I can do that, with my eyes, why do I have to worry?”

 For more information on the weekly schedule of LightHouse programs, check out the online calendar, call the Events Hotline at 415-694-7325, or pick up a Braille or large print schedule in the LightHouse reception area. 

A YES Summer student reflects on their first week

The following is a reflection from Amber, a YES Student from LightHouse’s Summer Academy. For more information about YES’ Summer Academy, check out our round-up and photos from last year.

“In my short time of being at the LightHouse, I have had an exceptional time with many different learning experiences including work/living skills and also self-discovery.

Before coming to LightHouse, I had never met another visually impaired person. I have always been insecure about my vision, but here I’ve heard many inspiring stories about self acceptance.  One mentor who I identified with was Tim Elder, who spoke of hiding his vision loss by sitting in the back of the class and not acknowledging his vision. He then spoke of the gradual process of self-acceptance, and that was inspiring. Hearing about his accomplishments, like going to law school, being an attorney and helping others, was motivating and I aspire to have that level of self-acceptance someday.

There were other talks of self acceptance such as Lisamaria from Be Confident, Be You. She spoke of her method called “BAANG” which stands for blindness skills, advocacy, academics, networking and getting involved. This method was important and definitely something I will incorporate into my own journey of self acceptance. Her quote, “Tell yourself there are no such things as mistakes, only room for growth” is something I will think about every time I have to do something out of my comfort zone. It is very true each mistake we make can be a learning tool. Her last step of getting involved to not only benefit ourselves but to change the perception of blindness to the general public. That is great perspective that I had never thought of.

I am looking forward to spending the next four weeks at the LightHouse!”