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Photos from Cycle for Sight: Cycling with a side of fun and fundraising

Photos from Cycle for Sight: Cycling with a side of fun and fundraising

As usual, Cycle for Sight was a day full of sunshine, good food, fitness and a key source of fundraising for Enchanted Hills Camp as we rebuild!

For over a decade, this event, co-presented with the Rotary Club of Napa, has brought together blind community members, blind athletes and family and friends alike. Thank you to all the members of Team Enchanted Hills, volunteers and donors for making this year a success!

From yacht-rock to pop-ballads: Our first Audio Academy broke new ground

From yacht-rock to pop-ballads: Our first Audio Academy broke new ground

On Sunday afternoon, the halls of LightHouse reverberated with the deep, breezy sounds of yacht rock. “Sailing takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be,” crooned DJ Dan’s tune “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. A San Francisco State student with an interest in all things aquatic, Dan’s final performance on Sunday transported the audience to a tranquil expanse and back again, reflecting Dan’s personality with quirky, upbeat folk and country tunes perfectly suited for the sailing life.

Each student entered the weekend with no knowledge of DJing, and left equipped with sufficient knowledge to assemble a twenty minute set. Our blind instructors Byron Harden and Clarence Griffin from Chicago-based I See Music introduced students to the software Deejay Pro and taught them the basics of a fully accessible and non-visual DJ method. Their program, designed by blind people for blind people, is the only in the nation that offers a comprehensive audio education curriculum for blind and low vision learners.

The workshop participants performed sets that were each as unique in tone and style as the students themselves. We heard an uplifting, pop-centric set by Maycie, a thumping, rhythmic set from Jenna and hip hop and R&B tunes from Juan. Traveling from all around Northern California, the students came from as far as Sonora and Sacramento, taking full advantage of the LightHouse’s cozy residential facilities for the 3-day workshop.

Audio Academy student Maycie sits grinning in front of her DJ equipment in the LightHouse board room.
Audio Academy student Maycie sits grinning in front of her DJ equipment in the LightHouse board room.

Maycie, 20, was thrilled to find out about Audio Academy because it marked a departure from many other inaccessible or antiquated audio workshops. She had researched a variety of music schools, but none could provide appropriate accommodations. As a vocalist, producer of her own songs and aspiring DJ, Maycie sought an educational avenue for audio skills.

“Blind people kind of get stereotyped a lot as musicians,” she says. “Not every blind person is musical, but for those of us that are, there need to be more opportunities.”

She says that the workshop provided a comprehensive basic understanding of the DJ software, DJ methodology and tools, adding that the workshop solidified her interest in DJing professionally.

“It was a pretty amazing feeling, to be honest: I had this picture in my head of actually performing a DJ set, and no one would have to help me — I could do it fully by myself.”

Audio Academy student Jenna smiles, seated, with one hand on her laptop and the other on her DJ equipment.
Audio Academy student Jenna smiles, seated, with one hand on her laptop and the other on her DJ equipment.

Jenna, 21, says that although she wasn’t certain what to expect for the weekend, she was glad to have participated and introduced herself to a set of skills to enhance both her recreational and vocational interests.

“This has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for me with my pursuit of a career in music and I’m excited to attend more Audio Academy Workshops in the future,” she says.

Juan, 23, says that the workshop was fulfilling as an opportunity to learn new skills in a new environment, and add another skill to his musical toolbox of piano, guitar and percussion instruments. Over the weekend, he learned to mix and edit a set of songs using DJay Pro in conjunction with accessible technology, including VoiceOver.

Audio Academy students, instructor Clarence and LightHouse Board member Josh Miele assemble in the Board Room around DJ equipment to listen to music.
Audio Academy students, instructor Clarence and LightHouse Board member Josh Miele assemble in the Board Room around DJ equipment to listen to music.

“I like to listen to music, so DJing seems like a possibility, and I felt like the teachers were putting good emphasis in the stuff they taught us,” he says. “I want to buy the DJ equipment and start practicing at home. And, I want to actually do what the instructors do. They get gigs and stuff like that, and I want to actually DJ professionally.”

Byron and Clarence collectively have a wealth of knowledge and experience in audio production, DJing and music. Byron created I See Music to foster independence, equality and opportunity through their instruction and example of professional success.

Daniel, 22, says that having blind instructors was a defining part of the workshop. He was pleased that their knowledge of both the DJ and accessibility softwares rendered the workflow relatively seamless.

At left, Blind DJ Ryan Dour performs a set using an iPad and DJ equipment, while Audio Academy student Daniel listens with delight at right.
At left, Blind DJ Ryan Dour performs a set using an iPad and DJ equipment, while Audio Academy student Daniel listens with delight at right.

“I felt the program was really good. I really learned a lot, and I think that it was a good opportunity for people,” he says. “You could get hands-on experience there with somebody that really knew the software. I might use the knowledge as a radio DJ, or might just do some DJing on the side just for fun.”

Announcing the 2018 Superfest Disability Film Festival lineup

Announcing the 2018 Superfest Disability Film Festival lineup

San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State are proud to announce the lineup for this year’s Superfest Disability Film Festival.

Join us on October 20 at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley and on October 21 the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco for the best in unapologetic, accessible and cutting edge disability film.

Purchase tickets to Superfest 2018

Superfest is the longest running disability film festival in the world. Since it first debuted as a small Los Angeles showcase in 1970, it has become an eagerly anticipated international event. The festival is one of the few in the world to provide an accessible film experience to disabled filmgoers of all kinds.

Disability Rights advocate Alice Wong speaks at Superfest in 2017.
Disability Rights advocate Alice Wong speaks at Superfest in 2017.

Each judge for Superfest is a member of the disability community, and they ground our festival in the values and ambitions of a progressive, Bay Area-driven disability ethos. The jury is comprised of filmographers, disability rights advocates, community organizers and award-winning creatives. They choose the submissions based on standards of artistry, portrayal of disability and ingenuity.

Superfest features films from five continents which highlight a range of experiences of people living with disabilities through a variety of genres and formats. From observational documentary to action to stop motion, we have films which will entertain, educate and promote discussion on disabilities.

Announcing the 2018 Superfest Lineup

Stumped (US, 2017), Documentary Short, Best of Festival – Short (25 minutes)

Climber Maureen Beck is not here to be your inspiration. She was born missing her lower left arm, but that hasn’t stopped her from going hard. “I don’t want to just be a good one-armed climber,” says Maureen. “I want to be a good climber.”

A climber ascends a free-standing rock, while two people stand on a rock below her.
A climber ascends a free-standing rock, while two people stand on a rock below her.

Still Tomorrow (China, 2016), Documentary, Best of Festival – Feature (1 hour 23 minutes)

Yu Xiuhua is a village woman with cerebral palsy, who became China’s most well-known poet in 2015. Her 20-year-long arranged marriage has become the biggest pain in her life. Through her poems, she contemplates her fate and writes about her body and her desire for true love.

A woman stands with her back to the camera in a field of a dark, tall grassy crop.

Stim (US, 2017), Documentary Short, P.K. Walker Innovation in Craft Award (7 minutes)

An artistic ode to the practice of stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, the repetition of physical movements or sounds, or repetitive movement of objects.

Lower-body shot of a child sitting cross-legged, grasping a blue plush toy with one hand.

Who Am I To Stop It (US, 2017), Documentary Short, Disability Justice Award (30 minutes) 

This semi-observational documentary explores isolation, art and transformation after brain injury. Through cinéma vérité, the film follows Dani Sanderson, a poet and beat boxer, as she navigates autonomy, relationships, and questions of family, queer sexuality and faith.

A woman sits, reading a sheet with a poem entitled “Never Ending Trauma.”

To Know Him (UK, 2018), Dramatic Short (28 minutes)

When a tragic accident leaves Sarah grieving for her deaf partner Rob, she is forced to track down and engage with his estranged hearing father. To lay the man she loves to rest, Sarah must overcome a barrier far greater than language.

Two women sit, both with looks of concern, gazing towards the left. The woman, at left, is in focus and wears a black shirt.

Making Waves (Australia, 2017), Documentary Short (6 minutes)

Max McAuley is a young, professional dancer with Down Syndrome. In this story, Max is the principal dancer in a choreographed work that is inspired by the watery world of his dreams.

A boy dances in front of lights which mimic water, and below, subtitle: "Dancing is my thing that I love."
A boy dances in front of lights which mimic water, and below, subtitle: “Dancing is my thing that I love.”

Just Go! (Latvia, 2017), Action Short (11 minutes)

Inspired by the true story about a young man, Just, who lost both of his legs in a childhood accident. At age 24, he is in love with the girl next door, and through an action-packed series of events, the film proves that looks can be deceiving.

A young man rolls with his torso on a skateboard and arms pushing him past flowers in a market.
A young man rolls with his torso on a skateboard and arms pushing him past flowers in a market.

Gaelynn Lea – The Songs We Sing (US, 2017), Documentary Short (11 minutes)

Minnesota violinist and disability rights advocate Gaelynn Lea travels the upper Midwest on tour, experiencing the ups and downs of the road while hustling hard to make it as a performer and artist.

A woman cradles a violin while leaning towards a microphone.
A woman cradles a violin while leaning towards a microphone.

This Is Normal (US, 2014), Dramatic Short (19 minutes) 

A young deaf woman undergoes an experimental medical procedure that is supposed to “cure” her of her deafness and give her the ability to hear. Despite the controversy, Gwen risks her friends, culture and identity to discover the answer to the question, “Is it worth giving up who you’ve been for who you could become?”

A profile shot of a woman sitting in her car, looking distraught.
A profile shot of a woman sitting in her car, looking distraught.

Journey to the Miracle Man (Sweden/Brazil, 2018), Documentary Feature (1 hour 5 minutes)

With as much hope as doubt, Fabian and Lisa travel on a journey that will change their worldview. But is the Miracle Man (John of God) the savior everyone is talking about? And do they need to believe to be healed?

A woman stands on a ledge in front of a fresh night sky with low, blue light in front of an open frontier. She holds her phone up to photograph the scene.
A woman stands on a ledge in front of a fresh night sky with low, blue light in front of an open frontier. She holds her phone up to photograph the scene.

Kū Kanaka/Stand Tall (US, 2016), Documentary Short (28 minutes)

When 15-year-old Kanalu Young takes a dive into shallow water, he becomes quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. Angry and defiant through months of rehabilitation, he begins to change when he learns the Hawaiian language, and discovers an untold story of Hawaiian history.

A group of people walk in a march, and one joins in a wheelchair. The people wear leis and flowers, and men wearing shirts that say "Security" surround at the bounds.
A group of people walk in a march, and one joins in a wheelchair. The people wear leis and flowers, and men wearing shirts that say “Security” surround at the bounds.

Stopgap in Stop Motion (UK, 2017), Animated Short (5 minutes) 

Photographs of performers in a disabled and non-disabled dance company come to life. The individual artists dance out of the photos and across table tops until the whole company meets and performs in unison.

Two photographs sit upright beside a shelf of papers. At left, a man stands looking at his phone. In the photo at right, a woman sitting in a wheelchair smiles back at the camera.
Two photographs sit upright beside a shelf of papers. At left, a man stands looking at his phone. In the photo at right, a woman sitting in a wheelchair smiles back at the camera.

Purchase tickets to Superfest 2018

Access at Superfest

As always, Superfest will be furnished with a wide range of accessible accommodations: audio description, open captions, ASL interpretation, audience-integrated wheelchair seating, close-up seating for people with low vision or who are deaf or hard of hearing, a chemical free and scent free area set back from rest of audience, a place to retreat, gender neutral restrooms, easy access to public transportation including BART and MUNI, and ramp access to the stage.

Summer Concerts: Blind Music Academy Announces Three Concert Dates in August

Summer Concerts: Blind Music Academy Announces Three Concert Dates in August

PHOTO: Music academy students jam on keyboards and guitar.

Blind Music Academy Offering Free Concerts in August

In its third year, LightHouse’s summer Music Academy grows and expands. With an emphasis on composition, performance and learning to read and write music in braille for musicians who are blind or have low vision and are ages 16 to 24, our talent pool and ambition continues to grow. This year we’re excited to host students from the United States, Mexico and Canada. And with the opening in May of the LightHouse’s state-of-the-art San Francisco facility, Blind Music Academy will now be held both in the city and the country.

This year we have fourteen dedicated blind musicians, all under the age of 25, who are spending a week honing their skills as musicians and composers. The students are from all over North America, and though some of these individuals are already quite formidable talents, they are spending this week focused on not only becoming better performers but achieving fluency in braille music and other accessible forms of musical notation.

Each year Blind Music Academy culminates with a performance by our blind students, and this time around the group has announced that they will perform not once but three times, with additional concerts in both downtown Napa and San Francisco. Our students include a virtuosic classical pianist from Vera Cruz, Mexico and a locally-known jazz radio DJ and percussionist from El Paso, Texas, and the shows are guaranteed to be musically diverse and exciting.

Experience the power of Music Academy by joining us at one of these three, free concerts:

Blind Music Academy Summer Tour Dates

  • Friday, August 5 – Covenant Presbyterian Church, 7:30 p.m.
    1226 Salvador Ave, Napa, CA 94558
  • Saturday, August 6 – Enchanted Hills Camp, 4:00 p.m., with dinner following.
    3410 Mt Veeder Rd, Napa, CA 94558
  • Tuesday, August 9 – LightHouse for the Blind, 5:30 p.m., with reception following.
    1155 Market Street, 10th Floor, San Francisco 94103

The concerts are free. For those attending the concert at Enchanted Hills Camp, we are requesting a donation if you wish to join us for dinner after the show. Please RSVP for all concerts to Tony Fletcher at tfletcher@lighthouse-sf.org.

Our students walk into the Music Academy session brimming with talent. Take a look for yourself. Watch these videos for two of our students, concert pianist Fernando Apan and percussionist Lawrence Brown:

Fernando Apan interprets Mozart

Fernando Apan: Fantasía Para Piano y Clarinet

Interview with Lawrence Brown

About Blind Music Academy
Enchanted Hills Camp has paired up with Bill McCann, founder and president of Dancing Dots Braille Music Technology. Bill McCann pioneered this specialized music academy model both in Canada and in the United States. Music Academy is for musicians who are blind or have low vision between the ages of 16 to 24 years old who are serious about music or might be thinking of entering the profession. This academy introduces students to using non-visual techniques to compose music, read the works of others, learn performance skills and gain the capacity to compete for and win employment in the music field.

This year’s Music Academy session is full. If you have questions about next year’s session, please contact Taccarra Burrell at ehc@lighthouse-sf.org or 451-694-7310.

Blind at SXSW 2016: Join Us to Talk Movies, Music, Voices and More

LightHouse's SXSW 2016 flyer with date, time, location, and logos of companies

Above is a flyer for our event, “Mainstreaming Accessibility” at SXSW 2016. Click here to download the flyer as text. We’ll be in Austin all week; Come hang out with blind innovators at our Access House by getting in touch at sxsw@lighthouse-sf.org.

In 2016, the LightHouse is branching out in lots of new directions, not just with our new SF headquarters but in taking our contributions to parts of the world that may have not heard of the LightHouse. One of the most important parts of our expansion is an emphasis on current and cutting edge technology. As such, we have been asked to program a dedicated event at the mecca of all things tech, art, and media: South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. SXSW is where every industry leader wants to premiere films, perform music, and get people excited about the next big tech advancement. Finally, due to our efforts this year with the help of the good folks at SXgood and SXSW Eco, the blindness community will have a strong and exciting presence.

That’s right — next week, we’re coming to Texas for SXSW. We’ve worked hard over the past few months to assemble a dynamic group of speakers and innovators who are thinking about accessibility from a new perspective — a mainstream perspective that includes rather than excludes. At our event, there will be something for everyone: Professional recording studios and audio engineers, film buffs and producers alike, and of course the passionate advocates for accessibility who want to see both personalized and mainstream technology merge into one seamless integration.

This is a major first for SXSW — a forum on disability hosted, moderated, and programmed solely by blind individuals and joined by others who think daily about mainstream accessibility — diving deep into nuanced discussions of a mainstream future for accessible tech. We’ll have a hands-on lab session where conference-goers can actually touch and experience the great stuff we’re building. When we’re not at our event, we won’t just melt into the crowd, either: We’ll be roaming the streets of Austin and hosting gatherings at our very own Access House, a hub we’ve built specifically for those with similar interests to meet, get to know each other, and exchange ideas.

Join us at Palm Door on Sixth this Tuesday, March 15 for one of the most diverse and unusual panels SXSW has to offer. As part of the SXgood Hub (or ‘social good hub’) our event is open to anyone with festival credentials of any kind (Music, Film, Interactive, wristbands), and we promise a grip of engaging, never-before-told stories about what goes into truly great design. What’s more — after the panel we have an hour-long dedicated lab portion where you can get hands on with the tech we’re talking about.

Here’s a bit more about each speaker:

Jonas Rivera and Paul Cichocki and the Academy Award-winning production staff at Disney•Pixar have been working tirelessly for years now to make audio description for blind moviegoers better — not just in quality, but in the tech that delivers this important audio track for those who can’t see the screen. They’ll tell us the origin story of their brand new feature from Disney Movies Anywhere, and why it’s so important.

Ed Gray has been working at Avid for more than twenty years, and never imagined he’d be an accessibility leader until he became blind later on as an adult. Now, he has helped take ProTools, the industry standard for recording, to a peak of accessibility, making sure that once again, blind people can be audio engineers.

Christian Erfurt is the CEO of Be My Eyes, the video assistant app that first launched just sixteen months ago out of Denmark. Now living in San Francisco and pushing Be My Eyes’ technology to the next level, Christian and founder Hans Jørgen Wiberg will share how their technology helps not only blind people, but everyone else, too.

Rupal Patel is the founder and CEO of VocaliD, Inc., an east coast based company with a big goal: To create a million voices, literally. If Be My Eyes crowdsources eyesight for those who need it, VocaliD does the same for those with speech disorders. The winner of an innovation award at SXSW Interactive last year, Rupal is back again this year to share how VocaliD can make custom voices to fit any human, and why that’s important to society.

Will Butler is the Media and Communications Officer at LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco, and has worked with all of these companies in some capacity over the past few years, whether it’s as a journalist, critic, or collaborator. He will be moderating the panel discussion.

Are You a Musician that is Blind or With Low Vision? Fine-tune Your Craft at Music Academy

Music Academy students Travis Nichols (left) plays electric guitar and Ben Blatchford on keyboards.Do you sing or play an instrument? Train with some of our nation’s best teachers at our summer Music Academy at Enchanted Hills Camp.

“I had a lot of fun this year meeting new people and my experience at EHC was camp was great. Really awesome to meet all of you and to rock out and jam with all of you guys. Everyone who came this year must come next year. We need to get more people in our jam sessions. We killed it up there on stage, we absolutely killed it! EHC is the place to be!”
-Participant Ben Blatchford

The LightHouse will partner for a third year with Dancing Dots, the world’s leading provider of accessible music technology for the blind, to bring our summertime Music Academy back to the redwoods. The Academy is open to young, motivated musicians who are blind or low vision who are 16 to 24 years old.

Music Academy is open to young musicians from all over the world.

New This Year – Music Academy has Expanded to a 10-Day Session
Feedback for our first two sessions has been overwhelmingly positive and our students want more. So we’ve expanded the session from seven to ten days.

The first seven days of the session will take place at Enchanted Hills Camp and include two opportunities to perform for Napa residents. Then students will be transported to the new LightHouse Building at 1155 Market Street for continued training plus the chance to see professional musical performances in various genres such as jazz, classical and rock. Students will meet local musicians and mentors while enjoying the vibrant music scene found in San Francisco. They’ll also train on our multi-media, state-of-the-art technology. All students will get the chance to perform at a showcase concert in the LightHouse Building on Tuesday, August 9.

Lead instructor Bill McCann and student Jenna Baylis work with adaptive software for composition during Blind Music Academy.

Where: Enchanted Hills Camp, Napa and the LightHouse Building, San Francisco
When: August 1 through August 10, 2016

Cost for the week, all-inclusive: $300
(If the registration fee is a barrier, let us know; some scholarships will be available.)

Bill McCann, President and Founder of Dancing Dots, will spend the entire session with the aspiring musicians. McCann, blind himself, will lead a team of four blind instructors and technicians to teach the latest and greatest techniques for blind and low vision students.

“It’s rather bittersweet to be back home after an amazing week of Music Academy at EHC. Met so many awesome people and had an overall great experience. Definitely going back next summer. Yesterday’s concert went very well and everyone performed really good and were at the top of they’re game. Shout out to the kitchen crew as well for delivering great meals throughout camp. Bummed that it all ended so quickly, but stoked to see everyone again next year.”
-Participant Daniel Cavazos

To sign up for Music Academy, contact Taccarra Burrell at 451-694-7310 or ehc@lighthouse-sf.org or go to the Enchanted Hills page on our website.

The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Tactile Map is Here

hardly strictly bluegrass tactile map - front cover

If you get lost in Golden Gate Park this weekend, try asking a blind person for directions. In anticipation of one of San Francisco’s greatest community events, our team at LightHouse has created something brand new: a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass map that you don’t need eyes to read.

Over the last fifteen years, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has grown to become one of San Francisco’s greatest attractions, bringing hundreds of thousands of music fans to Golden Gate Park each October to enjoy not just bluegrass, but country, folk, rock, pop, and other legendary musical acts — all for free. Established by Warren Hellman in 2001 and carried on after his passing in 2011, HSB was founded as a non-commercial music festival, and as such, one that was open to all members of the community.

Today we’re proud to be pushing that ideal just a little bit further with our first ever map for blind and low vision people of this Golden Gate Park event. Complete with up-to-date stage locations, street names, trails, restrooms, accessible seating, and a number of other dynamically embossed elements, our HSB map is a dependable way for blind individuals to get to know the festival, navigate independently, and plan their weekend with confidence. What’s more, we’ve printed the full set times for all acts throughout the weekend. It’s all here!

HSB tactile map - inside

Last month, we made some similar maps for Burning Man — a fun way to encourage blind folks to consider making a trek like the one to Black Rock City — but with the Hardly Strictly map, we’re creating something truly for the San Francisco community. The festival is free, and as such, so are the maps. More than anything, we want you to go out and have a beautiful weekend.

HSB tactile maps will be available for all blind and low vision persons at Information Booth 1, located at the Main (East) Entrance to to the park (JFK Drive and Transverse Drive). This is also the stop for the ADA transport. If you’d like to receive a map in advance of the festival, please contact us ASAP at 415-694-7349 or email madlab@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 communications@lighthouse-sf.org.

What is Kendrick Lamar Hiding?

Kendrick Lamar sits at a microphone, wearing sunglasses

One of the biggest myths about Braille is that it’s hard to read or that it’s somehow another language. Neither is true. Braille is just simple, straightforward code. In a cover story this month for Mass Appeal magazine, hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar admitted that he was now using Braille, a somewhat curious announcement that piqued our interest here at the LightHouse. Turns out he had stashed a Braille message in the liner notes of his new, Billboard-topping album, To Pimp A Butterfly [listen on Spotify]. “Nobody has caught [it] yet,” he told Mass Appeal, blowing his own cover and explaining that the message, when decoded, would reveal the album’s full title.

But there were some problems. Kendrick hadn’t really created very useful Braille. For starters, there were no bumps. The dots were printed, not embossed, ironically obscuring their whole raison d’être. This wasn’t lost on Lamar, in fact maybe it was intentional: “You can’t [sic] actually feel the bump lines. But if you can see it, which is the irony of it, you can break down the actual full title of the album.” So — it was Braille, yes — but Braille for the sighted. Kendrick is counting on the fact that no one really knows Braille, which is not far off. After all, getting someone with good vision to learn Braille is kind of like getting Winnie the Pooh to start wearing pants — it might happen, but don’t hold your breath. So why should you care about this Braille message, or any Braille at all for that matter?

The answer is literacy. It’s estimated that only about 10% of blind people know Braille, which means 90% of blind people are missing out on millions of the world’s accessible texts. As a newly blind (low-vision) person myself, I don’t read Braille, either. So I couldn’t translate the secret message from Kendrick Lamar myself, either. Luckily we have a whole team of people here to do just that. The folks in our access to information services (AIS) department specialize in this exact stuff — translating and elucidating information — not only here at LightHouse, but for the public. They Braille business cards, restaurant menus, maps, and all other kinds of tactile documents. All I had to do was walk across the hall and ask “Have you guys ever heard of Kendrick Lamar?”

a page from Kendrick Lamar's CD booklet, blown up and Brailled

Within minutes, I had a big piece of paper — much bigger than a CD booklet — right in front of me, fully Brailled, courtesy of AIS. The reason they had to blow it up was because the CD-booklet-sized Braille code was actually way too small for a real blind person to read, even if it was raised on the page. This is directly related to the size of human fingertips. In order to differentiate between dots, you need Braille to be a certain size. This is also why converting from small print to to Braille often takes more paper. (If you want to see how many pages a document would take up as Braille, resize the font to 29 pt).  Because the original Braille on To Pimp a Butterfly was done in ink, now not only was the Braille message tactile but it was also visual. This is somewhat rare — to have Braille with ink on top of it, that a sighted person can look at and, if not read, at least organize in their mind.

If you’re sighted, look at the photo above; Kind of takes some of the mystery out of what all those blind people are running their fingers across, doesn’t it? If you look at the photo above, you’ll see one simple dot on the first line — that’s the letter “a.” And for those who are interested in Braille learning that’s similarly visual and tactile, we actually offer books like this in our store, along with some other goodies. I still wanted to know exactly what Kendrick’s message meant, though, and I wanted to hear it from an expert.

a chocolate bar with the letters EHC

I brought the Kendrick-Braille to Frank Welte, one of our Braille experts, who coincidentally was munching on one of our dark chocolate, Braille-studded candy bars. His dog Jeep came and said hi first, then I handed Frank the sheet to tell me what it said. He came at it with his left hand — perhaps counterintuitively — peoples fingers are, for some reason, often more sensitive on the left. It only took him a split second before he started translating:

”A Kendrick By Letter Blank Lamar.”

What the hell does that mean? It didn’t make sense. The Braille is actually formatted quite well — the cell spacing was just right, which is something that beginning Braillers don’t often consider. And yet, the words were completely mixed up. Upon further Googling, I found that other Braille experts reached the same conclusion when consulted about the album art. The Braille was actually pretty good, but the sentence was incoherent. Complex magazine figured it must be a mistake. But our expert disagrees.

“People could take a Braille alphabet card and figure it out. But it’s still weird that they didn’t get it in order. There’s no obvious reason why it wouldn’t be in order… They might have intentionally scrambled it just for the fun of it.”

The Braille was in its simplest form, sure — lower case and uncontracted — but there was no reason the words should be shuffled around, unless through human error or intention. We can only conclude that Kendrick wanted to obscure the meaning even further — or just thought that the dots looked cool that way and that no real blind people would actually bother decoding it.

But decode it we did, and diehard fans of the Compton rapper already know where this is going: the words, rearranged, are meant to say “A Blank Letter By Kendrick Lamar.” That’s the real, extended title to To Pimp A Butterfly. We know this because Lamar’s last album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, had a similar subtitle: “A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar.” So there you go. To be honest, it kind of seemed too easy. And our experts agree:

“A lot of people think learning Braille must be terrible, like learning a whole foreign language,” Frank told me later on,”but it’s really much easier than that. The best analogy I can think of is like when you’re a kid, and you learn your printed letters, then you’re introduced to handwriting. It’s the same language, just different-shaped characters. That’s what learning Braille is like, it’s like learning cursive. It’s actually even easier than cursive, because everyone’s handwriting is different, but with Braille, every letter is the same.”

There’s a lot more to say about Braille, but we’ll save that for another day. Most importantly, next time you want Braille done right, whether you’re a famous rapper or not, do yourself a favor and email an expert — hint hint (that’s us).

Email Will Butler at communications@lighthouse-sf.org. (Twitter).