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pop culture

What’s the Worst Disabled Character in Film? This Year, the Dissies are Back

It’s no secret: When it comes  to representations of disability, Hollywood has its foibles. From characters who flounder, flinch, flake, or fully mis-represent a whole population of persons with disabilities, we are used to seeing films that are less than accurate. That’s one of the reasons the LightHouse is proud to present Superfest: International Disability Film Festival, now in its thirtieth year, to promote the films that make you think differently about people who are different.

Dissies poster mimicking Academy Awards, from Superfest 2013The Dissies” was originally started at Superfest 2013 as our answer to the disabled film characters who, frankly, sucked – the biggest stinkers, if you will. This year, we’re bringing it back with a whole fresh bunch of bad ones, and we want you to vote. For the full info and ballot, head over to the Longmore Institute, who are hosting the voting process.


Disney•Pixar Unveils Mobile Audio Description for ‘Finding Dory’

Disney•Pixar Unveils Mobile Audio Description for ‘Finding Dory’

After lots of collaboration, tweaking and testing, the LightHouse is proud to announce that this week, blind people will be able get audio description for one of the summer’s biggest movies, on their own device, without asking for help.

That’s right! Starting on Friday, June 17, blind and visually impaired audiences will be able to get free, mobile audio description to accompany the release of Disney•Pixar’s Finding Dory.

The past year has seen lots of technological advancement in audio description technology, with Disney•Pixar leading the way for film studios with their app, Disney Movies Anywhere. The app was first demonstrated at the White Canes Red Carpet event in December, released at home with The Good Dinosaur, and discussed at length at our SXSW panel in March. Between these events, focus groups, and enthusiastic collaboration with Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Blind Babies Foundation, and other blindness organizations, this has grown much bigger than just one app: it’s a statement of purpose.

Disney•Pixar’s smart-syncing audio description, native to the mainstream app, represents thoughtful design that works for everybody.  When activated, it provides an add-on experience which levels the playing field for audiences who are blind or have low vision.

Paired with any Disney•Pixar film using headphones or earbuds, the app delivers an extra audio track which elegantly narrates important on-screen action for those who can’t always follow along visually. Now tested and available to use with Pixar’s 16 other feature films, the app’s functionality will work for its first new release when Finding Dory hits theaters this week.

Accolades for DMA

Earlier this week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler honored Disney Movies Anywhere with the FCC’s Advancement in Accessibility Award, which recognizes achievements in communications technology for those with disabilities. Alongside other innovators in the accessibility field, Disney•Pixar is proud to guarantee audio description to its fans when it comes to both new and classic films.

How to get Audio Description, anywhere:

1. Download DMA: Disney Movies Anywhere app from the App Store.

2. Make sure the iOS accessibility features are in use, or switch accessibility mode to ON in the DMA settings section.

3. Find the movie you’re watching in the “Audio Description” section of the Featured tab.

4. Hit “sync and play audio” button while the movie is playing. (You need to “Allow” to use your microphone for sync).

5. Sit back and enjoy!

Note: Please be considerate of others – makes sure headphones are connected and always use screen curtain (three-finger triple tap in VoiceOver) at any theater! We recommend using the app to download the audio description track before you go to the movie for best results.

More audio description, please!

The rollout of empowered audio description technology is no small task, and Disney•Pixar needs all the encouragement it can get in continuing its mission to serve blind and visually impaired audiences. Let’s face it, not everyone is totally tech savvy, and theaters are understandably wary of cell phone use in theaters. Not only do we want to show studios, cinemas and distributors that we take theater etiquette seriously, but we need to show them that equal access to movies is a mandate from our community.

Disney•Pixar has set up an open line for your stories, and it’s crucial that you weigh in to tell them how much this matters. Send your audio description testimonials and experiences to dmaappfeedback@pixar.com.


Warriors: Shaking Off the Underdog Narrative

LightHouse Interpoint is a literary series featuring perspectives from blind writers around the world. We started  with a Month of Blind Women in March, and proceed into April with a timely reflection on sports and identity from Bay Area native Diego Kusnir. Here Kusnir reflects on the Golden State Warriors’ long arc from underdog to victor, a life trajectory to which many of us can relate. If you’d like to write for Interpoint, please first examine the guidelines here.

Image: A clock radio reading 73:9

by Diego Kusnir


Something happened when my vision got blurry as a kid. I went from just playing basketball to also, suddenly, being obsessed with sports radio, and specifically the Golden State Warriors.

I listened to every game. I obsessed over players like Latrell Sprewell, Chris Mullen, and Joe Smith. I listened to sports talk religiously, clock radio pressed against my ear, buried under my sheets so my parents wouldn’t hear, insatiably hoping the radio hosts would mention the Warriors, even though back then the Warriors were such an embarrassment that absolutely no one wanted to talk about them. Continue reading Warriors: Shaking Off the Underdog Narrative

Every Pixar Film Is Now Accessible with Mobile Audio Description from Disney

Sixteen Disney Pixar titles now available with mobile audio description for the blind

Audio Description — the extra audio track that narrates film action for people who are blind or have low vision — has been around for decades, but even if you’re blind, you might not use it. Why? Ironically, often the problem with audio description is not really the audio description. The problem is in how AD is delivered — or rather, not delivered. For years, the LightHouse has heard and advocated for blind filmgoers who simply aren’t able to pay for their movie and enjoy it in the format of their choice. If you’re blind at the movies, you know about the broken receivers, the strange formats, poor public education and training, and the many other intervening factors that have continually stymied AD availability across movie theaters and in-home systems, ultimately stonewalling the blind film-watching experience.

Starting today, that’s changing. With a new, major update to the Disney Movies Anywhere app, you can now take control of your own personal audio descriptive track, on your own smartphone, on your own terms.

This brand new, free, mobile audio description from Disney Movies Anywhere is smart and user-friendly; it listens and syncs automatically with their films (starting with the sixteen classic Disney•Pixar titles), including today’s home release of The Good Dinosaur. In accomplishing this, Disney•Pixar is leading the way for accessible films; and soon, we at the LightHouse are confident that this mobile Audio Description experience will be possible for all movies, everywhere.

Disney Movies Anywhere - click to download from iTunesA project that originated at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville and was taken on by the engineers at Disney, this new accessibility system using an app and a smartphone to access audio description is not only a passion project for the good folks at these companies, but Pixar and Disney have seen to it that key members of the blindness community have been given a chance to provide early and influential developmental feedback every step of the way. In this regard, the LightHouse has contributed feedback, tested for quality assurance, and now we’re proud to help spread the word.

At an event at Pixar in December, part of an unprecedented and ongoing collaboration between LightHouse for the Blind, the Blind Babies Foundation and Guide Dogs for the Blind, we invited nearly 200 blind people from organizations all around the Bay Area to download the app to their iPhones and iPads and test out the technology at a private, red carpet screening of The Good Dinosaur. The response was universal acclaim. The app’s beta version worked seamlessly. People both blind and sighted left the event joyously; celebrating the idea of being able to go back to the movie theater or watch a movie in their homes exactly the way they want.

How Does It Work?

It’s incredibly simple. If you already have a Pixar film that you’d like to watch with audio description, all you have to do is go to the app store and download the Disney Movies Anywhere app. When your movie starts playing (on a separate device or television), open up the app and locate the film. Then click “sync and play audio,” and the rest is done for you. Note that currently this works only for those running iOS 7 or later, with more platforms to come.

For more detailed instructions, visit Disney’s website, or download this special fact sheet to get you started.

What’s Next

More access audio description! This not only means Disney•Pixar is making their movies more personally accessible, but will require the participation of other film studios and distributors to help the blindness community promote accessible movie systems that work and are controlled by the user.

Just because Disney is the first movie studio to take the delivery method of audio description seriously, doesn’t mean it’ll be the only one. There are 285 million visually impaired people in the world — that’s 285 million people who, if given an accessible way to enjoy great movies, would be fans and customers for life.

This spring, we’ll be introducing mainstream audiences to this and other great new accessible technologies at a number of conferences, starting with a special LightHouse panel at SXSW on March 15. More on that soon, so stay tuned.

How Can I Help?

The best thing you can do is spread the word and send us feedback. There are lots of blind people out there who don’t think audio description is for them, many because they’ve never had a positive, easy experience getting it set up and calibrated. With these barriers gone, Pixar’s sixteen world-class titles are now accessible in a whole new way.

The LightHouse knows that nothing comes out perfectly the first time, and we’re already hard at work identifying new kinks and challenges in this brand new technology to make sure that the next version of the app is even better. To this tune, our friends at Pixar have set up a special feedback email address so that you can sound off with your comments, observations and helpful feedback. Just send an email to dmaappfeedback@pixar.com.

To contact us for inquiries about this or any of LightHouse for the Blind’s many technology initiatives, email press@lighthouse-sf.org.

Win 2 Tickets to the Treasure Island Music Festival with LightHouse SF!

the scene at treasure island, including palm trees and a ferris wheel

What adaptive tech, app, or blindness device would you never be caught on an island without? Share your answer along with a link to this blog post, and you’ll be entered to win two free tickets (more than $300 value) to the Treasure Island Music Festival this weekend, Oct 17-18, 2015. You can share via Twitter, Facebook, or by copying us on an email to your friends. Contestants who use the hashtag #doTIblind will have an even better chance of winning.

braille and large print versions of the Treasure Island Music Festival schedule

We did it for Burning Man, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and now we’re excited to announce that we’ve teamed up with the Treasure Island Music Festival to produce and distribute our signature festival guides for the blind and low vision bon vivant! This time we’ve created separate braille and large print schedules, with locations and set times for each artist at Treasure Island, including their star-studded new comedy tent and the ever-popular Silent Disco! The programs we made are inspired by the festival’s own design theme (with colors optimized for low vision) and emblazoned with the awesome little TIMF logo. So even if your phone dies and the lights get low, you’ll have all the information you need in your pocket and at your fingertips.

If that wasn’t enough, we teamed up with the festival to send two lucky members of our community to experience Treasure Island for free! Not only will you get to spend the weekend partying on us, but you’ll get to be some of the first to try out our accessible festival guides. And though this is truly a contest made by the blind, for the blind, we won’t prohibit sighted folks from participating, as long as they promise to bring a blind pal along if they win! So tell us about your favorite blindness tool, share this link, and get ready to spend a weekend on the Island.


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).