Thursday, July 20, 2017

What I Learned from Being a Sighted Guide

Hi folks, Lynn here. I decided to share some tips for sighted guides in this week's blog because I was recently assigned to be a sighted guide for a person at a conference in Austin. I had not done this before, but I had also been working on a written project on the very same topic. So I did a little research and learned some simple techniques for being a sighted guide for people who are blind or visually impaired.

A daughter serves as a sighted guide for her father at a restaurant. (Photo courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind)

Here is a basic step-by-step guide. But always bear in mind that each person has a different need and a different experience. It is up to you as the sighted guide to learn and listen.

  1. Address the person and identify yourself. Tell them you are there to assist them.
  2. Touch the follower’s (the person who is blind or visually impaired) elbow, forearm, or hand with the back of your hand.
  3. The follower will choose which part of your arm to grasp, or it may be the top of your shoulder depending upon your height. They will let you know which is most comfortable and secure for them.
  4. Walk at a comfortable pace.
  5. The correct grip is important for comfort and safety.
  6. The correct stance is important for protection.
  7. Doorways – it is important to allow the person being guided to be in control of the door; they should be on the hinge side.
  8. Narrow spaces – advise the person that a narrow space is ahead.
  9. Stairs – stop at the first step and tell the follower whether the steps go up or down. Stop when you reach the end of the stairs and tell the person when you are at the top or bottom, respectively.
  10. Seating – explain which way the chair is facing and where it is in relation to the rest of the room. Also explain which part of the chair you are touching.
  11. If leaving the person alone, leave them in contact with an object.

Here are a few bonus tips:

  • Remember there are differences among people who are blind or visually impaired; no two people are alike.
  • Many people have some useful vision, and there are also variations in how people have adjusted to their vision.
  • The best way to know how to be helpful is to ask.

Here is an instructional video from YouTube that can help you see how this all looks in action:


I hope these tips will help you be the best sighted guide possible! If you have any other helpful tips, please tell us in the comments:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

INTRODUCING the 2017 Inaugural Haven Street-Allen Award Luncheon

This year, we are excited to announce our inaugural luncheon on September 19 at Saengerrunde Hall in downtown Austin, where we will be honoring past board member, Forrest Haven Street-Allen.

At VSA Texas, Haven willingly shared her knowledge and insights with her fellow board members and the staff, and supported the activities offered by VSA Texas with her presence and her financial support. She was instrumental in updating the organization’s personnel policies and led the board through an interactive process to update both the mission and vision statements. She truly had a “spark" and embodied how important it is to give back to the community you live in.

A woman with dark blond layered shoulder length hair wearing pearls around her neck and a blue scoop neck shirt smiles in front of a brick wall and small indoor green plant

Starting in 2018, the Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award will be offered in memory of Street-Allen, who died in January 2015. Haven was an insightful and caring person who had a history of helping others. She was a Board Member of VSA Texas as well as the Austin Dispute Resolution Center, a volunteer mediator for the Resolution Center, and the Director of Human Resources for St. Edward’s University in Austin until her retirement in 2012. The Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award recognizes her dedication, vision and respect for all, and honors her commitment to creating greater access to, and support for, the arts in Texas.

The Haven Street-Allen Artist of the Year Award honors an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming a creative dimension in the arts. Each year, the Artist of the Year Award is given to one artist with a disability in Texas who, through a one-time creative act or a substantial record of achievement, embodies the spirit and vision of VSA Texas.

This individual challenges perceptions of how people contribute by demonstrating artistic excellence or leading the way as a community catalyst for change. In addition to a plaque commemorating artistic achievement, each award also consists of an honorarium of $500, recognition as a featured artist on the VSA Texas website, and an invitation to attend our annual luncheon as the guest of honor to be publicly recognized for individual artistic achievements.

Nominations are open to any artist with a disability over the age of 16 years in any medium. All nominations will be juried by a panel of judges and results will be announced January 31. All nominations must be in by December 31 of the previous year to be considered for the award.

Tickets for the luncheon will be $10 each and go on sale August 19, 2017. Save the date for this exciting event! We are currently seeking sponsors for food and varying monetary levels, so please contact me at janelle@vsatx.org or 512-454-9912 to get involved today!

Hope to see you all there September 19!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

What Does Independence Mean to You?

Depending on who you ask, independence can mean many different things. For people living in nations like ours, independence may be a fond reminder of freedom from tyrannical rule. For others, independence may indicate self-sufficiency on a personal level and the ultimate sign of maturity. For people with disabilities, who may require daily or weekly assistance, independence often means control over one's own decisions and the freedom to participate in the community. With the passing of another Independence Day, we decided to ask a few of our OMOD speakers what independence means to them:

Shaniqua Esparza

Independence does not mean having to do everything on your own. I used to think that. Independence means doing the things you want with whatever help is available to you. It takes a braver, stronger and more independent person to acknowledge and seek help.

Shaniqua poses at the National Mall in Washington DC with the Washington Monument in the background.

Renee Lopez

Independence means living my life as I choose to live it. The operative word here being I! No amount of independence would exist for me if it weren't for my personal care attendants. They give me the ability to live in the community. Without them, I would have to live in an institutional setting, like a nursing home, where my life would cease to feel worthwhile. Independence to me is being a full member of my community and being recognized and appreciated as such. Independence ultimately means that I, as an American citizen, have the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Nothing else matters to me more than that.

Renee poses before Austin's skyline at sunset.

Adam Farris

In my honest opinion independence is where we are free to be ourselves. Think about it – this great nation was founded 241 years ago. We as a country need to understand that there are people that are different or unique from others in so many ways. Independence is where we can be free to be ourselves, and be united, with no hatred towards others. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a frequent quote that I like. Remember that everyone is equal in their own way.

Photo of Adam beside black text over blue reading, "My name is Adam Farris, I am 29 years old, and I don't think of myself as disabled because I have been able to accomplish so much. Maybe none of us are really "disabled," maybe we are all just different people with unique abilities. The world needs to understand that all of us are alike."

Kamand Alaghehband

I always feel independent when I am involved with Special Olympics. Let me win, but if I don't, then let me be brave in the attempt.

Kamand stands beside her Special Olympics swim teammates. Everyone holds their fists in the air proudly.

Jordana Gerlach

I feel independent when I take care of my horse. My horse cannot tell me when he is not feeling well or when his shoes are uncomfortable, so I needed to learn how his mood changes when he is sick in order to take care of him. If I couldn't recognize the signs of a problem, I could have lost my horse. Keeping a close eye on him makes me feel independent. Here we are with the farrier, the man who cares for my horse's feet and changes his shoes every six weeks:


Kaye Love

I experience my independence when I choose to rely on my inner Knowing, instead of the opinions of others. By focusing on my Truth I can live my life in a way that is best for me. When I give my gut instincts more consideration than professional opinions I find myself to be healthier and happier, as I do not function like the textbook says I should. I can experience my own acceptance when others are disapproving or critical, and speak my truth even if it is unique. Reliance on my inner Truth sets me free.

Kaye wearing a business suit

Eric Clow

In the contentious world of politics, our compassion for our fellow countryman and woman may begin to erode with the thought of supporting people we don't even know. In actuality, supporting programs that keep people with disabilities and seniors healthy and active in the community is supporting yourself when you get old or find yourself stricken by an unfortunate accident or injury, it's supporting your parents or your children, it's an investment in an entire country where disability is a normal and natural part of life. To me, independence is the freedom to pursue the life I want within the same opportunities and limitations as my fellow citizens without disabilities.

Living independently in the community gives me the opportunity to express myself creatively and develop new hobbies, like painting. This is "Tree at Sunset."

What does independence mean to you? Please tell us in the comments:

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Introducing... OMOD's New Website!

Dear friends and devoted blog readers,

I am excited to announce that our new OMOD website is now live (thanks to a lot of hard work by our OMOD team, who spent countless hours developing and revising the downloadable resources, and Trisummit Solutions, the team of WordPress experts who built and designed the site)! I would like to take you for a little tour around the site, but I encourage you to take your own self-guided tour when you have the time.

First we have our homepage (see below):

Note the new OMOD logo. It's pretty snazzy, so you can assume I had little to do with it :)

Here you can get a little taste of what all you will find on the site and watch a highlights reel from our 2015 class showcase in Austin. Scroll down to find our upcoming events and most recent blog posts.

At the top of every page, including the homepage, you can access buttons which will take you to nealy any page on the site, including the About You (this page's button doubles as a drop-down menu with links to resources for trainers, speakers, and conference organizers), Events, About Us, News, and Contact Us pages.

Also, at the left side of every page, about halfway down, you will find two small, gray square buttons (see below); these will allow you to switch to high contrast or increase the size of the text on the website.

Buttons to adjust the contrast and font size

You can find our biggest downloadable (and free!) resources on the Trainers page (below): our complete 139-page curriculum in English and Spanish along with guides for how to draft and submit conference presentation proposals, support and prepare speakers with disabilities for conferences, and recruit participants, volunteers, and instructors for an OMOD class. Although these resources are downloadable as PDFs on our site, we can also send you the materials in a Word document format, if you use a screen reader or some other assistive technology that does not work well with PDFs. Just shoot us an email, and we'll get you the materials you need.

The long list of PDF resources available for download on the Trainers page

On the Speakers page, you can read more about the benefits of joining the OMOD program, find out if we have our next six-week class scheduled, and sign up for our email list.

If you are a conference host seeking speakers for your next conference, check out our Conference Organizers page. You'll find a fillable form on that page where you can tell us about your conference, if you want a solo speaker or ensemble presentation, and what topic you'd like us to present on.

Regardless of your specific role, you can stay in the know by following our News page. Each new blog post gets added to this page automatically.

And that brings us to the end of our tour! I hope you will continue to explore the wonderful world of OMOD and join our email list so you never miss an update!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Keeping Your Brain Healthy in the 21st Century

Hello Friends,

A few weeks ago I told you about a new initiative of VSA Texas involving older adults and art. We are really excited about everything that has been happening with Mobile Art and the new people we are serving. We know the arts have restorative powers, and provide opportunities for expressing your creativity, contemplative thinking, relationship building, and just plain fun!

In early June, I had the pleasure of attending a Dementia & Museums Symposium at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. I’ll admit it. I am kind of a conference geek. Especially when I have the opportunity to meet people who are passionate and committed to their cause. And yes, I was surrounded by museum staff from across the country who are running great programs for folks with early memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.  I learned that, “it’s about living in the moment and going on a journey, together” (thank you Jane Tygesson). I learned that people are care partners, not care givers. What a respectful way to refer to people who may have been together for decades, and are still together, just in a different way.

A large face fills the canvas. White hair encircles the top of the head, and a non-smiling face peers out at the viewer. Flecks of gold paint cover portions of the face which is dominated by a large nose and bright red lips.
Ebony G. Patterson, Untitled (Blingas II from the series Gangstas for Life) 2008

Damon McLeese, a colleague and friend who runs Access Gallery in Denver, was the keynote speaker. He provided a great foundation for the next three days as he explained how he works with young people with disabilities through his gallery programming. However, in the past year, he has expanded his programs to offer “Granny Does Graffiti,” a mural project that matches older adults with dementia with a Denver-based graffiti artist – so cool! And what we can learn about each other when given a way in through art. Staff of the care center where these adults stay are learning new things about the former lives of their clients, thereby opening a window into new ways of helping and being together.

Duke University has a Medical School conducting some groundbreaking research into Alzheimer’s. On the last morning, Dr. Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, PhD and Director of the Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer’s Center at Duke shared some latest statistics on the disease. She laid out seven steps for people to follow to help reduce the risk of developing early memory loss or dementia. These steps are not earth-shattering, but worth repeating.

At the Sarah P Duke Gardens, a circle of large human like forms constructed from branches cut from trees on the campus, sits in the middle of a large field.
Patrick Dougherty, The Big Easy 2017

Step 1. Change your mindset. Ageism is rampant in our society. Many older adults are responsible for maintaining their health and continuing to contribute to society. Expect more from yourself than others may expect. Here is another way to think about changing your mindset about growing older and living longer: disability is something that you are living with; disease is something that you are dying from; Alzheimer’s is just an accelerated process of what we will all eventually go through.

Step 2. Treat what can be treated. Curb your smoking and alcohol habits. Manage your medical conditions. Heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, thyroid disease, sleep disorders, arthritis, anxiety, and depression can all be contributing factors to changes in the brain.

Step 3. Get physically active. Aerobic, resistance training, daily 15-20 minute walks. These are all good. And mix it up a bit with gardening, raking leaves, or taking the stairs.

I took Kathleen’s advice and walked around the Duke campus after her talk. A long stone building with arches and dormer windows houses the Duke Divinity School.

Step 4. Watch what you eat. And that doesn’t mean looking at yourself in the mirror. A Mediterranean diet is really good for you. Limit your sugar and salt intake. Eat carrots, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, and salmon.

Step 5. Work your brain. Engage in new ways of thinking. Do ART! Studies have shown that art activities – visual, music, dancing, theater – stimulate the brain and help to reduce risk. A small study from Newcastle on Tyne in England broke individuals into three groups: one group did puzzles, one went on walks, the third took art classes. You won’t be surprised to learn the art class participants reported the highest level of satisfaction and continued to participate after the study was concluded. What did the study reveal? Social engagement and a challenging, new activity resulted in a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

Step 6. Stress reduction and caring for your emotional health. SLEEP. Know how many hours of sleep you need per day and try to maintain it. Anywhere between 6.5 and 9.5 is considered within the range. Also social engagement, outdoor activities, pet therapy – I have cats. It works – meditation, yoga. You don’t have to do all of these things. Just try one. And, of course, sleep.

Lotus flowers in the gardens open to the warm spring sun.

Step 7. Be part of the solution. This one comes directly from Dr. Welse-Bohmer. Participate in research to help add to the body of knowledge being tested and shared.

The summer program of Mobile Art is with older adults and their care partners at home. In partnership with Family Eldercare, we will deliver art supplies and instructions to folks who no longer leave their homes and then work with them over the phone to complete six diverse art projects. Theresa Zelazny, founder of Mobile Art, developed the lessons and we look forward to getting to know our newest friends. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

And Yet We Rise

We are happy to feature our friend and Lion & Pirate regular David Borden in this week's blog. David recently published And Yet We Rise, a truly fantastic graphic novel that tackles the complex, difficult subject matter of life with significant disabilities and caregiving with frankness, humor, and sincerity – something frequently lacking in much of the existing literature on these topics. (Click here for a more detailed review of the book by our own April Sullivan). We were thrilled to host David's book release party at our Lion & Pirate open mic and glad to hear a little more about the origins of his book:


I sat on the sofa, window blinds drawn with Savannah in my arms. She was so small, so beautiful. I was so tired. Dead tired. I could barely function. I was depressed, confused, and hungry for help or advice of any kind. Why wouldn’t she eat? Why wouldn’t she sleep? Why wouldn’t she stop screaming for hours… days at a time? I knew she had a significant brain injury because I’d seen the MRI images. I knew she had out-of-control seizures without seeing them etched by an EEG because she jittered and clenched more often than I could count.

David reading to Savannah

I knew the clinical side of the equation. The doctors had described it, labelled, it, and examined it with excruciating detail. What I didn’t know was the human side. I hadn’t met other parents yet. We tried support groups, but neither my wife nor myself had the kind of personality that does well in a support group, so we remained isolated.

I looked for books, but the books people recommended, the best-sellers, so to speak, about disability, dealt with autism, Down syndrome, degenerative diseases, or mental illness. We found a few good books, but they often played it too safe, staying overly positive and inspirational. So, in the back of my mind, a seed was planted. I would write the book I wanted—surely someone else wants it too. I would write a book that dared to tackle the hard questions:

How do you care for someone year after year who won’t get better?

How do you care for yourself when you spend all your time and energy caring for someone else?

How do you deal with the conflicting emotions of grief and relief?

The whole family

I struggled with the manuscript for years. I couldn’t capture Savannah in prose. This vibrant, tenacious little girl who blossomed in her teen years stayed locked away from the reader because I found it impossible to create dialogue with her. Because she was non-verbal, I could only describe her reactions with smiles and eye movements so many times before these scenes became tedious. I abandoned the manuscript. The memoir had become just one more painful failure.

After Savannah passed away, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, her sister (eleven at the time), wrote me a touching letter. I didn’t know how to write her back. In my attempt to share her sister’s story, and my story, in an accessible way, I stumbled upon the idea of adding a visual element… make the book into a graphic novel (a long-form comic book that deals with serious subject matter). Suddenly, the book flowed and Savannah appeared in the pages.

Savannah

And as far as I can tell, there is nothing like it out there. As one reader noted: “this book takes a difficult subject and translates it into an easy to understand format: a beautiful story with simple, compelling drawings. This is NOT a Hallmark Special. If you’re looking for fuzzy inspiration, this is not your book. This is the book that challenges you to think differently, but also envelopes you in love and compassion.”

I have been so pleased by the overwhelming response that I’ve received from the book. Fox 7 ran a feature story, I was interviewed on the One in a Million Baby pod-cast, and had a standing-room-only book release party at Malvern Books with my good friends of the Lion and Pirate.

Click here for more information on the book or to download the first chapter free.

David with graphic novels

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Creativity and Connection

This past Tuesday, Austin Playback Theatre was gracious enough to invite our organization to be the featured nonprofit for the June edition of their Tuesday Night Stories, a monthly improv performance series where all proceeds of each performance benefits a different local nonprofit organization. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Austin Playback Theatre, but I must say I had a really good experience listening to other people’s stories and then seeing those stories expressed through improv.

For any of you unfamiliar with Austin Playback Theatre, it's an improvisational theatre in which the troupe elicits impressions and stories from the audience and then plays them back via improv. The troupe collaborates with the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Grover Street in Austin, who provides a space to perform at no charge so that all donations can go directly to the featured organization.

It was quite an intimate setting. A musician off to the side provided an ambience for each piece performed. Each actor stepped forward, gave their name and a short little story. Then the ensemble acted out the story, giving the audience a flavor of what the night’s improvisations would look like.

Improv actors portraying a story

A representative from VSA Texas gave a brief history of who we are, and then the emcee asked everyone in the audience to think of something we had recently experienced, basically a feel good moment, nothing elaborate, just something that we had connected to during the day. One story related an experience of rain, no power, eating pretzels and cheese, and playing scrabble by a lantern. The ensemble gave their interpretation of the story. It was amazing because I realized that through simply listening to the vignette, they were able to capture the feeling, the nuances of the experience, and relay it to the audience without much to do or say. It was a physical expression of the verbal story.

Improv of story

Several little moments from the audience were shared and played out in the same way, which primed us to share larger stories of how we connect with others through creativity, the theme for this month's performance. Soon, the members of the audience became storytellers: each would share a memory, and through answering brief questions from a moderator, a mini-play evolved.

Improv of story

The ensemble again caught the nuances with minimal activity. Stories were about sorrow and death, kittens, epiphanies of personal discovery, unity in a comical physical condition. The evening ended in a unified creative moment, and what happened was we got to know more about the other audience members. There were intense moments and funny moments, but no pressure to say anything, just observe or share. It was a very safe setting.

Relating a story to the improv facilitator

A little history about improv that I found interesting: unlike the foundations of professional acting, few historical records clearly pinpoint the official beginning of improvisation. To understand the importance of improvisation in a theatrical education, one must look at the first major occurrences of improvisation throughout history. There have been texts created at the moment of performance, referred to as improvisatory presentation, which was likely how the Atellan farce – improvised farces dealing with family problems or poking fun at historical and mythological figures – came to be so popular among Roman citizens. The Atellan farce became a literary genre in the first century B.C.E., as Roman authors began to write down the humorous and unplanned antics that occurred on stage, making the Atellan farce arguably the first well known improv troupe in recorded theatre history.

The improvisational theatre movement in America started in the late 1930s by Viola Spolin. In her twenties, she worked for the WPA as a social worker and “drama supervisor” at Hull House, Jane Addam’s famous settlement house in Chicago. Spolin used traditional children’s games and invented dozens of new games in workshops with immigrants to help empower them to become more spontaneous and less self-conscious and to build a supportive community (her games are collected in her seminal book “Improvisations for the Theater”). This little commentary is only a brief bit of trivia that offers us a window into the long history of improvisation.

Back to Austin Playback Theatre: their goal is to help nonprofits in Austin build community and awareness while raising money and building ties among Austinites who enjoy helping others & creating strong community connections! You can visit Austin Playback Theatre on the web for information on how to get your nonprofit featured in one of their shows.

Thanks again to Austin Playback Theatre for choosing VSA Texas as one of your featured nonprofits!