Chefs and cooks in the disability community share recipes for accessibility

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Chef Regina Mitchell prepares vegetables in her home outside of Las Vegas. Mitchell, who is blind, teaches Zoom cooking classes through the Nevada-based organization Blindconnec

LUCAS KWAN PETERSON

Chef Regina Mitchell’s Zoom cooking class begins like a lot of Zooms: friendly banter, reminders to mute here, some technical adjustments there. A few minutes after the 4:30 p.m. start time, there are about 20 people on the call. The menu for tonight: a vegetable stir-fry and a lemongrass-ginger soda.

“The blind can cook!” she says to the camera and laughs. “People say when you have lemons, you make lemonade. I turn lemons into limoncello. Or a lemon pavlova.”

PHOTO: (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Mitchell, 60, became blind as an adult. She teaches cooking through the Nevada-based organization Blindconnect and its life skills-based program, Angela’s House. On the first and second Wednesdays of the month from her kitchen in the Las Vegas Valley, Mitchell emphasizes fun and skill-sharing to help visually impaired people feel comfortable in the kitchen.

Food and cooking are essential areas where those with disabilities can often be invisible or overlooked. But Mitchell and other advocates are working hard to address the problem by offering classes and resources and putting forth ideas to make cooking and recipes accessible.

Soon, the class begins in earnest. Much of the process is what you might expect — verbal instruction, chopping, peeling, simmering — but Mitchell emphasizes kitchen safety and exploration through touch and smell.

“I encourage you to feel the difference between corn starch, flour, confectioner’s sugar,” she says. At another point, while peeling a piece of ginger with a spoon, she reminds students, “Feel it before you peel it,” to better acquaint them with the rough-skinned root. She suggests students rub spices together in their hands to “wake them up,” which also makes them easier to identify.

Mitchell’s journey to teaching grew from necessity. “It’s a place to come; it’s a place to connect,” she says of her Zoom classes. “It’s a place to gather; it’s a place to be able to say hi. Because really, as blind individuals, we are already isolated.”

Growing up in Compton, Mitchell learned a love of food and cooking from her mother and grandmothers. Thrust into a caretaker role as a teenager after the death of a sibling, Mitchell relied on a couple of go-to dishes to feed her family: enchiladas and tacos.

After she and her future husband, Stan, met at church, the couple moved to Seattle where Mitchell enrolled at the Seattle Culinary Academy. After cooking and consulting for years as a professional chef, which included brief internships with Emeril Lagasse and Julia Child, Mitchell moved to Las Vegas for a job.

In 2011, she began to feel pain — eye pain. At the hotel where she was working, she began to notice a change. Her walking became unsteady; she felt off-balance. “I realized I didn’t have that gait like I used to have,” she says. Her colleagues noticed. “I had to ask people at work to help me read some things, undercover, of course.” Over the next several months, her vision deteriorated.

She was eventually diagnosed with bilateral panuveitis, a condition that affects the middle layer of the eye and robbed Mitchell of her sight. Her doctor wouldn’t let her return to work.

“I lost my vision, I lost my job. What do I do?” Mitchell remembers thinking. At the time, she was 50.

In the United States, 26% of adults, or 61 million people, live with some type of disability. Of those, 6.8% have an independent-living disability — something that would cause difficulty running errands alone; 5.9% are deaf or severely hearing impaired and 4.6% are blind or severely visually impaired.

Studies have shown that food insecurity, or lack of reliable access to nutritious food, is more likely to occur in households where there is someone with a disability, further demonstrating the need for accessible classes, websites and tailored teaching strategies. A study from the USDA’s Economic Research Survey estimated that 38% of households with low food security included an adult with a disability. Poor diet, the study noted, can exacerbate health conditions and disabilities.

“Who, above anyone, could use information on how to cook?” says George Stern, a deafblind writer and disability rights advocate living in Lubbock, Texas. The disabled “benefit as much as anyone from that knowledge, if not more,” he said. But to reap those benefits, companies and businesses must make access for all a priority.

Stern says we must stop thinking about providing accessibility as a burden or barrier because it’s not. “Accessibility goes past the needs of any one disability class. An accommodation that benefits deafblind people benefits sighted people. Accommodations that benefit people in wheelchairs benefit non-disabled people.”

He cited the installation of accessible ramps in front of businesses as an example. Initially, some may complain about the cost or inconvenience, “but then you see the benefits,” for all people: parents with strollers or people making deliveries.

Kitchens and culinary spaces also should be designed with access in mind — not retroactively making accommodations. “Universal design is welcoming from the get-go,” Stern says. “We’re assuming disabled people exist because yes, hello, we do.”

The food industry, from kitchens to restaurants to culinary training spaces, still feels “off-limits” to those with disabilities, Stern says. He recalled applying for a job at a pizza parlor but was told he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the pace. The prevailing attitude, he says, is one of, “I’m going to assume what you can do based on what I assume I couldn’t do.”

Stern, who has written about the importance of alt-text and website accessibility for Serious Eats, wants to challenge traditional thinking about what those with disabilities can or cannot do, and are or are not interested in. “The crucial thing is that disabled people can contribute in ways they’re not thinking of.”

Stern’s partner, Danielle Montour, is an assistive technology specialist and amateur baker who graduated from the Colorado Center for the Blind’s Independence Training Program. She was born with retinoblastoma, a form of eye cancer, and is blind. There’s fear in non-disabled communities, Montour said, regarding letting those with disabilities into a kitchen — specifically near knives and stoves. While the fear may come from a place of caring, “It just perpetuates this cycle of blind people who have to go elsewhere to get basic skill training,” she says.

“I understand the intention might be well, but the road to hell is paved with them.”

Montour’s medium of choice is baking, but she found that recipes often relied too heavily on visual indicators. She emphasized the need for different metrics for quality and doneness.

“I don’t want to know when something is golden brown,” she says. “If your only indicator is the color, I’m going to look for [another recipe]. What does it smell like? What should it feel like? What is the consistency of pastry cream? None of the recipes I saw told me what that should be.”

Mitchell, with her adult-onset blindness, was forced to make adjustments in the kitchen, which had been her solace for years. She met Raquel O’Neill, the president of Blindconnect, who introduced her to the concept of blindness skills, which include communication, orientation and independent living. In 2019, Mitchell began teaching cooking with Blindconnect.

Out of necessity, Mitchell’s food vocabulary expanded as a result of her blindness. “I’m trying to describe [food] to my listeners, I’m trying to describe it for the people in my Zoom class: This is what you’re going to be tasting if you do this right,” she says.

She recalls one simple but instructive memory from culinary school, before she had lost her vision. “My professor had us write how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she says. “And at the time as sassy culinary students, you think you know it all. All of us failed it.”

The problem? The instructor wanted the students to write as if the person following it had never read a recipe. “I take five steps to my cupboard, I open my cupboard with my left hand. I take my right hand, I reach into my cupboard. I pull out my bread,” Mitchell recalls. “I pull my drawer out and I reach in with my left hand and I pull out my knife.”

That experience informed her teaching philosophy in a profound way: “That brought back the memory of being descriptive,” she says. “I thought, ‘Ah, that’s how I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna take that approach.’”

Read the full article at LA Times.

Pottery Barn debuts 150 pieces of furniture for people with disabilities

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man in wheelchair reaching for a book in his home office surrounded by Pottery Barn furniture

By Elizabeth Segran, Fast Company

If you’re living with a disability, small design choices can make a big difference to your quality of life. High bathroom consoles make it hard to wash your hands from a wheelchair; low sofas are hard to get out of when you have a knee condition.

Today, Pottery Barn is launching a furniture collection designed to be accessible to the elderly, the injured, and those living with disabilities, making it one of the first large home brands to do so. In consultation with experts, the company’s designers adapted 150 best-selling styles—from dining tables to office desks—to accommodate a range of disabilities.

Pottery Barn’s Accessible Home line gives consumers more options for furniture that is both functional and stylish. And as a major retailer—whose parent company, Williams-Sonoma, generated $8.2 billion in 2021—this initiative may signal to the rest of the industry that it makes good business sense to design more inclusively.

Marta Benson, Pottery Barn’s president, felt strongly that the brand should launch an accessible home collection after she visited one of its stores, only to find that the bathroom didn’t contain Pottery Barn furniture. When she asked a store designer why, he pointed out that none of Pottery Barn’s bathroom consoles complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires public bathrooms to have wheelchair-accessible sinks. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she recalls. “From that moment, I just started tuning into what it means to be inclusive and accessible to all abilities.”
Benson tasked Pottery Barn’s designers with creating modified versions of some of the brand’s most popular products to make them safer and easier for people with disabilities to use. To guide them, she brought in experts from the Disability Education and Advocacy Network, which is led by people with disabilities, as well as designers who specialize in designing for disability.

One of those experts is Lisa Cini, founder and CEO of Mosaic Design Studio, and a leading designer in the field of long-term care and Alzheimer’s. She’s known for a project called the Werner House, a 10,000-square-foot mansion she purchased in 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. Her goal was to explore what it takes to create an inclusive, multigenerational house, and she invited designers and manufacturers to help renovate it. It’s equipped with technology like height-adjustable sinks and toilets, and transitions in flooring to make it easier for people to age in place. Cini herself lives in the house with her elderly parents and makes adjustments based on the family’s everyday experiences.
Cini and the Pottery Barn team used the Werner House to help create the Accessible Home line. “We looked at all the current Pottery Barn products and determined what was most appropriate for the Werner House, but we also identified gaps in the market,” Cini said via email.

In some cases, the designers made small tweaks to existing products. For instance, they redesigned mirrors so they can tilt, making it easier for those in wheelchairs to easily see themselves. They also created modified versions of popular office desks, like the Pacific, Dillon, and Malcolm, with dimensions that accommodate wheelchairs. These desks also feature open storage and shelving, to eliminate the need to grip and pull drawers.

Some products required more elaborate changes. The brand has taken its most popular armchairs—Wells, Irving, Tyler, and Ayden—and adapted them to include power lift, which makes it easier to get in and out of the chair. The chairs are also able to move in every direction, which relieves pressure and stress on the body. The 150 products will be available online and in select stores, and they’ll be the same price point as the original versions.

Click here to read the full article on Fast Company.

Amazon, Starbucks and Google among best places to work for professionals with disabilities

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Google announced the launch of the Google Cloud Autism Career Program for neurodiversity..and is one of the best places for professionals with disabilities

By Ashton Jackson, CNBC

In 2021, 77% of workers with disabilities said their employer has done a better job supporting them since the pandemic started. Now, companies are building on that support, with significant increases in leadership and boardroom diversity, according to the 2022 Disability Equality Index report from Disability:IN, a global organization advocating for disability inclusion in the workplace.

“People now understand that disability inclusion is not some kind of ADA compliance issue, but it’s actually a business imperative,” says Ted Kennedy Jr., co-chair of the Disability Equality Index.

“People today want to go to work for companies that they think are doing the right thing, that share their values, and share their vision of the world, [including] making sure that people with disabilities have an equal shot at going to work at that company every single day.”

The Disability Equality Index is a benchmarking assessment, where leaders submit their companies to be scored in areas like technology accessibility, employment practices and culture. This year, the report covered 415 companies, including 69 from the Fortune 100, who were then ranked to identify the best places to work for disability inclusion.

With scores of 100, these companies, along with several others, led the pack:

Amazon
Bank of America
Capital One
Deloitte
Goldman Sachs
Google
Starbucks

Increased disability inclusion in leadership is one of the most prominent trends in the report, with 126 companies having a senior executive who is internally known as a person with a disability. In 2021, only 99 companies had this kind of representation at the executive level.

The report also found that 6% of companies now have someone who openly identifies as disabled on their corporate board, and 74% of companies have investments with disability-owned businesses, showing not only an internal change, but an effort to diversify outside relationships as well.

According to Jill Houghton, the president and CEO of Disability:IN, the call for disability inclusion at work, coupled with the “global talent shortage” has made it vital for companies “to rethink how they hire, develop and cultivate talent.”

Ninety-six percent of companies in the report offer flexible work options, making completing certain tasks more accessible and accommodating. Fifty percent are also investing in new technology to help advance digital accessibility.

Click here to read the full article on CNBC.

The latest video game controller isn’t plastic. It’s your face.

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Dunn playing “Minecraft” using voice commands on the Enabled Play controller, face expression controls via a phone and virtual buttons on Xbox's adaptive controller. (Courtesy of Enabled Play Game Controller)

By Amanda Florian, The Washington Post

Over decades, input devices in the video game industry have evolved from simple joysticks to sophisticated controllers that emit haptic feedback. But with Enabled Play, a new piece of assistive tech created by self-taught developer Alex Dunn, users are embracing a different kind of input: facial expressions.

While companies like Microsoft have sought to expand accessibility through adaptive controllers and accessories, Dunn’s new device takes those efforts even further, translating users’ head movements, facial expressions, real-time speech and other nontraditional input methods into mouse clicks, key strokes and thumbstick movements. The device has users raising eyebrows — quite literally.

“Enabled Play is a device that learns to work with you — not a device you have to learn to work with,” Dunn, who lives in Boston, said via Zoom.

Dunn, 26, created Enabled Play so that everyone — including his younger brother with a disability — can interface with technology in a natural and intuitive way. At the beginning of the pandemic, the only thing he and his New Hampshire-based brother could do together, while approximately 70 miles apart, was game.

“And that’s when I started to see firsthand some of the challenges that he had and the limitations that games had for people with really any type of disability,” he added.

At 17, Dunn dropped out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute to become a full-time software engineer. He began researching and developing Enabled Play two and a half years ago, which initially proved challenging, as most speech-recognition programs lagged in response time.

“I built some prototypes with voice commands, and then I started talking to people who were deaf and had a range of disabilities, and I found that voice commands didn’t cut it,” Dunn said.

That’s when he started thinking outside the box.

Having already built Suave Keys, a voice-powered program for gamers with disabilities, Dunn created Snap Keys — an extension that turns a user’s Snapchat lens into a controller when playing games like Call of Duty, “Fall Guys,” and “Dark Souls.” In 2020, he won two awards for his work at Snap Inc.’s Snap Kit Developer Challenge, a competition among third-party app creators to innovate Snapchat’s developer tool kit.

With Enabled Play, Dunn takes accessibility to the next level. With a wider variety of inputs, users can connect the assistive device — equipped with a robust CPU and 8 GB of RAM — to a computer, game console or other device to play games in whatever way works best for them.

Dunn also spent time making sure Enabled Play was accessible to people who are deaf, as well as people who want to use nonverbal audio input, like “ooh” or “aah,” to perform an action. Enabled Play’s vowel sound detection model is based on “The Vocal Joystick,” which engineers and linguistics experts at the University of Washington developed in 2006.

“Essentially, it looks to predict the word you are going to say based on what is in the profile, rather than trying to assume it could be any word in the dictionary,” Dunn said. “This helps cut through machine learning bias by learning more about how the individual speaks and applies it to their desired commands.”

Dunn’s AI-enabled controller takes into account a person’s natural tendencies. If a gamer wants to set up a jump command every time they open their mouth, Enabled Play would identify that person’s individual resting mouth position and set that as the baseline.

In January, Enabled Play officially launched in six countries — its user base extending from the U.S. to the U.K., Ghana and Austria. For Dunn, one of his primary goals was to fill a gap in accessibility and pricing compared to other assistive gaming devices.

“There are things like the Xbox Adaptive Controller. There are things like the HORI Flex [for Nintendo Switch]. There are things like Tobii, which does eye-tracking and stuff like that. But it still seemed like it wasn’t enough,” he said.

Compared to some devices that are only compatible with one gaming system or computer at a time, Dunn’s AI-enabled controller — priced at $249.99 — supports a combination of inputs and outputs. Speech therapists say that compared to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, which are medically essential for some with disabilities, Dunn’s device offers simplicity.

“This is just the start,” said Julia Franklin, a speech language pathologist at Community School of Davidson in Davidson, N.C. Franklin introduced students to Enabled Play this summer and feels it’s a better alternative to other AAC devices on the market that are often “expensive, bulky and limited” in usability. Many sophisticated AAC systems can range from $6,000 to $11,500 for high-tech devices, with low-end eye-trackers running in the thousands. A person may also download AAC apps on their mobile devices, which range from $49.99 to $299.99 for the app alone.

“For many people who have physical and cognitive differences, they often exhaust themselves to learn a complex AAC system that has limits,” she said. “The Enabled Play device allows individuals to leverage their strengths and movements that are already present.”

Internet users have applauded Dunn for his work, noting that asking for accessibility should not equate to asking for an “easy mode” — a misconception often cited by critics of making games more accessible.

“This is how you make gaming accessible,” one Reddit user wrote about Enabled Play. “Not by dumbing it down, but by creating mechanical solutions that allow users to have the same experience and accomplish the same feats as [people without disabilities].” Another user who said they regularly worked with young patients with cerebral palsy speculated that Enabled Play “would quite literally change their lives.”

Click here to read the full article on The Washington Post.

Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders Through AI Facial Expression Evaluation

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Researchers from Germany have developed a method for identifying mental disorders based on facial expressions interpreted by computer vision.

By , Unite

Researchers from Germany have developed a method for identifying mental disorders based on facial expressions interpreted by computer vision.

The new approach can not only distinguish between unaffected and affected subjects, but can also correctly distinguish depression from schizophrenia, as well as the degree to which the patient is currently affected by the disease.

The researchers have provided a composite image that represents the control group for their tests (on the left in the image below) and the patients who are suffering from mental disorders (right). The identities of multiple people are blended in the representations, and neither image depicts a particular individual:

Individuals with affective disorders tend to have raised eyebrows, leaden gazes, swollen faces and hang-dog mouth expressions. To protect patient privacy, these composite images are the only ones made available in support of the new work.

Until now, facial affect recognition has been primarily used as a potential tool for basic diagnosis. The new approach, instead, offers a possible method to evaluate patient progress throughout treatment, or else (potentially, though the paper does not suggest it) in their own domestic environment for outpatient monitoring.

The paper states*:

‘Going beyond machine diagnosis of depression in affective computing, which has been developed in previous studies, we show that the measurable affective state estimated by means of computer vision contains far more information than the pure categorical classification.’

The researchers have dubbed this technique Opto Electronic Encephalography (OEG), a completely passive method of inferring mental state by facial image analysis instead of topical sensors or ray-based medical imaging technologies.

The authors conclude that OEG could potentially be not just a mere secondary aide to diagnosis and treatment, but, in the long term, a potential replacement for certain evaluative parts of the treatment pipeline, and one that could cut down on the time necessary for patient monitoring and initial diagnosis. They note:

‘Overall, the results predicted by the machine show better correlations compared to the pure clinical observer rating based questionnaires and are also objective. The relatively short measurement period of a few minutes for the computer vision approaches is also noteworthy, whereas hours are sometimes required for the clinical interviews.’

However, the authors are keen to emphasize that patient care in this field is a multi-modal pursuit, with many other indicators of patient state to be considered than just their facial expressions, and that it is too early to consider that such a system could entirely substitute traditional approaches to mental disorders. Nonetheless, they consider OEG a promising adjunct technology, particularly as a method to grade the effects of pharmaceutical treatment in a patient’s prescribed regime.

The paper is titled The Face of Affective Disorders, and comes from eight researchers across a broad range of institutions from the private and public medical research sector.

Data

(The new paper deals mostly with the various theories and methods that are currently popular in patient diagnosis of mental disorders, with less attention than is usual to the actual technologies and processes used in the tests and various experiments)

Data-gathering took place at University Hospital at Aachen, with 100 gender-balanced patients and a control group of 50 non-affected people. The patients included 35 sufferers from schizophrenia and 65 people suffering from depression.

For the patient portion of the test group, initial measurements were taken at the time of first hospitalization, and the second prior to their discharge from hospital, spanning an average interval of 12 weeks. The control group participants were recruited arbitrarily from the local population, with their own induction and ‘discharge’ mirroring that of the actual patients.

In effect, the most important ‘ground truth’ for such an experiment must be diagnoses obtained by approved and standard methods, and this was the case for the OEG trials.

However, the data-gathering stage obtained additional data more suited for machine interpretation: interviews averaging 90 minutes were captured over three phases with a Logitech c270 consumer webcam running at 25fps.

The first session comprised of a standard Hamilton interview (based on research originated around 1960), such as would normally be given on admission. In the second phase, unusually, the patients (and their counterparts in the control group) were shown videos of a series of facial expressions, and asked to mimic each of these, while stating their own estimation of their mental condition at that time, including emotional state and intensity. This phase lasted around ten minutes.

In the third and final phase, the participants were shown 96 videos of actors, lasting just over ten seconds each, apparently recounting intense emotional experiences. The participants were then asked to evaluate the emotion and intensity represented in the videos, as well as their own corresponding feelings. This phase lasted around 15 minutes.

Click here to read the full article on Unite.

The short supply of special education teachers

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A child in a wheelchair at the park with his special education teacher

By the School of Education

Special education teachers ensure an equitable education to millions of students across the nation. With 14 percent of students needing some type of special education service, these teachers play a key role in making sure all students have a chance to thrive academically. General education teachers and students alike rely on special education teachers’ specialized knowledge in skills assessment and the development of learning activities with special needs and disabilities in mind. For this reason, the current special education teacher shortage is especially worrying. So, what’s causing this shortage, and how can leaders begin to address it?

Current and aspiring educators looking for a deeper analysis of the issue should consider American University’s Online School of Education, which offers students expert knowledge about special education challenges, preparing them to address the current shortage.

An Overview of the Current Special Education Teacher Shortage
Special education teacher shortages have persisted for years, putting the education of the country’s most vulnerable students in a precarious position. The Office of Special Education Programs currently lists the national shortage at 8 percent. This large and growing problem affects schools across the country, but the shortage pertains to more than just insufficient numbers of special education teachers.

The shortage also refers to inadequate numbers of properly trained special education teachers. In fact, many first-year special education teachers across the country have not completed special education preparation programs. In California for example, of the 8,470 new special education teachers hired in 2017-18, only 3,274 were fully credentialed.

To gain more insight into the special education teacher shortage, consider the following statistics:

  • Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia lack sufficient special education teachers.
  • Special education teachers leave teaching at almost double the rate of general education teachers.
  • More than half of all school districts struggle to staff well-qualified special education teachers.
  • Ninety percent of high-poverty school districts struggle to staff well-qualified special education teachers.
  • Up to 29 percent of vacated special education teacher positions are due to attrition.
  • Unequal Distributions of the Special Education Teacher Shortage

    While the special education teacher shortage affects schools across the spectrum, it tends to impact high-poverty schools most acutely. They face the greatest challenges when it comes to attracting properly trained and experienced special education teachers.

    In recent years, enrollment in all teacher preparation programs has dropped considerably, and the number of people completing special education programs has dropped 14 percent, meaning fewer credentialed teachers are available for a growing number of vacancies. Low-income and rural schools find it especially hard to attract and retain the dwindling number of special education teachers. The special education teachers these schools do manage to hire often have less experience than those hired by more affluent schools. For example, many special education teachers in urban and rural districts work with provisional licenses after meeting just a few requirements:

  • An undergraduate degree
  • Nine credit hours of coursework covering both general and special education
  • Successful completion of a basic skills exam
  • Typically, special education teachers at high-poverty schools have received less special education training and are more likely to hold certifications in areas other than special education compared with teachers at low-poverty schools.

    Attrition and the Consequences of the Special Education Teacher Shortage

    Data shows that teachers with limited preparation tend to drop out of the profession more frequently than those who finish traditional preparation programs. The reliance on provisional and alternative credentialing programs that send underprepared special education teachers into classrooms contributes to the high teacher turnover rate.

    This constant churn of losing and rebuilding teaching faculties comes at a price. Several studies have shown teacher attrition can lower student achievement in English language arts and math and hurt the overall effectiveness of teachers in a school. In addition to the academic price, teacher attrition has a huge financial price tag: the Learning Policy Institute estimates it costs approximately $8 billion dollars a year. As teachers cycle through the profession in increasing numbers, districts must funnel huge amounts of money into recruiting and training new educators to replace them.

    The public school system is based on equity. The reputations of the teaching profession and the system rest on their ability to provide stable learning environments to all students. As such, the ongoing special education teacher shortage compromises the entire public school system and tarnishes the profession’s reputation. It creates instability, limits students’ learning opportunities, and results in countless hours of lost instructional time. Additionally, the fact the shortages disproportionately affect marginalized students widens the achievement gap and raises questions of educational equity.

    A Look at the Reasons Behind the Special Education Teacher Shortage

    Several factors are driving the special education teacher shortage. As mentioned, steep enrollment declines in teacher education programs, alongside high attrition for special education teachers, contribute to the shortage. Working conditions, low pay, and insufficient training and support also factor heavily.

    Stressful Working Conditions for Special Education Teachers

    Special education teachers often work in stressful environments. Just like general education teachers, they must deal with the challenges of student poverty, insufficient parental involvement, student absenteeism, and a lack of resources. However, they also must contend with excessive paperwork and overwhelming caseloads without the support they need.

    For example, special education teachers can find themselves in classrooms without aides trying to teach 20 students with different special needs who require customized instruction. On top of that, they may have a caseload of 20 students who require individualized education programs (IEPs), annual testing, and regular meetings with parents and other teachers. Additionally, failing to meet deadlines or submit necessary paperwork can constitute a federal offense, as IEPs are federally mandated, which puts further pressure on special education teachers.

    Click here to read the full article on the School of Education.

    Meet Jonny Huntington – the man set to be the first to solo the South Pole with a significant disability

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    Jonny Huntington Headshot

    By Oli Ballard, Business Leader

    In November 2023 Jonny will embark on a journey to the South Pole from the continental shelf of Antartica, a distance of over 900km. He is doing this alone and will become the first ever disabled person to solo the South Pole.

    As part of the expedition, Jonny has put together a training timeline that starts in July 2022 across the South West Cost Path. The total distance of the coastal path is 630 miles and in total he will burn 5524 calories.

    In 2014, Jonny had a brain bleed that left him paralysed from the neck down on his left side. Following extensive rehabilitation and discharge from the Army, he returned to the world of elite sport as a disabled athlete, competing for Great Britain in cross country skiing.

    Jonny comments: “I’m ready to go and take on this challenge. First and foremost, I’m an athlete. My injury hasn’t changed this. It may cause me to rethink my approach, but intrinsically the challenge is the same- with the right attitude and hard work, anything is achievable.

    “I’m delighted to be working together with Business Leader to have their media support.”

    Business Leader is covering Jonny’s expedition and will be hosting a speaking event with him in the coming months.

    Click here to read the full article on Business Leader.

    How ‘ghosting’ is linked to mental health

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    A woman using her iphone

    By Royette T. Dubar, The Washington Post

    Check your phone. Are there any unanswered texts, snaps or direct messages that you’re ignoring? Should you reply? Or should you “ghost” the person who sent them?

    Ghosting happens when someone cuts off all online communication with someone else without an explanation. Instead, like a ghost, they just vanish. The phenomenon is common on social media and dating sites, but with the isolation brought on by the pandemic — forcing more people together online — it happens now more than ever.

    I am a professor of psychology who studies the role of technology use in interpersonal relationships and well-being. Given the negative psychological consequences of thwarted relationships — especially in the emerging adulthood years, ages 18 to 29 — I wanted to understand what leads college students to ghost others, and if ghosting had any perceived effects on one’s mental health.

    To address these questions, my research team recruited 76 college students through social media and on-campus fliers, 70 percent of them female. Study participants signed up for one of 20 focus groups, ranging in size from two to five students. Group sessions lasted an average of 48 minutes each. Participants provided responses to questions asking them to reflect on their ghosting experiences. Here’s what we found.

    The results
    Some students admitted they ghosted because they lacked the necessary communication skills to have an open and honest conversation — whether that conversation happened face-to-face or via text or email.

    From a 19-year-old woman: “I’m not good at communicating with people in person, so I definitely cannot do it through typing or anything like that.”

    From a 22-year old: “I do not have the confidence to tell them that. Or I guess it could be because of social anxiety.”

    In some instances, participants opted to ghost if they thought meeting with the person would stir up emotional or sexual feelings they were not ready to pursue: “People are afraid of something becoming too much … the fact that the relationship is somehow getting to the next level.”

    Some ghosted because of safety concerns. Forty-five percent ghosted to remove themselves from a “toxic,” “unpleasant” or “unhealthy” situation. A 19-year-old woman put it this way: “It’s very easy to just chat with total strangers so [ghosting is] like a form of protection when a creepy guy is asking you to send nudes and stuff like that.”

    One of the least-reported yet perhaps most interesting reasons for ghosting someone: protecting that person’s feelings. Better to ghost, the thinking goes, than cause the hurt feelings that come with overt rejection. An 18-year-old woman said ghosting was “a little bit politer way to reject someone than to directly say, ‘I do not want to chat with you.’ ”

    That said, recent data suggests that U.S. adults generally perceive breaking up through email, text or social media as unacceptable, and prefer an in-person break-up conversation.

    And then there’s ghosting after sex.

    In the context of hookup culture, there’s an understanding that if the ghoster got what they were looking for — often, that’s sex — then that’s it, they no longer need to talk to that person. After all, more talk could be interpreted as wanting something more emotionally intimate.

    According to one 19-year-old woman: “I think it’s rare for there to be open conversation about how you’re truly feeling [about] what you want out of a situation. … I think hookup culture is really toxic in fostering honest communication.”

    But the most prevalent reason to ghost: a lack of interest in pursuing a relationship with that person. Remember the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You”? As one participant said: “Sometimes the conversation just gets boring.”

    Click here to read the full article on The Washington Post.

    Meet the startup that gives wheelchairs aftermarket superpowers

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    Female legs on an electrick wheelchair

    By , Digital Trends

    As a technology that’s been around for decades, powered wheelchairs aren’t exactly a hotbed of innovation. Aside from some basic improvements in power and battery life, they’ve largely remained the same for the past few years.

    But that’s not to say nobody’s pushing the envelope in this space. A couple years ago at at CES, Digital Trends got an early look at LUCI, an innovative startup that’s aiming to give all the world’s wheelchairs a technological upgrade, retrofitting them with aftermarket abilities like obstacle avoidance, drop-off detection, 360-degree sensor vision, and smart assistant integrations. In 2021, the company had just barely launched and was still getting off the ground, but here in 2022, it’s really starting to make waves — so we caught up with founders Barry and Jered Dean to hear about the company’s journey so far — and also what’s coming next.

    Digital Trends: What inspired you to rethink the way wheelchairs work?

    Barry: It comes from my daughter, Katherine, our family, and our lived experience, frankly. I’m not in a chair, nor is Jered, but my daughter, Katherine, is, and we had a friend of the family who was injured in a wheelchair accident. We wanted to find the technologies and protection to help her have more independence. And as she got older (she’s 21 now), we found it didn’t exist. We’ve found that frustrating, and so we began working to try to solve that problem.

    A lot of people don’t realize that these power wheelchairs cost about as much as a car, and the only safety feature on them is a seat belt. The disability community has been left behind by technology, and it’s sort of this forgotten world. At LUCI, we’ve been working really hard to bring technology to this world, to these users, to our family.

    What surprised you the most when researching wheelchair owner data?

    Barry: The things that probably surprise people the most are the cost of the wheelchair and the weight, which we knew from our lived experience. Also, finding out that twice as many people are getting hurt and going to the ER in wheelchair accidents as they are in motorcycle accidents. There are a lot of wheelchair accidents out there, but everyone sort of assumes it’s just them or they may even think, “it’s my fault.” We had those same thoughts until we started understanding that it wasn’t just a family problem, but rather an industry problem — a safety issue for anyone who’s using a motorized mobile device.

    We wanted to demonstrate safety issues in a scientific way. We worked with a crash test facility that does automotive and aerospace. After the first test ran, the facility engineers started realizing the problem and they called an expert, who said the forces we’re seeing when a person runs into a wall (at full speed on a chair) exceed what’s allowed in cars by the federal government. The person is the bumper in a wheelchair if you think about it.

    Let’s talk features. What makes LUCI different from other mobility devices?

    Jered: So basically, a user can add LUCI to an existing power wheelchair, and it turns a dumb wheelchair into a smart wheelchair.

    We do collision avoidance and drop-off protection, and connectivity to the outside world. Collision avoidance and drop-off protection really are enhanced mobility. They help people navigate safely, and more independently. LUCI allows users to connect to health trackers, Alexa, Google Assistant, and allows them to communicate and share information with their teams. It comes with a mobile application, which can let users take advantage of features and upgrades like LUCI View, which is something that we just launched in April. It allows users to see a 360-degree view of what LUCI sees around the chair.

    Our users are of all abilities. Some can move freely with traditional joysticks, some use alternative drive controls, some even drive with their eyes, so LUCI View can be critically helpful, letting users see what’s behind them and all the way around them, just like on any modern car.

    Barry: In the smart tech world, we’re used to over-the-air updates and a platform approach to technology, adding features that we don’t necessarily have to pay for a new device to get. That’s not something that’s come to this industry in this way. When you think about it, a power wheelchair is probably one of the largest expenditures someone is spending on, yet it’s not connected to the things we want it connected to? We wanted to change that.

    We’re also introducing new technology for seating that is game-changing. As an example, some people use air cushions — 25% or 30% use an air cushion to help mitigate pressure injury. But if that air cushion is not inflated properly, it works against you. So, we have a monitor called LUCI Air that helps keep track of this. It sends alerts or texts if it detects a problem and tracks the data over time.

    There’s also a new technology that we’re working on — just now in beta, so it’s not out yet. It helps people using ramp vans (which are the narrowest ramps) using tagging and robotics technology.

    We’re constantly looking for the pain points, and we listen to our customers and ask ourselves “what are the things that people are asking for, and how do we get those to them as soon as possible?” We initiated the platform, and now we’re able to start addressing those directly.

    Click here to read the full article on Digital Trends.

    Six Flags Is Making Its Parks More Accessible for Visitors with Special Needs

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    Six Flags

    By Antonia DeBianchi, People

    Six Flags has announced its expanding accessibility for park-goers with special needs.

    On Thursday, the theme park company shared some new initiatives that are intended to make the amusement parks more inclusive. One of the new safety programs includes a special “restraint harness” for all Six Flags thrill rides for guests with some physical disabilities, per a release.

    Six Flags, which has over 20 theme parks around the U.S., Canada and Mexico, notes that 98% of rides have an “individually designed harness.” The new innovation has multiple sizes to accommodate park-goers with “physical disabilities such as a missing limb or appendages starting at 54″ tall.”

    “Six Flags is proud to be the industry leader on these innovative programs that allows our guests to enjoy the more thrilling rides that our parks have to offer,” Selim Bassoul, Six Flags President and CEO, said in a statement.

    Along with the new harness, the amusement park company announced that all properties are now accredited as Certified Autism Centers in partnership with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). Park leadership will be trained in helping provide various support elements for guests with autism.

    Included in this initiative are special guides to help visitors plan the day, highlighting sensory impacts of each attraction and ride.

    Six Flags joins other major theme parks that are already Certified Autism Centers, including SeaWorld Orlando, Sesame Place San Diego and Legoland Florida Resort.

    “This offering, coupled with the IBCCES certification at our parks, shows our unwavering commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our company is truly dedicated to this initiative and making sure that encompasses our guests with abilities and disabilities,” Bassoul added.

    Some more features that the parks will offer as Certified Autism Centers are “low sensory areas” to allow visitors who have sensory sensitivities to take a break in a calm environment. Trained team members will also be on hand to assist park-goers, according to the release.

    Click here to read the full article on People.

    Gamifying Fear: Vr Exposure Therapy Shown To Be Effective At Treating Severe Phobias

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    Girl using virtual reality goggles watching spider. Photo: Donald Iain Smith/Gett Images

    By Cassidy Ward, SyFy

    In the 2007 horror film House of Fears (now streaming on Peacock!), a group of teenagers enters the titular haunted house the night before it is set to open. Once inside, they encounter a grisly set of horrors leaving some of them dead and others terrified. For many, haunted houses are a fun way to intentionally trigger a fear response. For others, fear is something they live with on a daily basis and it’s anything but fun.

    Roughly 8% of adults report a severe fear of flying; between 3 and 15% endure a fear of spiders; and between 3 and 6% have a fear of heights. Taken together, along with folks who have a fear of needles, dogs, or any number of other life-altering phobias, there’s a good chance you know someone who is living with a fear serious enough to impact their lives. You might even have such a phobia yourself.

    There are, thankfully, a number of treatments a person can undergo in order to cope with a debilitating phobia. However, those treatments often require traveling someplace else and having access to medical care, something which isn’t always available or possible. With that in mind, scientists from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago have investigated the use of virtual reality to remotely treat severe phobias with digital exposure therapy. Their findings were published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

    Prior studies into the efficacy of virtual reality for the treatment of phobias were reliant on high-end VR rigs which can be expensive and difficult to acquire for the average patient. They also focused on specific phobias. The team at the University of Otago wanted something that could reach a higher number of patients, both in terms of content and access to equipment.

    They used oVRcome, a widely available smartphone app anyone can download from their phone’s app store. The app has virtual reality content related to a number of common phobias in addition to the five listed above. Moreover, because it runs on your smartphone, it can be experienced using any number of affordable VR headsets which your phone slides into.

    Participants enter in their phobias and their severity on a scale and are presented with a series of virtual experiences designed to gently and progressively expose the user to their fear. The study involved 129 people between the ages of 18 and 64, all of which reported all five of the target phobias. They used oVRcome over the course of six weeks with weekly emailed questionnaires measuring their progress. Participants also had access to a clinical psychologist in the event that they experienced any adverse effects from the study.

    Participants were given a baseline score measuring the severity of their phobia and were measured again at a follow up 12 weeks after the start of the program. At baseline, participants averaged a score of 28 out of 40, indicating moderate to severe symptoms. By the end of the trial, the average score was down to 7, indicating minimal symptoms. Some participants even indicated they had overcome their phobia to the extent that they felt comfortable booking a flight, scheduling a medical procedure involving needles, or capturing and releasing a spider from their home, something they weren’t comfortable doing at the start.

    Part of what makes the software so effective is the diversity of programming available and the ability for an individual to tailor their experiences based on their own unique experience. Additionally, exposure therapy is coupled with additional virtual modules including relaxation, mindfulness, cognitive techniques, and psychoeducation.

    Click here to read the full article on SyFy.

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    Upcoming Events

    1. City Career Fair
      January 19, 2022 - November 4, 2022
    2. The Small Business Expo–Multiple Event Dates
      February 17, 2022 - December 1, 2022
    3. Join us in D. C. for Tapia 2022!
      September 6, 2022 - September 10, 2022
    4. The 2022 Global ERG Summit
      September 19, 2022 - September 23, 2022
    5. ROMBA Conference
      October 6, 2022 - October 8, 2022

    Upcoming Events

    1. City Career Fair
      January 19, 2022 - November 4, 2022
    2. The Small Business Expo–Multiple Event Dates
      February 17, 2022 - December 1, 2022
    3. Join us in D. C. for Tapia 2022!
      September 6, 2022 - September 10, 2022
    4. The 2022 Global ERG Summit
      September 19, 2022 - September 23, 2022
    5. ROMBA Conference
      October 6, 2022 - October 8, 2022