A human rights movement ‘disguised as a coffee shop’ employs and empowers people with disabilities

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Bitty & Beau's Coffee shop

By Jonathan Lehrfeld and Ariel Gans, USA Today

Brendan O’Donnell, 43, grinned ear to ear as he took an eager customer’s chai latte order.

“I have a learning disability, and at a very young age, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to walk and talk. Now, look what I can do,” said O’Donnell, who recently began work as a barista at Bitty and Beau’s Coffee, a coffee shop that primarily employs people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

O’Donnell, a former AmeriCorps employee and courier for Massachusetts’ U.S. senators, said that unlike many people with disabilities, he has not struggled to find employment, but he has been treated differently during his job search.

“It’s happened a lot of times in my life that people don’t respect people with learning disabilities,” O’Donnell said. “They think that we’re not the same.”

Just 19% of people with a disability are employed
“Disability” describes a range of physical, developmental and mental conditions. Many disabilities are invisible but still require special accommodations.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers may not discriminate against people with disabilities and must provide “reasonable accommodations” to level the playing field to get a job and perform it successfully.

Most people with disabilities do not have O’Donnell’s success landing jobs. In 2021, 19.1% of people with a disability were employed, compared with 63.7% of people without a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2016, Amy Wright sought to help change that when she founded Bitty & Beau’s, named after her two youngest children, 12 and 17, both of whom have Down syndrome. She intends it to be a place where disabled people can do work they find empowering.

Wright describes Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, which has grown into a chain, as a human rights movement “disguised as a coffee shop.”

Her first shop was in Wilmington, North Carolina. She subsequently offered franchises, and the chain’s 12th location opened in Washington, D.C., on April 30. Wright said she has plans to open 14 more locations around the country.

“What we’re really trying to do here is give people a place to see people with disabilities doing meaningful work, earning a paycheck, making a difference, saving for their futures, and when guests come in our shop and see that, they can’t unsee it,” Wright said.

Shift thinking ‘from charity to prosperity’
Every Bitty and Beau’s Coffee employee receives at least minimum wage, with room for advancement through promotions and raises. Many in the organization’s leadership also have disabilities, according to Wright. Bitty and Beau’s Coffee works with its employees to determine their hours, and give their full-time employees benefits.

Click here to read the full article on USA Today.

Be Your Own Boss: Those with Disabilities Succeed with Self-Employment

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Be Your Own Boss: Those with Disabilities Succeed with Self-Employment.

By Mike Moen, Public News Service

Graduation season is in full swing, and for those with disabilities transitioning to adulthood, traditional barriers still exist in securing employment.

Advocates in Iowa say entrepreneurship serves as a good solution. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said nearly 10% of workers with a disability are self-employed, which is higher than the general population.

Maureen Schletzbaum, operator of Straw Hat Farms outside Des Moines along with her daughter Marissa, who has Down syndrome, sells flowers and fresh produce. Maureen said their business was inspired after Marissa finished high school as a way to nurture their daughter’s drive for independence in a rural setting with few opportunities.

“She has a lot of abilities, and as long as she has the correct support, she can really do a variety of things,” Schletzbaum explained.

She pointed out Marissa excels in customer relations and attention to detail. The Iowa Development Disabilities Council urges young adults and their families to further explore their interests and carry them over into self-employment, especially if they encounter job-search challenges. Vocational Rehabilitation Services is considered a top resource in getting started.

Marissa, who learned horticulture through FFA, said she loves engaging with customers and explaining the varieties of produce they sell.

“Cucumbers, zucchini, cabbage,” Marissa outlined.

Brooke Lovelace, executive director of the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council, said while they still encourage business owners to be more inclusive in their hiring, entrepreneurship is a good avenue for those with disabilities to tap into their creativity and skill set.

“There’s some examples of folks running their own coffee shop, or they like to bake, and so they’re doing a small bakery,” Lovelace stated.

She also encouraged residents to support the entrepreneurs by becoming regular customers.

Click here to read the full article on Public News Service.

Disabled people are ‘invisible by exclusion’ in politics, says Assemblymember running to be the first openly autistic member of Congress

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Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou

By , Business Insider

The halls of Congress have yet to see an openly autistic legislator, but New York Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou could change that.

Niou, who was diagnosed with autism at 22, said she was “surprised” to learn she could be the first openly autistic Congressmember but also said it showed a lack of representation of disabled communities in policy making.

“I think we hear a lot of the first and only sometimes,” Niou told Insider. “While it’s an amazing thing, I think that what’s more important is that there are people understanding that it’s also a really lonely thing. And I think that it really is important to have representation because you need that lens to talk about everything in policy.”

Niou, a progressive Democrat and Taiwanese immigrant who represents New York’s 65th district, announced her run for Congress this year in a high-profile race against Bill de Blasio and Rep. Mondaire Jones.

Niou’s diagnosis became well known after Refinery 29 published an article discussing it in 2020. After parents and kids reached out to her relating to her, she became aware of how talking openly about her autism helped to “drive away stigma.”

Among full-time politicians, disabled Americans are underrepresented. People with disabilities make up 6.3% of federal politicians, compared to 15.7% of all adults in America who are disabled, research from Rutgers shows.

“People with disabilities cannot achieve equality unless they are part of government decision-making,” said Lisa Schur in the 2019 Rutgers report.

The number of disabled Americans may have increased in the past two years. Estimates show that 1.2 million more people may have become disabled as a result of COVID-19.

Niou also said that she knows what it feels like to be shut out of the government process. In 2016, Niou became the first Asian to serve as Assemblymember in her district, a large Asian district that includes New York’s Chinatown.

Disabled people have been “invisible by exclusion from the policy-making process,” Niou said. Her disability status helps her bring perspective to a host of laws from transportation to housing, and she wants to make sure that neurodivergent people have more of a say in the legislative process.

“We’re not considering all the different diverse perspectives, especially when you’re talking about neurodivergent [issues] or when we’re talking about disability issues,” Niou said.

Disabled people are more likely to be incarcerated, are at a higher risk of homelessness, and more likely to face impoverishment.

Click here to read the full article on Business Insider.

Disability Inclusion Is Coming Soon to the Metaverse

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Disabled avatars from the metaverse in a wheelchair

By Christopher Reardon, PC Mag

When you think of futurism, you probably don’t think of the payroll company ADP—but that’s where Giselle Mota works as the company’s principal consultant on the “future of work.” Mota, who has given a Ted Talk(Opens in a new window) and has written(Opens in a new window) for Forbes, is committed to bringing more inclusion and access to the Web3 and metaverse spaces. She’s also been working on a side project called Unhidden, which will provide disabled people with accurate avatars, so they’ll have the option to remain themselves in the metaverse and across Web3.

To See and Be Seen
The goal of Unhidden is to encourage tech companies to be more inclusive, particularly of people with disabilities. The project has launched and already has a partnership with the Wanderland(Opens in a new window) app, which will feature Unhidden avatars through its mixed-reality(Opens in a new window) platform at the VivaTech Conference in Paris and the DisabilityIN Conference in Dallas. The first 12 avatars will come out this summer with Mota, Dr. Tiffany Jana, Brandon Farstein, Tiffany Yu, and other global figures representing disability inclusion.

The above array of individuals is known as the NFTY Collective(Opens in a new window). Its members hail from countries including America, the UK, and Australia, and the collective represents a spectrum of disabilities, ranging from the invisible type, such as bipolar and other forms of neurodiversity, to the more visible, including hypoplasia and dwarfism.

Hypoplasia causes the underdevelopment of an organ or tissue. For Isaac Harvey, the disease manifested by leaving him with no arms and short legs. Harvey uses a wheelchair and is the president of Wheels for Wheelchairs, along with being a video editor. He got involved with Unhidden after being approached by its co-creator along with Mota, Victoria Jenkins, who is an inclusive fashion designer.

Click here to read the full article on PC Mag.

For people with disabilities, AI can only go so far to make the web more accessible

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Woman's Hands Working From Home on Computer while looking at her iPhone

By Kate Kaye, Protocol

“It’s a lot to listen to a robot all day long,” said Tina Pinedo, communications director at Disability Rights Oregon, a group that works to promote and defend the rights of people with disabilities.

But listening to a machine is exactly what many people with visual impairments do while using screen reading tools to accomplish everyday online tasks such as paying bills or ordering groceries from an ecommerce site.

“There are not enough web developers or people who actually take the time to listen to what their website sounds like to a blind person. It’s auditorily exhausting,” said Pinedo.

Whether struggling to comprehend a screen reader barking out dynamic updates to a website, trying to make sense of poorly written video captions or watching out for fast-moving imagery that could induce a seizure, the everyday obstacles blocking people with disabilities from a satisfying digital experience are immense.

Needless to say, technology companies have tried to step in, often promising more than they deliver to users and businesses hoping that automated tools can break down barriers to accessibility. Although automated tech used to check website designs for accessibility flaws have been around for some time, companies such as Evinced claim that sophisticated AI not only does a better job of automatically finding and helping correct accessibility problems, but can do it for large enterprises that need to manage thousands of website pages and app content.

Still, people with disabilities and those who regularly test for web accessibility problems say automated systems and AI can only go so far. “The big danger is thinking that some type of automation can replace a real person going through your website, and basically denying people of their experience on your website, and that’s a big problem,” Pinedo said.

Why Capital One is betting on accessibility AI
For a global corporation such as Capital One, relying on a manual process to catch accessibility issues is a losing battle.

“We test our entire digital footprint every month. That’s heavily reliant on automation as we’re testing almost 20,000 webpages,” said Mark Penicook, director of Accessibility at the banking and credit card company, whose digital accessibility team is responsible for all digital experiences across Capital One including websites, mobile apps and electronic messaging in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.

Accessibility isn’t taught in computer science.
Even though Capital One has a team of people dedicated to the effort, Penicook said he has had to work to raise awareness about digital accessibility among the company’s web developers. “Accessibility isn’t taught in computer science,” Penicook told Protocol. “One of the first things that we do is start teaching them about accessibility.”

One way the company does that is by celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day each year, Penicook said. Held on Thursday, the annual worldwide event is intended to educate people about digital access and inclusion for those with disabilities and impairments.

Before Capital One gave Evinced’s software a try around 2018, its accessibility evaluations for new software releases or features relied on manual review and other tools. Using Evinced’s software, Penicook said the financial services company’s accessibility testing takes hours rather than weeks, and Capital One’s engineers and developers use the system throughout their internal software development testing process.

It was enough to convince Capital One to invest in Evinced through its venture arm, Capital One Ventures. Microsoft’s venture group, M12, also joined a $17 million funding round for Evinced last year.

Evinced’s software automatically scans webpages and other content, and then applies computer vision and visual analysis AI to detect problems. The software might discover a lack of contrast between font and background colors that make it difficult for people with vision impairments like color blindness to read. The system might find images that do not have alt text, the metadata that screen readers use to explain what’s in a photo or illustration. Rather than pointing out individual problems, the software uses machine learning to find patterns that indicate when the same type of problem is happening in several places and suggests a way to correct it.

“It automatically tells you, instead of a thousand issues, it’s actually one issue,” said Navin Thadani, co-founder and CEO of Evinced.

The software also takes context into account, factoring in the purpose of a site feature or considering the various operating systems or screen-reader technologies that people might use when visiting a webpage or other content. For instance, it identifies user design features that might be most accessible for a specific purpose, such as a button to enable a bill payment transaction rather than a link.

Some companies use tools typically referred to as “overlays” to check for accessibility problems. Many of those systems are web plug-ins that add a layer of automation on top of existing sites to enable modifications tailored to peoples’ specific requirements. One product that uses computer vision and machine learning, accessiBe, allows people with epilepsy to choose an option that automatically stops all animated images and videos on a site before they could pose a risk of seizure. The company raised $28 million in venture capital funding last year.

Another widget from TruAbilities offers an option that limits distracting page elements to allow people with neurodevelopmental disorders to focus on the most important components of a webpage.

Some overlay tools have been heavily criticized for adding new annoyances to the web experience and providing surface-level responses to problems that deserve more robust solutions. Some overlay tech providers have “pretty brazen guarantees,” said Chase Aucoin, chief architect at TPGi, a company that provides accessibility automation tools and consultation services to customers, including software development monitoring and product design assessments for web development teams.

“[Overlays] give a false sense of security from a risk perspective to the end user,” said Aucoin, who himself experiences motor impairment. “It’s just trying to slap a bunch of paint on top of the problem.”

In general, complicated site designs or interfaces that automatically hop to a new page section or open a new window can create a chaotic experience for people using screen readers, Aucoin said. “A big thing now is just cognitive; how hard is this thing for somebody to understand what’s going on?” he said.

Even more sophisticated AI-based accessibility technologies don’t address every disability issue. For instance, people with an array of disabilities either need or prefer to view videos with captions, rather than having sound enabled. However, although automated captions for videos have improved over the years, “captions that are computer-generated without human review can be really terrible,” said Karawynn Long, an autistic writer with central auditory processing disorder and hyperlexia, a hyperfocus on written language.

“I always appreciate when written transcripts are included as an option, but auto-generated ones fall woefully short, especially because they don’t include good indications of non-linguistic elements of the media,” Long said.

Click here to read the full article on Protocol.

A specialized video game could help children on the autism spectrum improve their social skills

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Child with Autism spectrum playing video games

By Emily Manis, PsyPost

Are video games the future of treatment for children on the autism spectrum? A study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders suggests they could be. Video game-based interventions may be a cheap, easy, and effective alternative to face-to-face treatment.

Many people on the autism spectrum have trouble with social skills, which can lead to adverse effects including isolation and social rejection. This can put them at a higher risk for anxiety and depression. Interventions often consist of building social skills, which can utilize a myriad of techniques. Previous research has experimented with using video games as a tool for this type of intervention but did not have a control group. This study seeks to address limitations of past research and expand the literature on this topic.

Renae Beaumont and colleagues utilized a sample of 7- to 12-year-old children in Queensland with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Participants had to refrain from other treatment during the duration of the study. Seventy children participated, including 60 boys and 10 girls. They were randomly assigned to either the social skills video game condition or the control condition, which was a similar video game without any social or emotional skill component. (The social skills video game is called Secret Agent Society.)

Parents were asked to rate their children on social skills, emotional regulation, behavior, anxiety, and also rate their satisfaction with the program. Participants completed 10 weeks of their program and completed post-trial measures. Six weeks later they completed follow-up measures.

Results showed that the social skills intervention was successful, with the children in that condition showing significantly larger improvements in their social and emotional skills. These positive results were maintained during follow-up a month and a half later. Parents of children in the control condition noted improvements as well, but not as much as in the experimental condition. This could be due to the increased time spent with the children. The results did not show any significant effects of the intervention on the children’s anxiety but did show a reduction in behavioral issues.

Though this study took strides into understanding if video game-based social and emotional treatment is effective, it also has limitations. Firstly, the parents were the raters and are susceptible to bias. This is shown by the improvements perceived by parents of children in the control group. Additionally, there was a very uneven gender split in the sample, which could lead to skewed results.

Click here to read the full article on PsyPost.

Love Island: Tasha Ghouri becomes show’s first deaf contestant

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Love Island contestant Tasha Ghouri, from Thirsk in North Yorkshire, told fellow contestants she had been completely deaf since birth

By BBC

Tasha Ghouri, from Thirsk, North Yorkshire, gathered the contestants to reveal she had been completely deaf from birth and she wore a cochlear implant in her right ear.

Calling it her “superpower”, Ms Ghouri told them: “It’s just something cool that I’ve got about myself.”

She added: “It doesn’t define me, it’s just a part of who I am.”

On the first episode of the new series, fellow Love Island contestants praised Ms Ghouri for her openness.

Indiyah Polack said: “She was so open about it and I could see in her face that was a big thing for her.

“I just honestly wanted to give her a big hug because I just wanted her to know she’s not alone and we’re all here to support her no matter what she’s going through and we all love her.”

Contestant Luca Bish, a fishmonger from Brighton, said: “Literally, I would not have had a clue, and to say it in front of a bunch of people who you’ve never kind of even met or know… credit to her.”

Hannah Tweddle, a dance teacher who taught Ms Ghouri for about 10 years, said: “She is an amazing person with a wicked sense of humour. She is very kind, very genuine. She is fabulous.”

Of Ms Ghouri’s dancing, she said: “When she was younger, we didn’t really make too many changes for her.

“She could hear enough and with very bassy music she picked up the rhythm and the sound really easily. She was good.”

Click here to read the full article on BBC.

4 Reasons Why Businesses Should Care About Disability Issues

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image of stickfigure with disability to show an image for with Disability Issues

By Andrew Pulrang, Forbes

Disability issues like accessibility, equal service, and employment rights are important to disabled people. But are they really important to anyone else?

Businesses are legally required to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act, state civil rights laws, and sometimes local accessibility standards as well. But there are ways to “comply” with these laws and regulations with only minimal attention and care. And too many businesses still tend to think of accessibility and disability accommodations as semi-voluntary “good deeds.”

Disability advocates have for decades asserted that accommodating disabled employees, properly serving disabled customers, and otherwise taking disability rights issues seriously is “good for business.” But why, exactly? Disability awareness is a subject that slips much too easily into abstraction and vague moralizing. So it never hurts to get more specific by reviewing some basic facts about disability and businesses today.

These four points are pretty obvious, or they should be. But we rarely think of them all together, and seldom really process their implications for businesses.

1. A large percentage of the population has a disability.

According to the CDC, about 61 million Americans have some kind of physical or mental disability. That’s 1 in 4 Americans, 26%. These numbers may be surprising, even doubtful, if the term “disability” only triggers images of wheelchair users. But there are many different types of disabilities, all of which are relevant to discussions about disability rights — for example:

  • Physical impairments, like paraplegia and quadriplegia, Muscular Dystrophy and Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, amputation, and a host of other anatomical conditions that make physical mobility and activities difficult.
  • Sensory and communication impairments, like being Deaf or hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired, or having speech impairments, all of which make everyday navigation and communication difficult.
  • Intellectual and developmental disabilities, including conditions affecting the brain such as Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome,  and traumatic brain injuries, with widely varied effects on understanding, planning, learning, communication, and decision-making skills.
  • Learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and similar conditions, which affect how the brain and senses decode and interpret information like written text and verbal speech.
  • Autism, which encompasses a wide spectrum of differences in sense and perception, that can affect how people interact with their environment and people around them.
  • Mental illness, including a range of conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.
  • Chronic illnesses that can have long-term impairing effects, such as heart or lung conditions, diabetes, and chronic pain.

Click here to read the full article on Forbes.

Being blind and deaf hasn’t stopped carpenter Tony Meli, who makes ornate creations in his workshop by touch

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Blind and deaf carpenter Tony Meli

By Donal Sheil, ABC.Net

Tony Meli may be blind and deaf, but in his personal workshop, he is capable of things that defy belief.

The 54-year-old from Jerrabomberra in southern New South Wales communicates using a special form of Auslan where he holds peoples’ hands while they sign to him.

This enhanced sense of touch is part of what gives Tony his remarkable talent with tools.

After transforming his backyard with landscape structures, brickwork and decking, the carpenter has now turned his hands to making ornate chair benches and fruit bowls.

“When I’m working in the workshop, I feel that I do have more power, I have control,” he said.

“I love it, it just makes me happy.”

While navigating his garden might sometimes prove difficult, he laughs off the challenge as a reality of his everyday life.

“I put stuff in the wheelbarrow, and often I’ll find I’ve taken a path less travelled and I’ve ended up somewhere where I really don’t want to be,” he said.

“So you’ve got to laugh.”

“When I’m working in the workshop, I feel that I do have more power, I have control,” he said.

“I love it, it just makes me happy.”

While navigating his garden might sometimes prove difficult, he laughs off the challenge as a reality of his everyday life.

“I put stuff in the wheelbarrow, and often I’ll find I’ve taken a path less travelled and I’ve ended up somewhere where I really don’t want to be,” he said.

“So you’ve got to laugh.”

Tony was born profoundly deaf and worked as a certified carpenter in Canberra for more than a decade before his vision started deteriorating.

The loss of his vision at the age of 32 forced him to retire early, and caused him a lot of anguish.

“Over time I did notice that my work was changing, and I began to get really seriously concerned and upset, very sad,” he said.

“I didn’t want to just be sitting down in a chair doing nothing, I didn’t want to do that.

“It was really that I wanted to work, I wanted to go to work.”

Tony said none of the procedures he did now had changed much since he lost his vision, but that he instead took extra care to ensure his safety.

He said his faith also provided a daily source of strength and guidance in his work and life more broadly.

“Every day I do pray, and I do ask that Jesus looks after me, and he watches over me,” he said.

“And I thank him at the end of the day. I’m tired, and at night I do thank him for looking after me.”

Tony said being a deafblind carpenter meant he had to have a lot of inner strength, like the pieces he builds.

“I really do have to be strong, strong like a table,” he said.

Click here to read the full article on ABC.Net.

American Sign Language Xbox Channel on Twitch Is a Game Changer for Deaf Gamers: “We Can Finally Participate”

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Guests visit the booth of XBOX during the press day at the 2019 Gamescom gaming trade fair. LUKAS SCHULZE/GETTY IMAGES)

BY Trilby Beresford, The Hollywood Reporter

“To me, accessible gaming, and accessible content in general, means that everybody should have the same experience no matter their situation.”

These words come from Sean McIntyre, whose career in entertainment has included helping to produce live events such as the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and serving as a producer on G4’s Attack of the Show. He’s now the accessibility lead for Xbox Marketing and distribution lead for programming and events. “They should be able to take away what the person next to them does regardless of vision, hearing or language,” McIntyre tells The Hollywood Reporter over email.

Toward one of these goals, Xbox recently partnered with Sorenson, a communications company with an expansive sign language interpreter base, to launch a dedicated channel on Twitch featuring American Sign Language interpretations, strategies and tips to help the community of Deaf and hard-of-hearing gamers actively participate in streams.

In addition to providing interpretations for approximately 25 hours of livestreams a week, the channel will include interviews with game developers, esports tournaments, event coverage, streamer takeovers and spotlights on independent games that never received captioning.

“At Xbox, we are committed to making gaming fun for the billions of people around the world that want to play and create,” Anita Mortaloni, director of accessibility at Xbox, tells THR. “This means continuing to identify barriers to play, making it easier for developers with disabilities to create and be part of the gaming community, and partnering with the disability community to bring their lived experiences into games and how they are built.”

Mortaloni got into accessibility through engineering and a particular interest in inclusive design. During the pandemic, she tells THR that she directly experienced the connection that gaming provided her family “and wanted to make that feasible for as many people as possible to do the same.” That prompted her to lead the accessibility effort at Xbox.

Such a task includes partnering with the disability community to create accessible and innovative experiences. One way that Xbox does this is through the Insiders League — anyone who self-identifies as a person with a disability, as well as allies of the community, can provide feedback directly to Xbox engineering and game development teams.

Another way is through Microsoft’s gaming accessibility testing service, where studios can seek feedback, guidance and support from members of the disability community during their development process. Xbox also offers learning resources for designing and validating the accessibility of a game, and an online course centered around the basics of gaming accessibility and best practices when it comes to hardware, software and assistive technology.

In creating the ASL channel, McIntyre explains that Xbox worked with a team of interpreters from Sorenson — gamers themselves, who understand the intricacies of gaming “lingo” and how its authenticity and accuracy is critical.

One of the features he is particularly excited about is the opportunity to dive into the archives of Xbox titles that predate when most titles started to receive captioning. “There are so many games that those who rely on interpretation have never gotten the chance to experience due to them being audio-only,” says McIntyre, “and it’s all the better that these titles are still fresh today due to so many being available via Xbox Game Pass.”

Game Pass is the brand’s subscription service, in which players can choose a certain plan and receive access to a vast number of studio and independent video game in genres ranging beyond the standard first-person shooters (DOOM Eternal) and racing titles (Forza Horizon 5) to include strategy games (Among Us) and story-driven puzzles (Unpacking), simulation (Stardew Valley), action role-playing (Death’s Door), cooperative cooking (Overcooked 2), seafaring epics (Sea of Thieves), episodic narratives (Tell Me Why), family-themed adventures (It Takes Two) all the way to a calming and charming mail delivery game called Lake.

“I’m really excited for the future and current gamers who are deaf,” Sorenson’s vp of brand marketing Ryan Commerson tells The Hollywood Reporter over Zoom, in a conversation conducted with the assistance of certified ASL interpreter Brad Holt, who serves as an exec at Sorenson. “Especially future generations, because I really know what this means. I understand the implication of something like this. This has huge implications, huge impact.”

Commerson was born into a hearing family, having only one distant cousin who is also deaf. He began learning ASL at 4 months old, with a mother who committed to teaching him and would emphasize the necessity of learning about the world directly through his eyes. “Whatever I saw, that was the information I got,” he recalls. “If it was not written down, if it was not signed to me, I didn’t know it. So, my mom would take time, put the effort in, sitting down and walking me through everything that was going on all the time so I could actually learn about human interaction, the rules of engagement, social cues, cultural norms, learn about pop culture.”

Video games were not a huge part of Commerson’s upbringing, which he partly attributes to the fact that few tools were available for him to communicate properly with other players. These days he’ll get online and play a few games with his young nieces and nephews, which he enjoys.

And he’s fully aware of the landscape: “Gaming in the ’80s and ’90s is not like gaming today,” says Commerson. Back then, he says, gamers were viewed as “weird people, social misfits maybe.” Today, he explains, it’s a way of life. “People learn social skills be playing games. They learn life lessons. They learn how money works. They learn how politics works. They learn the art of negotiating. All through gaming. Gaming is educational. And it’s a new way of educating the younger generations, babies as young as one or two years old. They pick up an iPad and start experiencing life through playing games.”

Click here to read the full article on The Hollywood Reporter.

This 31-year-old woman with Down syndrome launched a cookie company 5 years ago — and has already made over $1.2 million

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iVitto is the CEO and COO of Collettey’s Cookies, a fast-growing bakery start-up that sells cookies online, at 7-Eleven convenience stores and at the TD Garden sports arena in Boston.

By Cory Stieg, CNBC

At age 26, Collete DiVitto had just graduated from Clemson University. She moved to Boston in hopes of working and living on her own — but hiring managers kept saying she “wasn’t a good fit.”

“I was ready to be independent,” DiVitto, now 31, tells CNBC Make It. ”[But] it was hard to find jobs.”

Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, DiVitto — who was born with the genetic disorder Down syndrome — had quiet aspirations to turn her baking hobby into her own business. The process felt daunting, so her mother, Rosemary Alfredo, decided to teach her the basics of getting a small business up and running.

Today, DiVitto is the CEO and COO of Collettey’s Cookies, a fast-growing bakery start-up that sells cookies online, at 7-Eleven convenience stores and at the TD Garden sports arena in Boston. The Charlestown, Massachusetts-based company has made $1.2 million in lifetime revenue since launching in December 2016, according to a CNBC Make It estimate, which the company confirmed.

Collettey’s Cookies is also profitable, the company says — no small feat in a daunting food industry.

The company has 15 employees, many of whom also have disabilities, which DiVitto says is intentional: A challenging job market is an unfortunate reality for the majority of adults with disabilities in the United States. In 2020, only 17.9 percent of people with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

DiVitto says she makes a point to personally train her employees with disabilities, one-on-one. “Creating more jobs for people who are disabled,” she says. “That’s my whole mission.”

Crafting a recipe for a small business
Entrepreneurship runs in DiVitto’s family.

Her maternal grandfather owned a small landscaping business. Today, Alfredo and her siblings each own several businesses. “We’re all kind of sassy and stubborn,” Alfredo says, citing both as valuable qualities when you’re working for yourself and tasked with regularly making big decisions.

Alfredo’s first step to teaching entrepreneurship: walking DiVitto through the logistical steps of determining a legal structure, registering the business, designing a logo and creating a website. Then, DiVitto — who has been baking since age 4 — brought samples of her chocolate chip cinnamon cookies to a local Boston shop called Golden Goose Market.

Perhaps she got lucky, or the desserts were really tasty, or both: The market’s owner, intrigued, ordered 100 12-packs of cookies. “We’re buying 40-pound bags of flour, bringing them into our apartment, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know what’s gonna happen,’” Alfredo recalls.

“I was so scared at the very beginning,” DiVitto adds. But landing the deal, she says, made her feel “amazing and confident. I never, ever felt that way in my entire life.”

The following week, the pair secured space in a commercial kitchen, giving DiVitto more cookie-making space. Altogether, Alfredo says, it cost “less than $20,000” in out-of-pocket expenses to get the business off the ground — with most of that going to kitchen rent.

And then, as Alfredo puts it, DiVitto’s story “went viral.”

DiVitto says she sold 4,000 cookies in her first three months of business, and more than 550,000 since launching. As of Monday, Collettey’s Cookies has more than 40,000 followers on Facebook, and another 28,000-plus on Instagram.

According to the company: DiVitto’s chocolate chip cinnamon cookie — called “The Amazing Cookie” — remains the most popular of the company’s five flavor options.

Paying it forward to aspiring entrepreneurs
When it comes to developing recipes and baking the cookies, DiVitto is the expert and authority. “My mom and also her family, they don’t know anything about baking,” she says. She’s in the commercial kitchen six days per week, often starting work at 4 a.m.

She’s also born much of the weight of growing the company. Alfredo says Collettey’s Cookies has never received outside funding, though not for lack of trying: “That was our biggest challenge, people questioning [DiVitto’s] abilities and the potential success of the company with her as the CEO and COO.”

Nadya Rousseau, the founder and CEO of marketing and PR firm Alter New Media, credits DiVitto’s success to a mix of ambition and direct candor — the same factors, she says, that drew her to work with Collettey’s Cookies pro bono earlier this year.

“I just was struck with how authentic she was, and straightforward,” Rousseau says. “So many people have layer upon layer in front of them and they can’t just speak their truth. She’s always speaking her truth.”

Click here to read the full article on CNBC.

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  1. City Career Fair
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  2. The Small Business Expo–Multiple Event Dates
    February 17, 2022 - December 1, 2022
  3. Business Beyond Barriers Conference + Expo
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