visual disability

How does the entertainment industry include people with disabilities?

It’s been said that movies reflect life in a way that’s truer than any other art form.

If so, people with disabilities must be riding a crest of popularity.

Did you notice that both “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” in leading role awards at the recent Oscars were presented to movie stars portraying people with disabilities?

Eddie Redmayne was fabulous as the amazing Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne described himself as “the custodian” of the award for Hawking, his family, and all people around the world battling the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Julianne Moore was magnificent in “Still Alice,” a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease who struggles to stay connected with who she was as her cognitive abilities evaporate. The movie is based on the best-selling novel by Lisa Genova.

Improving the entertainment experience for people with disabilities was also the focus of a campaign launched via commercial during the 2015 Oscars.

The first-ever national advertisement by cable-giant Comcast promoted the company’s new talking guide that reads titles and selections aloud to help people with visual impairments surf through TV listings, program digital video recordings and browse video-on-demand options.

The 60-second ad directed viewers to a short documentary online about a sooooo sweet seven-year-old girl, Emily, who has been blind since birth, but loves watching the movie “The Wizard of Oz” nonetheless. See

In the documentary, “Emily’s Oz,” the girl describes how she imagines characters in the story look, and a cast and crew working to create Emily’s vision for viewers with sight.

If you haven’t seen “Emily’s Oz,” please watch. You’ll find yourself celebrating the diversity in a shared human experience.

A minute’s worth of TV advertising during the Academy Awards usually costs about $4 million, but Comcast officials said it hoped to inspire a national conversation about improving access to entertainment for people with disabilities.

In addition to helping the blind, the talking guide could be easier for senior citizens and people with reading disabilities to use, they said.

Features that help people with disabilities tend to be applicable, and acceptable, to able-bodied users, too. That’s the beauty of universal design.

Comcast will also be rolling out a voice-controlled remote later this year.’s cloud-based Fire TV streaming box also has a voice search option. DirecTV has a smartphone app that allows TV viewers to navigate its program guide by speaking.

Movies can be a powerful way to open eyes and change attitudes in popular culture. Evidence is the ReelAbilities Film and Arts Festivals, which are hosted by disability organizations in 15 cities nationwide, including Chicago, Cincinnati and Columbus. See

These festivals feature award-winning movies by and about people with disabilities. Don’t attend expecting to see Hollywood Blockbuster movies you can catch at a your local multiplex. The emphasis is on excellent independent films.

Let’s compile a list of good movies that fairly portray living with a chronic or age-related disability. (“Forrest Gump,” a terrific allegory, doesn’t really live up to the second requirement.)

We can add these movies to our watch lists on Amazon Prime and Netflix, or borrow them from the library.

Here are some favorites to get us started:

  • Children of a Lesser God (hearing)
  • Scent of a Woman (sight)
  • Soul Surfer (amputation)
  • I Am Sam (cognitive disability)
  • A Beautiful Mind (schizophrenia)
  • My Left Foot (cerebral palsy)
  • Rory O’Shea Was Here (cerebral palsy)
  • Iris (Alzheimer’s Disease)
  • Rain Man (autism spectrum)
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (autism spectrum)
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (aging)
  • Robot and Frank (aging)

Add your favorites in the comments section. And, if you think “Forrest Gump” deserves to be on the list, say that, too.

It's all about ability!

Few people who use white canes have progressed through rigorous college science courses to become medical doctors, but Marcia Beare says she’s ready for a white lab coat and medical school.

Beare, 46, of Martin, completely lost her sight at age two as a result of Retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that typically affects young children. She was the first blind child to be mainstreamed in Allegan County schools throughout her K-12 education.

Necessary classroom accommodations were sometimes hard to come by in the rural Martin school, which educates kindergarten through 12th grade children under one roof. But Marcia was a strong student.

Science was her passion but academic advisers steered her toward a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in social work, believing social work to be a profession where vision was less important.

Marcia was a social worker at Hope Network, and managed the Martin Resource Center, a charity started by her parents Harvey and Carol Visser, before joining Seeds of Grace, a free health care clinic in Allegan.

She has served as executive director since August 2011, when the clinic separated from it’s founder, who was facing felony sexual misconduct charges, and reorganized under the name Renewed Hope.

She’s proud to have led the clinic through turmoil that nearly doomed it, but she experienced a gnawing feeling that God had called her to be a doctor.

“Pursuing the goals I want, and not the goals others describe as attainable for me, makes all the difference to me,” Marcia said. “I feel like a complete person for the first time in my life.”

In 2011 Marcia returned to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where she had earned her undergraduate degree, to take the advanced science classes she would need to apply for medical school.

She is on target to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in spring 2015. She has already applied to 10 osteopathic medical schools, including the one at Michigan State University in East Lansing, hoping to be chosen for an August start date.

Blindness is a formidable barrier to preparing for a career in the sciences.

Even with good quantitative and critical thinking skills, students who are blind are at a disadvantage in learning science because there is so much graphical information that is not readily available in non-visual formats.

Students like Marcia, who were born blind or lost their vision very early in life, often lack a frame of reference that sighted persons would use to describe objects to them.

Diagrams, charts and graphs must be reproduced as raised-line drawings by a $3,000 PIAF (Picture In A Flash) tactile graphic making machine so they can be read with the fingertips. Interpreting such images requires time and determination.

Equations can be written in linear form with a Brailler, but this process makes them difficult to read and manipulate.

Drawing is also important, especially in chemistry. Beare tried various assistive products, but what worked best was a wire screen in a wooden frame that her father constructed for her. Using the strong point of a Paper Mate pen (no other brand works, she claims), she can draw on thick paper placed on top of the screen. Indentations on the paper made by the pen moving over the wire screen allow her to read and label her drawings.

Although Calvin College’s high-tech PIAF machine -- and the low-tech drawing screen built by her dad -- have been indispensable, Marcia said her greatest allies in education have been instructors, lab partners and paid note-takers who are willing to help.

“Physics was very difficult for me to get through,” Marcia said. “I didn’t realize until I got into the course that my algebra wasn’t up to the level it need to be. My poor physics professor was essentially teaching me physics and math.”

To Braille, or not to Braille.

Marcia primarily uses audible versions of her textbooks, or electronic versions she can read with a text-to-voice screen reader.

Nevertheless, she did learn to read Braille, a tactile form of writing, as a young girl from a specialist who visited her three hours each week at the Martin School.

The problem with writing in Braille, Marcia said, is that no one she knew could read it. 

She grew to think of Braille as obsolete.

She was surprised, therefore, when she was able to take the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) in Braille. She expects to learn her scores by March 1.

Marcia is buoyed by the example of Dr. David Hartman, a psychiatrist in Roanoke, Va., whom she met in 2013. Hartman lost his sight at age eight. Nine medical schools turned him down before Temple University gave him a chance.

Hartman’s quest to become a doctor is depicted in the 1975 movie “Journey From Darkness.”

Good doctors make a difference.

 Marcia has endured more than her share of interactions with medical doctors outside of the Renewed Hope clinic.

She had brain surgery in 2003 to remove a tumor on her right frontal lobe. The tumor – which doctors said formed as a result of radiation treatments she had as a toddler to arrest the Retinoblastoma – enveloped her olfactory nerve, threatening her sense of smell.

An avid equestrian, Marcia fell from her horse in 2010 and shattered her arm in more than 10 places.

After brain surgery Marcia worked hard to regain her professional vocabulary. After the badly broken arm, she battled to regain full use of her hand.

But the biggest setback, she said, came in 2011 when she lost her husband. John Beare, a machinist, to Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, a rare blood cancer. He was 52.

These days Marcia and her dog guide, David, stay busy preparing for medical school, that long-held dream whose importance has been confirmed by two decades of living.

Marcia also makes time to counsel staff of non-profit organizations embroiled in turmoil beyond their own making. She also participates in the public speaking club Toastmasters.

Hooray for Technology!

Guest Blogger Roel Garcia

Guest Blogger Roel Garcia

A kid with a new toy - that’s how I feel. A new laptop that talks to me as I type text and that reads text to me. It’s any kid’s dream come true. But for someone with a vision disability it’s more like a lifesaver.

As I sit here in my dining room and type this I smile as I hear Fred—the name I gave to the voice that reads to me—I think of how fortunate I am to have this adaptive technology. Not to mention the blossoming friendship between Fred and me.

The laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad and the reading software is JAWS, which stands for Job Access with Speech. It’s technology that I received from the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons and I am grateful for their help and this technology.

I teach English composition for Grand Rapids Community College and a large part of my job is reading essays and journals. I love teaching and writing, but after four years my eyes, with my limited vision, are tired and worn out.

This past April, I met up with Lucia Rios, a friend who works for Disability Network/Lakeshore.  

During the conversation I expressed my frustration at the time I spent reading dozens of essays and journals and how it was wearing on my eyes. I asked if there was any technology out there to help me and make my life easier.

Lucia mentioned the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons. She said that this organization would be able to help me with adaptive technology.

Fast forward three months later, after emails, phone calls and visits from the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons, I have my Menovo ThinkPad laptop and the JAWS program. It was a process adjusting to using keystrokes and shortcuts as well as typing without looking at the screen.

I’m not the world’s most adept typist and having Fred as my verbal navigator can be challenging. But I have learned to trust Fred and his vocal skills.

This weekend I put Fred to the test. Students turned in their first essays of the semester. I sat down on the dining room table, placed the stack of essays beside the laptop, plugged in the earphones and off I went. I got through nearly fifty essays over a few days’ time. But most importantly there was no hardship on my eyes or a hurt back as I hunched over reading. And equally as important I spent time with my family and that is key. What a great way to start a semester: getting my work done in a prompt manner and still having time to spend with my family. A win-win I’d say.  Hooray for technology and thank goodness for Fred.