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Wanda appearing with me at Harold Washington Library: Tuesday, October 17, 2017

October 4, 20173 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, politics, public speaking, visiting libraries

Mark your calendars: Ninety-five-year-old writer Wanda Bridgeforth is appearing with me for an author talk at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago Tuesday evening, October 17, 2017 at 6 pm.

Photo of Wanda with Hanni, Beth's former Seeing Eye dog.

That’s Wanda years ago with my second Seeing Eye dog Hanni.

Stories by Wanda and other writers in my classes intertwine with mine in my new book Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors,” and she’s still trying to decide which essay from the book to read out loud at our library presentation. One thing you can count on, whatever Wanda decides to read, she’ll be bringing a slice of Chicago history with her.

Wanda’s father and her uncles were among tens of thousands of southern blacks who flooded into Chicago during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, and her essays in Writing Out Loud describe Bronzeville, the segregated neighborhood she grew up in, as a “city within a city.” Overcrowding, joblessness, and poverty were  facts of life, but so was literature, jazz, blues, and gospel music.

So maybe Wanda will choose to read an essay about her formative years at DuSable High School. DuSable opened in that “city within a city” in 1935, 15 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Wanda was a freshman at the new school that year and says DuSable was built to keep schools segregated. “We were blocked in,” she writes, describing the boundaries. “We knew not to cross Cottage Grove, 51st Street or the train tracks. That was our neighborhood, and DuSable was our neighborhood high school.”

When DuSable first opened, some neighborhood parents applied for permits to get their children into nearby White high schools. “Their parents didn’t think a Black school could be any good,” Wanda writes, adding that she felt sorry for those kids. True, DuSable classes could be very crowded — Wanda remembers 50 or so students squeezing into classrooms. “But at those other schools, if you were Black and you wanted to be in a play, you had to be a maid or a butler,” she writes. “At DuSable, we did everything, we were in all the plays, we wrote the school newspaper. We were having such a good time at DuSable.”

Wanda was at DuSable between 1935 and 1939, walking the hallways with jazz great Nat King Cole, comedian Redd Foxx, singer Dinah Washington and John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. “Nat Cole added King to his name later,” Wanda once told me with a laugh. “You know, like Old King Cole!”

The library Wanda and I will be appearing at on October 17 is named for another famous fellow graduate of DuSable High School. Harold Washington, the first African-American to be elected mayor of Chicago, attended DuSable with Wanda, too. Look for us at 6 pm on Tuesday, October 17 in the Authors Room at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State Street, right in downtown Chicago.

This post is the first of a series where I’ll be summarizing different essays Wanda is considering — to find out which one she finally decides to read, you’ll have to come to the presentation October 17!

Mondays with Mike: Giving Monday a bad name

October 2, 20171 CommentPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics

Last week I was at the 12th Annual North American Passive House Conference in Seattle. The event is produced by the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)—I’ve been a board member or employee of PHIUS off and on for the better part of 15 years now.

Every year, the event brings together building science geeks to talk about how to make buildings—houses, apartment buildings, hi-rises, schools—more efficient, more comfortable, more durable, and less expensive.

I’m here to report there’s a lot of reason for optimism. New materials, new discoveries, and an exponential growth of renewable energy (wind, solar) that is accelerating in much the way that computing power has grown under Moore’s law. We’re getting more for less all the time.

On the human side, the veteran architects, builders, and engineers who’ve seen it all mixed with brilliant 20 somethings who are more than ready to carry the technical and advocacy batons. These people are working hard to advance the ball. And to not take their eyes off the ball.

Photo of John and Elise.

It was a delight to see a couple Printers Row pals.

The icing on the cake was sitting in a sandwich shop the day I got into Seattle when a familiar face walked in, slack-jawed at my presence. It was John, a stalwart Hackney’s employee who lived in our building in Chicago before moving to Seattle. He was on his way to work at The Elysian, and when I stopped by to see him that night I was pleasantly surprised to learn that another Hackney’s-to-Seattle transplant was also working at the Elysian. It was a total joy seeing John and Elise.

I got home late Sunday night. unloaded my laptop and some other stuff, and Beth and I headed out for a beer across the street at Kasey’s to debrief one another about our last few days. Once home, I was dead tired and I didn’t bother to open my laptop, I just put my phone on charge and didn’t set an alarm.

When I awoke early this morning I went to get a glass of water. Beth said, “Don’t look at your phone.” I told her it wasn’t even on. “She said good, something bad has happened. You’ll find out soon enough.”

That’s how it’s gotten. I managed to grab another hour or two of sleep.

And then I woke up. All in all, a horrific Monday if you are:

  1. A Tom Petty fan
  2. An American
  3. A human being

And a tragic Monday if you were at the scene of the slaughter in Las Vegas. More often than not I skip the now ubiquitous video that’s always available from these things. This time I didn’t. And to hear the rapid staccato fire while music was still playing, I don’t know.

I don’t have anything against guns or gun owners, per se. I just don’t know how owning weapons like the ones used in this most recent horror has anything to do with the Second Amendment. There is no absolutely unqualified right in this country—“falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” for example, isn’t protected speech.

The NRA has very deliberately courted country music stars and fans. A fair number of the victims of Sunday’s insanity likely were NRA members.

I wonder how they’d answer the question – “What do military weapons have to do with the Second Amendment?” – today. I think they, and every single member of the NRA, owes their fellow Americans an answer to that question.

It’s an honest question, and I’ll wait for answers.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot to do. Back to work.

Blind leading the blind: an actress who can’t see gets the Audrey Hepburn role in Wait Until Dark

October 1, 20177 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind

When Chicago’s Court Theatre produced Wait Until Dark on stage nine years ago, they asked me to be a technical consultant.

Photo of Karina Jones in a scene from Wait Until Dark.

Karina Jones in Wait Until Dark.

In the movie version, Audrey Hepburn played the lead: a blind woman terrified when a psychopath breaks into her apartment. In the Wait Until Dark chapter of my new book, Writing Out Loud, I explain that while I have no expertise in anything psychopathic, “I do know what it’s like to be newly blind and married to a man who can see, and that’s what the cast wants to know about. How can I say no?”

I loved being a tech consultant, but when I bragged about the actress playing the Audrey Hepburn character coming over to watch how I move around our apartment and get errands done, or when I was with friends and shared some of the questions I’d been asked by the handsome actors (why picture them otherwise?) on the set, those friends would inevitably ask, “So why don’t they just have you play the part?”

The easy answer was that I am not an actor and don’t know a thing about acting. The more complicated answer was that back then, even if I’d studied acting, I wouldn’t have been considered: actors with disabilities were not getting many roles on stage or in Hollywood nine years ago.

But that’s beginning to change. last year I wrote two posts about actors with disabilities scoring major parts:

And then there’s four-foot-five actor Peter Dinklage, who won an Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones, And now actor Mickey Rowe is one of the first actors with autism to play a character with autism on a major professional stage: He’s playing the lead role in the Tony award-winning play Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Indiana Repertory Theatre before it opens at New York’s Syracuse Stage October 25th.

But wait. There’s more! Nine years after my debut as tech consultant, for the first time ever, an actress who is blind has debuted as the lead in Wait Until Dark, too! I got in touch with British actress Karina Jones after she landed the Audrey Hepburn role. Turns out she’d lost her sight as a young teenager, and she shared a link to an interview to share with you all that gives more information on her background –including her time as a circus tightrope walker and trapeze artist!In that same interview she expresses her surprise about her part in Wait Until Dark: “It’s 2017 and yet I am the first blind actress to take the role of a blind person in a play that has been around since the 60s. Why?” More from the interview:

“Producers and directors should give disabled roles to disabled actors. A blind person wouldn’t be auditioned for, say, Desdemona – we’re not there yet – but with roles that are written as disabled or impaired I think it is only fair that they should be played by disabled actors. In this play I’ve totally got an advantage [over a sighted actress] because I’ve got a lot of shorthand. I’ve got a head start because I have real insight into the character. Playing this part is, for me, an amazing thing; a real push forward for equality. It’s brilliant.”

The play opened at Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne on August 24, 2017 and is on a UK tour now. They’ll be in Exeter next week,and the tour continues until December. For tickets and more information, visit www.waituntildark.co.uk”.

This able-bodied dog lover makes a great case against faking service dogs

September 28, 20175 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Whitney
WhitneyPortrait

Whitney, upon graduation from The Seeing Eye.

I’m blind, my Seeing Eye dog Whitney guides me safely wherever I need to go, and in the past I’ve been pretty clear here on how I feel about people in America who pose as someone with a disability to get their dog in where pets aren’t allowed. Most blog posts chastising dog owners who do this are written by someone like me, who has a disability. So it was refreshing to read this compassionate article called Stop Faking Service Dogs by a dog lover who writes for Outside online magazine. Reporter Wes Siler doesn’t have a disability himself, and in his article he questions why others like him think it’s okay to fake it:

“Look, I get the desire to bring your pet along with you everywhere you go. My dogs are as important to me as my friends and family. The first criteria my girlfriend and I apply to where we eat, drink, and travel is whether our dogs can enjoy it with us. But out of respect for the needs of disabled people, for the incredible work that real service dogs perform, and for the people managing and patronizing these businesses, we will not lie. We do not take our pets places where they’re not welcome. We never want to compromise the ability of a service dog to perform its essential duties.

Siler describes what qualifies a dog as a service animal in a way an average person can understand. He explains that the Americans with Disabilities Act limits the definition of a service animal to one that is trained to perform work or a task that helps a person who has a disability, and dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. “So, while a dog that is trained to calm a person suffering an anxiety attack due to post-traumatic stress disorder is considered a service dog,” Siler writes. “A dog whose mere presence calms a person is not.”

Still, people claim their therapy and emotional support dogs qualify. In his article, Siler quotes a man named Randy Pierce describing a flight he went on once with his guide dog Autumn. The airplane also had an unruly emotional support dog on board who barked incessantly during the entire trip. “My dog was not barking back, but the barking was changing her behavior, and that makes it harder for her to do her job, she loses her focus,” Pierce said, noting that he is over six feet tall. “If she loses focus, I’m more likely to hit my head on an exit sign or a doorway or, if we’re on a street, maybe even step out into traffic.” Again, from the article:

“Pierce’s dog, Autumn, completely ignores other dogs, doesn’t beg for food, sits quietly for the duration of long flights, and generally minimizes her impact. That’s the result of lots of money—service dogs cost upwards of $20,000—and thousands of hours of training. Pierce, for example, has developed a routine with Autumn that involves the dog communicating when she needs to go to the bathroom, and then doing so in a specific orientation to Pierce that enables him to easily find it and collect it in a baggie. A true service dog is essential to its human partner’s well being, as well as a huge financial investment that other untrained dogs in public places put at risk.”

It should be noted here that for the most part, the financial burden to train a majority of the dogs who help people with visual impairments here in the USA lands on the non-profit organizations that train the dogs, thanks to the generous donors who support them. The cost to train some service dogs to help people with other disabilities can fall directly on the person with the disability, though.

The article refers to a study conducted at the University of California at Davis that says between the years 2002 and 2012 the number of “therapy dogs” or “emotional support animals” registered by animal control facilities in the state of California increased by 1000 percent, and that the increasing presence of emotional support dogs on flights and at businesses is creating a backlash that impacts true service dogs (Pierce said on his flight with guide dog Autumn he overheard a flight attendant telling her colleague that she “wished they wouldn’t allow service dogs”).

I hope you’ll read the entire article. Journalist Wes Siler puts a lot more oomph into the story than I can fit into this short blog post, and it’s gratifying to hear the argument against faking coming from an average dog lover’s point of view.

Mondays with Mike: A good, if difficult, read

September 25, 20174 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics, Uncategorized

Awhile back I posted about Hillbilly Elegy, a book that has gotten a lot of attention and raised a lot of hackles. Author J.D. Vance tells the story of his upbringing in Ohio, and of his forbears and other family members’ roots in Appalachia.

The people Vance describes initially thrived in industrial Ohio, but eventually hit hard times once the rust belt started rusting back in the 70s. A lot of ink’s been spilled over how his book might explain why some Americans support Donald Trump. That Vance’s Elegy explains the newly fabled forgotten white working class’ alienation and resentment, particularly toward a group that they (cued by Roger Ailes) describe as elites. Liberals. Globalists. Davos Conference goers.

The First White President is just one essay from Coates’ new collection.

I liked the book and found it valuable even though I don’t agree with all the author’s conclusions. I thought it was a well-written description of one particular part of the American experience, but if you ask me, all the political pundits theorizing that the election was all about a disenfranchised white working class are way off base. A factor probably, but THE factor, no. (And it should be noted, Vance didn’t write it to explain about the election, but to tell his family’s story.)

I think there were a lot of factors, and some are horribly ugly and difficult to confront and own up to. Which brings me to a loooonnnnng piece in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates called The First White President. Coates argues very compellingly that Trump’s victory was about a standing effort—sometimes overt, others more subtle—to enforce white supremacy.  (There’s also a really good rebuttal by one of the people Coates took to task that is also online at The Atlantic.)

I think it’s a strong piece—even though, or maybe because—it made me squeamish and defensive sometimes. My disagreement with it is that Coates believes it’s only about race, and he excludes other factors (but I think that probably helped him make his point).

So, as with Elegy, I didn’t agree with everything in The First White President; but it helped me see what Coates sees, and what the world looks like to many black people.

I hope you’ll read it, too, and that like me, even if you don’t agree with everything, you’ll learn something.