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Sign up now for this cool playwriting class — it’s free!

February 15, 2017CommentsPosted in blindness, writing

Our cast rehearsing my play “Night at the Emerald City Disco” before our performance on August 13, 2016. Photo by Malic White.

Remember all those posts I wrote last summer about the free playwriting classes I took and the two-minute play Whitney the Seeing Eye dog and I performed with the help of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists? Well, they’re offering another physically accessible eight-week workshop from March 13 to May 1, 2017 free of charge at Victory Gardens Theater this year, and when their Communications Manager Will Sonheim asked if I’d help spread the good word, of course I said “yes!” Here’s the course description and information on how to sign up. .

In this physically accessible 8-week introductory class, students will explore core Neo-Futurist tenets of honesty, brevity, chance and audience interaction in order to create and perform short plays in The Neo-Futurists’ unique, non-fiction aesthetic. The class will culminate in a public performance at Victory Gardens on May 1 as part of ‘Crip Slam’ in the Richard Christensen Theater.

The class is open to everyone; however we will strive to maintain a majority of artists with disabilities in the class. link here to sign up and learn more about the class.

Back to me. Will tells me the 2017 class will have largely the same structure as the one I enjoyed last summer. “You all had great feedback,” he said. “We’re working on applying all of that as well.” Take it from me, there is absolutely no theatre experience necessary to sign up for this — I learned a ton and met a lot of very cool people with and without disabilities taking part in this last summer. Give it a try — what have you got to lose?

Anu’s favorite year

February 12, 20173 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing

When I assigned “My Favorite Year” as a prompt for the writers in the memoir class I lead in downtown Chicago, Anu knew immediately which year she’d be writing about: 1969. That’s when she immigrated to America. Her husband Pawan sat in with our class for a few sessions last year, and it was easy to understand how they “kept postal service on their toes” when they lived apart — they are a charming couple. We were disappointed when Pawan didn’t join up again this year until Anu told us why that is: he’s volunteered to lead Wednesday morning English language classes for Chicago immigrants. Now here’s Anu with the back story:

by Anu Agrawal

I have had many wonderful and memorable years in my life, but I would pick 1969 as my favorite year. I got married on May 9th,1968 and three months after that my husband came to America to do his M.S. in mechanical engineering. I stayed back in India to finish my last year of college.

Both of us were quite busy in our studies. Even then it was quite hard to live so far apart from each other. In those days there were no computers, no Skype, no Facetime, no emails, or chatting. Even making a phone call was almost impossible. The only way to communicate was writing letters to each other. So we wrote letters every day and kept postal service on their toes.

Christmas field

The atrium at Marshall Field & Co.’s State Street store.

After nine months of separation, I came to Chicago in June 1969 to join my husband. I was charmed by the beauty of the city of Chicago, especially the lake front. My husband took me to Field Museum, Art Institute, Science and Industrial museum, Planetarium and Aquarium. I was exploring the whole new world.

The most amazing place was Marshall Field and Co. department store, A store so huge, so beautiful. It was a museum in itself. I was totally mesmerized by the chandeliers and the art work on the walls and ceiling. Even today that place amazes me. In India I had seen palaces and forts with this kind of artistic beauty, but not a shopping place.

1969 was the year the whole world was glued to television to see the moon landing. I could not believe my eyes to see the humans walking on the moon. It was not a science fiction movie. It was real. Even today I get the same feelings what I felt at that moment when I think of that experience.

Most importantly,1969 was the year when I started to mature into womanhood. I was out in the world to live my life without the shelter of my parents. I had to grow up. My dreams, my life, my hopes started to take a shape in 1969.

At last! News everyone can be happy about: retired Seeing Eye dog celebrates 17th birthday today

February 8, 201720 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Hanni, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized


  Hanni’s still spry at 17!

Bring out the party hats! Hanni turns 17 years old today. You read that right: seventeen.

Loyal dog followers know that after Hanni retired from guide work, she went to live with our dear friends Nancy and Steven. They started celebrating the big day last Sunday with a visit to nearby Homer Lake–Nancy sends audio messages to my iPhone whenever they head to that forest preserve. The audio reports are a joy to hear — they always come with background sound of Hanni panting after a run or chomping on well-deserved treats. “We’re getting ready for Hanni’s big 17th on Wednesday,” Nancy said in Sunday’s audio report. “It’s a beautiful day, sunny, the geese are out, hard to believe it’s February.”

I guess it should be hard to believe that a 17-year-old Labrador and Golden Retriever Cross can still get out and enjoy a romp at a forest preserve, but I’ve gotten used to it. My first Seeing Eye dog Dora retired at 12 and lived to be 17 years old, and my third dog, Harper, who retired after saving us from getting hit by a car in Chicago traffic, is healthy and robust at age 8. The excellent health of these mature dogs has everything to do with the wonderful friends who adopt my retired dogs, but the care and research the Seeing Eye and other guide dog schools put into their breeding programs deserves a lot of credit, too.

Some schools still train service dogs who’ve been donated from individuals or from animal shelters, but the more established guide dog schools breed their own dogs in order to end up with the unique traits so important to guide work:

  • excellent health
  • intelligence
  • temperament
  • willingness to work
  • ability to thrive on praise

The Seeing Eye breeds Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, Lab/golden crosses and German Shepherds. Decades of research has gone into the Seeing Eye’s breeding program, much of it driven by the fact there is no “perfect Seeing Eye dog.” Dogs of all sorts of temperament, size, strength, speed and energy are necessary to match with blind people who come to the Seeing Eye school with, guess what, all sorts of temperament, size, strength, speed and energy levels. The Seeing Eye web site says their breeding station has “interconnected geometric pavilions, designed so that dogs can see each other and see people enter the kennel, so barking–not to mention stress – are greatly reduced.” Their goal? “To provide a facility most conducive to a positive early childhood experience for the puppies.” I just love that.

And I just love Hanni, too. I’m so grateful the Seeing Eye bred her for me, and so happy to think of her celebrating with Nancy and Steven today. Happy birthday, dear Hanni. Happy birthday to you.

Mondays with Mike: Beth’s online makeover

February 6, 20177 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized, writing

Beth’s posted extensively here about leading memoir classes for senior citizens—and she’s posted the work of some of her students, who have some pretty extraordinary tales.

Coming soon!

Coming soon!

That class has meant a lot to Beth and to the folks who are writing their own stories, so much so that it’s the basis for Beth’s next book. It’s called Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors. Beth’s been working very hard with her editor at Golden Alley Press (which published one of her student’s books, The House in Prague). Beth’s new book will be available this spring.

Golden Alley has also been hard at work on a painfully overdue revamp of Beth’s web site and the Safe & Sound blog. I got a preview of it this past weekend and I love it. For those of you who remember The Jeffersons TV show theme song, all I can say is, We’re moving on up, to a deee-luxe apartment in the sky. Or on the interwebs.

Golden Alley will likely launch the new web site and blog later this week—and here’s fair warning: the first time you visit the new online digs, don’t worry, it’s still us, just in a new place with a brand new look. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Right now, Beth has a web site at bethfinke.com, and this blog, at https://bethfinke.wordpress.com. The new site at www.bethfinke.com will house the blog at www.bethfinke.com. So if you’re a Beth Finke fan, you’ll have one-stop shopping.
  • If you subscribe to the blog, don’t worry, you’ll still receive posts in your inbox. Our Golden Alley Press people are going to bring you along. And if you’ve bookmarked the bethfinke.wordpress.com URL, you’ll get redirected.
Coming sooner! (Like this week.)

Coming sooner! (Like this week.)

Bottom line: Things will look different, and a lot better, but you don’t have to do anything different.

Like I said, I’ve seen the work in progress and it’s a really nice site. The best site. A fabulous site. It’s going to bring coal back. It’s bigly. And Mexico is paying for it!

Just kidding. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

But seriously folks, when you visit the new digs, don’t worry, it’s really us.

250,000 strong

February 4, 201714 CommentsPosted in guest blog, politics, Uncategorized

I am pleased to introduce my friend Rachel Arfa as a guest blogger today. Rachel and I both advocate for cultural accessibility, and we met, guess where? In a theater lobby after enjoying a play. Rachel is profoundly deaf, communicates by talking and lipreading and uses bilateral cochlear implants to hear. A 2017 Fellow in the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership (an organization training Democratic women to run for office), Rachel was there to help other people with disabilities participate in the Women’s March in Chicago on January 21, 2017.

by Rachel Arfa

A volunteer at the Womens March Chicago

Many volunteers helped make the Women’s March in Chicago accessible.

10,000.

10,000 people.

The number seemed daunting. We had just committed to providing accessibility for an event where the number of attendees might be as high as 10,000. Christena Gunther. Evan Hatfield. Risa Rifkind. Anna Cosner. We’d worked together on various cultural accessibility initiatives before, but never on this scale.

But we knew it would be worth it.

The details: Petrillo Stage in Grant Park, Saturday, January 21, 2017. The five of us met weeks ahead of the march to put together a plan to make the rally portion accessible. We wrote access information for the Women’s March website, conducted a site visit to scope out all the access points and determined placement for all the accessibility needs.

One week before the March, the location of the rally was changed.

We scuttled our initial plans, visited the new site at Jackson and Lake Shore Drive and re-assessed what would work.

And then the number of projected attendees grew from 10,000 to 22,000. This was getting big!

And then, the site changed again. Two days before the Saturday March, the location was moved to its final site, Jackson and Columbus. Weather reports were coming in, temperatures in Chicago were predicted to be well above average Saturday, and the final estimate of marchers was projected at anywhere from 50,000 to 65,000.

We met at the site the night before the march to walk through our plan and update the website about accessibility offerings – we wanted marchers with disabilities to know where to find accessibility tents if they needed more information once they arrived.

We were back at the site less than 12 hours later, at 6:30 a.m., to get ready for attendees to arrive. We’d recruited enthusiastic volunteers from Chicago’s theaters, museums and outdoor spaces – all had experience in working to make their own organizations welcoming and accessible to audiences with disabilities.

Rachel and her friends are in there!

Rachel and her friends are in there!

One accessibility tent was set up at the entrance to the rally, and the one near the stage was where attendees could check out audio description headsets and assistive listening devices. The audio describer set up her equipment in a spot with full view of the stage, armed with her stenographer’s mask. The American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters decided on their stage set-up. The screen for Open Captioning was placed on stage at optimal height for viewing. The chairs set up to provide seating for those unable to stand for extended periods of time were moveable, which created easy access for attendees using a wheelchair or mobility device. A DeafBlind participant was provided enough space for tactile interpreting to have access to what was happening on stage. Individuals who experience anxiety or PTSD had enough space to move around and not feel claustrophobic. And, oh yes. An easy route to the accessible port-a-potties was established as well.

The morning sped by as attendees arrived, but when I found the time, I reached out to some of them to ask if they’d be willing to let us know what their experience was like. Here are just three excerpts of many, many testimonials:

  • Bryen Yunashko: This was the first time that I, as a DeafBlind person, was able to fully access a political rally in Chicago. The efforts and constant dialogue by the accessibility team in the weeks following up to the March to ensure DeafBlind access was amazing, conscientious, dedicated and authentic. This event is a shining example for all future events in Chicago and elsewhere.
  • Aziza Nassar: The volunteers and staffers were very accommodating and culturally appropriate. Within seconds of my arrival to the gate, I was greeted by a woman who asked me and my friend (who is also a wheelchair user) whether we needed “dedicated assistance.” She pointed us in the direction of a tent full of volunteers just ready to assist, and another woman walked us down to the accessible viewing area for the rally stage pointing to the wheelchair accessible Port-a-Pottys.
  • Justin Cooper I knew that many of my friends would be in attendance and I wanted to be there to show my support. The accessibility that was provided made me feel like I was welcomed, that I was apart of the March, and that people with disabilities (especially women with disabilities) were included. I give credit to all the volunteers who helped.

These efforts were successful because disability access was integrated into the design of the event, including each time the venue changed. The March organizers recognized early on the need for disability access and supported our efforts after we’d come on board.

During the March it was announced not that there were 10,000 in attendance, not 22,000 in attendance, or even 50,000 in attendance. It was announced at an early point that there were 150,000 attendees. Then, a second announcement came saying there were 250,000 attendees. The march was a huge success, and we’d designed accessibility that was easily adaptable to the scale needed.

250,000 people.

250,000 strong.

This post was originally published on the Easterseals national blog last Thursday, February 2, 2017.