Exceptions Journal

The Art & Literary Journal for Individuals with Visual Disabilities

Author: exceptionsjournal (page 1 of 4)

Community: Being Inclusive of Everyone

By Lana Ruvolo Grasser

A little under 30 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law (United States Department of Justice—Civil Rights Division). Yet as with many other pieces of civil rights legislation, the ADA is still overlooked and under enforced in our country today. Just two years ago, three Seattle men with disabilities sued the city for its lack of accessible sidewalks, which lacked curb ramps and made crossing the street very difficult (The Seattle Times).  On our campus here at MSU, we are a model for accessible pedestrian travel. Our crosswalks have recorded signals to tell pedestrians when it is safe to cross, and our Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities offers interactive multi-sensory maps to assist individuals in learning the topography of campus. Unfortunately, however, even the busiest cities in our country do not have the necessary infrastructure for accessible pedestrian travel. In many cases, as with Seattle, local governments are discouraged from making their cities more user-friendly due to high construction costs. However, if local governments appropriate more funds annually for creating accessible and eco-friendly city spaces, the revamp in infrastructure will be able to be supported and will also provide thousands of job opportunities, potentially even widening the population and thus increasing the tax base to support such projects.

Accessibility should not only be thought of in terms of how one navigates to and through an environment, but also how one navigates within a space. Anyone who has had an injury to the lower half of their bodies knows how hard navigating buildings can be, especially those that have not been updated to the most recent codes that have persons with disabilities in mind. The difference is that we get off our crutches or out of our boots; those who are permanently disabled deal with issues fully-abled individuals take for granted every day. You probably have considered emergency exits in passing before—take the stairs, not the elevator; don’t go out the door if it’s hot or you see smoke coming through, etc. But what about an individual who relies on the elevator? At Wayne State University, Student Disability Services is taking strides not only to make their buildings more accessible, but also to make them safe for all community members. One such effort includes adding special evacuation chairs to assist individuals in getting down and out of buildings. The university is also expanding its thinking by making not just the learning spaces accessible, but also the way individuals get to those spaces, by connecting students and faculty with services to assist in barrier removal (i.e. snow and other natural obstacles). James Cherney, Communications Professor at Wayne State, couldn’t have summed it up better: “Accessibility is more than it states; it’s about diversity and opening doors to all who may want to join and sharing each other’s outlooks on different situations” (The South End).

By challenging our communities to expand definitions of accessibility, we can make every aspect of our environments more inclusive—from commuting to working to standard safety. If you’d like to learn more about improving our communities and designing with accessibility in mind, please read this article from earlier this year.


The Seattle Times


The South End

Intertwining Senses

By Madison Heise

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to smell colors, taste music, or feel a personality? Or to see numbers and letters in vibrant color? This isn’t a weird thing to imagine for everyone – some people, synesthetes, live with those perceptions every day. Synesthesia is a neurological condition where senses are tangled up in the brain so that a sense is simultaneously perceived through one or more other senses. It is estimated that anywhere between one in every 5,000 to one in every 100,000 people have it. This condition has no cure, for neurologists barely have an explanation of where it comes from. It is not debilitating, nor does it have a negative impact on the person who has it. It is actually the opposite – synesthesia makes life just a little bigger and brighter. And I can personally vouch for that.

A painting done by someone with music-color synesthesia.

A painting by artist Melissa McCracken, who has music-to-color synesthesia, paints as she listens to music.

I have synesthesia, and let me tell you, I was shocked when I discovered that not everyone associated colors with letters and numbers. I thought everyone’s “two” was blue, and everyone’s a was pink. About four years ago, I was doing some research on an artist and I stumbled upon the word “synesthesia.” Intrigued, I clicked on it to investigate and ultimately found out that no, not everyone associates colors with words and letters. I read in the English Oxford Living Dictionary that synesthesia means, “The production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body,” which can mean for example, that when one person sees a letter, they automatically associate a color or a personality to it. I automatically identified with this condition and thought it was fascinating. So far, neurologists have found at least 80 different kinds, and after reading about the different forms of synesthesia, I determined that I have grapheme-color, number-form, and personality-color synesthesia. Grapheme-color means that when I see a number, letter, or word, a color is always associated with it. For me, sixes are a purplish, brown color; sevens are bright orange; and the letter s is yellow. Number-form means that I see the names of months and days as if they are floating around me. Depending on the time of year, the word “December” will appear farther or closer to me. For example, in November it seems closer to me; and in June, the word appears farther away. I seem to be able to visualize time as a circle around and in front of me. And lastly, personality-color means that I involuntarily associate a color to people’s personalities. My mom is a hot pink, and my dad is a strong yellow color.

We synesthetes go our whole lives thinking everyone is the same way until we find out what synesthesia is. Synesthesia has inspired many authors, artists, and musicians such as Van Gogh, Vladimir Nabokov, and even guitarist Eddie Van Halen. I feel grateful to be in the presence of so many wonderful artists. It’s definitely something that I feel blessed to have and wouldn’t trade for anything since it can make life so much more beautiful and colorful.

Designing an Inclusive Society Together

By Katie Nicpon

Online and physical spaces, from public to private, are all the result of design. Websites, cities, parks, museums, theaters, homes, apartment buildings, hospitals, sidewalks, transportation systems – all are the result of design. Who designs these spaces? And who are the users the designer has in mind?

Chilmark is a small town in Martha’s Vineyard. Chilmark was founded by a small population in 1600. A genetic mutation resulting in hearing loss was prevalent in this isolated community, and over two hundred years, the number of people born without the ability to hear grew dramatically. By the middle of the 19th century, one in 25 people were deaf, but everyone in the Chilmark community learned and spoke in sign language, regardless of hearing ability. The society was built on a language that everyone used—in schools, government, public and private spaces—all aspects of society were accessible to everyone. There was no concept of “disability” or “challenge.” Those who were deaf were seamlessly part of a society they helped to build, and was built with them in mind. The society that they built gave rise to a larger contribution outside of their own community. It was the universal language developed here that provided the roots for American Sign Language (ASL).

This example challenges the notion of “disability,” and highlights its existence as the result of a social construction. “Disability” or “challenge” is not an actual condition that people are born with or that are part of their bodies/lives. The only challenge people face are in systems that are designed for one group of people, but not all. “Disability” and “challenge” are the result of an environment designed without everyone in mind.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, 56.7 million people, or 19% of the population, have a disability. The alarming reality of this statistic is that almost one in five people in our country have different (and most likely challenging) access experiences with the physical, social, and online spaces that have been put in place.

When we think about disability as socially constructed, it allows us to change the way we design. When we design our spaces with everyone in mind, and we bring people together from all experiences in our society, we can create sustainable spaces that benefit everyone.

In her academic article, “Toward Inclusive Theory: Disability as Social Construction,” published in the NASPA Journal, Susan R. Jones write that:

“Removing the physical, social, and emotional barriers of the disabling environment suggests that ‘Once people with disabilities are admitted inside the human and moral community, the task becomes one of creating an environment where all humans—including those with impairments—can truly flourish’ (Fine & Asch, 1988, p. 16). Rethinking disability from a social constructivist perspective will bring more inclusive theory-building, and broaden services, programs, advocacy, and research.”

On their “About” page, the Inclusive Design and Research Center (IDRC) at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University also frames disability as “a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the design of the product, system or service. With this framing, disability can be experienced by anyone excluded by the design.” With this definition, everyone faces disability in the systems designed as one-size-fits-all. So how can we set up societal spaces to include everyone?

Inclusive design.

The IDRC defines inclusive design as “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.” They also identify steps toward inclusive design dimensions. Although their focus is in digital spaces, I believe that the concepts that they identify can be used toward designing physical and societal spaces as well. Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Understand that each user is diverse and unique. With this in mind, create designs that can adapt to the needs of users’ diverse identities, experiences, and abilities.
  2. Include people with diverse perspectives from the beginning to the end of the design process. Incorporate their perspectives, experiences and feedback into building the designs, and what is built will be inclusive. Also, use accessible design tools throughout your process.
  3. Be aware of the larger context of the design and how inclusion will have a greater impact in moving our society toward inclusion. Users and systems are interconnected, and when designing with inclusion in mind, it has a cyclical positive impact for all users.

What could this look like in our communities? Involving people from all groups to help design the plan for the new community park, or to be part of a focus group for usability testing for a company website, or in giving feedback to help design course curriculum or a lesson plan. Anything that is built to be shared needs to be built by those who will share in it.

Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility statement reads, “There are no limits to what people can achieve when technology reflects the diversity of everyone who uses it.” You can replace the word “technology,” with any word, and you’ll have a powerfully true statement. Especially replace it with anything where people have historically been excluded. For example, “There are no limits to what people can achieve when [government and leadership bodies,] [cultural institutions,] [employment processes,] [health care,] reflect the diversity of everyone who uses it.”

Ultimately, there are no limits to what people can achieve when our society reflects the diversity of everyone who lives in and participates in it. Each of us can be a part of inclusion in our designs and decision-making that will build a society that is accessible for all.

Opening up the Door: Basic ways to turn art into activism

Basic tips from an up and coming activist

By Hannah Warren

When I was growing up, my high school had a small writer’s club that held two annual events each year. Though mainly generalized by students as poetry reading, there were some who made the event a mission to make music, weave words into complex stories, to make their voices vessels of art.  Students from all different groups often came up to display their talents while also letting open a small window for strangers to embrace their aura of emotion.  However, now more than ever, that window needs to be upgraded to a door. Red poster with black and white lettering and the face of a woman with flowers in her hair that says Make Art Not War.Though one doesn’t always need an elevated platform to be heard in order to resist, persist, or even exercise a peaceful belief system, you must be ready to perform in order to promote activism.

In this day and age, everyone needs to understand that for everything and every thought set loose on the world, there is always an underlying impact. So, know your cause. Not every piece of art needs to be affiliated with one, you could write a poem about cats with the meaning simply being that you adore cats and that is fine, but be ready for an assumptive populace to think that all cat lovers love cats the way you do. Individual cat lovers have their own way of showing love to cats but in the time where everyone has come to view group branding as a way to understand a stranger completely, knowing what cause your art (and you yourself) are advocating for makes it that much more powerful for those observing as well as yourself.

Another thing everyone can do to turn their art piece into a work of activism is to collaborate. Find other people that share your calling to a cause, and figure out how to use your collective creative stylings to make into an even bigger event or project. No matter who you are or where you come from, there are people out there who think in similar ways to you and live similar lifestyles. You just have to find them, and then realize that you need to not only show others your passion but also come to terms with the fact that the world must understand and know your cause. Work together to layout the goals of your collaborative art piece and let your collective passion guide you.

The last basic tip on transforming your art into activism today is to listen. Basically, this would be the point in which you’d find out the results. Sometimes the impact is immediate and intense, other times it will inspire on a smaller scale. For those working in the vision impaired community though this model, and others like it, are so important because of the techniques and inspiration you can give to others. By listening to what others say about your work, you can expand upon your art, maybe creating a whole exhibition on your cause, you can learn from listening, understand from it and make yourself that much more stronger. Your activism could lead others to creating art and eventually give them the keys to open up the doors of their emotion until everyone’s door is open.

*image from www.shepardfaireyprints.com


New Research in Visual Impairments and the Ethics Surrounding Treatment

by Lana Ruvolo Grasser

As with any deviation of the body from “normal”, scientists strive to find innovative methods to treat and cure such “abnormalities”. We sometimes refer to them as disabilities, but many individuals, especially those with visual or auditory impairments, don’t actually consider their difference a disability. Yet at the rate science has been progressing recently, it seems as though researchers are increasingly gaining the ability to manipulate the human genome using the CRISPR/Cas system, and therefore open up to doors to millions of patients.

The CRISPR/Cas system is adapted from a bacterial immune system function that protects the organism from invading phage DNA of viruses. In a little over 20 years, scientists have moved from this initial finding to the ability to use CRISPR-Cas9 for genome editing, with the first human trials for cancer patients having begun this past summer in China.

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a heritable genetic mutation that causes the retina to degrade, leading to blindness in ~1.5 million people worldwide. At Columbia University Medical Center and University of Iowa, researchers are now able to repair the genetic mutation in stem cells from patients’ tissues. This provides a personalized approach to treating a visual disability of genetic origin.

The application of CRISPR in visual disabilities at this point would be limited to divergences of genetic origin, so these therapies would not be of assistance for those who have lost vision due to injury. However, this treatment provides a new horizon for sensory deprivations. Yet the availability of such a treatment poses multiple ethical debates: what can be done to ensure that all individuals of all socio-economic status have access to such a treatment should they so choose it? Who should make the medical decision—should parents be allowed to decide for their children, or should children have the right to make this decision for themselves?

As science progresses, we must keep an open mind and heart, and redefine our definitions of normal. We all see the world with a different perspective and a different range of ability. Throughout the research process, it is always important to keep in mind the human beings who will undoubtably one day be affected, and consider all perspectives in every light of these discussions.

Molding a New Legacy in Art

By Lana Ruvolo Grasser

Creative works stem from the heart and imagination of the individual and begin to take shape through the dexterity of the hands. Putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, or palm to clay, endless works of various art forms come into being. Yet such works are typically experienced by only one sense, and touch is commonly neglected. The sense of touch is one that sighted individuals typically neglect – most of one’s tactile environment is familiar and thus interpreted subconsciously, with only noxious stimuli such as a hot stove or a thorny bush drawing one’s attention. Persons with visual disabilities, on the other hand, are highly aware of the sense of touch and use tactile perception to navigate and interact with the world. Touch can evoke so many memories and emotions – the feel of a loved one’s hands, the careful knits that grandma wove together to produce a blanket, the grainy sand enveloping one’s toes like it did back at the old lakehouse. The sense of touch is one that should not be taken for granted, and should, in fact, be employed when experiencing art.

Tactile artwork and the use of touch revolutionizes the museum experience for individuals with visual impairments. Unfortunately, the ability to touch is usually restricted. John Glick’s A Legacy in Clay exhibition opens up the door to touch, with an entire section of the exhibit open to interacting with the artwork. Glick’s handcrafted clay tableware was created with the intention of purposeful use, and as such visitors are encouraged to interact with the artwork, displayed on short tables that accommodate all heights and ages. Often, Glick creates his own tools, including those for imprinting designs onto his pieces before they are fired in the kiln. Some of these tools were also on display, so that one could feel the patterns molded into other clay pieces in the exhibit that were not available to touch. The exhibit states that “By handling the works, visitors can better appreciate both the process of crafting the objects and the experience of using them.”

Clay works certainly seem conducive to tactile interaction in an art museum, but how can works such as paintings and photographs be experienced in the same way? Many museums are investing in 3D printers that would have the potential to recreate an artwork into a multi-dimensional piece that can be touched. One may also ponder how the sense of touch may be incorporated into other art forms, such as music and dance. Providing the opportunity to audience members to touch practice instruments or be assisted by a dancer to be molded into a few positions key to the pieces, may add an element of touch that brings together artist and audience member. And of course, directly practicing an art form itself allows one to fully take part in that creative work.

As accessibility practices become better integrated into existing infrastructures, so too must they become incorporated into the pleasurable indulgences of the masses, including art. The increasing popularity of art that is made to touch is one such way to do so and opens the door for further creative solutions.
The next time you are at an art museum, don’t be afraid to please touch the artwork.


John Glick’s A Legacy in Clay is on display at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, MI until March 12, 2017. Event Details

An up close image of a plate and a tool that imprints a design.

An up close image of a plate and a tool that imprints a design.

Brandon Madden interacts with a clay cup by artist John Glick

Brandon Madden interacts with a clay cup by artist John Glick

Three tables of tools and pieces crafted by artist John Glick that are available to touch

Three tables of tools and pieces crafted by artist John Glick that are available to touch

Details on the Touch Gallery, featuring John Glick's clay pieces, at Cranbrook Art Museum

Details on the Touch Gallery, featuring John Glick’s clay pieces, at Cranbrook Art Museum

Ann Bliss on Her Essay, Visual Brain Evolution

By Ann Bliss

Here is a little background about my essay.

When I wrote Visual Brain Evolution, I was in the throws of self-healing my blindness. I was so tuned into the Divine wisdom that was surrounding me that I would go to any length to receive all energies and messages from above. During the process of rebuilding my visual cortex, my body was divinely possessed. It would be tossed around so that I would see the sunlight streaming in through the windows and the overhead lights in the stores. I was obsessed with vision recovery as I came to call my evolution.

However, my reality was shaken when I had an “aha” moment. I was not seeing here in the third dimension but in a higher realm! The realm where all possibilities are manifested and embraced.

My job now is to somehow bring this higher reality down to my physical body. Stay tuned . . .

Infinite Hope: A Self-Healing Guide Inspired by My Journey through Blindness into Inner Vision” was a result of these powerful forces.

I am always available to help others on their journey. I can be reached at annbliss1@gmail.com for questions or comments or to obtain a word doc version of my essay.

Peace to all!


Information and Inspiration

By James Salsido

Kalamazoo Public Library (Image from http://www.dmaa.com/)

Kalamazoo Public Library (Image from http://www.dmaa.com/)

I stayed in Kalamazoo at two different points in my life, and the first thing I did when I had free time was find out where the local library was. The attached image is a picture of that library. I love the combination of the curves and the straight lines and all of the glass windows that make up the exterior of the building. The lines speak to me of order and organization while the curves remind me of the way stories and poems can start in one place and end up somewhere completely unexpected. The combination of the two reminds me of the complex nature of art and, of course, of life in general.

I love libraries. I think they are some of the most amazing places on the planet. They’re nexus points for every possible topic you could ever dream of researching, whether you are looking for entertainment or education. I have never been to a library where there was not at least one other patron present at the same time.

I used to live in a small town with a library that sat between a party store and a hardware store. There was barely enough room to move around in the aisles. I’ve also been to libraries so large that I never really had the chance to explore them entirely. One of the most amazing buildings I’ve ever been in was a library in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when I was looking for something to read during my stay.

I wish I could still read books in print the way I could years ago. The beauty of libraries, though, is that they are not just for people with normal vision levels. Audiobooks are a major part of my life, and I started reading them when I found a whole section of them in my local library. The first ones I read were on audio CDs. Later I found a section of audio books that had been recorded onto small devices that required only a battery and a pair of headphones to access them. I also found that some libraries will actually mail audiobooks to their patrons as well.

Libraries have helped me in many ways over the years. I have always loved to read a lot, so I rarely go more than a week without accessing one kind of library or another. I go to my local library at least once or twice a month in person to check for new and interesting audio books. I also receive an audiobook or two in the mail on a fairly regular basis through the state library system. I have gone to the local library to research various topics that have come up over the course of my life as a writer of science fiction and supernatural fantasy, and I have learned a lot from the many reference books and documentary films I have examined.

I have noticed that many people prefer to work on projects of all kinds in the library because of the peaceful and quiet environment that it provides. Even though I live alone and can have a quiet atmosphere whenever I need it, every once in awhile I find it refreshing to take whatever research or writing projects I have to the library just for a change of scenery.

I also have been to a number of events at the library over the years that have been very entertaining and informative experiences. I have participated in a handful of book signings and sales at my local library, which were very exciting for me as a writer and as a fan of books. I was able to meet and talk with other writers and readers that I normally may have never met.

As I said, I am interested in the supernatural. A local paranormal investigation team does a presentation on the topic once a year at my local library, and I have attended the last three presentations in a row. The evidence and equipment displayed in these presentations has always fascinated me, and I hope someday to become an investigator myself once I have the proper equipment and resources with which to do so.

I have learned a lot thanks to the services provided by libraries over the years. They have made life much more pleasant for me by providing a steady stream of reading material for my enjoyment. For that I will always be grateful.

The Audio Description Project: Making Visual Arts Accessible

By Jordan Sickon

Live theatre productions, Oscar nominations and 2015 Blockbusters, all made accessible with the help of a hand-held device and some headphones…

Headphones and an empty disc case

Headphones and an empty disc case

Though it may be hard to believe an element of technology now so imbedded in modern culture could have a definite starting point, Audio Description emerged in 1974 as a simple idea. From the beginning of its concept to the signing of the 21st Century Communications and Visibility Act in 2010, entertainment all over the country has become more accessible due to Audio Description. This contraption makes live performance or any other kind of visual media easier to follow for those who are blind. With the use of Audio Description, stage directions and small details are presented to the listener, filling in what could be missed during the show.

Continue reading

Turning Focus

By Lana Grasser

The incredible feat of a ballerina successfully completing 32 fouette turns requires strength, balance, and focus – not only mental but also physical. In order to maintain one’s position and prevent dizziness, a dancer selects a point straight out in front of visual field as his or her “spot”, the focal point he or she must always snap the fixation back to on each revolution. This one visualization is everything to the dancer.

In life too we must maintain a certain focus, keeping in line with our goals and aspirations. Sometimes, however, we fall off balance and lose perspective. I had such an experience last Thursday after a major snowstorm hit East Lansing. Frustrated that I still had to attend all my classes, including an 8:00am, while the city was under a state of emergency and the sidewalks were completely blocked in some locations, I felt the lazy pull of wanting to skip class. Unfortunately, missing an organic chemistry lecture means missing about ten new reactions so this certainly could not be an option.

As I mounted my bike and pushed through the snow, I remembered Beth – a young woman I had met at a leadership conference back in high school. Beth talked to us about how shocked she was as a foreigner in America to see how ungrateful and apathetic students were towards their classes and education in general. She told us that in many countries outside of the United States, getting to a school might mean walking for half the day through extreme weather conditions and even traveling along dangerous roads. However, education means everything to those students – school is the place where they can come to get a meal, learn, and have the opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their families. Suddenly, upon this recollection, I had found my “spot” again. My balance was restored, and I was off to make the most of my education.

Benjamin Yonattan captured the hearts of millions of Americans last summer on “America’s Got Talent”. He too reminds me to remain focused and grateful, yet he cannot physically focus himself. Benjamin is a dancer who is losing his vision to retinal dystrophy, a genetic condition that he was born with. Over time, the light-sensitive layer on the back of the eye degenerates so that visual signals can no longer be interpreted and transmitted to the brain. Upon diagnosis, it seemed as though Benjamin’s dance career was over. Yet he has relearned to balance and uses his pinhead sized field of vision remaining to spot. Even once he is completely blind, Benjamin is determined to continue dancing and believes that there is no reason why he should not be able to. He has kept focus, and he has maintained his “spot” even though it has slowly faded away from his physical sight.

As your daily trials and tribulations flow in and out like waves on the seashore, and as you find yourself at a turning point in life, try to just keep spotting like a dancer and embody the gratitude and perspective Beth and Benjamin remind us to have.  No matter what comes your way, with strength, balance, and a good spot, nothing can throw you off as you turn through life.

Watch Ben’s Performance!

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