Microsoft Seeing AI: A Quick First Look at this Groundbreaking iOS

Microsoft Seeing AI

by Bill Holton

Source article: AccessWorld Magazine

Scenes: This is a beta feature, destined to improve with time. Snap a photo of your environment and Seeing AI will attempt to describe it. “A street corner with signs,” for instance, or “Two dogs and one person on a lawn.”

By now, you have likely heard about the new Seeing AI app from Microsoft. It’s free, and this groundbreaking app combines the functions of nearly every image and product recognition app that uses your iPhone or iPad’s camera and more.

In future isMicrosoft Seeing AIsues of AccessWorld, we plan to take a much deeper dive into this new offering, which Microsoft has rightly dubbed a potential “Swiss Army Knife of tools for visually impaired people.” We’ll describe where Seeing AI came from, and, more importantly, where it’s heading. In the meantime, just in case you have not heard about Seeing AI, here’s what it can do:

Read Text: Seeing AI includes two text OCR modes, Short Text and Document. The Document mode works like many text recognition apps, such as KNFB-Reader. In Document mode simply aim your camera toward a document page and follow the prompts which will alert you as to which edges and corners are not yet visible. Seeing AI will instruct you to “Hold steady,” and then automatically snap a photo and send it to Microsoft servers for recognition. Note: You can also take a picture manually by pressing the “Take Picture” button. The app does an excellent job of maintaining formatting, so you can use VoiceOver’s Heading, list items, and other quick navigation gestures. The recognition is slower than KNFB-Reader because the OCR engine is not onboard your device, but it seems to be just as accurate.

The Short Text mode turns on your camera and searches for printed material continuously. When it finds printed text, it translates it into machine text, and then speaks it aloud. The Short Text mode is not as thorough and accurate as Document mode, but it makes going through recipe cards and the mail a breeze! It can also be quite useful when searching for a conference room number, or when your computer stops talking, as it will identify text on PC monitors. It’s a must-have if you have a messy desk and want to get organized. Using Seeing AI it’s possible to go through a stack of familiar but disorganized papers in only seconds per page. Because Seeing AI is continuously scanning for printed text, the app often interrupts itself with new text. One way to prevent this is to move the device up and away once it begins speaking, so it will not spot new text and move on.

Scan Bar Codes: Seeing AI does perhaps the best job of accessible mobile device bar code scanning around. It can be problematic, locating the bar code on a can or box, but Seeing AI beeps when it spots one, and as you move the camera closer the beeps grow faster until the app snaps the code and identifies that can of corn or box of cake mix. There is also a “More information” button, if the barcode database includes it, with product details such as nutrition labeling, calorie counts and even cooking instructions. It can take a few seconds to locate the bar code and snap an image. It’s by no means as swift and easy to use as a standalone barcode reader, such as the I.D. Mate Galaxy, which AccessWorld reviewed in the August 2016 issue of AccessWorld. But, it does get the job done a lot more accessibly than other mobile apps.

Recognize Faces: You can create a photo library of friends and family, and the app will tell you when someone it recognizes is near. Snap a picture of an individual, and it will estimate the age–sorry, ladies–and offer an emotion tag, such as smiling or frowning. The app will tell you when a face is in focus and offer up the person’s name if they are in your app image database. This might be handy at a conference or party setting to help you find friends or colleagues, but I would advise using a phone case with a lanyard strap and Bluetooth earbuds so you’re not annoying the crowd by pointing your phone hither and yon. Also, check the lighting setting in the app’s Settings menu. Otherwise that phone dangling from your neck may appear as a headlight.

Scenes: This is a beta feature, destined to improve with time. Snap a photo of your environment and Seeing AI will attempt to describe it. “A street corner with signs,” for instance, or “Two dogs and one person on a lawn.”

One extremely useful feature found in Seeing AI is its appearance on the Sharesheet. Tap any image on your camera roll, an image attached to an email or text, or even one of those annoying images that appear on Twitter and other social media sites with no description tag. The “Recognize with Seeing AI” Sharesheet option will send the image directly to the app immediately, and recognize both any text it finds, and offer an image description. If the option to “Recognize with Seeing AI” does not appear, select the “More” option in the Sharesheet and switch the option to “On”.

The app is only available for iOS, and it can be downloaded from the iOS App Store. Microsoft has produced an excellent YouTube introduction demonstrating this powerful new app’s features. Text and video help is also available in the app’s Quick Help tab.

Disability: Why Is Our Existence as Humans Still Being Denied?

Action Wheelchair User SymbolIn Denver in 1978, just after the July 4 holiday, 19 men and women with disabilities positioned themselves in front of public buses at the busy intersection of Colfax Avenue and Broadway. They chanted “We will ride!” until city transportation officials were willing to hear their complaints: Namely, that lack of access to public transportation led to disenfranchisement and discrimination, which led to joblessness, homelessness, despair and misery.

These pioneers, known now as the “Gang of 19,” were not simply irritating commuters by blocking the intersection all day and into the night — they were demanding to be heard, and, perhaps most important, to be seen. They are praised now as important activists, although news coverage at the time was far from celebratory. The protest was early sign of progress to come, including the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, which established the fundamental rights of access and equal opportunity that had so long been denied this marginalized group of human beings.

Yet in late June, nearly 40 years after the Gang of 19 protests, I experienced a troubling moment of déjà vu as I watched disability rights activists being hauled out of their wheelchairs outside the Denver offices of Senator Cory Gardner. The sit-in was a protest against the Republican Party’s proposed drastic cuts in Medicaid, cuts that would certainly push millions of people with disabilities out of sight and into the neglect and despair of institutions, home confinement, joblessness and poverty. I was saddened, bewildered and angered that a movement that gave so many so much more life could have come so far, only to be forced to protest the same issues all over again — basically, our right, as people with nonnormative bodies, to basic access, to our very existence.

In 1978 my parents watched live footage of the Gang of 19 protests on their television (my father remembers getting up to turn up the sound) in the weeks before my amputation, the first of six operations I would have in the next five years, from ages 4 to 9. I was born with a congenital birth defect that required amputation so that I might be fitted with a prosthetic limb; this was considered, in my case, the best shot I had at a “normal” life — which my parents viewed as an ability to work, make an impact, have mobility, be considered equal to others, even if my body was built differently. They desperately wanted this for me, and were willing to change jobs and move across the country to make it happen. It was a propitious move, as I would later become an early student in the adaptive ski program in the Rocky Mountains, an experience that, more than any other in my childhood, changed my life.

My parents had moved us close to Denver to be near Children’s Hospital, and their widely respected orthopedic surgeons on staff — one in particular, who performed every one of my many surgeries, including two of the “do-overs” when the operation didn’t yield the desired results. We were not rich by any standards — a lower-middle-class family with good health insurance — which, even so, never covered all of my operations or devices or in full. Both my parents worked two jobs on and off throughout my childhood to close the gap. My father even drove a school bus, a fact I vividly remember made me feel ashamed.

My parents must have sensed what a person — in this case, their daughter — would face, given her nonnormative body. It must have been a mix of hope and fear, of anger and elation.

Now, as a parent myself, I can imagine the mixed emotions my parents, decades younger then than I am now, must have felt watching the standoff between the wheelchair users asserting their rights and demanding respect and dignity, and the official forces brought in that showed how thoroughly that respect was, in fact, denied.

I’ve always known that discrimination against those with nonnormative bodies runs deep. My great-aunt once announced that I was “made wrong” to a room full of people when I was in my late 30s. On another occasion, while I was talking about what the A.D.A., passed just that year, meant to me, a relative said, “When we knew people who couldn’t walk, they just stayed home.” My grandmother once protested being asked to help pay for an elevator at her church: “My legs work,” she said. “Why should I pay for those whose don’t?”

Very few people would express these sentiments publicly, or at a cocktail party, or even at the Thanksgiving dinner table as my grandmother did, but the attitudes behind them still exist. At times, it seems that discrimination against people with disabilities is the final frontier of human rights.

Although people with disabilities are able to ride buses in most cities, the attitudinal barriers still exist, and the logistical ones are often linked to these. In the late 1990s, I used to take the No. 66 bus from Roxbury to Cambridge, from my apartment in Mission Hill to classes at Harvard, an hourlong journey plagued by traffic delays on the best of days, but especially in the frozen tundra of a Boston winter. I took that bus nearly every day for two years, and nine times out of 10 when someone in a wheelchair wanted to board, the lifts were broken or malfunctioning, and it might take the frustrated driver 30 minutes or more to fix the issue, often calling in support staff, while people glared out the window at the person in a wheelchair who waited, shivering on the icy sidewalk. So many times I heard people say, and not under their breath, “damn cripples” or some variation.

It pains me that I never spoke up, never said a word to the mutterers, that I exercised my privilege as a non-wheelchair user to “pass” (despite holding a disability card that allowed me to ride the bus for only 10 cents a journey.

Ten years later, after I’d stopped hiding my identity as a person with a disability and “joined the struggle,” I was crossing the street with a friend using her wheelchair, when two people passed us and said, “What is it, like a convention for freaks?” The looked right at us as they spoke — looking through us, it seemed — as if we wouldn’t understand what they were saying.

What is more likely is that they simply didn’t care what we thought, or how we felt. It was O.K. to express disdain and disrespect for us, with these bodies so long maligned by our culture. It was “just what people say.” But what people say matters. It is another form of accessibility, another way of being inside, or outside, the narrative of our culture. Every time we hear the words “lame” or “cripple” or “freak” it is clear we are still living outside the perimeters of that culture.

So many of our country’s social movements have started with the most basic kind of access: the right to ride a public bus, the right to have our bodies in the world, to be visible and active and seen. My first prosthetist had his office near that historical corner of Broadway and Colfax. It was dirty, dusty and unmarked, and when you slipped in the door you were immediately enveloped in cigarette smoke. In some ways, I feel like this is where we’ve arrived in terms of our country’s attitude toward disability. We can get in the door, but once there, we face a whole new battleground, a whole new fog of misunderstanding and disrespect.

Texas Bathroom Bill Has Emotions, and Stakes, Running High

Texas Bathroom Bill protestors

Texas Bathroom Bill protestors

AUSTIN, Tex. — Amid conflicting pressures from gay rights groups, social conservatives, corporations and the state’s Republican leadership, the Texas Senate on Friday waded back into the volatile issue of restricting bathroom use by transgender people in government buildings and schools.

The issue, which roiled North Carolina for more than a year and led to boycotts and other economic blowback, has become one of the most heated and high-stakes political dramas in Texas. It has deepened the divide between moderate Republicans and social conservatives and caused widespread fears that a wave of boycotts and protests would do serious damage to the Texas economy, which is still feeling the effects of a drop in the price of oil.

Given the presence in Texas, the second most populous state, of three of the nation’s 10 largest cities, the economic stakes from boycotts or cancellations of concerts and athletic events could dwarf what played out in North Carolina.

The so-called bathroom bill was approved by a Republican-dominated Senate committee on Friday evening and now heads to the full Senate for a vote, part of a fast-paced push by social conservatives to try to pass the measure into law in the coming weeks.

Earlier on Friday, more than 250 supporters and opponents of the bill signed up to testify before the Senate Committee on State Affairs. The testimony began in the morning and continued into the evening. The hearing centered on two bills requiring transgender people to use the bathroom, locker room or shower that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate, as opposed to their gender identity, in public buildings, including schools. The version that the committee ultimately approved passed by a vote of 8 to 1.

Read the full article here

My Medicaid, My Life

Talking Books for the Blind

The Untold Story of the Talking Book, by Matthew RuberyTalking Books for the Blind

I received my first Talking Book player sometime in 1969, about two years after I was no longer able to read most printed material. This was one of the old, black fabric-covered players, weighing about 10 pounds, with a .25-inch headphone jack located at one corner of the foldup speaker. Soon after I received my first Sony reel to reel, and I can still recall the excitement I experienced with the arrival of each new book in its heavy strapped container filled with either several reels of magnetic tape or a stack of disks snuggled in paper sleeves that usually reeked of cigarette smoke. My first Recordings for the Blind (now Learning Ally) order included 70 books I had always wanted to read, and their textbooks were critical in obtaining both my undergraduate and graduate degrees.

I have witnessed a large portion of the history of Talking Books personally, from those heavy disk players to their lightweight plastic replacements, from disks to cassettes to the leap over CD titles directly, if not belatedly, to digital cartridges and downloads. I have also enjoyed an Audible subscription since late 2000, setting my 56k modem to download a book before I went to bed with the hope that it would be there come morning so I could load it onto my cutting edge Digital Audio Player. Despite my nearly half-century with Talking Books, recorded textbooks, and commercially available best sellers, there is still a lot of history I missed.

The concept of a “talking book” goes all the way back to Thomas Edison, whose very first recording was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” There’s a lot of history between that first, lost recording and my latest Audible download. Happily, this history has been researched and compiled in an excellent new book from Harvard University Press, The Untold Story of the Talking Book, by Matthew Rubery.

The book is available in multiple formats: hardcover, Kindle, iBook, audiobook edition, and audio CD. I felt it only proper to obtain the audiobook version, which is produced by Blackstone Audio.

Although the book’s title uses the term “Talking Book,” this history is not limited to books produced by the Library of Congress and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. The author uses this term because, as you will see, originally it was a goal, a dream waiting for technology to catch up in order to be realized.


The author begins with an extended preface wrestling with these three issues surrounding recorded books:

  • Does an audiobook have standing as an actual book?
  • The public’s changing reception and acceptance of audiobooks.
  • The still ongoing controversy over whether listening to a book counts as reading.

Rubery presents the facts without judgment, though in my personal opinion there is one area in which the facts are incomplete. When discussing whether or not listening to a book is the same as reading, the author cites studies of braille readers in which they discover that the visual cortex of such readers is stimulated the same as it is with print readers. In people who listen to books these areas are not stimulated. There seems to be little research as to what happens when a blind person listens to an audiobook. Myself, I often find my eyes tracking from left to right as I listen–especially when I am listening to synthesized speech, where the line breaks are more obvious–and the letters and words appear in my mind’s eye. I asked a blind friend who has never read print and who is a proficient braille reader about this–he relates the same phenomenon, only with braille letters and words. Interestingly, both of us find ourselves visualizing the words of overheard conversations when we are bored.

The remainder of the book is divided into three parts: Origins of Audiobooks, Talking Books for the Blind, and Audiobooks Go Mainstream.

Origins of Audiobooks

The very first recording Thomas Edison ever made was a recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which can be considered the first audiobook. The original recording was lost, but Edison did re-record it, and you can hear this recording on YouTube.

Since recording technology could only capture minutes of sound at the time, the dream of audiobooks was just that, a dream. But it is fun, learning about some of the grandiose dreams some people had, including hats containing audio encyclopedias, stores stocked with “Books in bottles,” and public books with tubes leading in through the windows of nearby houses so the great works of literature could be played to all.

Talking Books for the Blind

The lion’s share of this book is devoted to the history of Talking Books for the Blind, which were originally sponsored here in the US by our own American Foundation for the Blind, and in Great Britain by the Royal National Institute of Blind People. In both cases it took the blinded veterans of World War I to spur action. Prior to the war, blindness was not considered a societal obligation. But blinded veterans were a different matter.

The first Talking Book produced by AFB and the Library of Congress was a recording of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was followed by such patriotic documents as the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I am told that the Library of Congress still has copies of these old recordings. I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage them to create a sampler book of some of these recordings.

At first it was deemed that all recorded books should be instructional and inspirational. Very little fiction was allowed at first, but readers began to demand it, and so things changed.

Rubery offers a number of snippets of correspondents from early readers. I was especially amused by the woman who excoriated the service severely for sending her what she considered to be a filthy book, but ended her letter by requesting she be sent another book by the same author.

The book covers the issues of book selection, censorship–both sexual and political–and the move from active to passive narration, where the narrator does his or her best to remain in the background. It also delves into the initial difficulties encountered when seeking rights. For example, both Margret Mitchell and Rudyard Kipling resisted for years having their books recorded for the blind, as both were convinced the recordings would wind up being played on the radio and thus affect future book royalties.

Initially, Helen Keller was against Talking Books, as she felt it would diminish braille literacy. However since most blind people were older and did not know braille she changed her viewpoint, and in fact, it was due to her encouragement the Library of Congress became involved.

Audiobooks Go Mainstream

Ironically, according to Rubery, it was the success of Talking Books for the Blind that for years inhibited the general public from considering audiobooks. Recorded books were for the blind, and they were a lazy way to read, and it wasn’t really reading, anyway.

Not until 1952 when an upstart recording company called Caedmon Audio released Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” did people begin listening to what were then called “spoken word” recordings. Indeed, I find on Wikipedia that the original recording was a 2008 selection for the United States National Recording Registry, stating that it is “credited with launching the audiobook industry in the United States.” I’d like to amend that to “commercially available audiobooks.” Other famous authors followed, including Carl Sandburg and Arthur C. Clark. An LPs still-limited space meant there were considerable abridgements, which led to adaptions, and even dramatizations, with full casts, music, and sound effects.

Rubery concludes the book with a history of commercially available audiobooks, from Books on Tape all the way through books on CD and now downloadable books from various sources, including the reigning king, Audible.

The old arguments have returned: Should the works be dramatized or narrated in a neutral voice that stays out of the way of the narrative? Are we “reading” or “listening” to books, which can now even be read to us by artificial speech? There is also one new controversy not present in Talking Books for the Blind: should the complete text be recorded, or are abridgements OK?

Happily, the last of these has more or less been decided on the unabridged side of the argument. As for the other two, does it really matter? Either way, we are consuming more books, making better use of our time to “read” or “listen” on the go. Here I have to agree wholeheartedly with the author when he sums up the audiobook experience delightfully: “Audiobooks are for people who hate reading and for those of us who love reading. Audiobooks are for people who can’t read, and for people who can’t read enough.”


When I was 16 I read what was available; these days I read what I want. If I see an interesting author on TV, or hear about a great new book on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” I can nearly always find it available in some accessible format immediately. I can’t imagine a life without books, and this book was a real “eye-opener” as to all it took to get us from there to here.

Above all, let us not forget that, sighted or blind, for nearly all of us our first experience with books was via the spoken word–the voices of our mothers and fathers who read to us and instilled in us the joys and pleasures of a good book.

About the Author

Matthew Rubery is an audiobook historian and Professor of Modern Literature at Queen Mary University of London. He edited the essay collection Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies and co-curated “How We Read: A Sensory History of Books for Blind People,” a public exhibition held at the UK’s first annual Being Human festival.

Book Information

Title: The Untold Story of the Talking Book, by Matthew Rubery (Harvard University Press)

Price: Hardcover, $29.95; Kindle, $16.17; Audible, $24.47 (or free with 30 day Audible trial); audio CD, $29.95

Available from: Harvard University Press, Amazon, Audible, Barnes and Noble

ASL interpreters are bringing visuals to a hearing-centric musical world

A growing number of ASL interpreters are bringing visuals to a hearing-centric musical world.

Amber Galloway Gallego is one of a growing number of American Sign Language interpreters who specialize in the performing arts. If you frequent music festivals and concerts, you might see her — or an interpreter like her — grooving to the music, mirroring the emotions and physicality of the artists onstage, interpreting their imaginative lyrics for concert-goers who rely on visual accommodations. She’s interpreted for more than 400 artists at this point, and has a special knack for interpreting hip-hop acts.

You might have seen this viral video floating around of her signing alongside Kendrick Lamar’s live performance at Lollapalooza. For the hearing audience, watching Amber is captivating and fascinating; for the deaf community, it’s vital.

In the video above, Amber breaks apart the challenges of interpreting a hearing-centric music world into a visual one and explains some clever ways she has visualized some rather complex lyrics.

Using a Wheelchair in NYC Subways: Few Entrances and Sometimes No Exit

New York Has a Great Subway, if You’re Not in a Wheelchair

A New Yorker shows why people with disabilities avoid the train.

Nearly eight years ago, on a bright summer morning in Manhattan, I was walking through Central Park when an enormous rotted tree branch snapped and fell on my head.

What came next was a remarkable turn of events that saved my life. First, a doctor out for a morning jog saw me lying unconscious, and used a pair of jeans he dug out of my backpack to slow the bleeding until an ambulance came. I was treated at the intensive care unit at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and underwent rehabilitation at Helen Hayes Hospital in Rockland County, where a skilled medical team worked tirelessly for more than a month treating injuries to my head, lungs and spine. And over the next six months, nonstop support from loved ones and expert rehabilitative care helped me recover much of what I had lost.

But there was one feat they could not accomplish. The accident had caused spinal cord damage, which partly paralyzed my lower body. It was clear I was going to have to use a wheelchair to get around.

Among the first challenges I faced was navigating my neighborhood in New York on wheels. With practice, I slowly increased my range, and began getting around the city independently. I took buses, taxis and eventually the subway. I returned to work as a software engineer at Google 18 months after my accident.

I felt grateful to have come back so far, but each time a broken curb tipped over my wheelchair, a taxi refused to stop for me or a stalled subway elevator left me stranded, my frustration mounted. I became increasingly aware of how large, inflexible bureaucracies with a “good enough” approach to infrastructure and services can disenfranchise citizens with disabilities, many of whom cannot bridge these gaps on their own.

Before my injury, I had felt that dealing with grittiness and unreliability were the price of entry for living in New York, and even took a smug pride in dealing with obstacles. Since my accident, I have been humbled to realize the often dire effect of civic dysfunction on the vulnerable, and have had to recognize that some of what I once took for resourcefulness was in truth enabled by privilege.

I was once like many other able-bodied New Yorkers, only vaguely aware of subway elevators, merely noting that they seemed dingy and often out of service. But now that I needed them, the reality was more stark. New York’s subway is by far the least wheelchair-friendly public transit system of any major American city, with only 92 of the system’s 425 stations accessible. That means fewer than one in four stations can be used by people in wheelchairs when elevators are working — and they frequently are not.

On average, 25 elevators a day stop working, and these breakdowns are not quickly resolved; their median duration is nearly four hours. Moreover, with a single elevator serving both directions at most stops, a breakdown means that a disabled rider exiting the train will be trapped on the platform, and one hoping to board will have to find some other way to travel to where they need to go.

Other problems make this bad situation worse: There is no sure way for riders to know when a breakdown has occurred: There are no intercom announcements, and the listings on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s website are unreliable. In the past month only two of the eight elevator failures I encountered were listed, making it likely that official statistics are an undercount.

I often wheel off a train only to discover that the sole elevator to ground level is out of service. No information on alternate routes is posted as it is for other service changes and delays — indeed, subway personnel are often unaware of the situation. So the options are to wait for the next train and continue to an accessible stop — possibly many stations away — or call the fire department to be carried up the stairs.

I’ve done both, although on occasion fellow passengers have agreed to carry me — a 170-pound stranger in a wheelchair — up to the street. And it has been heartening to find that in moments of need, people step forward to help.

But these acts by individuals cannot be accepted as a substitute for a functional system. Rather, a system that routinely leaves vulnerable riders stranded has abdicated its responsibility. The need for extraordinary goodness, like that shown by the doctor in Central Park, should be the exception, not the rule.

All of this can make an accessible subway seem impossible. But it isn’t.

When I traveled to Boston several years ago, I was amazed to discover that its subway system — as old as New York’s, though far smaller, with only 53 stations — is more than 90 percent wheelchair-accessible.

Was Boston just a nicer town? Not necessarily. The admirable accessibility was legally mandated. In 2002, wheelchair users sued Boston’s transit authority and the eventual settlement included guarantees for elevator construction, maintenance and monitoring.

So are legal challenges the only way to get equal access for the disabled? They are undoubtedly a useful tool, and sometimes a necessary one. But however change comes, accessibility advocates will have to counter the belief that devoting resources to help one group necessarily shortchanges others.

The lawyer and activist Angela Glover Blackwell shows in her study “The Curb-Cut Effect” that there are times when steps initially taken to aid one population — like people with disabilities — are ultimately good for all. As she recounts, in the early 1970s, pedestrian curb cuts were unheard-of in American cities. A group of wheelchair activists in Berkeley, Calif., frustrated about the difficulty of wheeling around their city, began pouring concrete for makeshift ramps that would ease getting on and off sidewalks.

At first, the activists were threatened with arrest, but before long the first official curb cut was made and many cities followed, as they realized what now seems obvious: The curb cuts weren’t useful only for wheelchair users. Parents with strollers, workers with handcarts and travelers with luggage all benefited. This action helped people with disabilities integrate further into economic and cultural life. When I go to work, or pick up my children from school, those curb cuts help me get there.

I owe a debt to those activists, and to others whose actions helped move us toward the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Now it is my turn to speak up, thank my fellow New Yorkers for their underrated kindness, and ask the transit authority to commit to follow their lead and work for all of us.

U.S. Access Board Issues Guidance on the International Symbol of Accessibility

U.S. Access Board Issues Guidance on the International Symbol of Accessibility

March 27, 2017

The U.S. Access Board provides the following guidance on use of the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA) under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA). This guidance explains how use of a symbol other than the ISA may impact compliance with standards issued under the ADA and the ABA.

Created in 1968 through a design competition by Rehabilitation International and adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the ISA has served as a global icon for accessibility for almost 50 years. The ISO is an independent, non-governmental organization that represents over 160 national standard-setting entities and develops voluntary, consensus-based, international standards. As part of an ISO standard (ISO 7001 Graphic Symbols – Public Information Symbols), the ISA reflects considerable analysis by, and the consensus of, an international collection of technical experts.

The ISA continues to be recognized worldwide as a symbol identifying accessible elements and spaces. Standards issued under the ADA and ABA Standards reference and reproduce the ISA to ensure consistency in the designation of accessible elements and spaces. Uniform iconography promotes legibility, especially for people with low vision or cognitive disabilities. In addition, various codes and standards in the U.S. also require use of the ISA. They include the International Codes Council’s International Building Code and ICC A117.1 Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities, the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 5000 Building Construction and Safety Code and NFPA 170 Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols, and the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, among others.

Use of the ISA Under the ADA

The ADA Standards apply nationwide to places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and state and local government facilities. Promulgated by the Department of Justice (28 CFR Parts 35 and 36) and the Department of Transportation (49 CFR Part 37), the ADA Standards require use of the ISA to label or provide direction to certain accessible spaces and elements, including parking spaces, entrances, toilet and bathing facilities, and check-out aisles (§216 and §703.7.2.1). In addition, ADA Standards for Transportation Vehicles (49 CFR Part 38) implemented by the Department of Transportation (DOT) require that the ISA be used to designate accessible vehicles.

A symbol other than the ISA will not comply with the ADA Standards unless it satisfies the “equivalent facilitation” provision (§103). This provision allows alternatives to prescribed requirements if they result in “substantially equivalent or greater accessibility and usability.” The burden of proof in demonstrating equivalent facilitation rests with the covered entity in the event of a legal challenge. Under DOT’s ADA Standards, certain entities responsible for transportation facilities and systems, as well as manufacturers of products and vehicles used in transportation systems, can request a determination of equivalent facilitation from DOT as outlined in its ADA regulations (§37.7 and §37.9). If a court — or DOT, where DOT’s ADA Standards are being applied — determined that an alternate symbol did not provide “equivalent facilitation,” that symbol would not be permitted.

Use of the ISA Under the ABA

Standards issued under the ABA apply to facilities designed, built, or altered with federal funds or leased by federal agencies. The ABA Standards are implemented by the Department of Defense, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration, and the U.S. Postal Service. Like the ADA Standards, these standards mandate use of the ISA to label or provide direction to certain accessible spaces and elements (§F216 and §703.7.2.1).

Any departure from the ABA Standards, including the referenced ISA, requires a waiver or modification (§F103). The agencies that implement the ABA Standards have authority to grant modifications and waivers on a case-by-case basis where “clearly necessary.” Modifications and waivers are rare and are usually considered only in unique circumstances that make compliance with certain provisions exceptionally problematic. The Access Board is responsible for making sure that modifications and waivers are based on findings of fact and are consistent with the ABA.


Use of a symbol other than the ISA is permitted under the ADA Standards only if it satisfies the equivalent facilitation provision and under the ABA Standards only if a waiver or modification is issued. Otherwise, where the ADA or ABA Standards require accessible spaces or elements to be identified by the ISA, the ISA must be used even where a state or local code or regulation specifies a different symbol. Those who are interested in implementing an alternative symbol of accessibility are encouraged to contact the ISO’s Technical Committee 145 on Graphic Symbols which maintains the graphic symbol standards.

A Wheelchair on Broadway Isn’t Exploitation. It’s Progress.

Sally Fields and Madison Ferris

Sally Fields and Madison Ferris. And a wheelchair

There’s a wheelchair onstage at the Belasco Theater, and it’s drawing an abundance of attention. There’s also a wheelchair onstage at a small theater not far away, and it’s drawing practically no attention at all. The gulf between the two says quite a lot.

At the Belasco, the Broadway house on West 44th Street, the wheelchair is one of the conspicuous elaborations the director Sam Gold has brought to his production of “The Glass Menagerie,” the beloved Tennessee Williams drama. The chair isn’t just a prop; it’s a necessity for the actress playing Laura, Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy.

That bit of casting is, of course, a significant change from the shy girl with a limp that Williams called for in his play. And Mr. Gold’s staging leaves no doubt that Ms. Ferris is not some able-bodied actress pretending to have a disability. He has her enter by painstakingly climbing stairs, one of several times that he takes her out of the wheelchair and confronts the audience with the difficulties of having severely limited mobility.

Some leading critics have objected to the transformation of Williams’s subtle play about a family enveloped in denial into something more strident. The kindest objections say that Mr. Gold’s interpretation simply doesn’t mesh well with the text; harsher ones on theater chat boards have called his use of Ms. Ferris exploitative.

Perhaps these detractors are focusing on moments like the one in which Amanda, Laura’s mother, tells her: “You’re not crippled. You just have a little defect — hardly noticeable, even!” How can such a line make sense when there’s a wheelchair onstage?

For one thing, this is a self-described “memory play,” told through the recollections of Laura’s brother, Tom (played by Joe Mantello). And memory is an interpretation of the past, not a literal playback of it.

But, more than that, to live with a child with a disability is to be both isolated — as this family is — and susceptible to what seems to others like an unreality. My own daughter, who has a serious disability called Rett syndrome, is just three years younger than the 23-year-old Laura. Is it easy for me to imagine a parent who sees a vastly different child than the outside world sees? You bet.

As for the charge of exploitation, I read that as, “It was unpleasant to see Ms. Ferris pull herself along the floor by her arms; I prefer that people with disabilities remain invisible, as they so often are.” Broadway audiences are accustomed to seeing perfect bodies doing entertaining dance steps. Guess what, Broadway? One in five Americans has a disability, according to the census bureau.

Read the full story in the NY Times