Sunday, June 27, 2010

New non-profit hotel targets the need of the visually impaired!

A new not-for-profit hotel group has been launched to specialise in accessible travel. Rebranded as Vision Hotels, the group’s four AA three-star hotels are run by national charity Action for Blind People and are already equipped with all the needs for disabled guests, as well as families and couples. As a not-for-profit group, all the money is ploughed back into the hotels. “The charity has operated the hotels for many years and some time ago we wanted to market them to people with disabilities, so we rebranded” Head of Vision Hotels Paul Morrison told Travel Daily.

“Because our hotels have the facilities and are fully-accessible it makes commercial sense to market them this way”. Although the group is not exclusive to accessible tourism, each hotel features a range of facilities for different guests. “If you benchmark our facilities to other accessible hotels then they are the same, including flat level access and wide-fitting doors,” said Morrison. “We are different because as Heritage properties, we have tonal contrasts between the walls and floors, which is more pleasing for visually impaired guests. There is also special tactile flooring so people can feel the difference underfoot.” Other facilities include liquid level indicators, information in various formats and a place for pet and guide dogs. However, the group has also launched a new website, which was custom-built to help visually-impaired users. “Lots of leading hotels have websites that are not DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) certified and these are not suitable for some users,” said Morrison.

“We have set up our website from scratch which meets the criteria and we have invested in online booking solutions to meet our client base.” Through the new booking system, users can change the size of font or background colours to their needs. Looking towards the future, Morrison said the group has no plans to acquire new properties yet as a lot of money has been invested into the website and rebranding. However, it is looking to train agents in accessible tourism and build its available resources. “We work with Creative Travel in Devon and all its staff has gone through visual awareness training so they can manage clients needs better,” he revealed. “We feel we have a lot of information to give the industry so we will be looking to develop those.”

A mother's courage!

While roller skating at a friend's birthday party, my 7-year-old, Emma, wiped out.

One leg twisted behind her, another bent in front and both arms splayed.

"Are you all right?" I gasped.

"Just practicing a yoga move," she said, and might've pulled off the cool-girl act had she not found herself to be hilarious. "I crack myself up, just like an egg!"

My kids definitely get their sense of humor from their father. Jon can make me laugh in even the toughest situations.

When Emma was just a baby, a doctor told us she was visually impaired. Later that same day, I snickered through tears -- and knew we'd all be OK -- as Jon blithely told Emma about the "Three Visually Impaired Mice."

Benny, our 3 year old, has his own standup routine. "I'm an old lady!" he croaks as he walks around the house stooped over. "Want to see my slow run?" Then he launches into a slow motion jog in place, complete with exaggerated wiping of his brow.

These jokes were deliberate, but there are just as many times when the children are unintentionally funny. Having entertaining kids is a blessing, but trying to keep it together when the laughter would be "at" rather than "with" is tough.

I can't begin to count the number of times Jon and I have had to turn our backs to the children's wrath to choke back our laughter. There is just something so funny about half-pint brimming over with fury after walking full force into a sliding glass door.

But that would be laughing at instead of with, so we try to restrain.

A friend who is the mom of an 8-year-old girl told me about fighting back laughter during her daughter's first time chewing gum. "Today," the serious-minded girl said, "my goal is to chew gum and walk at the same time. Do you think I can do it? OK, here goes."

And then there are the times as a parent where you either have to laugh or cry.

Such as while I was interviewing someone for a York Daily Record/Sunday News article.

"I have to make an important phone call while you watch 'Sesame Street,'" I told Benny. "I need you to be very polite while I'm on the phone."

To me, this meant he shouldn't demand snacks and sing along to "Elmo's World."

To Benny, it meant leaning into the phone about five minutes later and politely stating: "In a minute, I'm going to need you to wipe my butt."

Total silence on the other end of phone. "Um, excuse me while I help my son with something," I muttered.

As soon as possible, I picked up the phone. "Sorry about that," I said in my best professional voice, just in time for Benny to call out, "I'm not wearing any pants!"

Laugh or cry? I had to laugh.

Again, I chose laughter when Emma scolded me for calling our dog a "dummy."

Jasper had taken a flying leap off a small walking bridge to chase a butterfly, landing in thick mud that he proceeded to shake over all of us.

"It's not nice to say 'dummy,'" Emma said with as much righteousness a mud-streaked 7-year-old can wield. "When I'm angry with someone, I just think 'dummy' in my head."

Then she glared at me so I would know exactly what she thinking about me just then.

And I turned my head, hoping she wouldn't see my shoulders shaking.

Beth Vrabel lives in West Manchester Township with her daughter, Emma, 7, and son, Benny, 3. For more Smart Mama columns visit

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The courage of a visually impaired little boy!

The Iraqi child doesn’t remember color or light.

He was blinded before he arrived in America, the victim of a horrific attack when he was 2.

Now 7, Muhammed “Hamoody” Jauda might change his name to something more American. He uses his legal guardians’ last name – Smith – but is far from settled on a first. He kind of likes Simon.

“We’re waiting, because we want to make sure he makes a good decision, what he really wants,” Julie Robinett Smith said. “He was telling me last year it was Dylan.”

In many ways, Hamoody has become a typical American boy since arriving in Snohomish, Wash., in 2006. He just finished first grade at Riverview Elementary, loves shooting Nerf guns, goes to church at Bethany Christian Assembly in Everett and keeps a baseball glove draped from his bedpost.

But he also makes calls home to Iraq, keeping in touch with his Shiite family. He hopes one day to go to Kuwait to visit them, but he said he has no intention of going back to Iraq itself.

“I don’t want to remember all the bad times,” he said.

“There wasn’t a lot of bad times,” Robinett Smith said. “Just one.”

The attack happened in 2005. Sunni insurgents shot his mother, killed his uncle and turned a gun on Hamoody at close range.

His right eye was a complete loss. He now keeps the empty socket covered with a flesh-toned bandage. He lost vision in his left eye. It was replaced with a brown lifelike prosthetic.

He came to the Smiths through Healing the Children, a Spokane-based international aid group that provides medical treatment to children from poor countries. His stay lengthened from one year to three as doctors rebuilt his face.

By the time he turned 6, the Smiths were as attached to him as he was to them.

Randy and Julie Robinett Smith won approval from his Iraqi family to become his legal guardians. All agreed he would have a better chance of survival here. In 2008, the U.S. government granted him asylum.

He now calls the Smiths Mom and Dad and wants to become a U.S. citizen after he turns 18.

“I just thought it would be a little bit cooler,” he said.

Hamoody also has adapted to life as a blind child.

He runs upstairs to his room and can walk straight down aisles at Fred Meyer, barely using his cane as he makes a beeline to the toy section.

Mary Ann Graham helped him develop those abilities through her role as a Snohomish School District teacher for visually impaired children.

Now about to retire, she has taught him how to navigate the world.

She calls him “exceptional.”

She showed him how to buy groceries and read Braille. He’s at 60 words per minute, reading above a third-grade level. She also helped him develop a sense of echolocation. He uses sound like a bat, identifying large objects – people, cars, pillars.

Graham said she’s not sure what would have happened if Hamoody had stayed in Iraq.

“He would not have had the opportunity for the schooling, and to develop the skills” that he has, she said.

Graham and the Smiths agree the boy still faces challenges. He is scheduled for more surgery in July, to keep damaged nasal passages open.

Someday, he also will have to convince people that he can cope in a sighted world.

Julie Robinett Smith said Hamoody is up to the task, happy and fierce in his approach to life.

And he’s ready to take risks. It’s OK if he gets hurt, Hamoody said.

“I just tough it out.”

Courageous visually impaired girl competes in Braille challenge!

Before she was 2, Annette Lamas had undergone 10 operations on her eyes.

Born with congenital glaucoma that left her with a prothesis in her left eye and severely impaired vision in her right, she was so sensitive to light that she and her family had to live in darkness, curtains drawn throughout the house, for a year.

``I was very insecure not knowing what the future held,'' said Annette's mother, Ivette Moreno.

But the future seems bright for 7-year-old Annette.

On Saturday, the Miramar girl will join 56 competitors, ages 5 to 19, in the Braille Institute of America's 10th annual Braille Challenge in Los Angeles. The only South Floridian, Annette is one of 12 finalists in her age group.

The competition, which brings together winners of regional preliminaries held throughout the United States and Canada, is often described as the National Spelling Bee for the blind.

``It's meant to motivate children to take Braille seriously, to encourage them to work hard,'' said Nancy Niebrugge, Braille Challenge director. ``It's the one area these kids can truly compete in with no extra accommodations. It's a means of pride.''

The competition consists of five tests: reading comprehension, proofreading, spelling, speed and accuracy and chart and graph reading.

Annette began learning Braille when she was 3.

``She's picked it up super amazing. She's quite smart,'' Moreno said of her daughter, who is now reading at a fourth-grade level.

``Mom, you're talking for me,'' Annette interjected from a yellow swivel chair in the playroom of the family's Miramar home.

The second grader reads her favorite Junie B. Jones books in Braille by tracing over the bumps with her right hand, reading the words aloud and using her left hand to catch mistakes.

To write, she uses a Perkins Brailler, which looks like an old-fashioned typewriter, and a Braille note taker, a lighter, faster and more sophisticated device that stores files and can search the Web. Each machine has six keys for the six dots that form a two-column cell of raised dot combinations to represent letters and words.

Annette and her mother work on homework together for five or six hours each night, and she practices the violin daily. She is a proficient violinist who learned by ear and likes playing Spanish pop songs she hears on the radio more than Mozart.

Since the school year ended, mother and daughter have devoted themselves to preparing for the Challenge.

``Her mom works with her so hard,'' said Karen Tardif, Annette's teacher at Silver Shores Elementary, who added that Annette's skills go beyond the norm.

``She knows a lot about life. She's not quiet. She voices her opinions,'' Tardif said. ``[She has] such high self-confidence and makes jokes about herself.''

While there are other visually impaired students at the school, Annette is the only one who is legally blind. A vision teacher works alongside Tardif to transcribe or collect materials in Braille. Annette used to have a mobility teacher, but she's mastered her two-story school and maneuvers ``excellently'' through the hallways, Tardif said.

``She's very open and conscious of her condition,'' said her mother, noting that Annette gave a presentation to a cousin's 10th grade class about what it is like to be visually impaired.

``She's 7 going on 30,'' Moreno said with a laugh as she brushed Annette's bangs to the side of her forehead.

``Mom, I like them long,'' Annette protested. ``I'm growing them out.''

The vision in Annette's right eye is about 40/200. The glaucoma produces a far-sighted effect that forces her to sit extremely close to a television or computer screen to read large fonts and distinguish colors.

But Annette makes do. In fact, she loves playing computer games.

``If it was up to her, she would stay at home on the computer all day,'' her mother said.

The Braille Institute is paying for the family's room and meals at the Hilton Universal in Los Angeles, where the awards ceremony will be held Saturday night. The top prize in Annette's division is a PAC Mate similar to her Braille note taker and a $1,000 savings bond.

``No, I'm not nervous,'' she said. ``We're going to try to win.''