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Accessible Accommodations are Just a Click Away

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Traveling can enhance your life on many levels. You may see different things, meet interesting people and, perhaps, even shift your perspective by learning something new. Two lifelong friends from England experienced these wonderful benefits. However, because they each have spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disorder that affects the control of muscle movement, they unfortunately also experienced frustrations pertaining to accessible accommodations.

Srin from Accomable exploring Singapore
Exploring Singapore

The Start-Up

In 2011, Srin Madipalli took a life-changing European road trip. “I was able to go adaptive scuba diving in Bali, wheelchair trekking in California and even on safari in South Africa,” he says. “While I knew I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel like this, I quickly discovered how difficult and time-consuming it could be to plan a trip with a wheelchair.” He relied on social media, personal recommendations and various accessible sources but found that securing distinctive accessible accommodations proved to be difficult throughout the world.

“The worst was arriving at an accommodation advertised as accessible, only to find steps up to the front door! I’d also have to research accessible tours and excursions at each new location,” he explains. Such hindrances began to impede his joy of traveling – a feeling he suspected was shared by others with disabilities. Madipalli decided to improve accessible travel. So, to fill the gap, the London-based lawyer boldly turned his passion into anew full-time profession.

“I quit my job and taught myself to code,” Madipalli explains of learning how to create a system of online commands and communication. In 2015, he and friend Martyn Sibley co-founded Accomable, an online booking platform that houses accessible accommodations worldwide including homes, apartments, swaps and other rentals. The mission: To make accessible travel as easy, simple and straightforward as possible.

Accomable produced 1,100 listings in over 60 countries, inclusive of high-quality photos and detailed information of accessibility features!

Srin from Accomable exploring Monserrat by finding accessible accomadations
Srin in Monserrat

How It Grew

In 2008, years before Accomable, three men in California established an innovative, first-of-its-kind start-up. Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nate Blecharczyk couldn’t afford their rent so they launched a modest website to lease their loft to travelers. The effort became Airbnb, now considered the go-to marketplace for various types of privately-owned rental homes. Airbnb now has 4 million listings worldwide throughout 65,000 cities.

Airbnb strives to “connect travelers seeking authentic experiences with hosts offering unique, inspiring spaces around the world.” Many travelers love the company; in fact, 260 million guests have used the service. Yet, a Rutgers study – which analyzed six months of data in 2016 – found that Airbnb “hosts were less likely to pre-approve, and more likely to reject outright, the requests from travelers with disabilities than requests from travelers without disabilities.” Surprising? Maybe not. Acceptable? Definitely not.

Airbnb is committedd to addressing these findings. A statement on the company’s website read, in part, “While we have rules that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities and an Open Doors policy that helps ensure everyone can find a place to stay, its clear that we can do more to effectively serve people with disabilities.” They went straight to the expert source for help and, in November 2017, Airbnb acquired Accomable.

Madipalli recently transitioned to the role of Accessibility Product and Program Manager at Airbnb. He relocated to San Francisco, Airbnb’s headquarters, and continues to work with his London-based Accomable staff, which includes team members with disabilities. “I think this is very important to ensure we have the right expertise and understanding of accessible travel and the issues travelers with disabilities can face.”

Accomable accessible accommodations featuring diving in bali
Diving in Bali

What’s Next?

Listings on Accomable remain active but, eventually, the site will cease and redirect to Airbnb. “Our mission at Airbnb is to enable anyone to belong anywhere – something we will be relentlessly pursuing in the months and year ahead,” says Madipalli.

Prior to the acquisition, Airbnb only listed “wheelchair accessible” as an option for travelers with disabilities, whereas Accomable itemized more than a dozen different accessibility features. Recently, Airbnb announced plans to implement a fresh “accessibility needs” checklist for hosts to create more detailed listings, such as designating entryways as step-free, doors as wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and more.

“I am leading our efforts to build upon and improve our accessibility features and filters at Airbnb. We will be working with the community to improve these continuously in the coming months to ensure guests with disabilities can quickly and easily identify accessible listings, which suit their needs, on the Airbnb platform,” Madipalli confirms. And he’s focused on developing new policies and features to ensure accessibility information is as accurate as possible. Feedback from both travelers and hosts (via email: accomable@airbnb.com) is welcomed and encouraged.

Airbnb is exploring other ways to make its platform more user-friendly for all. For example, it partnered with Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired to research website design and ease of use. And it is rumored that, in the future, Airbnb could expand to also encompass accessibility experiences which, as Madipalli shared, is a time-consuming element.

Madipalli is serving on Airbnb’s Diversity and Belonging team to ensure that the company’s environment remains positive for professionals with disabilities. “As part of this, I’ll be helping create new initiatives to increase the numbers of disabled applicants,” he says.

Happy traveling!

Photos– Thumbnail: Srin Bali Diving; Article Photos: Above – Srin in San Francisco, Below Left – Srin in Singapore, Below Right – Srin in Monserrat

Meet Shaquem Griffin: The UCF Knight’s One-Handed Superstar

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The UCF football team recently wrapped up an undefeated 2017 regular season… Go Knights! For linebacker Shaquem Griffin, it was the perfect climax to his senior year. It’s not the first time, however, that the St. Petersburg native beat the odds to come out victorious. His skills – both on and off the field – are exceptionable but, because Shaquem has just one hand, he’s constantly worked to prove himself. And that he did… perfectly.

First Quarter

During pregnancy, parents-to-be Tangie and Terry Griffin learned that amniotic bands entangled Shaquem’s wrist. Born two minutes after his twin Shaquill, Shaquem was born with amniotic band syndrome with an underdeveloped hand. The condition was extremely painful. “Everything I touched burned,” he recalled in an interview with ESPN of his early years. Hoping to end his agony, then 4-year-old Shaquem attempted to self-amputate his hand using a kitchen knife but, luckily, Tangie intervened. She immediately scheduled his amputation surgery.

During recovery, Shaquem anxiously awaited getting back to football. And his father was eager to coach him. Terry admitted to being “hard” on the boys because of their potential and he never let Shaquem use his disability as an excuse. Terry was creative with his motivation; for example, he built an L-shaped brace so Shaquem could bench-press.

Aside from sports, Shaquem also appreciated the arts. He played the baritone and, with Shaquill, performed with a dance team. “After football practice, we used to practice choreography,” he recalls. Practice made perfect for most everything they did. The two were jointly named Tampa Bay Track and Field Athlete of the Year by the Tampa Bay Times. And football offers came surprisingly early. Shaquem expected resistance from scouts due to his disability but says, “I got my first offer in my sophomore year of high school and it kept coming from there.”

Second Quarter

Accustom to being a pair, Shaquill turned down offers from high-profile colleges that wouldn’t grant his brother a football scholarship too. Unfortunately, some scouts only saw Shaquem’s amputated hand… and not his whole being.

The duo enrolled at the University of Central Florida. Shaquill suited up for game days while Shaquem redshirted, meaning he attended classes and team practices but didn’t compete. When Scott Frost replaced long-time UCF head coach George O’Leary in December 2015, Shaquem got his chance. “I wondered how he could function with just one hand,” Frost admitted in a Yahoo! Sports interview. But, “After two practices, it wasn’t even an issue.” Wearing the #18 jersey, Shaquem was about to become a UCF legend.

“You can do anything you set your mind to and put the work into. There are no limitations to what you can do! The only thing that can stop you is yourself.” – Shaquem Griffin

Third Quarter

In 2016, the 6’1” 223-lb. junior started all 13 games as an outside linebacker and dominated. Shaquem’s season included a total of 92 tackles (and a team high of 57 unassisted tackles), 11.5 sacks (the sixth most in a season at UCF) and was ranked 12th in the nation in sacks and 13th in tackles. He was named American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and earned First Team All-Conference honors!

Then, his brother Shaquill was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the third round of the NFL draft. Thus, Shaquem’s senior year would be his first without his twin by his side. He kicked off the season earning way onto four pre-season watch-lists for national awards: Butkus Award for best linebacker, Nagurski Trophy for Defensive Player of the Year, Bednarik Award for best defensive player and Wuerffel Trophy for achievements on and off the field. Additionally, thanks to his volunteerism with the Boys & Girls Clubs, AAU track club and motivational speaking at schools and hospitals, Shaquem earned a nomination for Allstate AFCA Good Works Team which honors student-athletes for outstanding community service.

The final big win? An undefeated senior season, of course! Regarding the unprecedented success, Shaquem shared, “It’s an amazing experience. Not just being on the field but off the field. You get love from the students and everyone that supports UCF.”

Shaquem Griffin running with the ball at a UCF game
Shaquem Griffin, Courtesy of UCF

Fourth Quarter

22-year-old Shaquem holds a degree in human communication and is working on second major in interdisciplinary studies with a minor in sociology. At press time for this issue of AmeriDisability Services, Shaquem was preparing to compete with UCF in the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Afterward, he’ll start “training again and getting ready for the next level.”

Does that mean the NFL? “I am blessed to play [now] and that [NFL] is not the main focus. My whole thing is just to give everything I got,” he says. “The people making the choices about me playing [in the NFL], well it’s up to them. At the end of the day, if they want me to play, they’ll choose me.”

While Shaquem is humble and downplays his future in football, we’d double down that this single-handed superstar gets drafted. And perhaps sibling rivalry will turn into genuine competition. Or, maybe the Griffin twins will suit up in Seahawks gear together. Regardless, Shaquem hopes he’s inspired others with impairments.“You can do anything you set your mind to and put the work into,” he says. “There are no limitations to what you can do! The only thing that can stop you is yourself.”

Shaquem Griffin jumping up after a victory at UCF
Shaquem Griffin, Courtesy of UCF

Home Designer Gives Green Light to Accessible Blueprints

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Susan P. Berry is an architectural consultant offering frameworks for both residential and commercial construction with an emphasis on accessibility. Armed with over 30 years of experience and association with the American Society of Interior Designers and the American Institute of Building Designers, Susan developed two businesses: Disability Smart Solutions, which provides ADA guidance to companies, and Susan Berry Home Design, offering consultation to individual consumers seeking residential accessibility.

Stepping Stones

Susan’s passion for accessibility sparked during architectural school. But personal influences were really the building blocks to establishing her niche. She encountered mobility limitations following an injury, the parent of a child with special needs and caregiver to her wheelchair-bound mother.

“I broke my ankle and twisted the other and I had to [temporarily] use a wheelchair. And, so, I started realizing all of these things that just didn’t work [for people with disabilities] and get overlooked,” Susan recalls. Later, while caring for her mother, Susan was stunned that businesses – like hair or nail salons and even dental offices – refused to provide services to her mother if she couldn’t transfer herself from the wheelchair to the service chair. “I saw how spaces don’t work [for all] and I became passionate about both residential and commercial design.”

The Comforts of Home

Many builders now proclaim to offer “universal designed homes,” but Susan says that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, especially since “children grow and adults change.” So, how can Susan Berry Home Design help? “Let’s say you go to a large [new home] builder and you pick out one of their plans. We’ll review the design and talk to the person with the disability, the caregiver and maybe the physical or occupational therapist that might have additional input. We’ll take all of that and do some sketches, notes and suggested products to adjust the home to work accessibly,” Susan explains. Sometimes that includes widening hallways, changing bathroom layouts and recommendations for home security and color identification to “make spaces easier.”

Susan, who renovated her own 1950s home to aid her mother, often works with clients who are newly disabled and in need of home modifications. Clients often seek consultation for ramps, doors and turning bathrooms into complete wet rooms. “Each person with a disability is different. So we ask personal and detailed questions about how they do daily tasks to figure out what they need, what they can do without and what’s the budget to make it happen.” For example, she recently improved kitchen functionality for a 6’4” client with a spinal cord impairment who had pain when bending. She installed a heightened kitchen island and repositioned appliances so he could continue to cook without arching his back. For a different client facing mobility restrictions following a fractured hip, she assessed the ceiling tresses to determine if lift installations could work.

Spaces can be transformed, for example, by eliminating a spa tub to allow for a larger walk-in/roll-in shower with safety seating, removing toilet closet walls to create transfer space or lowering cabinets. “We want to design a beautiful room that is function without looking like a hospital bathroom, and retain resale value,” she says. “It’s looking at the individual’s abilities and figuring out what can be done within the budget to make the home work for that person and their caregivers.” Susan also encourages her clients to consider future needs that may arise, such as from degenerative diseases or disabilities (like multiple sclerosis), aging or a growing child.

“People are finally becoming aware that accessibility is important. Wheelchair users are only five percent of the disabled population. Twenty percent of Americans have some type of disability, and in Florida statistics are even higher as a ‘retirement state.’” – Susan Berry

Making Facilities Operational

Earlier in her career, Susan contributed to large-scale universal design projects at Walt Disney World Resort and corporations including Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Bodyworks. Through GiveKids the World Village, a nonprofit resort serving children with life-threatening illnesses and their families, Susan says: “I learned how to build rooms for individuals that perhaps were on a gurney versus a chair, or had other needs, so I gained a better understanding of how additional space is really needed and varies.” Over time, she’s noticed a positive shift within the corporate section to attempt to go beyond existing (and somewhat minimal) ADA standards.

“People are finally becoming aware that accessibility is important. Wheelchair users are only five percent of the disabled population. Twenty percent of Americans have some type of disability, and in Florida statistics are even higher as a ‘retirement state.’” But, of course, there is always room for improvement and she hopes to see advancements with architectural adaptions.

“Many architects were trained to think in terms of space; so they see [wheelchair] transfer space, but not how a person really functions within the whole room. Architects are watching [out] for the developers ’budget by not adding an [accessible] item; so thinking they’re saving the developer money, [but] really this could open you up to ADA litigation,” suggests Susan. For example, she recently reviewed the design of a bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, it was designed to meet standards applicable to apartment buildings rather than ADA codes for lodging facilities. “There is a lot of confusion when it comes to accessibility codes of different types of buildings, and there are also federal and state codes,” explains Susan, who hopes for better compliance.

Based in Central Florida, Susan says that, for the most part, Orlando-area hotels, conference centers and theme parks are conscious of accessible needs. However, aesthetic trends present complications. She says,“Everyone seems to want big, tall beds which are not at transfer height, so people with a disability need a lower bed and that has been a challenge with hotel owners.” Unfortunately, some public places and offices are less aware of accessibility requirements. For example, she says, “It’s common for restaurants to store extra chairs in hallways which makes it non-accessible as a 36-inch path.”

Through Disability Smart Solutions, Susan works with companies on accessibility such as with surveying and compliance. Plus, she facilitates training and workshops on an array of ADA topics like disability customer service, service dogs and various architectural barriers.

Universal Design for stylish and accessible bathrooms

Gold Standards for Golden Years

Seniors may develop newfound limitations, but Susan says good home design is limitless. She aims to improve functionality and safety. A senior client with arthritis, for instance, may need modifications because of narrowed hand mobility. “We can use levers versus handles on doors knobs and sink handles; also change out cabinetry handles and lower closet rods,” Susan says. Seniors can update handrails, peepholes, lighting (i.e. ceiling vs. lamps, enhanced brightness), flooring (i.e. slip-resistant, rug removal to prevent tripping, level walkways) and generally declutter. “For bathrooms, I like to use a standard showerhead as well as a handheld because it makes it so much easier to bathe and also clean the shower, and also use comfort-height toilets.” For those residing in a two-story home, relocating to a downstairs bedroom is ideal. However, some may opt for a stair-lift or personal elevator.

Through Disability Smart Solutions, Susan facilitates an ‘Undercover Senior Customer Experience,’ in addition to an ‘Undercover Disabled Customer Experience,’ to aid corporate teams with customer engagement and compliance because “great customer service is the easiest way to gain loyal customers and avoid disability discrimination lawsuits.”

For more information, visit DisabilitySmartSolutions.com (business) and SusanBerryHomeDesign.com (residential) or call (407) 331-4855.‍

Friends & Stars Nonprofit Shines within Disability Community

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It’s been three years since Angella McTire was pleasantly surprised to discover that her 39-year-old son, Carlton Bailey, had artistic talents. Twice a week, Carlton, who has Down syndrome, creates paintings, pottery and more at Friends & Stars, Inc., a Lauderdale-based nonprofit providing high-quality, creative arts programming designed to be all inclusive of special needs populations.

The inspiration for the organization came from one art admirer. “My artwork – a series of Caribbean paintings – was on display at the Schacknow Museum of Fine Arts. There was a gentleman with Down syndrome that came to the museum every day. The museum director asked me what we could do to [further] engage people with disabilities [in the arts],” recalls Dixie Henderson. “So I replied, ‘start a program!’” In 2010, Dixie channeled her ability to turn a blank canvas into something beautiful and launched Friends and Stars. At the time, it was a weekly art program for persons with Down syndrome and held at the Schacknow Museum and, later, county libraries. Demand for expanded services rapidly grew and, in 2014, Friends and Stars opened a 1,900-square-foot facility operating creative studios and administrative offices five days a week with fully-inclusive, disability-centered programming.

“Most of my clients are non-verbal individuals, so when they begin to create and conceptualize something and then reduce it to the canvas… that is speech! Because when you look at the painting, it is clear what they are saying,” Dixie proclaims. Seeing Carlton’s work, which has been publically displayed, Angella agrees that he’s excelling both physically and emotionally through art, stating: “You can see the happiness on his face and he feels productive [with what he creates].”

Friends and Stars hosts about 500 people per month with classes facilitated through “a group of professional artists with a desire to give back to community,” including three instructors and about 15 volunteers. The Saturday Activity Club (for adults 18+) remains the flagship program. It involves drawing, painting, pastels, sculptures, abstract art with recycled materials, jewelry-making, glass-fusion and leather crafting. During the week, Friends and Stars conducts private sessions, group classes and youth programs for both homeschool students and children with disabilities (in partnership with Broward County Public School’s ESE program and VSA Florida, the state organization on arts and disability). “We also host classes for adult women that are especially enjoyed by our mothers who are caregivers” declares Dixie. She says she works harder now as a nonprofit leader during her “retirement years” than during her law career; in addition to facilitating art classes at area senior centers.

Friends and Stars is an affordable fee-for-service organization that off-sets client costs through grants (such as the autism license plate), fundraisers, private and corporate donations, and in-kind contributions. A two-hour professionally-led session averages $15 and includes all supplies. It’s a nominal fee for such a priceless engagement. “It’s really important for special needs people, in general, and their families to have an opportunity to get out of the house and escape the reminder of the disability or the financial impact of the disability. A family can relax, create and work together to make an entire project that they’ll have for years,” says Dixie. In January 2018, Friends and Stars will expand and open an innovative 7-acre campus in Thomasville, Georgia, to include a partnership with the Thomasville Center for the Arts. “We’re becoming a destination beyond the classroom with more activities,” explains Dixie. For more information on programming in Florida and Georgia, visit www.ArtsAndDisabilities.org.

I Am Sheriauna: A Beautifully Different Book about Disabilities

At the age of four, Sheriauna’s loving mother, Sherylee, began writing the story I Am Sheriauna. It is a tale of a vibrant young girl who just so happens to be beautifully different. The story was written with the hopes of breaking down the stigma associated with being “different” as well as empower individuals with and without a disability to promote inclusivity and acceptance.

The concept of acceptance and love for all is not new to Sherylee as she has been working in social services supporting people of all walks of life. Throughout her career she has helped people with varying disabilities, women in treatment centers, individuals with acquired brain injuries and is currently helping people find employment in the Toronto area. Sherylee’s experience with recognizing and appreciating differences started when she was just 13 years old. “I was at the mall walking around and saw someone in a wheelchair. I found myself staring because they didn’t look “normal” but thought, what is normal? We are all different, so there really isn’t a real normal.” Although just a young pre-teen girl, she quickly had the revelation “I’m not going to stare regardless of what they look like or are doing. They are just people.” Sherylee’s experience from that day and through her social work helped prepare her, whether she realized it or not, for the next chapter of her life.

At 20 weeks of pregnancy, Sherylee had an ultrasound and over the weekend had a thought, “what would happen if my child was born missing part of her left arm.” At the time, Sherylee waved it off and thought it was absurd to think such things, but looking back she believes that it was “God’s way of preparing me for the news that was to follow a day later.” Her doctor confirmed that Sherylee would indeed have a child born with a portion of her left arm missing. Sheriauna was born with Congenital Limb Reduction on October 1, 2006.

 A Turning Page for Inclusion

I Am Sheriauna is a book for children, parents, guardians, and educators alike to initiate constructive conversations regarding diversity, acceptance, communication, and inclusion. All topics that are essential for creating a loving and empathetic social environment. It is a wonderful story that shares the early life of Sheriauna, how she was born, how she learned to do things such as walk and crawl like most other toddlers, and even some of her favorite hobbies such as dancing! As we all know, knowledge is power and this book is not only spreading a positive message but also equips individuals of all ages with the foundation to start a positive and appropriate conversation. In particular, the highlighted keywords and the glossary which explains the meaning is an exceptional addition to this educational book!

The story stems from Sherylee’s journey of being a parent of a child with a physical “difference” and Sheriauna’s experience with others day to day. She recalls, “there were oftentimes when children would stare and even adults would stare. I wanted to equip Sheriauna with the words when people would ask, “What happened to your arm?” Since Sheriauna was only four and still lacked sufficient vocabulary, Sherylee placed herself in her daughter’s shoes and imagined how she could communicate with others. The outcome was creating the children’s short story in a way that was inviting yet informational while using Sheriauna’s voice as the narrator guiding readers through her journey in life thus far.

The writing process was easy because it came from real-life scenarios, but it took a few years for the book to come to fruition. The illustrations had to be just right. Not for others, but for Sheriauna. Being a mother of a daughter who is an amputee and also black, Sherylee made it her mission to find the right illustrator who would represent her daughter in the best way possible. The outcome is spectacular! Upon looking at the story, you can almost feel the energy bursting from page to page showcasing a bright and lively young girl who just wants to be seen for who she truly is.

In March 2017, Sherylee had her finished product and presented it to Sheriauna, who at first glance said, “Wow, she looks just like me!” This simple but powerful statement was the best compliment Sherylee could have received because that is exactly what she wanted to provide her sweet and beautiful daughter.

The Next Chapter of Celebrating Diversity

Since launching the book, the mom and daughter duo have been busy spreading the message about empowerment and inclusivity. They have worked closely with Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, where Sheriauna received her prosthesis and is also a spokesperson for the rehab center’s awareness initiative, Dear Everybody. The duo will be showcasing the incredible story at upcoming book signings. At their first book signing, they sold out in four hours!

Although they are in Toronto, this book is accessible anywhere and those interested can order from Amazon for under $12. Ten percent of the purchase price is donated to Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and The War Amps.

Sherylee and Sheriauna are always excited to connect with fellow families to build community regardless of distance. If you are interested in connecting you can contact them on their website IAmSheriauna.ca

Make sure to follow their incredible journey on social media and become an active participant in spreading the message that “we are all perfectly imperfect.”

Photo below left: Excerpt from book, I Am Sheriauna; Photo below right: Sheriauna and mom, Sherylee

Tech Opportunities for All – Learn the Skills Today and Reap the Benefits in a Matter of Months

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In today’s day and age, technology is where you can learn skills in as little as three months and come out with a job that pays more than most professions that require a bachelor’s degree. As of today, there are approximately 500,000 job vacancies according to Code.Org, an online learning platform geared towards teaching coding to children. Did you notice that word, vacancy? Those are the leftovers, the ones that are not being filled due to a lack of workforce with the necessary skills to fill them.  More and more employers are announcing that most applicants do not have the technical skills needed to meet company goals and propel growth.  Perhaps you can be one of the people to meet that demand!

Unfortunately, our education system is lagging when it comes to teaching our students computer science which is hindering them from learning about the magnitude of opportunities in the tech industry.  According to Code.org, only 40% of schools are offering any type of computer science education.  Luckily, the White House passed a memorandum on September 25th, 2017 that promises to address the need by allocating $200 million to increase access to computer science education.  Two days following this, large tech firms, such as Google, Amazon and many others allocated a total of $300 million to increase computer science education.  That is how important tech is for the future of the economy and growth.  It is great news as the U.S. is far behind many other countries who teach their students computer science at a young age.  Virtually every company is turning into some form of a tech company whether they are using online platforms to automate processes and increase efficiency or they are going completely digital to lower overhead costs.  Regardless of the company or role, learning technical skills is valuable to any position and could help you earn higher wages and enjoy more job security.

So, let’s get into how you can start learning skills right away to make money remotely and even turn your skills into your very own business. Below is a just a small list, from Skillcrush.com, of jobs that are in high demand now:

Web Design – 61K +

Digital Marketing – 68K +

Web Developer – 76K +

Specialized Programming Language -100K +

Skillcrush – They have “blueprints” based on which type of job you are looking for. The platform is extremely user-friendly and the online support is phenomenal.   The price is relatively low compared to traditional coding “bootcamps.”   www.skillcrush.com

Udacity – This platform has free and paid courses that range from learning digital marketing to building self-driving cars and even virtual reality. The beauty of this platform is that you can learn skills in the free courses and then take the more challenging courses as you progress.  www.udacity.com

Solo Learn – This company offers multiple applications that allow you to learn anywhere, anytime and for free. There are numerous languages that you can learn through a step-by-step process that is similar to playing a game.  So for all those who like to play games on social media, you will love this.  www.sololearn.com

W3schools.com – Great site that does not have a traditional learning platform, but offers free tutorials in the most common programming languages with built-in editors that allow you to test out what you are learning! www.w3schools.com

The most common programs to start off with are typically HTML and CSS, which are your website building tools.  Then Javascript which makes the websites interactive. Check out the sites above or research the many others available and start learning today!

Remember, any investment in yourself is the ultimate investment you can make because you will not only better yourself but uplift those around you as well!

Island Dolphin Care Makes a Splash with Animal-Assisted Therapy

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Many relocate to Florida for retirement; but for Deena and Peter Hoagland, the sunshine state offered a brighter future for work and wellness. Their son, Joe, was born with truncus arteriosus, a rare and often fatal congenital heart disease requiring multiple heart surgeries. “I moved my family to Key Largo in 1990 to take a job at a fish farm at the tip of the Everglades because we were desperate for a paycheck and insurance. Joe was born in Colorado, and after his open heart surgery we had to move to sea level [as high altitudes can strain the lungs and heart] and we choose Florida,” Peter explained.

During a surgery, Joe suffered a devastating stroke. The Hoagland’s were told that their 3-year-old son would never recuperate. However, Deena, a licensed clinical social worker, was determined to enhance Joe’s recovery and quality of life. Joe wasn’t responding to traditional therapies and so, because he loved the water, Deenatook him to Dolphins Plus, a recreational marine mammal encounter facility. “A dolphin named Fonzie popped up in front of Joe and he laughed for the first time since his stroke,” Peter recalls. Thanks to that miraculous moment, Dolphins Plus allowed Deena to use their facility for Joe’s aquatic and dolphin-assisted therapies which quickly proved to be effective. She expanded her effort to other children with special needs and eventually, in 1997, founded Island Dolphin Care. Deena serves as Executive Director and Peter as Program Manager, along with a team of zoological experts, veterinarians, therapists and educators.

Island Dolphin Care is a nonprofit providing uniquely motivational dolphin-assisted therapy programs for hundreds of children and adults with diverse special needs or illnesses and their families. “When you come close to these animals, you know you are close to something amazing and something extraordinary,” Deena said. The Autism Society says that animal therapy, including swimming with dolphins, can “provide soothing sensory stimulation, a point of focus and opportunities to learn about behavior and communication.” The Autism Society says dolphin therapy was first used in the 1970s by psychologist David Nathanson, who believed interactions with dolphins improved a child’s attention and cognition. Island Dolphin Care does not claim to have cure-all dolphins but rather trained therapists working with eight dolphins that enhance opportunities for positive communication and self-esteem through fun and motivating experiences.

“When you come close to these animals, you know you are close tosomething amazing and something extraordinary.” – Deena Hoagland

Island Dolphin Care offers individual/family programs and group programs in partnership with area hospitals. Customized sessions include a dedicated therapist for structured water play, classroom activities using adaptive tools and technologies, and other enjoyment (aquarium, picnic, etc.). “Our program is different than others because it includes the whole family in the process. That’s a large part of our success whereas most therapies ─ like speech, physical and occupational ─ have the child or veteran dropped off for [solo] services,” Peter said.

During an interview with the Today Show, Joe explained: “I know I can just jump in the water and they [the dolphins] will just accept me.” Realizing such a self-esteem boost could benefit many more individuals, Island Dolphin Care launched its Veteran’s Program in 2009 to present therapeutic experiences for wounded warriors and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “A veteran and his family may not recognize each other because they are changed people [following combat]. So, when you are in this environment, everything troubling you tends to go to the back of your brain if you will. You exist in the moment because you have a 500-lb. dolphin in your face! Often a family finally sees their veteran laughing for the first time in years,” Peter describes.“If you can control your perspective, you can make a choice to regulate terrible memories to live more in the moment. It’s the most remarkable outcome that I never predicted when we started this company [in honor of my son].”

Now 30 years old, Joe is a happy, independent adult who, for years, worked with Peter on facility operations and maintenance. Recently, Joe took a job alongside the Zoological Director. “He started as a dolphin training trainee. I think he’s found his niche with a new career track,” shared Peter, who claims his son is a walking medical miracle following five open heart surgeries and countless cardiac catheterizations. “He is a hero and inspiration to us and hundreds of kids and families around the world!”

Thanks to contributions, Island Dolphin Care offers financial assistance and discounts to participating families. In September, the facility was significantly damaged by Hurricane Irma and, now more than ever, needs support. To aid the mission of Island Dolphin Care, attend the “I Do Care” fundraising gala on November 18, 2017; or donate at IslandDolphinCare.org or (305) 451-5884.

Florida Autism Center Helps Children Reach Personal Potential

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Studies have found that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who receive intensive early intervention services may achieve improved outcomes. That’s why when Marissa Dixon, a Tampa area mom to 3-year-old Jonathan, noticed signs of developmental regression and ASD-associated behavioral patterns, she turned to the Florida Autism Center.

With about 20 locations statewide and a dozen or so more expected to open next year, the Florida Autism Center (FAC) provides applied behavioral analysis (ABA) based services which, according to Autism Speaks, involves clinically-proven techniques and principles that bring about meaningful and positive changes in behavior. Marketing Director Jenn Elston said FAC has “a specific focus on early intensive behavioral intervention, verbal behavior (language) training and social skills training. We also help children to display basic ‘following directions’ skills, self-care and daily living skills.” Using individualized one-on-one support, the ABA therapy early intervention program is designed to “help a child (age 0-5) obtain the skills necessary to achieve mainstream kindergarten readiness or placement in the least restrictive setting.”

“I started FAC because I felt like kids with ASD needed a social setting like a typical school/daycare setting but more personalized to their needs. I felt like center-based services were the way to go, but that parent integration was key to its success. I didn’t feel like a place like that existed quite yet locally [at the time],” explains Chrystin Bullock, the board-certified behavior analyst who founded FAC in 2005. “Basically, I wanted to help every kid on the spectrum live their happiest and most productive life, and the concept of FAC was the vehicle toward making that happen.”

Currently, FAC provides services to 300 clients. Staff routinely connects with parents on a weekly and/or monthly basis. “Families most often tell us that they are so glad to finally have someone on their team. At FAC, we become a part of the journey with an entire family. We are there for the new milestones and the setbacks. No matter what, parents want to feel like there is someone in their child’s corner ─ we are that support system for them and we are also the people who give parents the tools to succeed and the training to make it work,” says Elston.

FAC includes a small private school catering to children up to 12 years old. “We want to give them a classroom with two or three students with individualized attention where they can work on grade level toward their own goals,” Bullock shared. The school aims to match the Sunshine State Standards and Common Core curriculum. “We’re able to use Applied Behavioral Analysis to teach the goals and the core curriculum that is provided for the Florida State Standards,” says Dr. Kerri Peters, Center Director–Gainesville. “We’re able to use smaller ratios at the Florida Autism Center to get most of the clients up to their academic level so we can hopefully transition them back into their school placement.” And, of course, the day includes plenty of age-appropriate fun too! Play and recess are used to enhance both social skills and gross motor skills.

Additionally, FAC offers one-on-one ABA therapy services ─ both full day and after school services (for students at FAC or any school) ─ to work on social skills, pre-academics and community integration. FAC goes above and beyond to positively impact the lives of its clients. Dr. Peters says that families often face challenges with real-world situations, like going to the dentist and grocery store or, as with young Jonathan, a fear of getting haircuts. “We individualize therapy to allow them access to practice the skills that they need to go to [for example] the dentist. We’ll set up an environment at the clinic that looks just like their dentist’s office. We’ll go to the dentist office to see how they do at a visit and, then, we’ll try to teach them the [needed] skills in their day-to-day therapy. And then we’ll go back to the dentist and see if the skills that we are teaching them generalize to the setting that it’s necessary to succeed in,” she says.

Bullock proclaims that transition remains a primary objective. “The goal here is that we want your child to outgrow us! We want your child to not need to be in a therapy setting like this. We want to teach them everything we can teach them, and [then] go off and do it on their own. I think the very best endorsement is a parent saying ‘I went there and I don’t need to go there anymore.’” Key partnerships help FAC maintain their objectives and success rate. “Our collaboration with the University of Florida allows us to take the latest and greatest data-based research and implement it directly into our locations across the state ─everything from food acceptance to toileting. We are incredibly innovative as a result and have led the industry with some of our programs,” proclaims Elston. FAC also aligns with Nova Southeastern University and the Florida Institute ofTechnology.

Most services are billed through insurance. “That world [of payment] can be confusing and we want to take that burden away from them so they can focus on their child,” Elston says. FAC also accepts private pay, as well as the McKayand Gardiner Scholarships. To learn more, visit flautism.com or call (866)610-0580.

UCP of Central Florida Teaches Beyond Classroom Curriculum

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Aiden was a “typical” little boy until, one day, he awoke with new and unexplainable disabilities. “I wasn’t able to talk,” the now sixth-grader recalls. Doctors struggled to diagnosis his sudden non-verbal condition, while his frightened family struggled to navigate support resources. They discovered UCP of Central Florida, a nonprofit charter school and therapy center serving more than 3,000 children across seven Orlando area campuses. UCP aims to “unlock the potential” of children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida and various developmental challenges. “My family, my therapists and my [UCP] school helped me and I can talk perfectly now,” Aiden cheerfully affirms.

“At UCP, we provide a holistic multi-disciplinary approach where all support, education and therapy services are provided together in one facility. Parents of children with special needs receive individualized services that break the mold of traditional education,” says Dr. Ilene Wilkins, President/CEO. That includes physical, speech and occupational therapy, family counseling and, most importantly, innovative education.

“He’s definitely made a ton of progress. He wasn’t able to talk at all and now he talks all the time! I think the individualized attention that he’s getting when he is learning is very good,” says Aiden’s sister, Anna. “At UCP, every kid is different and all the teachers understand that.” UCP has maintained this distinctive approach for more than sixty years. UCP was founded in 1955 by a group of parents advocating for their children with disabilities. Over time, services grew to meet the demands of babies through young adults, including a college transition program and job internship placement. Plus, children who attend traditional public school elsewhere can also access therapy services. Dr.Wilkins explains that providing therapy services on-site offers a streamlined and immersive approach to development. Therapists collaborate with teachers to reinforce individualized learning and therapy to grant consistency to the child and ease to parents.

“At UCP, we provide a holistic multi-disciplinary approach where allsupport, education and therapy services are provided together in one facility.Parents of children with special needs receive individualized services thatbreak the mold of traditional education.” – Dr. Ilene Wilkins

Unique Learning Models

UCP’s education has evolved with the implementation of “inclusion” learning. Approximately 44 percent of the student population is now comprised of children without disabilities.

“We’ve pivoted away from the traditional self-contained classroom for a model that aims to give all children access to the same high-quality educational experience. At UCP, children with and without disabilities share the same classrooms, playgrounds and lunchrooms. It’s a school culture centered around equal access, collaboration, de-stigmatization of disabilities and promoting each individual student’s strengths and potential,” says Dr. Wilkins, whose concept leadership has been praised nationwide.

She acknowledges that misconceptions surrounding inclusion remain. For example, some assume that children without disabilities may be disadvantaged in learning or not experience gains from peers with disabilities. “In reality, our classrooms provide additional layers of instructional support for all students. Our students without disabilities learn a degree of determination and ambition watching their peers with a disability that can push the student to test their own limits,” says Dr.Wilkins, who attests to boosts of educational and interpersonal development for both children with and without disabilities. Inclusion helps students learn new and unique ways to overcome hurdles associated with disabilities and, especially for those without disabilities, teaches empathy. “They often learn to digest their curriculum in a way that they can communicate it to help their peers with disabilities, leading to more significant retention of instruction. This model is the foundation of a culture where children don’t define each other by their differences and teachers find the strengths in all children regardless of their challenges,” says Dr. Wilkins.

This holds true with young Aiden’s testimony who says he doesn’t see people’s disabilities as a negative: “It’s nice for people to be different.” And the same goes for best friends Tyrrill and Ranielle. Tyrrill was born with spina bifida which impacts his lower limb mobility. Yet, Ranielle, a non-disabled inclusion peer, says he’s a great dancer; and he thinks she’s a great reader. “Everyone has their challenges,” says Ranielle; and “We help each other overcome them,” adds Tyrrill. These third graders support each other academically and socially, as do countless UCP students.

In addition to inclusion, UCP utilizes a project-based learning model which integrates innovative art and technology. Most campuses have a 1:1 tablet and iPad program and, thanks to a new grant, UCP will soon implement a robotics effort.

The Beta Center

After 45 years as an independent school, shelter and daycare for teen moms and their babies, the Beta Center merged with UCP (in partnership with Orange County Public Schools) to avoid closure. Dr. Wilkins says the merger was a natural fit. “The core of what we do is give extraordinary young people the tools to unlock their potential. UCP has always believed that a young person should not be defined by their challenges,” she says of long-standing tradition of inventive success. At the Beta Center’s alternative middle and high school, teen mothers continue their education and also get vital assistance through UCP’s childcare services, pre-natal nursing support, parental training and group counseling.

UCP’s tuition is free for eligible students with additional option plans, including coverage by commercial insurance and Medicaid. However, UCP operations depend on the financial contributions of individual, corporate and foundation donors. There are many ways to support the mission, including fundraising events. UCP will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Evening at The Palace Gala on April 7, 2018 at Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace. This event and UCP’s Poker at the Palace Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament held the night prior are both hosted by award-winning actress Cheryl Hines, best known for HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Hines passion for disability-related activism is inspired by her nephew, Michael, who was born prematurely with cerebral palsy. He became a UCP of Central Florida student. To learn more about UCP and to support the mission, visit ucpcfl.org or call (407) 852-3300.

Photo above: Actress Cheryl Hines with her nephew Michael. Courtesy of UCP.

Spencer’s Sensory Shop: A Business Blanketed with Disability Research

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When the AmeriDisability team met Karen Spencer, at the Family Cafe 2017 event, it was obvious that her story was one that had to be shared with our readers along with her incredibly affordable products. Karen is the owner, creator and designer for Spencer’s Sensory Shop where you can purchase weighted blankets, lap pads and wraps for every family member at a fraction of the normal retail price.

Blanketed with Disability Research

Always creating or making something, Karen just happened to fall into creating weighted blankets as a way to help her autistic step-son, Noah. She remembers trying so many different remedies but nothing was helping with his meltdowns or excessive crying due to being overstimulated or upset. As she researched, like many parents do, she came across weighted blankets and learned the numerous effects of using one for not only children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but also for those dealing with many other health challenges.

Weighted blankets, lap pads, and wraps are therapy tools that utilize the science of Deep Touch Pressure (DTP) to generate the feeling of calmness and almost a hugging sensation as it distributes a light pressure equally across the parts of the body that it covers. According to LiveScience.com, weighted blankets and deep touch pressure helps calm the “arousal level in the system” as well as “helps with self-regulation.” It is like the ultimate teddy bear!

Many benefits of DTP have been shown to help people of varying ages who deal with ADD/ADHD spectrum disorder, Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorder, sensory disorders, sleep disorders, restless leg syndrome, anxiety, as well as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.  The list goes on and virtually anyone could truly benefit from having a weighted blanket or pad.

After reading about the benefits of weighted blankets, Karen knew she had to purchase one for her son, but quickly realized that they came at a high price, one that she and her large family were not able to afford. So, she put her skills of making tutus’ and hair bows to use by making a weighted blanket that would provide her son access to this much-needed form of therapy. Karen shares that now, when Noah is overstimulated or upset, his weighted blanket or vest helps him tremendously.

The Ability to Create a Disability-Serving Business

It was soon after making her first weighted blanket that she had an ah-ha moment. She realized she needed to make these for other families who were in need of a tool but could not afford it.  On that very day, she chose to change her business from creating custom tutus’ and hair bows to making weighted blankets.

What differentiates Karen from other weighted blanket companies is not only her affordable price tag but that she customizes each and every blanket.  Every customer has the opportunity to choose their fabric and color or pattern!  Being a mother of nine, she knows what patterns, animated characters and colors would best interest the user.  She is always changing her selection to meet the unique tastes and needs for each of her customers. Using the latest character crazes helps kids instantly fall in love with their blankets! Lastly, she sends every blanket off with a prayer to serve its new owner with the comfort they deserve and require.

Karen’s attention to detail and optimal customer experience has helped to grow her online business into a loving community with customers who are beyond pleased with her work.  Customers have used them at home, in their classrooms, and even for themselves!  One such customer shared, “Spencer’s Shop weighted blankets work wonders for my son who needs that extra comfort to fall asleep.  She [Karen] was very attentive on what I wanted and always kept me up to date with my order. I would recommend her for all your sensory needs.”

Spencer’s Sensory Shop’s main objective is “Anyone who needs a weighted blanket is going to have one.”  Karen lives up to that promise by offering layaway options.  You can also pay for your weighted therapy tools with a healthcare savings account associated with your health insurance!

Currently, you can order the blankets online through Karen’s Facebook business page, https://www.facebook.com/SpencersSensoryshop/ and be sure to follow her page to receive information about the latest sales, patterns, and give-a-ways! You can also contact her directly by emailingkarmelspencer@yahoo.com. Support a small business and grab your affordable, multi-purpose weighted blanket today!

Article photos courtesy of Karen Spencer.

Photo below, Discovery Kit, Spencer’s Sensory Shop, courtesy of Karen Spencer.