August Coffee Chat — Outlook Nebraska, Inc.

23 Aug

For our August 19 Coffee Chat at No More Empty Cups, we were joined in conversation by Lisa Kelly, Enrichment Programs Director,  and Doug Wampler, Program Facilitator, from Outlook Nebraska, Inc. ONI is a non-profit with a staff of 74, 46 of whom are legally blind, that pursues a mission “to positively impact everyone who is blind or visually impaired” primarily by providing employment. Other programs include “social activities, education, technology and adaptive aids training, and health and wellness programs” designed to serve and integrate the blind and visually impaired into the larger community.

Doug Wampler and his service dog, and Lisa Kelly from Outlook Nebraska, Inc.

Doug Wampler and his service dog, and Lisa Kelly from Outlook Nebraska, Inc.

To achieve their employment mission, ONI has built a manufacturing business that creates 100% recycled content toilet paper and paper towels that are sold to government and institutions. Thanks to the Wagner-O’Day Act of 1938, the Federal government is required to purchase products manufactured by people who are blind, when possible. This creates a market for nonprofits that employ people who are blind. The organization maximizes employment by minimizing automation. As Kelly pointed out, “Where other manufacturers have a machine, we have a person.”

Like any production employment environment, one of the primary concerns of Outlook Nebraska, Inc. is getting their employees to and from work on time. With over half the workforce being blind or visually impaired, the staff commute is a unique challenge for ONI. This highlights the intersection of the mission of ONI with the mission of Mode Shift Omaha, “To advocate for transportation options that enhance quality of life and opportunities for everyone to live, work, and play.” (emphasis added) According to Kelly, “Public transportation is our life blood.” But as the conversation revealed, public transportation is more than buses driving on roads, it’s the associated infrastructure of sidewalks and accessible pedestrian accommodations that connect bus stops with the user’s final destination.

Northwest corner of 72nd and F Street

Northwest corner of 72nd and F Street

While ONI selected their site because the location is on a major bus route, because the area is predominantly industrial the last leg infrastructure for people using transit, is sometimes absent. For example, as you can see in the above image, the southbound bus stop at 72nd and F Street, had no sidewalk, no level surface, no crosswalk, no stop bar and no audible crossing signal — not the safest environment for a blind or visually impaired. Working with the city, ONI has been able to get some upgrades to the intersection, including an audible crossing signal, but they have met with resistance on further upgrades, such as a stop bar indicating where automobile traffic needs to stop, leading to some ONI employees encountering a vehicle as they cane across the street to work.

According to Kelly, the audible crossing signal is critical to the visibility of the visually impaired in the community. When the blind and visually impaired don’t feel safe walking in the city, they don’t. This creates something of a chicken-and-egg scenario where the city doesn’t see people who are blind or visually impaired out walking, so assume they don’t need to provide the accessible infrastructure necessary for people who are blind or visually impaired to feel safe when walking. Frustrating.

Wampler talked about some of the challenges facing people who use Moby, Metro’s paratransit service. While Moby provides point-to-point transportation to within ¾ of a mile of the fixed Metro routes, the pick-up and drop-off times are approximate, and can be difficult to accommodate. For example, if a rider is using Moby for a ride home from work, and the bus arrives before the end of the rider’s shift, the driver will want the rider to leave work early — something not always possible or advisable. For visually impaired riders, the Moby will arrive at a location, wait their required time, and then drive off. The rider doesn’t see the bus and so doesn’t know the vehicle arrived. The driver may honk, but at an intersection like 72nd and F Street, that could be anyone. Lee Meyer, Mode Shift board member, added that even with the poor level of service, Moby costs far more than is covered by government subsidies and fares. The last interesting point we learned about Moby is that it is only available to people who live in Omaha — people who live outside the service area, like Wample who lives in Nebraska City, or are visiting are not eligible to take advantage of the Moby system.

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The final transportation topic we talked about his how ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, have been a great transportation innovation for people who are blind or visually impaired. With ride-sharing apps, the rider can communicate directly with the driver — letting them know their passenger is visually impaired — and there is no cash exchanged since the payments are funneled through the apps. While there have been a few incidents where ride-sharing drivers have refused to allow service dogs to ride (a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act) for the most part, these services are another step forward in granting people who are blind or visually impaired a greater degree of independence in their transportation choices.

After talking about transportation issues, Wampler demonstrated the adaptive technologies he helps teach other people who are blind or visually impaired to use.  He demonstrated a talking GPS and slowed down the speech rate on his JAWS for smart phones, so the sighted people in the room could hear and understand. JAWS is a piece of software that helps people who are blind or visually impaired navigate smart phones and computers with voice descriptions of what is available on the screen. He also talked a little about his service dog, which had had brought with him, and the level of independence having a service animal brings him.

Before concluding, Kelly passed around some appliances that simulated, for a sighted user, various vision impairments, giving attendees a brief sense of what people with visual impairments contend with on a daily basis.

Moving forward, MSO looks forward to working with ONI on issues specific to people who are blind or visually impaired. We talked about inviting the organization to present at a member meeting and we will help ONI advocate for expanded installation of audible crossing signals throughout the city. It is always important for us as an organization to keep in mind that what is a transit mode of choice for one person is a transit mode of necessity for another.  

Tips to Enjoy the Walking Commute

20 Aug

This summer marks one year of walking to work. That doesn’t mean occasionally walking to work, or even mostly walking to work. I’m talking about walking to work, every single day, rain or shine. I’m like a postal carrier, only I’m not weighed down with junk mail.

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I did not plan on this, or make any kind of resolution. I had already been walking most days, driving only when I ran late or when it rained, or when apathy seeped in and worked its black magic. Then, last summer, it became my default. I could leave twenty minutes early to avoid a coming storm, or I could drive in it. I left early. In the winter, it was easier to put on boots than clean off my car.

Many people see these choices as daunting. It’s only after really walking regularly that one can truly experience and enjoy the practicality in it.

If you’re familiar with Mode Shift’s work, then you’re already familiar with all the reasons to leave your car at home: it saves money for you, saves money for the city, and leaves both you and your neighborhood healthier by promoting physical activity and reducing pollution.

This last weekend, several rental and development companies hosted a trolley tour in Midtown. Walking among the tour participants, I saw a lot of people impressed by the easy accessibility of a neighborhood that offers so many opportunities in such a compact space (and for those who went on the tour, wouldn’t it be great if that trolley ran every day? Just saying).

My hope is that any new residents moving into one of the many new apartment buildings or condos will take full advantage of what Midtown offers. You could drive the eight blocks down to your workplace, or to the coffee shop (or both, if they happen to be the same place), but I hope you’ll hop on your bike or hit the pavement, as I do.

 

For those ready/able to start walking instead of driving, I’ll offer up a few things I’ve learned in the last year that I hope will make the transition easier.IMG_20160119_112235278

  1. Check the weather. Most of us do this anyway, but it takes on extra importance when “a 30% chance of rain” means “a 30% chance of me walking a mile in the rain.” Long johns in the winter are also a necessity. I’ve also noticed that the weather is always slightly worse than what is predicted, as if the weather people are trying to protect us from knowing too much. An 89 degree high will be 93, and a high of 32 will be a high of 28.
  2. Buy shoes with thick soles. Whenever I see people in those fashionable loafer things that look like a thick piece of leather with a canvas top, I think, how many pairs of those do you go through in a year? I wear what are essentially trail shoes. Yes, it makes me look like a Colorado yuppie on his way to Trader Joes, but my shoes last years instead of months.
  3. Wear a backpack. Undignified, I know, but single strap bags meant to be worn over one shoulder cause me neck problems, which turn into shoulder problems, which turn into back problems, which turn into me angrily whining about everything. I’d rather look like a spry 10 year old on the way to school than a hunchback from a Mad Max movie.
  4. Slow down. I have a serious problem with this one. My default walking speed is “just get there already,” so I often end up getting to work a little sweatier than I meant to be.
  5. Even when crossing at a light, look around. Some drivers just don’t notice pedestrians. I know, because I’ve been spooked as a driver when someone suddenly appears in the street as I’m turning. If you’re unsure of what a driver is going to do, wait for eye contact before stepping in the street. This may slow you down, but it will keep your hip bone in one piece.
  6. Smile and wave. People will do the same, and it feels good.

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I’ll see you on the sidewalk.

chris reading

Chris Schacht is a teacher and writer. You can follow his journeys around the neighborhood (and elsewhere) on Instagram at shkatchat

Coffee Chat with Keep Kids Alive Drive 25

18 Jul

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Tom Everson, Executive Director of Keep Kids Alive Drive 25, intentionally uses the phrase “traffic incident” rather than “traffic accident.” He chooses “incident” over “accident” because 94% of traffic-related deaths are attributed to behavior.

At the June Coffee Chat, Tom shared that the main objective of Keep Kids Alive Drive 25 (KKAD25) is to make streets safer for everyone, starting in neighborhoods. KKAD25 implements their mission by educating and engaging the public on road safety. Perhaps their most well-known approach to this objective is their catchy and important safety signs distributed around the world.  Continue reading