'Portrait of a Soul’ Pairs Artists With Kids With Craniofacial Conditions

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Lee and Sue Schaefer, by their own admission, knew nothing about art.

So the Cincinnati couple might not have been obvious choices to start a nonprofit organization that handpicks portrait artists, but that’s exactly what they did.

More specifically, the Schaefers founded Portrait of a Soul, which pairs children who have craniofacial conditions with professional artists who paint their portraits in the hopes of providing emotional healing and a self-esteem boost.

“We believe having their portraits painted makes the children feel exceptional and loved,” Sue Schaefer told The Mighty.

Lee Schaefer got the idea two years ago from a YouTube video he found about a similar project conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, called Face to Face, that studied the psychological effects of portraits on children with craniofacial differences.

He and Sue liked the idea so much that they drove from Cincinnati to Philadelphia in June 2014 to visit the Face to Face studio — and decided on their way back to implement something similar at home.

Just one year later, in June 2015, Portrait of a Soul hosted its first unveiling ceremony, featuring the likenesses of 12 subjects, ranging from age 4 to 24, who were referred to the program by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Each artist, handpicked by the Schaefers to be paired with a family, worked to portray the kids through a six-month process of meetings, photographs, sketches, and sittings.

One of those subjects was Logan Brinson. Logan’s life-size portrait, by Cincinnati-based Evan Hildebrandt, depicts him seated behind an American flag backdrop, cradling a guitar. He’s clad in a classic gold satin jacket and sporting a pompadour, showcasing two of his passions: Elvis Presley and America.

Evan Hildebrandt's portrait of Logan Brinson.

Mighty contributor Rene Brinson calls the work a quintessential representation of her son, who was born with an undiagnosed genetic condition. She said the portrait took Hildebrandt between 80 and 100 hours to create.

“When the portrait was unveiled, everyone was stunned,” Brinson said. “It looked like a photograph at first. It was so detailed. Logan kept saying over and over how much he loved it.” Evan Hildebrandt, Logan Brinson and Sue and Lee Schaefer pose with Logan's portrait.

Now, the painting holds extra meaning for Logan’s loved ones. The 19-year-old passed away in April after complications from the flu. Hildebrandt, whom Logan had remained close with after the portrait’s completion, served as one of his pallbearers.

Now, Logan’s portrait hangs in the Brinson home, and Rene calls it one of her most prized possessions.

“Because of the energy that Evan [Hildebrandt] put into it, it feels alive,” Brinson told The Mighty. “It is such a perfect representation of Logan and his spirit that it’s like having him with me. I absolutely love it.”

Lee and Sue Schaefer hope to expand the program, having already commissioned four more portraits through the local Shriners Hospital chapter.

See below for more paintings from Portrait of a Soul, and visit their website to view the full gallery.

Portrait of Lucas, painted by Daniel Grove.

Portrait of Abby, painted by Deborah Ridgley.

Portrait of Quentin, painted by Tim Langenderfer.

Portrait of Adriana, painted by Alison Shepard.

Portrait of Luke, painted by David Mueller.

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Creating Real Change After the Mass Killing of Disabled People in Japan

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It wasn’t until I realized one of the victims in the Japanese knife attack in Sagamihara could have been a relative of mine that the reality hit home for me. I knew she wasn’t in Sagamihara at all, but I was still terrified by the thought that it could have been her. If this person had gone to a different part of Tokyo, he could have killed her. It was — and still is — a sobering thought.

On July 26, 2016, a former employee of a facility for people with mental and other disabilities stabbed 19 residents to death, ranging in age from 19 to 70. Reports also say that the young man — who is my age, another chilling thought — said that he wanted disabled people to “disappear.”

As a Japanese-American individual who has a passion for mental health, I didn’t know quite how upset I was about it until a few days ago, something that I (sadly) attributed to the sheer number of mass killings that have occurred since the year began. Yes, of course the countless other mass killings were (and still are) tragedies. No single tragedy is more important than another. But this one affected me more than even the Pulse massacre because of my personal connection to Japanese culture.

Remembering the massacre of disabled people in Japan.
Remembering the massacre of disabled people in Japan.

I saw few reports of the attack from news outlets that weren’t foreign. To be fair, I was so distressed when I first heard about the attack that I decided to put my mental health first. I knew that if I read into the details, I would not be able to function properly. Deliberately blocking out news outlets for the next few days helped me regain some sense of emotional balance.

This attack disturbs me for many reasons. In Japan, there is more of an emphasis on putting others’ needs before your own, and not “rocking the boat,” shall we say. Going back and forth between Japan and the United States, I learned very quickly that expressing your emotions sans filter in Japan was, and still can be, frowned upon. One is valued for their ability to conform, and frowned upon should they choose to stand out. You are given one (and only one) shot at college entrance exams per year; should you fail, you will be known as a ronin, a word that remains from the age of the samurai, a word that was used to refer to warriors who had no master to serve.

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In 2014, 25,427 people died by suicide. And that was the lowest the suicide rate has been in over 18 years.

Encouraging? Yes. Still disturbing? Yes. People with disabilities have an even harder time responding to the overwhelming pressure of living in Japanese society. Mental health is not openly discussed; as in many other Asian countries, it is still very much a taboo subject. Depression was not widely recognized in Japan until the late 1990’s.

Knowing that this young man previously worked at the Sagamihara center disturbs me even more, especially as someone who regularly works with people who deal with mental health challenges. Perhaps I’m being too generous or naive, but I would hope that individuals who work with people with disabilities every day would develop a sense of compassion and acceptance for them, especially working with them so closely. However, this was not the case with this young man, someone who, despite having a supposedly cheerful image, wanted “Japan to be a country where the disabled can be euthanized.” It just goes to show that you never know what someone you think you know is really thinking.

While I appreciate the idea of praying for a country in times of crisis (a social media trend that, as far as I’m aware, did not occur in the instance of this attack), I don’t believe that praying for a country is
going to help much. Yes, people who feel powerless when they see these tragedies occur try to find comfort by doing something — anything — they can think of. I understand that. But prayer alone is not going to bring about the massive change that clearly needs to occur, not just in Japan, but in this world.

When you ask people how they are, most of us will trot out the answer “I’m fine” automatically. Very few of us will say, “I’m (insert expletive of choice here) miserable. I lost my job, my anxiety is terrible, my car broke down, and all I want to do is watch cartoons and cry.” We choose saying that we’re fine for various reasons, and I’m not going to pretend to know all of them, especially because we all come from different backgrounds and circumstances. I’ve found that opening up about your emotions makes you more relatable. By being honest and vulnerable about your story, you give others around you permission to do the same.

I understand that in various cultures it’s difficult to do something so revealing when such actions are frowned upon. But if you lie once about how you feel, you’re going to have to lie again, and continue to lie until you can’t distinguish the truth from your story.

My hope for the world is that we can all — regardless of background and circumstance — learn to be just a little more honest when we interact with others around the world. Real change doesn’t come
from prayer. Real change comes as a result of thousands of efforts from thousands of people who challenge the status quo. Real change comes from people listening carefully to those who are different from them and working together, not euthanizing an entire population of individuals just because they are different from the people around you. Real change starts with us.

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When People Talk About Me as If I'm Not There Because I Have a Disability

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I am a very kind, understanding person most of the time. But lately, quite a few frustrations have been building up inside of me, mostly about how people treat me differently because of my chronic illnesses and some of my struggles.

It’s usually just a short phrase – an interruption – someone quickly talking for me or even over me. Sometimes it’s a slight scolding, someone telling me what I need to do or shouldn’t do.

I tend to let most of these annoyances or frustrations slide, outwardly. I stay silent because I don’t want to make a scene. I don’t want to be seen as over-sensitive. I also don’t want my concerns to be perceived as an attack on someone just because they didn’t happen to know something. And of course, I don’t want to be the “PC Police,” zipping about with sirens blaring.

But man, some of these things are really starting to get under my skin. I know they also tend to bother many other people with disabilities, so I figured it’s time to get my three biggest frustrations out there, along with an explanation of why they anger, annoy, or hurt me.

1) When I’m having a conversation with a group of people and someone randomly shares tidbits of information about my abilities without my consent.

Let me give you a few real-life examples. We’re talking about cars, and someone says, “Oh it’s simple, just shift it quickly into reverse, and then…” I’m listening and interested in the conversation, but then someone else jumps in and says, sometimes in a hushed voice, “Oh… but she can’t drive.”

Why did they have to do that? If someone had said, “I was thinking about having Michelle pick me up at 8,” it might be appropriate to offer up that information, but in this context it’s not necessary. It didn’t add anything to the conversation. It actually interrupted the flow a bit, taking the spotlight
off the person speaking and pointing it at me and one more thing I can’t do.

Once, during a conversation about food choppers in industrial kitchens, I didn’t have much to say on that topic since I’ve never worked in one. However, I do use a small chopper and slicer in my own kitchen, so I inserted my thoughts on those. Once again, someone had to come to my defense and say, “Well she can’t physically chop vegetables herself with a knife.”

That wasn’t a piece of information I was going to offer up in that instant. I didn’t really want to
change the conversation to be about me; I was just trying to find a way to add my voice. And the thing is, I technically can chop vegetables with a knife, it’s just very hard, painful, rather dangerous, and yes, there are definitely days and moments when I cannot physically do it.

These might seem like really small things that shouldn’t get under my skin, but I don’t like constantly being reminded that I’m different than others, or that I can’t do certain things. I also don’t think letting people know this information will help them understand me better or make the conversation
go more smoothly. Sometimes it just creates awkwardness, and makes it seem like I can’t really speak for myself.

2) When people talk about me like I’m not actually there.  This happened to me just last month, while I was in the security line at the airport. I was using a wheelchair and my sister was
pushing it for me. We made it to the little conveyor belt and started removing our shoes, belts, and all the other things required by TSA.

A stranger came up and asked, “Hey, is it OK if I cut in front of her? I have a flight that leaves in 20 minutes and I have to rush through the airport.” I thought that was a totally appropriate question to ask, and I was happy to let her pass since I am, indeed, a bit slow getting through security checkpoints. However, I was taken aback for a brief second when I realized she said “her” instead of “you” or “y’all.” I responded with, “Yeah of course, please do!” with a smile and a slight gesture for her to go ahead. For just a second or so, she seemed completely shocked and a bit startled that I had been the one to respond.

This actually happens quite often to people with visible disabilities. I don’t know if it’s because people are scared to talk to us because we’re a bit different, or if they assume we might not be able to comprehend situations or speak to people. Or maybe it’s a completely different reason I haven’t yet cracked, but it is always unsettling to realize that people talk about you when you are right there, without seeming to acknowledge your presence.

Speaking for someone when they are right there adds to the stigma that people with disabilities are incapable of speaking for ourselves. If others see it happening, it might lead them to assume it is best to automatically speak to a caregiver or person with them, instead of the person themselves. And once that happens, the cycle of being spoken for, over, and about just keeps going.

Please talk to us! Even if you doubt we’ll be able to respond or acknowledge you spoke, a hello and a smile is a common courtesy I believe should be offered to anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or ability.

Another example: I was out for lunch and drinks with a few people and after a while the person who drove me said, “I have to get this one home.” That stung quite a lot. I was being talked about like I wasn’t even a person, or like I was a misbehaving toddler or a spouse who had too much to drink.

I wanted to snap back and say, “Hey, why do you think that? Maybe I’m having a good time and want to stay longer?” But I didn’t feel like I had the emotional strength, and I also felt like I’d be butting my way into a conversation that I wasn’t really a part of anyway.

Yes, I was having a pretty bad pain day. Yes, I was having issues with some of my other symptoms. And, yes, this was probably fairly obvious to others. But I was enjoying my time out, and I am capable of saying when I want to or need to leave. Even if you think it’s best for me to do something, please ask me before making that assumption. I probably had about 30 more minutes worth of energy to use at the restaurant. Trust me, I keep really good tabs on what my body needs.

On the way home in the car, they told me I just looked like I was hurting and it would really be best for me to leave. I wish we could’ve had that conversation while we were out instead. I appreciate that they were concerned about me. Maybe they didn’t want to bother me by asking. But the phrase “I have to get this one home” just sounded negative to me — almost like they didn’t want to leave, but I was dragging them away. Or maybe they wanted to leave, and used my condition as an excuse.

Maybe I’m being a tad dramatic with my suppositions here, but those words bothered me for many reasons. Being talked over adds to the stigma that those with physical disabilities are unable to speak for themselves and make decisions independently. It also makes me feel voiceless, and I’m guessing not too many people enjoy that.

3) When people parent me and ask questions like: “Should you really be doing that?”

I don’t need special treatment, I only need the accommodations I will request myself. I’m not fragile; I don’t need to be protected. I know my body better than anyone else, and I know my limitations. I know what I am capable of doing and what my body can withstand. I don’t need to hear something like: “Are you sure someone with your condition should be doing that? It’s a really bad idea.”

When I’m having a good day and feel like fully taking advantage of the chance to finally be a bit spontaneous and step up onto a little rock and pretend to balance, or do some other silly, slightly childish thing, I’m going to do it! I have to find my smiles wherever they’re at.

I have the amazing privilege of having good days where I might even be able to let go of my cane for a few fleeting minutes and pretend my body is a tiny bit like it used to be. I don’t want to be scolded for doing that! I wouldn’t put myself in danger and randomly do this on a regular or bad day. So when someone voices concerns like this, it acts like a weight, dragging me away from the happiness I found and exchanging it for a place of otherness and inability.

In addition, being “parented” by others gets annoying. I am adult, and having voices constantly chiming in on what I should and should not do makes me feel infantilized.

So, to sum this up: I’m getting incredibly frustrated with being spoken for and being spoken over.

Half the time, the things people tell others for me and/or about me are actually wrong and not what I want, think, or need!

I was shy for most of my life. I don’t like confrontation. So if someone’s eagerness to help me is misguided or uninformed and we’re in public, I’ll most likely choose to let it slide. I don’t want anyone to get angry and defensive or say I’m ungrateful. It took me forever to be able to find a voice and be OK with saying what I need and what works for me, as well as what is difficult or impossible for me. Now that I’ve started being a bit more vocal about my struggles, so many people are trying to be helpful, which is awesome!

The thing is, in their eagerness to be helpful and aware of my limitations, sometimes they’ll bring them up in a way I don’t really like. That’s not only frustrating for me, but it’s also embarrassing. Most importantly, though, it perpetuates a stigma which will only continue to drag people down unless we work against it by making small, subtle changes in how we interact with others.

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The Shame I Feel When Someone Calls Me 'Inspiring'

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I attended one of Mumbai’s best schools between the ages of 3 and 15. It was girls-only, it stressed learning over studying (no homework until fourth grade), and we had some really imaginative and unconventional teachers. My mother still reminisces about my first day at school, when the kindergarten teacher sat down 30 excitable 3-year-old girls and introduced me to them. She pointed out that I had some physical problems, so I wore leg braces and I needed help, and she told them they should be helpful, but welcoming and friendly.

I spent the next 12 years with more or less those same classmates. We grew up together, learning about Shakespeare, the names of all the layers of the Earth, and long division. I met my best friends there. I first giggled over sex huddled in a tiny group during a free period. In 10th grade, a few students were selected to be prefects. This remnant from the time the school was run by an Englishwoman bestowed upon these students additional responsibilities to help teachers enforce discipline. They would herd younger students to and from school assemblies and monitor classrooms in case of absent teachers. To my absolute glee, I was nominated, and a daily responsibility was assigned to me. In a country where “reasonable adjustments” was — and in some circles still is — an unknown phrase, the teachers and students seemingly effortlessly included me in everything.

Our time at the school ended when we were 15. We were moving on to high school — junior college in India — and there was a little award ceremony to mark our graduation. Certificates were handed out to students who’d scored the highest in any subject in the recent exams, congratulating them for their performances in English or Physics. I too was given an award — but it commended my “inspiring performance.”

I remember being uncomfortable when I was told about the award a few days in advance, but I dismissed my doubts as stage fright. To be inspiring is positive, noble even; it was a compliment, right? My teenage self couldn’t even begin to fathom why this could be an insult. I remember coming home and stuffing the certificate under a stack of school documents, uninterested in showing it off. (I actually looked for it last week to accurately quote the commendation, but couldn’t find it. Guess I did a good job hiding it.) I couldn’t explain the red-hot ball in my stomach, but there it remained for years.

I can tell you now — a decade later — that the flutter in my tummy was shame. I’ve experienced it several times since, during job interviews where my ability to guide an electric wheelchair was praised more than my previous experience, and at the hands of overly cheerful mothers teaching their kids how to react to the obviously disabled lady, for example. When I walked across the auditorium to collect an award congratulating my fairly normal academic performance, it felt like the equivalent of receiving a patronizing pat on my head. It was as if the very people who’d shown me I could be anything I wanted were telling me they were actually quite surprised I’d managed to pass the same exam that almost every 15-year-old in the city had conquered. You did well, I could almost hear them say, for a disabled girl.

Does it sound like I’m nitpicking? I feel like I am. I feel wretched for criticizing a single moment set within years of support, especially since I’m sure the idea was borne of love and thoughtfulness. But I guess that’s my point here: When you start to say something well-meaning or congratulatory to a person with disabilities, something like “you’re so brave” or “I’m so inspired by your determination,” stop. Think about it. Would you say something like that to a non-disabled person? Has the recipient of your keen applause truly achieved something remarkable: Did they save a child from a hungry tiger or survive three forsaken days on a stormy mountain? Or are they out doing their shopping or learning to navigate life in their own way, just like you are?

Morally responsible adults recognize the standard ways of isolating a person who looks different than them. They watch themselves for bullying or discriminatory behavior. They bring their children up to be understanding of their disabled friends’ needs, to plan accessible outings, to not imitate a limp or speech impairment. But what they don’t realize, what their disabled acquaintances and friends may not express dissatisfaction about — probably because people with disabilities are afraid it may sound ungrateful — is that alienating comments can just as easily be delivered with a smile.

Journalist and comedian Stella Young spoke about this in her TED talk in 2014. “We’ve been told that disability is a Bad Thing, capital B, capital T,” she said to her audience. “And to live with disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a Bad Thing and it doesn’t make you exceptional.” Young went on to talk about what she calls inspiration porn, motivational pictures and slogans featuring people with disabilities, aimed at making able-bodied persons feel good about their own lives.

The Establishment recently published an excellent piece about inspiration porn and the many ways in which disabled people are silenced when the able-bodied talk about them as cookie-cutter supporting characters in a motivational story. In such reporting, the writer commented: “[D]isabled individuals are rendered passive. They rarely get to speak for themselves, to communicate how they feel…”

Here’s how I feel: When I’m out for a walk in the park, and the man jogging past me shouts out, “you’re awesome!” that doesn’t feel like encouragement. It exasperates me that society expects me to not limp about the park with a friend, but to sit there with a blanket on my knees, watching kids play.

When I’m getting into the bus — usually in a little panic because I’m running late — and the kindly woman sitting by the door nods vigorously and smiles “well done” at me, it doesn’t brighten my day. This wasn’t a trapeze act; I just wheeled up a pretty solid ramp, extended by a flick of the kindly bus driver’s finger, and into an empty space. In this video, comedian Laurence Clark goes around hailing able-bodied folks who climb down stairs or use the public loos by themselves as “inspiring.” The subjects of his experiment look baffled. Imagine being disabled and going through your day, with people greeting you like that multiple times a week. Bafflement soon sours into frustration.

Congratulating a disabled person for being out in public or remembering their own name may make you feel real sensitive — but more often than not, it makes the disabled person feel worthless. It makes me wonder how low the standards are set for me, how often people expect me to fail. It reminds me that I’m not just another teenager amongst hundreds at an educational milestone, or just another shopper confused about cereal brands in a busy supermarket. No, I’m an “object of inspiration.” It tells me that no matter what I achieve or how well I perform, I’ll always be judged as a disabled marvel, not as a person.

At the same time, being called “inspiring” feels a bit dismissive. It’s a handy adjective, used by mainstream media in any situation involving differently abled people, and pulling it out is an easy way for able-bodied people to feel as if they have acknowledged the disability. It’s simpler to just drop the I-word and move on than it is to engage with the disability and the ways in which it may influence another person’s real life.

When I’m called “inspiring,” I don’t feel lonely in the same way I would’ve if a table of people had openly pointed and laughed at me. I feel isolated because each of the above examples tells me that I’m not someone with whom people can identify intelligently, that I’m an “example” of some sort.

Even after two decades of this, I haven’t come up with a good defense against being called inspiring. When people stare, I can stare back and shame them into looking away. When they overlook me, I can remember I have a fantastic family and friends who depend upon me as I do them. I can fight bigotry and discrimination with their support and on the back of years of disability rights activism.

But being hailed as inspiring, especially when it’s in the context of little everyday activities, feels insulting in a different way. It surreptitiously makes me doubt my achievements because I don’t know whether I’m really a good writer or student or singer (as people tell me I am), or whether I’m being complimented simply because it’s a convenient way to approach my disability. (Tales of my imposter syndrome belong in another essay.) The gushing “you’re soooo inspiring!” is so often accompanied by a sweet smile that makes me question my right to feel uncomfortable about my experience. It’s an other-ing that looks benign, but hurts more. And yet all I can do is smile tightly and look away and wish I wasn’t being objectified just to improve someone else’s day.

And so, I’m writing this as a plea to all those who call me inspiring. Please, I ask of you, stop.

This piece originally appeared on The Establishment and The Huffington Post.

Image via Thinkstock.

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A Millennial's Guide to College With a Neurological Disability

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School is difficult. Wonderful, mind-expanding, and so very important, but difficult nonetheless. For me, as a college student with a neurological disability and an associated chronic illness, this difficulty pertains less to the academic subject and more so to my means of interacting with that subject. Since an acute flare-up of my Lyme disease in 2014, my brain and body have never been the same; sensory processing difficulties have made reading, writing, and sometimes speaking taxing, retaining information difficult, and staying neurologically-present in overwhelming environments near-impossible.

Before I was disabled, I didn’t have to think twice about succeeding in classes. Save my usual millennial attention span and affinity towards scrolling through Facebook on my iPhone under the table, I was a “successful” student. I spoke up in class without stuttering, comprehended material the first time I read it, took tests in the allotted amount of time, and ran on five hours of sleep without a problem.

But things are different now, and so the way in which I approach my education is different as well. I  have a disability, but I am also disabled — disabled by an educational system that was not designed for the way my brain works. And so the responsibility has fallen on me, as it does on so many with disabilities and their loved ones, to try to accommodate myself — and try I have.

After much trial and error, I’ve found some tools that make the classroom more bearable for me as a neurologically-disabled person. Here’s my ever-evolving list:

READING

Mac Text to Speech Tool
I have a Mac computer, and have adjusted my system preferences such that when I select a group of text and press a keyboard shortcut, my computer reads the selected text out to me. For other Mac users, this can be done by clicking on “System Preferences” in the computer dock, selecting “Dictation & Speech,” and toggling with the setting under the “Text to Speech” tab. I use the “Alex” voice and I swear he sounds more like a friend than a computer robot to me by now.

Kurzweil 3000
This program scans and reads PDFs and text files out loud, and also highlights the text as it is read. It isn’t free, but your school disability services office may generate a free log-in for you to use. Just make sure you ask your professors to email you the PDF files of all handouts and readings. You can also request to have your textbooks transferred to e-text files through the disability services office.

Learning Ally
Learning Ally is a database of academic audio books specifically for the disabled—you have to provide documentation of your disability for a membership. They have a variety of textbooks available and the fact that they are read primarily by elderly women and not a robot (Sorry, Alex!) is really cute and comforting. They have applications for the computer, tablet, and phones as well, so you can listen to your books on the go.

Audible
This is another resource for audio books, though they do not have many textbooks available. Their novel collection is impressive, though, and their prices are competitive.

Colored Overlays
I use these to reduce the contrast between black and white text on paper handouts (or even my phone!). While purple is the color that works best for my brain, they’re available in a variety of different colors that adjust to your personal preferences.

WRITING

Dragon Dictation Phone Application
This application is free for smartphone users and is more accurate than using the iPhone’s built-in speech to text features. I just open the app, lecture to it, and email the text to my computer so I can edit it into academic assignments.

Dragon Dictate
This is the computer version of the free phone application—it allows you to speak into the computer to type, but also to control your computer. Takes some getting used to, but is incredibly helpful for anyone who struggles to type and get around a computer manually.

COMPREHENSION

FM Listening System
While my hearing is not at all impaired, my ability to focus on one particular sensation in an overwhelming room is limited. Having an earbud in my ear that spits out exactly what my professor is saying helps me to stay grounded.

Livescribe Smartpen
This pen is so cool, and would be helpful to anyone, disabled or not. It comes with a matching notebook and not only transfers all of your written notes to your smartphone, but also audio records and links its audio recordings to the notes in your phone. For me, this is helpful because instead of taking notes, I can doodle and scribble — which is one of the ways I stim — and go back and listen to exactly what my brain might not have fully comprehended by clicking on what I drew.

Theraputty
Sensory stimulation is extremely important for me and to many with sensory processing disorder. Without it, I drift into what I affectionately (and sarcastically) refer to as my “brain palace.” So during class, and during any situation where I want to remain present, I like to play with Theraputty, which is both visually and tactilely stimulating. It’s fun to fidget with and even more fun to try and remove from your favorite jacket when you get it stuck in the pocket (the sarcasm returns).

Coloring Books
I use these for similar reasons that I use the theraputty—putting pressure on color pencils feels nice and moving my hands around helps me pay attention to what is being said in the classroom. It’s also proven to reduce anxiety, which all students (and humans) could use a little less of!

Chew Toys
Chewing gives me additional calming sensory stimulation, and trying to ruin whatever I’m chewing on is an added challenge. There are plenty of chew toys out there for those with special sensory needs, and some are really discreet—I have a cute pendant that looks like a purple gemstone.

Above all, it has been crucial for me to remind my professors and myself about my condition. It’s easy for me to convince myself that I’m exaggerating my condition, because I look perfectly “normal” and can pretend exceptionally well. I am not exaggerating. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with my current state and to learn what helps me be more comfortable within it. Remembering this makes it easier to self-advocate and do what I need to do to remain well.

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Tommy Hilfiger and Runway of Dreams Releases Back-to-School Collection for Kids With Disabilities

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On Wednesday, Tommy Hilfiger released its second collection for children with disabilities in partnership with the nonprofit Runway of Dreams. The back-to-school collection features pieces which can serve as a full wardrobe for both boys and girls.

“I’m excited to say that we definitely expanded the collection with some more basics – jeans, khakis, basic shirts – which are an important need in the demographic,” Runway of Dreams founder Mindy Scheier told The Mighty.

The line, an adaptive version of Tommy Hilfiger’s fall children’s line, will also include cardigans for girls and sweatshirts for boys. All items were designed to be accessible, featuring modifications such as replacing buttons and zippers with magnets, adjustable waistbands, and altered seams. The collection also experiments with openings on the side and in the back.

Girl with assistive device modeling Runway of Dreams clothing

This collection follows the success of the first Runway of Dreams line, launched earlier this year. “The response, thankfully, was overwhelmingly positive,” Scheier said. “Runway of Dreams was the top three products sold on the website including adults. This shows that there is a market out there.”

Young boy modeling Runway of Dreams outfit

Not only is the Runway of Dreams line adaptive, it is modeled exclusively by children with disabilities. “By using a variety of disabled models, we are showing the vast range of disabilities and the need for adaptive clothing throughout,” Scheier said. “We are nothing if not authentic.”

Tommy Hilfiger is the first major brand Runway of Dreams has partnered with. In addition to the fall Runway of Dreams line, Tommy Hilfiger is currently working on future adaptive lines for the next several seasons. Future lines may also include a line of adaptive clothing for adults.

Little boy modeling Tommy Hilfiger clothes

Runway of Dreams is looking to expand its partnerships and is in conversation with other fashion brands to creative adaptive lines of their clothing. “Our goal is to partner with as many brands and retailers as possible, so there are adaptive clothes for every budget,” Scheier said. “Medical needs are taxing on your budget, we want to make sure there are options for everyone.”

All photos credited to Richard Corman. 

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