Virginia Jacko is president and CEO of the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ML). During her tenure, their number of clients has increased from fewer than 500 in 2004 to over 22.000 today. She’s also spearheading a variety of innovative programs for the visually impaired of all ages. She’s one of the leaders that are making Miami and the State of Florida a more inclusive community for everyone.
Q: What is the Miami Lighthouse?Back in 1931, a friend of Hellen Keller called Dolly Gamble was concerned that she hadn’t seen any blind people since she moved to Miami in 1929. What did people do with the blind at that time? They would, more or less, lock them in a closet –they weren’t up and about. Hellen Keller said to Dolly Gamble: “we’re going to do something about that”, and in 1931 the ML began. The purpose of the Miami Lighthouse is to provide vision rehabilitation, eye health, education, and research.
Q: On a more personal note, what brought you to the ML?I was a successful executive with an eye disease that would lead to total blindness. My daughter had received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award –it’s called the Presidential Award–, and she noticed how I struggled on the computer. I would say: “if only I could make the font larger; if only I could make the background blue and the letters white; if only the monitor could be adjusted so more icons are in the center”, etc. Since then a lot of software has been developed –ZoomText being one example–, but by helping me my daughter was early in adapting different color screens, and the monitor in Microsoft. She was here in Miami and went to the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, which was founded by the Miami Lighthouse – and together they developed protocols, depending upon the eye disease, on how should monitors be configured in terms of color, font size, etc. She told me that if my eyes got bad enough I should relocate to Miami and become a client of Miami Lighthouse. I did it in 2001 and fell in love with the mission. I became a volunteer board member and was asked, because of my strong financial background, to be treasurer of the board. Ultimately, in 2005 I became the ML’s first blind president and CEO.
Q: You’ve talked about how sighted people can feel uncomfortable around blind people, and how at the Miami Lighthouse you have developed programs to foster inclusion. Among them, there’s the inclusive Preschool Program. Can you tell us about it? How is it different from other programs, and what kind of results have you gotten? It’s the only program in the country where sighted and blind children together are interacting with the same curriculum –the High Scope curriculum, an international syllabus which got this program featured in their journal. We started with 15 children, and now there’s 60– plus five classrooms, and a kindergarten that will be launched next fall. What we found through a study by the University of Miami is a high degree of empathy and interaction. These children don’t realize that some of them are blind and that some of them aren’t –they’re just peers interacting together. That leads me to another program that has to do with inclusion. Too often, when people are shut out, one of the most common ways is through the computer. I can use a computer as well as anyone, but prior to pointing and clicking, we had a lot of keystroke commands. Back then there was Word Star and WordPerfect, but now the blind use the keystroke commands just as much as with those early programs. Through the keystroke commands, we ask the monitor to provide information auditorially. However, if a website logo, for example, doesn’t have any text behind it, the software stops when it sees it, and says: “Graphic”. Then you’re shut out. Some years ago, people were being shut out from going to the courthouse because there weren’t any ramps for wheelchairs. Today people are being shut out because business is done through a computer. As well as with those ramps, it has to do with accessible –website– design. And while my daughter was involved in that 20 years ago, who would have thought that 20 years later businesses would still be asking why does their website need to be accessible to the visually impaired. First, it’s good business. Second, one out of four seniors –65 or older– will have uncorrectable vision loss, and they’ll most like be computer users. That’s why it is important to allow users to be in control of color, contrast, font size. In the programming, we’re not saying people need to change their branding –but they need to change what’s behind what a person sees so what is on the monitor is completely accessible. Miami Lighthouse is a leader in website audits. Whether it’s an airline –for Argentinian Airlines (Aerolíneas Argentinas) we had to do the work in Spanish and English–, a hotel, a restaurant, a school, a hospital, a government entity, that’s where our expertise is: helping businesses have accessible websites to avoid lawsuits. It should be a high priority for every business, and they cannot be exclusionary, they must be inclusive.
Q: Basically, these companies can engage Miami Lighthouse to get an audit and see what they need to fix or alter on their website. They can go to Miami lighthouse.org, find my contact information and talk to me personally, or I will get one of our computer scientists. They have the same eye disease I have, but when they got their degrees in computer science they could still see. Now they’re completely blind. I want to have a competition someday with sighted people. For example, we can all make a Word document and whoever does it the quickest gets a prize. I believe the blind people here at ML would win, but that’s because we teach technology and we provide technology services to businesses.
Q: It seems the role of technology is key in providing bridges and access. Even with iPhones, beyond Siri help with accessibility. You can change your iPhone and the screen would be black, but you put in what’s called voice over, so that iPhone is operating completely on verbal commands.
Q: What about the rest of the programs? The music program, for example. The music program is an inclusion project. Blind musicians need to be able to function in the outside world, and sighted musicians need to be able to include their talented, visually impaired peers. We were finalists for a Latin Grammy in 2014 for our children’s album, and seeing them perform, you’re not seeing blind and sighted performers –you see musicians working together in an inclusive environment. We have a distance learning, virtual music program, with 26 lessons. We have international and national clients, Florida clients, people that are blind and are learning to read sheet music using Braille. A blind musician can’t play just based on what they hear, they need to have access to sheet music. Everything is about accessibility.
Q: Another particularly interesting initiative is the Mentoring Matters Program. What is it about? People with vision loss can get scared, especially seniors who have age-related eye diseases, and they tend to just stay home. But what if they found a friend that came to Miami Lighthouse, and they could get low vision services –like a camera that looks exactly like glasses and can read any text to you. So many devices can help seniors with eye disease do more than just stay home, but they need a mentor. They need a mentor that is blind and very successful, and that can happen in so many different ways: working at a call center, for example. At the Miami International Airport, when the sound system says “code orange – code blue – don’t leave your bags”, that is a blind person graduated from our sound engineering program.
Q: You’ve been in this space for a while. Do you see any changes, any trends in terms of inclusion, creating and building a more inclusive society? Through technology we get inclusion. The problems come when the developers don’t design it to be accessible for all disabilities, and the Miami Lighthouse can help in the design area. One company, for example, came up with talking menus, and we’re helping them develop that idea. Technology can be a great friend for people with disabilities –especially for the ones with vision impairment– it is well designed. I believe, also, that we’re making more of a conscious effort to be inclusive. If businesses want to have all the market possible, they can’t shut out people with hearing or vision impairments by not having an accessible website. It’s good business and it is being inclusive.