Able Eyes: Know Before You Go.

Able Eyes circular blue, green, red, orange and yellow logo which reads: Able Eyes: Know before you go
a smiling Meegan Winters

I’d like to think that Able Eyes is part of the future of accessibility. Imagine if EVERY business in the US had a virtual tour that visitors could view beforehand.

“My story starts back in high school when I volunteered at an MDA Summer Camp. At this camp, I spent a full week assigned to a “camper” with Muscular Dystrophy caring for and creating memories in a safe space with all of the accommodations necessary to swim, eat, dance (prom), and participate in activities that campers may not otherwise be included in due to physical needs.  The camper I was assigned to was Jessica, who ended up becoming a lifelong best friend. This experience was the moment I realized my purpose on this earth was to help people with varying abilities have the same experiences as their peers. 

Jessica and I remained friends through the remainder of high school and into college where we lived together. Supporting someone in an all-accessible camp was one thing, but living day in and day out in a world that isn’t fully accessible is another. People were kind, and always willing to help but we certainly had our struggles . . . especially in public restrooms that may not have been big enough for her, her chair, and myself to transfer her. It certainly would have helped if we knew beforehand what to expect.

I graduated and started my career as a special education teacher while Jessica continued her education toward counseling, (in hopes of helping others with disabilities navigate through life and the challenges that come along with it). Jessica had nearly completed her Master’s Degree when she fell ill with what would probably have been a common cold for many, but due to weaker muscles in her chest was unable to cough hard enough to break up the mucus, leading to infection, and eventually to her passing in 2015.

During my earlier years of college (before Jessica joined me), I started working as a Behavioral Aide in the homes of children on the Autism Spectrum. These were children with significant needs at risk of being removed from their family home due to violent behavior toward themselves and others. My role was to create and implement behavior plans one-on-one to help alleviate the stress on the family; allowing the Autism Spectrum children to remain in their home.  This was the chapter in life that started my interest in working with children on the spectrum (working toward a special education degree specializing in ASD). 

After college, I immediately started my career as a special education teacher working with students on the Autism Spectrum. For 7 years I worked in the classroom, 1 year as an ASD Teacher Consultant, 2 as an Assistive Technology Coordinator, and 3 as an Assistant Principal. In all of these positions, I talked to parent after parent that struggled to take their children to the doctor, the dentist, the grocery store, and very few ever traveled or went on vacations as a family. One of the common characteristics of children on the Spectrum is a need for routine. Transitions to new, unexpected places or events would often cause significant anxiety leading to potential behaviors that not only could be dangerous but were also embarrassing to parents because people often can’t “tell” their child has Autism just by looking at them.  What if there was some way to help children and families prepare beforehand.

The idea for Able Eyes came to me during my time as a classroom teacher. I was attending a conference in Chicago (not related to virtual tours), but it was the first time I had ever seen a virtual tour and I thought “THIS IS IT! This is the thing that could help parents, help students, help people like Jessica to “Know Before You Go,” creating opportunities for people to try new things, visit new places and live their best life.

Jessica knew of my dream and fully supported it, however, it took her passing to find the courage to leave the stability of the school district and take a chance on my dream in 2017. What I do, I do in honor of Jessica knowing that she is here with me supporting me and cheering me on to make my difference in the world.  

Able Eyes and the need it addresses
Able Eyes is a virtual tour hosting website (App coming soon) functioning similar to YELP. A user can enter their location and category of interest to find virtual tours across the US (soon beyond). By having virtual tours accessible and easy to access, users can look at and explore a place such a restaurant, hotel, park, school, or any place open to the public from the comfort of home prior to visiting.
Americans With Disabilities Act has certainly been a step in the right direction for people with physical disabilities gaining access to the community, however we have very few accommodations for people with invisible disabilities such as ASD, Anxiety, and PTSD.

The disabilities that benefits most from Able Eyes
Able Eyes really could benefit any person with or without disabilities however, the company was started from the heart of accessibility and can help so many people feel comfortable both in their community and while traveling.

Examples Include:

* Children and Adults on the Autism Spectrum (1 in 52 births)
* Children and Adults with Anxiety
* Wheelchair Users
* Veterans with PTSD
* Children and Adults with IDD
* Elderly
* Mothers with Strollers
* Children and Adults with Hearing Disabilities
* And after almost 2 years in a pandemic, people are more understanding and empathetic of isolation and the anxiety of going out into the public/concerned about safety.

The types of businesses that can use Able Eyes
Basically any brick and mortar business open to the public or outdoor parks can use Able Eyes.

Examples include:
*restaurants
* museums
* parks
* theme parks
* schools
* zoos
* community resources (Arcs, food pantrys, disability services, veteran services, etc.)
* doctor offices
* hospitals
* dentist
* retail stores
* grocery stores
* therapy centers

Every moment is a proud moment – one not more important than the other. For each new business we include in Able Eyes, I think “if even one child or person gets to experience this zoo, this museum, this park, or this college because of Able Eyes, then we are doing the right thing.”

The future of accessibility
I’d like to think that Able Eyes is part of the future of accessibility. Imagine if EVERY business in the US had a virtual tour that visitors could view beforehand. Through this journey, I have met so many amazing people doing incredible things in the space of accessibility. If we could all come together to include virtual tours, audio descriptions, closed captioning, social stories, and accessibility evaluations in each business the world would instantly become more accessible to all.

www.ableeyes.org