The world's biggest social network just found a brilliant way to be more accessible to blind users.

Someone in my Facebook feed recently uploaded a ... surprising picture with the caption, "I drove past this on the way home."

In the comments, a friend wrote, "Woah!" Another person, "lol."


There are so many ways to react to a photo! Image by Theus Falcão/Flickr.

Want to know what it was a picture of? If you're like most of Facebook's 1.5 billion users, I could just send you the link so you could see for yourself. But if you're blind or visually impaired, like 285 million people worldwide, well, tough luck.

People who can't see are often stuck reading contextual clues, asking for clarification, or just flat missing out altogether on these shared Facebook experiences.

But there's some good news.

Facebook's accessibility team is working on new artificial intelligence that would scan, analyze, and describe photos to users who need it.

The Internet can be a challenging place for people who are blind or visually impaired, but it's actually come a really long way.

Amanda Martins, a student in New York who's been blind since just before her first birthday, told Upworthy, "I can do most things on the Internet."

She credits screen readers like Apple's VoiceOver that can read text aloud to her. And accessibility best practices have really evolved to help web designers and content creators when it comes to writing descriptive captions for their images, which can also be read by these programs.

But the uncharted world of user-generated content on social media is a totally different story.

Screen readers are kind of like Braille for the Internet. Photo by rolanddme/Flickr.

We share practically our entire lives on Facebook. Whether it's baby pictures, wedding photos, or the always popular "alcoholic beverage held up against a sunsetting sky." But if you can't see, you can't interact with these moments, and rarely do the captions we write for our photos accurately describe them (though Amanda said she's super appreciative when they do).

That leaves those who are blind or visually impaired missing out on the connectivity that's supposed to be at the heart of Facebook.

Facebook's new "object recognition," while it can't describe whole images, will be able to identify and describe some of their key elements to a user.

Matt King, a Facebook engineer who is also blind, walked TechCrunch through how it might work:

King eventually scrolled to a friend's post that featured text and a photo. His friend, Anne, wrote, “Ready for picture day of first grade" accompanied with a photo. Thanks to the object recognition technology Facebook is prototyping, King heard: “This image may contain, colon, one or more people. Child." Without it, all King would've known was that Anne wrote, “Ready for picture day of first grade," and that she posted a photo — but nothing about what was in the photo. For another photo, the tool told him: “This image may contain colon nature, outdoor, cloud, foliage, grass, tree."

OK, it's not exactly Hemingway, but it's better than nothing.

Talking about this intriguing development, Amanda said, "No technology is ever going to enable me to 'see' pictures. And that's fine. I just want to be able to understand what a huge percentage of my news feed is. Even if all this technology can do is tell me that someone's uncaptioned photo is 'outside, child, bus,' I'll be able to intuit that it's a photo of a kid getting on a bus for school."

Facebook's tool might describe this as "outside, children, bus." Photo by woodleywonderworks/Flickr.

King put it like this: "This might not be 100 percent yet, but even if it's just halfway there, the level of engagement that's possible, the amount of enjoyment I can get — that's like going from zero percent to at least 50 percent of what you might get. That's a huge jump."

Facebook's accessibility team has a tough job, but they've done some great work so far.

The team, led by Jeff Wieland, is designed to "improve Facebook for people with disabilities, and ensure that our products cooperate with assistive technology."

They do a lot of their work inside an "Empathy Lab," an environment that allows engineers to emulate what it might be like to use Facebook with different impairments. That's led them to make some pretty cool improvements to the platform, like better integration with VoiceOver and built-in support for people posting about depression or self-harm.

They're not perfect, though. Amanda says she's constantly encountering new Facebook features that don't work with VoiceOver, though she also says Facebook is usually pretty good about getting those issues fixed.

According to TechCrunch, Facebook hopes to release object identification by the end of the year on either their mobile or web platform.

Oh, and the picture my Facebook acquaintance put up? It was of some police trying to keep a cow from crossing the highway. But it could have just as easily been something much more memorable, like a baby's first steps or a friend proudly standing in front of her newly purchased home.

As for the fact that soon no one will have to miss out on things like that because they can't see? There's only one thing left to say:

Photo by Sean MacEntee/Flickr.

True

Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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