Influential Prose

Kevin McLeod's Portfolio

Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction

What Factors Might Be Influencing Religious Trends?

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The character of religion in the U.S. has undergone many changes since the country’s founding, and today change remains a constant. Three contemporary trends stand out. First, affiliation with traditional institutions is loosening and declining, while belief in God holds steady. Second, views on social issues are liberalizing, as increasing acceptance of gay marriage has made clear. Third, shifting demographics are altering convictions. Members of the Baby Boom generation (people born from 1946 through 1964) are entering their 60s, and historically older populations increasingly turn toward religion. But Millennials – people who came of age in 2000 – show far less commitment to organized faith.

Declining affiliation
Church attendance figures, confidence levels and generational change all contribute toward a trajectory of decline in religious affiliation. In polls, 40% of Americans consistently say they regularly attend church. Clergy report actual weekly attendance figures are now closer to 20% and attribute the gap to the “halo effect” – what pollsters call a well-known tendency among poll respondents to mildly exaggerate culturally favored behaviors, such as voting and church attendance, while minimizing unsavory behavior such as excess drinking.

Scandals have shaken the faithful, with polls showing confidence in organized religion falling during periods of crisis. The biggest impact came from the late 1980s scandals regarding televangelists Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker, followed by the 2002 child molestation cases involving Catholic clergy in Massachusetts.
Younger Americans are not attending church at the same rates as their elders, and church attendance has not kept pace with population growth. Younger churchgoers who still attend are favoring “contemporary” worship services not offered by more traditional churches.

Continuing belief
Despite the drop in religious affiliation, majority belief in God has remained consistent despite economic and political change over the past 24 years. From 1987 to 2012, between 60% – 72% completely agree with the statement “I never doubt the existence of God” – the highest rate of any Western nation.

The intensity of belief varies with geography and political affiliation. The number of people who feel religion is very important in their lives runs from a low of 36% in the New England states to a high of 82% in the deep South. The national average is 56%.
Pew Research finds Republicans are most strongly invested in faith, followed by Democrats and Independents. Evangelical political activism has affected public perception of both religion and politics since presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan declared a “cultural war” at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Social values
As belief in God has held steady, the character of faith and attitudes toward values associated with belief are changing. Views on social issues of importance to evangelicals — birth control, homosexuality, marriage, censorship – have all become increasingly progressive. Animus toward nonbelievers is softening, as signified by a papal declaration that even atheists are redeemed.

Public opinion on guns and drugs are in flux following high-profile events — the legalization of marijuana in some states and support for background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. The role of women in society garnered more attention following a series of gaffes by conservative lawmakers during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Demographic change
It has long been true that older generations tend to be more devout than youth. The Millennials maintain the pattern of less devotion to faith than their elders, but with an important difference: they are even less involved with organized religion than previous generations were at their age.

Immigration does not have a significant impact on these numbers. Second-generation immigrants are consistently less devout than their parents.Twenty-five percent of Millennials are not affiliated with any faith. Among GenX (those born after 1964 through the early 1980s) that number at the same age was 20%. Among Boomers, it was 13%. As Boomers enter their final decades, it remains to be seen if their involvement with religion follows the historical pattern and rises.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:27 pm

How Diversity Affects Religious or Secular Beliefs

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

The effects of religious diversity vary depending on how diversity develops. It can occur through conquest, immigration, refugee movements, or splintering of existing religious groups into a variety of sects. New value systems can be established by a charismatic leader, or may arise spontaneously in response to a significant event. Access to new information may transform the beliefs, practices and values of existing religions.

Community interaction
When there is little interaction between belief communities, misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions can lead to conflict. The character of a belief community can also affect attitudes in other belief communities. Aggressive belief systems advocate dominance; they openly call for the subjugation or elimination of other beliefs and/or belief communities. Aggression is not limited to religious belief — a regime can be also aggressively secular and suppress religious belief.
Belief communities can coexist peacefully, influenced by a variety of factors; the prevailing level of tolerance and respect for diversity, perceived threats, historical experience, new events, quality of leadership and cultural custom. How groups relate to each other and secular society will deeply influence the flow of ideas and values between them.

Community values
As children, we soak up established, existing values from the surrounding culture, values so prevalent that they are rarely challenged or questioned. Exposure to additional ideas and beliefs can happen through indoctrination (where students are taught what to think), education (where students are taught how to think) or we can learn through our own curiosity and questions.

Religious diversity increases the range of values in the overall community and provides perspective on the prevailing values in each belief community. This broad range of belief and knowledge, religious and secular, becomes part of a marketplace of ideas.

Closed societies
In closed societies, a set of ideas and values are defined and imposed as Truth in a hierarchical, top-down and institutionally enforced process. This marketplace is monopolized, with dissent and competing ideas labeled as blasphemy and subject to harsh penalties.

In this environment, diversity exists only as an underground phenomenon and has little to no impact. Unorthodox ideas cannot coexist with a controlled, closed system. Either new ideas are suppressed, or the system is no longer completely closed.

Open societies
Diverse cultures can evaluate values from the bottom up on the basis of utility, on what works for each culture. Values that serve the culture well, religious or secular, tend to be conserved and passed on through generations, enforced by social custom and supported by the community. Successful values may become influential in other belief communities and be adopted or adapted to their culture.

In changing and challenging social, economic and physical environments, diverse cultures have a distinct advantage; they have a wider range of ideas, values and behaviors to draw from when faced with new problems. Counter-survival belief systems die out with their adherents. Effective belief systems survive. Diversity increases the likelihood that an effective set of values will be available when needed.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:23 pm

Can a City Use Public Funds for City Council Religious Prayers?

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

American government at all levels must serve citizens equally regardless of their faith or lack of it. The Constitution does not permit governments to promote or even give the appearance of allying with any specific religious tradition. Consequently, there are restrictions on funding when government and faith intersect. To avoid confusion, it’s important to distinguish between public and private prayer. Funding in support of public prayer that involves any government agency — a city, state, school, legislature, etc. — is restricted. Private prayer in any form is not restricted.

Establishment Clause
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Supreme Court interprets this to mean government cannot advance, promote or highlight religious belief. When a prayer invokes a specific deity, such as Jesus Christ, Allah, Mohammad, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, etc., it singles out a specific faith. This form of public prayer cannot be sponsored by government.
Why not? Historically, various faiths have come into conflict. To avoid becoming mired in such conflicts, the Constitution forbids the creation of national and state churches, and the creation of laws that would interfere with faith. It is essentially a “hands-off” approach; government abstains from entanglement with religion. This prevents any one group from using government as a vehicle for promoting its faith.

Nondenominational Prayer
In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that nondenominational prayer does not advance any specific religion and therefore does not violate the establishment clause. This ruling means cities are free to pay chaplains and representatives of various faiths to provide a prayer at meetings and other public events as long as it remains nondenominational. These prayers tend to be Christian in form, but when no specific deity is called, they do not breach the traditional “wall of separation” between church and state.

The 1983 ruling created a compromise, and the nature of compromise is that not everyone is fully satisfied with the result. Public prayer is permitted, which dissatisfies those who wish to maintain a clear wall of separation, but public prayer is restricted, dissatisfying those who prefer no restrictions. The decision preserves the intent of the establishment clause by preventing any government entity from advancing a specific belief.

Ongoing Developments
Prayer at city council meetings, whether paid for by tax dollars, offered by paid public servants or offered free of charge, continues to attract attention and controversy. In March 2013, the Staunton, Virginia, City Council voted to alter its customary practice of pre-meeting prayer to include moments of silence and follow a practice of rotating invocations by council members before work sessions. In April 2013, Newberry Township, Pennsylvania, revised its prayer practice on the advice of attorneys after objections were raised in a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In August 2012, an atheist gave the invocation at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, City Council meeting, an event widely noted for its novelty. On May 20, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up a case on prayer at government meetings from Greece, New York; a decision is expected by June 2014. Several groups regularly monitor and report from a variety of perspectives. These include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Center for Law & Justice and the Heritage Foundation.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:19 pm

Fundamentalist Beliefs and Secularism

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Secularism is the concept that we can manage our affairs and institutions — government, business, schools, personal lives — without the influence of religious faith. Fundamentalist beliefs are based on the conviction that our lives and institutions should be guided by divine instruction as revealed by sacred texts.

The term fundamentalism first emerged among Christian Protestants during Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy of the early 1900s. Characteristics of fundamentalists include a literal interpretation of the Bible, acceptance of the doctrines of virgin birth, young-earth creationism, the resurrection and Second Coming. Fundamentalists also promote the concept of “biblical separatism,” which encourages adherents to avoid contact with people who do not share the fundamentalist world view.
The term fundamentalist is now commonly applied far beyond its Protestant roots, to encompass Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and other faiths. The popular interpretation focuses on fundamentalist opposition to modernity, strict interpretation of moral codes and strong rejection of secularism.

In many early civilizations, religion and government were often one and the same, an arrangement known as theocracy. The earliest known entertainment of secular ideas emerged from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës). But the concept of government and other institutions operating separately from religious influence didn’t gain wide acceptance until the Enlightenment in the 1600s.

Early Western writing on secularism, such as John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” and John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” stressed religious tolerance and saw secularism as a way to minimize conflict in cultures with a plurality of faiths. After gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India embraced secular government to unify Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

Opposing Views
Fundamentalism and secularism are joined by their relationship to religious conviction. Fundamentalism attempts to preserve core religious beliefs and requires obedience to moral codes. Secularism’s premise is that social stability can be achieved without reliance on religion. Some cultures, including the United States, have a mix of both. In the U.S., tension between these views is evident in the political arena, where social conservatives and secular liberals hold different positions on issues like sex education, reproductive choice, gay marriage, evolution, censorship and state-sanctioned prayer.

Fundamentalist Violence
On occasion, fundamentalist beliefs have led to violence, most notably the 9/11 attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. Extremist groups in many denominations, however, rely on rigid interpretations of religious texts to justify their cause. Closer to home, the Ku Klux Klan is a Christian group with a history of murder, bombing, political assassination, lynching and arson. Another American Christian terrorist organization known as the Army of God has conducted a campaign of arson, bombs, murder and anthrax threats.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:10 pm

The World Largest Private Deaf Employer

Employment Matters column,

Do you know who is the largest private employer of deaf staff anywhere?

Yes, anywhere. There are other places – deaf schools, mostly – with many deaf staff, but they’re publicly funded. We’re talking about a private business here, with well over 100 deaf staff. We’re talking about full time workers earning $28,000 to $32,000 a year, and often more with overtime. There are deaf people in management – some have worked there since the business opened over 6 years ago. And what does this band of deaf professionals do for a living?

They work with deaf customers. The customers, in this case, are psychiatric patients living at the National Deaf Academy (NDA). And full disclosure – I work at NDA. So this is an inside view.

Psychiatric care is not easy work. The patients who arrive at NDA have often been abused, misunderstood, neglected. Some have wonderfully supportive families, and others have no family at all, or have been abandoned by their families. Many of them need all the support and guidance they can get – and that’s what NDA does.

The support includes a team of deaf and hearing therapists, teachers, doctors, nurses and Mental Health Technicians, all who watch over the patients from day to day. They teach them, care for them, encourage them when they grow frustrated, intervene when they become upset, praise them when they progress.

The work requires extraordinary patience. The customers arrive with serious issues, and it takes time to sort though the problems and develop a program that will match the patient’s needs. The key to making it happen is being able to communicate effectively with the patient, and NDA has more collective experience doing this than any other place in the world.

Because NDA is a residential facility, there is staff on duty 24 hours a day, in three shifts. The morning team begins bright and early at 7 a.m. and hands over responsibility to the afternoon shift at 3 p.m. At 11 p.m the night crew arrives and works until daybreak, when the morning staff returns and the cycle begins again.

The customers span a wide age range, from young children to adolescents and adults. Most of the MHT staff is younger, in their 20’s, with a few 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings sprinkled through. They’ve all worked long, hard hours, through holidays, weekends, on-call and standby shifts, dealing with autism, severe mood swings, bipolar behavior, aggression, low functioning, bickering between the residents and much more. There’s never any shortage of drama.

It’s a very human environment – the philosophy of care at NDA rejects straightjackets and locked rooms. Patients enter a scheduled, structured program with strict rules, and the staff begins with five days of intense training on how to handle everyday business and emergencies. People who have been at NDA for several years have developed a special bond that comes from working together through tough situations.

What makes NDA stand out for the patients is the ability to talk to nearly everyone. Some of them have been placed in hearing psychiatric care before, where the communication abilities of the staff are limited. This often leads to endless frustration.

At NDA, it’s a different story – there are plenty of people they can talk to, work with, vent their angst, and learn to trust. This is a big deal for people who have been insulted and treated poorly in other places. Still, building that trust takes time – sometimes years.

It’s also a big deal for deaf staff to earn a living working with many other deaf employees. There are not many such places. NDA is just north of Orlando, Florida, so it attracts people with good climate, an easy drive to the beach and a lower cost of living than much of the nation.

This summer will bring growth, with a new 46-bed building opening for adults. NDA is preparing now by hiring more staff. Interested readers can learn more at

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 4:18 pm

To Sue or Not to Sue?

Employment Matters column,


One day during the early 90s at a large Washington, DC courthouse, I was suddenly seized without warning by three burly policemen.

My first reaction was astonishment, and the second was fury. I had been minding my own business, doing nothing wrong – who were these people to grab me? – and began fighting to break free. Not a good idea.

As we struggled, I screamed “I’M HEARING IMPAIRED, DAMNIT!” I would have said I’M DEAF, but I remember thinking they wouldn’t believe me if I was screaming it. And ‘hearing impaired’ was the fashionable phrase among hearing people at the time, so I said what I thought they would understand.

They slapped me in handcuffs and left me standing alone in the lobby, angry and humiliated. Eventually they walked me outside, and a lawyer who witnessed the whole spectacle stuffed his card in my shirt pocket and urged me to contact him later. I was taken away in a squad car and driven to a nearby police station. They emptied my pockets – wallet, lawyer’s card, keys – and locked me in an empty cell. I remained there for 45 minutes before someone came around to interview me. I had plenty of time to think about that lawyer’s card.

The interviewer took down basic identification info, then I explained what happened from my point of view. The interviewer went away for another half hour, returned, opened the cell, gave me my belongings and said, “You’re free to go.”

Huh? I started asking questions. Why had I been seized and taken to jail?

Here’s what happened. I’d gone into the courthouse because I was having trouble locating a building nearby, and the courthouse has an information desk. I wrote a note to the clerk asking for directions to the building, and she very kindly wrote out detailed instructions and drew a small map. I thanked her, turned to leave the building, and glanced up to locate the exit. I spotted it, then returned my attention to the note she gave me as I continued walking. I was nearing the exit when I was grabbed.

Turns out, the police had asked me to stop before I reached the door, but of course I didn’t hear them. They asked again, more insistently, and I kept going. They were working security at a major courthouse, and part of their job is to make sure that none of the assorted criminals there for trial slip away. When they asked me to stop, I – from their point of view – ignored them. So they assumed I was trying to sneak out.

As you might expect, they deal with a lot of people who will lie from sunup to sundown, so nothing I said to them was to be believed. They had to check me out. That’s why I was taken to the police station and held there while they gathered facts and checked out my story. When they discovered I was who I said I was and was doing what I said I was doing, they released me, with no record of arrest.

So I was free again. But I had another question that remained unanswered. I had the lawyer’s card. Should I sue or not? Wrongly arrested, held in handcuffs, imprisoned – all this just for seeking directions?

I mulled it over for a while. I knew there might be money in it, and that was tempting, but in the end I recognized that a lawsuit made no sense – the police were just doing their jobs.

They didn’t, and couldn’t know at that moment that I was deaf. They didn’t, and couldn’t know that I was honest. As soon as they did, they explained what happened and I was free. I took it as a lesson – where police are around, keep your eyes open and pay attention. It also gave me a new appreciation for how easy it is for encounters between deaf citizens and police to go badly. These misunderstandings can be, and sometimes are, deadly.

Conflict between deaf employees and hearing employers is seldom deadly, but it does frequently raise the same question I considered – to sue, or not to sue? There is no simple answer, because every situation is different.

Whatever business they are in, the first priority of private employers is earning a profit. If they don’t, of course, they’re out of business – and so are their employees. Their focus is on increasing income and avoiding costs. When they see deaf applicants and workers, their fear is that the worker will become more of a cost than a source of income. The costs come in the form of accommodations – interpreters, fire signaling gear, TTYs or videoconferencing equipment.

These fears are fed by headlines of lawsuits by deaf workers against their employers. Just last year, there was a jury trial in Baltimore that ended with a $108,000 award to a deaf employee of FedEx, following their refusal to provide him with an interpreter. That case was pursued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – the government went to bat for the employee.

Then there’s the huge ten million dollar settlement of a class action lawsuit by over 1,000 current and former employees of United Parcel Service four years ago. This case was also about interpreters, and UPS agreed to provide them going forward.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court considered Tennessee vs. Lane, a case that determined whether disabled people should even be allowed to sue a state government. They decided yes, they should – but the decision was very narrow, with 5 justices in favor and 4 opposed. Just one person, and one vote – by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – marked the difference between our being locked out of court or having a day in it.

Some employers see these stories and many more like them, and see deaf applicants as lawsuits waiting to happen. This, of course, just makes it harder for deaf people to find good jobs.

On the other hand, we know that with reasonable and affordable accommodations, deaf workers can be effective and productive employees. It falls on us to make this clear to employers. There will always be some situations where it will take a lawsuit to convince. But before we get to that point, the responsible approach is to work through alternatives first. The National Association of the Deaf recognizes this, and has published a clear guide for employers.

It lays out what is needed, and notes that employers can deduct the cost of accommodations, and maybe qualify for special tax credits to help reduce the cost of reasonable accommodations. This makes the whole cost issue much easier to deal with, and if employers openly worry about a lawsuit, it’s worth pointing out that providing reasonable accommodations in the beginning is the best defense against a lawsuit ever happening.

When we are faced with a stubborn employer who balks at providing interpreters and other essential accommodations, it’s reasonable and natural to get upset. It’s also human nature to be tempted by the prospect of a big score through a lawsuit. But we need to keep in mind the job prospects for other deaf workers. We are all in this together – how we deal with the accommodations issue will affect everyone in the deaf community.

Yes, the UPS settlement created better conditions at UPS for deaf employees, and that’s an important win. It also undoubtedly created a ripple effect that scared other employers. You may meet some of them someday. When you do, tread carefully. Professionally request accommodations, discuss, negotiate. If all responsible approaches fail, then fight, but more in sorrow than in anger. Lawsuits are an important tool, but they should be a last resort.

Our final goal is to treated as equal and work as equal – because we are equal.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 4:01 pm

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Employment Matters column,

There was a time when deaf employment thundered. Literally – it vibrated and shook, rattled the walls and drove away the timid. And the deaf employees? They were a mob of ink-stained wretches, in the fond phrase of the era. They ran the printing presses, some of which were a big as a small house. In a time before the Net, forests fell and their trees were fed into the maw of enormous machines that required careful, skilled attention.

They were an elite, the men who worked these mechanical beasts. They understood the clanking monsters, knew their temperamental ways. They maintained the subtle balance of tension and pressure needed to apply ink to vast sheets of paper hour after hour, day after day, year after year. They were an essential part of what made every American newspaper a “daily miracle”.

The San Francisco Chronicle had as many as 60 deaf printers producing the paper.

Gary Hendrix and his brother Richard worked there and at the SF Examiner for 37 years, as their father did. Many of their hearing colleagues learned sign language to communicate. One of their co-workers, Doug Floyd, said of 38 years in the pressroom: “It was a total brotherhood.”

In a time when deaf people didn’t get much respect, deaf printers did. In a time when many deaf workers earned meager wages, if any wages at all, deaf printers walked tall with satisfying, regular paychecks.

Many were International Typographical Union members and earned more than teachers. They were living proof of a can-do ethic, of intelligence, ability, and professional reliability.

Some, like Edwin Hodgson, worked hard to share their knowledge and good fortune – he became a printing instructor, making it possible for more deaf printers to earn a living wage, and went on to become a president at the National Association of the Deaf.

That era is gone. The rolling roar of giant mechanical printing presses has muted, and the work is now highly automated. Collections of metal type have been replaced by the mouse and keyboard.

We are no longer slaves to the machines. We are now masters of the Net.

Deaf employment no longer relies on a few narrow professions where hearing workers are at a disadvantage. We are no longer tied down to a single work location. With our pagers, computers, cars and commercial airline service, we have grown wings. We can choose to go where the work is or have the work come to us. Our eyes extend as far as our VRS videophones can take us – which is to say, nearly anywhere.

Where our grandfathers worked in the service of publishers, we ourselves are publishers, with our thoughts available online instantly, for all the world to see. Not only that – we can choose to publish in print, or in sign. The age of the video blog is upon us.

The visibility of ASL is greater now, the appreciation of its grace and expression more widespread. This is opening doors everywhere.

Deaf children today see deaf adults working far beyond the old, limited vocations. We have spread into every area – law, education, insurance, real estate, health care, entertainment, travel and much, much more. For decades, the deaf community has moved forward and upward, gaining speed on the twin engines of education and technology.

Our progress has not always been obvious on a daily basis, so we might not realize just how far we’ve traveled without a brief look back.

We still grump – justifiably – about underemployment. We still lament the quality of deaf education, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. But we have not been shy about protesting when we demand better. Discrimination, confusion, ignorance, even hostility – all these familiar demons remain with us. But deaf professionals are no longer a small, proud pool of ink-stained wretches. They are you and me, breaking new ground as we go about our working lives, preparing a path for the next generation.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Working With a Dog

Employment Matters column,

Most deaf and hard of hearing people don’t have a hearing ear dog. I never had one myself, because I never felt I needed one. Then I got accustomed to living with my fiancee’s dog. Her dog was never formally trained as a hearing ear dog, but he just sort of took on the job anyway – and does it very well. It’s really nice to know when someone’s at the door and I’m away in another room, Poppy will tell me about it.

But getting a formally trained hearing ear dog can be long, expensive wait. Many training centers have a variety of conditions, fees, waiting times, and even annual recertification requirements. Some places won’t even let you own the dog – they own it, you merely borrow it. Many of these conditions are created with the best of intentions – they want to ensure the safety of the owner and the good health of the dog. But it also unfortunately means fewer service dogs for people who want them.

If you’ve thought about getting a hearing ear dog, or already have a dog and want to train it, good news – you can do it yourself. It’s not terribly difficult, but it does require a serious investment of time and energy on your part. Be sure you can commit to that before you begin. Think of it this way – your dog is going to school, and you are the teacher!

It’s not all work – treat it as a game you play with the dog. Your dog will enjoy the attention, the training will stretch the dog’s mind, and you’ll develop a much deeper bond with your dog than most people have.

There’s one condition that can be a deal-breaker – your dog’s temperament. Not all dogs are a good fit with the job of alerting you to sounds. Some just don’t have the attention span, or maybe too high-strung to train, or maybe too aggressive to have around the house. If you’ve already got a dog you want to train, you’ll have to use your own judgment here. If you’re not sure your pooch is up to the job, give it a try anyway – you might be surprised.

The most popular way to train a dog, or any other animal, nowadays is through clicker training. To get an idea of what it involves, check out this video of a cat being trained to flip a light switch: There’s about 30 seconds of voice introduction, but the rest of the video is subtitled and the action is clear. This method is used successfully with many different animals – dolphins, horses, chickens, parrots, even fish. It works great with dogs. This system is entirely reward-based – no punishments needed.

You can see that training can go surprisingly fast with some patience, and it’s very simple. You don’t need any fancy or expensive equipment. Just a bag of cheap treats and simple clicker – you can get those here for less than a dollar:

Don’t expect to teach new skills in a single training session. Your pet’s stamina and attention span will likely grow as it becomes accustomed to these strange new games you’re playing. Just take a break once in a while. Once you’ve trained a dog using the clicker, you can lose the clicker and switch to your own commands – signs, voice, whatever works for you. Practice once in a while until the dog understands the routine and knows what is expected. Training like this sticks, even for years afterward.

Start by training the dog to recognize a particular sound, ideally a sound that is always the same. Door knocks are not the best choice to begin with, because people knock doors in different ways. But fire alarms are a good pick – they make the same sound each time they go off. First train the dog to come to you when you click on the clicker. Then train the dog to go to you when the fire alarm sounds off. Start with you and the dog in the same room, then gradually train at greater distances and in different rooms. It becomes fun when the dog “gets it” and understands how the game works.

The big advantage of doing it yourself is clear – once you’ve trained the dog to react to sounds for you, you can take it further and train it for other useful tasks – fetching it’s own leach, bringing in the newspaper, staying off the furniture, or general obedience training. Once you’ve taught the dog some skills, you’ve also learned how to train, so you both benefit. There’s an amazing amount of helpful tips and guides for training available online, on websites, in videos and books. It’s not at all complicated – if you have kids, they can learn how to do this too. You can put your dog to work and have fun at the same time!

Related Links:

Training Standards

DIY Training

Paws to Freedom

Lend Me An Ear

Living with a Hearing Ear Dog

Life with a Hearing Ear Dog

DIY Basic Sound Training

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Summer & the Single Working Parent

Employment Matters column,

“Summer’s here…
Well, I’m for that
Got my rubber sandals
Got my straw hat
Got my cold beer
Man, I’m glad that it’s here
It’s my favorite time of the year
And I’m glad that it’s here…Yeah!”

– James Taylor, Summer’s Here

The lazy days of summer are the favorite of millions, especially schoolchildren. For the single working parent, however, summer isn’t always the stress reliever it is for others. It can be a scary time for parents with young children who are caught between a limited budget and the necessity of working while the kids are out of school. Someone has to earn money, and someone has to watch the kids, and few single parents can do both at the same time.

Parents naturally want to ensure their children’s safety and well-being, but this is tough to do while away at a job. It’s a lot easier when help is available from trusted family and friends. But when that’s not an option, where can the single working parent turn?

There’s an old saying – “an idle mind is the devil’s playground”. The idea behind this idiom is that when people are bored and have plenty of time, there are more opportunities to get into some sort of trouble. This is especially true with kids. There’s another saying – “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” – and when Mom or Dad are away, kids can be tempted to experiment with ideas they know their parents wouldn’t approve.

Keeping young minds focused on something positive and interesting is vital to keeping them out of trouble. Doing that on the kind of tight budget common among single working parents is a real challenge. What to do?

One fix is to network with other single parents, ideally someone who has a different work schedule than your own. You trade off watching the kids while the other works. That’s not enough, by itself- you also need assurance you’re dealing with someone who is dependable and trustworthy. You could trust your gut, or you could ask for referrals from their co-workers or supervisor.

Another possibility – check out This is a good starting point for finding established local child care services – and possibly some useful resources to help pay for it.

While you’re thinking about the expense, think about tax breaks, too – in America, there’s a good chance you qualify for the child-care tax credit. This deal can net you up to $3,000 to help cover day-care costs for one child, and up to $6,000 for two or more children. You can find out more about it here.

Could you use a guide on how to interview a babysitter?

Children mature at different speeds. You’ve probably met a few kids who seem surprisingly wise and mature beyond their years, and some older kids you wouldn’t trust alone more than 5 minutes. If you’re one of the lucky parents who have Yoda children and you’re wondering if leaving them home alone is an option, a good rule of thumb is that no child should be home alone if they are under 12.

Give some thought to activities for the kids beyond the classic choices of videogames and movies. TV is like visual crack – once addicted, it’s hard to wean the kids off it and get them interested in something else.

Get them outside if you can. Gardening is a good bet if you have some yard space, especially if you let on that there are all sorts of creepy (but generally harmless to people) crawlies that are drawn to gardens. (This will repel some kids and attract others.) You can also point out the fun of growing watermelon, strawberries and other summer foods right at home. Living in an apartment? You can still do flowers on the porch and in the windows.

Another idea – astronomy. You don’t even need a telescope. With a few library books and their eyes, a kid can learn their way around the night sky, and if they really get into it, binoculars are a low-cost addition to the hobby.

And another – biking. This is a good habit to encourage early – bikes can become a tool for healthy living for the rest of a child’s life, as well as a source of great fun and a way to get around without driving up your gas expenses.

The problem of keeping children happy, engaged and safe during the summer months affects all single parents – hearing, deaf and hard of hearing. This is one area where we’re all in it together.

More Resources

National Child Care Information Center

The Afterschool Alliance

The Administration for Children & Families

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 12:16 pm

A Smart Way to Learn

Employment Matters column,

I always have trouble remembering three things: faces, names, and – I can’t remember what the third thing is.

– Fred Allen

Memory is a mysterious thing. You’ve probably had the experience where you can easily remember something that’s not important, like the score of a ballgame you saw 5 years ago. But you’ll forget things that are very important, like where you left your car keys, or the name of someone you’ve known for years. It’s maddening sometimes.

Why does this happen? Your mind must sort through a lot of information every day, and some things just aren’t worth remembering. For example, if you walk your dog around the block every day, you’ve probably seen every crack on the sidewalks – but you don’t need to remember the exact location of each one. It’s not that important. Your mind must forget, or you will drown in useless details. Sometimes the important stuff isn’t reinforced often enough for you to remember it well.

Scientists who study memory know there is a pattern to human memory and forgetting. One man from Poland – Piotr Wozniak – wanted to develop a way to predict the pattern of forgetting. This pattern is not exactly the same for everyone, of course. Some people have better memories than others. If it’s possible to know when you will forget something, then remind you just before you forget, you will remember. Piotr found a way to do it.

His solution is a computer program that works like smart flashcards. Ever used flashcards to learn something? Someone holds up a card with a question on it, and the answer is on the other side. You work together through a stack of cards, and try to remember the answer on each card. Do it again, and again, and again, and it helps you remember.

But remembering this way eats up a lot of time. Suppose you could score each card. Let’s say there’s one card you don’t need anymore because it’s easy – the answer comes to you immediately every time you see it. You score that card 5. Then there’s another card – you can never remember the answer. You score that card 0. And so it goes – you work through the cards and score each one on a scale of 0 to 5, according to how hard it is for you.

This is how smart flashcards work. You use a simple computer program that keeps track of how you score the cards. Stuff you’ve already memorized is shown less often. Stuff you can’t remember is shown to you repeatedly until you start scoring it higher. The higher you score a card, the less often you need to see it.

This speeds up your ability to remember. Smart flashcards know what you haven’t memorized yet, and they know what you already know, so they don’t waste your time showing it again.

Piotr’s program for creating smart flashcards is called SmartMemo, and it’s very popular among students learning foreign languages. SuperMemo has inspired an whole new category of similar programs called spaced repetition software. Some of them support the use of photos and video, so it’s possible to develop one for learning ASL.

Smart flashcards are very powerful – the real beauty of this kind of memorization aid is that you can customize it, make it work for you. It can remind you about anything you want to learn. It’s not the best tool for reminding you to pick up more milk and bread the next time you’re out shopping – write yourself a reminder for that – but the uses for students are obvious. I wish I’d had a tool like this when I was learning algebra. You can demolish exam anxiety with smart flashcards.

You want to memorize great jokes? Smart flashcards can make it happen. Do you want to remember certain birthdays and – pay attention, guys – anniversaries? Smart flashcards can make you smarter. Do you want to memorize the recipe for that incredible spaghetti sauce? Smart flashcards can make you look like a genius in the kitchen.

You’re in the driver’s seat – you decide what you want to learn, and smart flashcard programs will work with you until you’ve memorized what you need to know. It’s not a teacher – it can’t explain things you don’t understand – but with a little investment of time, it can help you remember what you do understand. That can make your work and everyday life a lot smoother.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 12:15 pm