There’s much to celebrate this summer at APH ConnectCenter – and we’re not just discussing Independence Day. Then again, it is a celebration of independence for people who are blind or low vision, thanks to the services we provide through APH ConnectCenter.
In July, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of APH ConnectCenter. That’s when APH became the steward of invaluable resources from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). These resources are the CareerConnect, FamilyConnect, and VisionAware websites, the Information & Referral (I&R) Line, and the Directory of Services. Since then, we’ve expanded what we offer through APH ConnectCenter to make it as useful and interactive as possible, such as adding numerous webinars. In fact, we’ve grown from a staff of just three to a team of 14 people – staff and consultants – who actively contribute to APH ConnectCenter’s growth and evolution.
What’s more, we’re celebrating the launch of a redesigned website that brings all of these resources and more to a single site, using our established APH ConnectCenter (aphconnectcenter.org) presence.
“It’s going to be a lot easier for people to find the information they need,” says Olaya Landa-Vialard, Director of APH ConnectCenter. “Instead of silos of information we’re going to cross-pollinate. For example, our glossary of eye conditions used to live only on VisionAware, but putting it on the redesigned site will make it easier for people to find things like that – even if they’re not sure exactly what they’re looking for.”
Creating a single, highly accessible website
Our streamlined website has drop-downs that lead to all the once-separate sites and resources users have relied on, including For Job Seekers and Employers, For Families, VisionAware, and the Transition Hub. The Directory of Services and how to reach the Information & Referral (I&R) Line remains front and center, and a calendar of upcoming events, such as webinars, is also there – all on the home page for easy access. In addition, a search function allows users to look for information across the entire site. After all, many topics aren’t limited to one category, such as families or older adults.
“We’ve completely reorganized everything to make all the information we’ve added over the years much easier to find,” says Tony Susnick, Digital Media Manager at APH. “Instead of having a Directory of Services for each website outside the main APH ConnectCenter website, it’s now all in one place. Plus, we’ve identified categories and thought about the search terms people are most likely to use so they can find the information they need more easily.”
Because accessibility is always paramount at APH, numerous focus groups have tested the site.
“They’ve told us they like the accessibility,” Susnick says. “We’ve worked hard on things like making sure every photo has alt text, which people really like, and they say the search function works well. We’ve also carefully considered how the site will work best with tools like screen readers and braille devices because the ultimate goal is the user being able to find the information they need.”
In addition to the ability to adjust font sizes, in the near future, the website will include a plug-in that translates the site into multiple languages, starting with Spanish.
Continuing to expand resources for career-age users
Although all the websites being coordinated under the APH ConnectCenter website umbrella have expanded significantly over the past five years, For Job Seekers and Employers has become especially robust. Over the last couple of years, we’ve added Career Conversations, Employment Connections, and other webinars to assist people seeking careers or professional advancement.
“We’ll continue to provide really good blogs and articles that focus on topics of interest to job seekers,” says Lori Scharff, Lead Content Contractor for For Job Seekers and Employers. “And we’ll offer even more interactive features, like an upcoming webinar on résumé writing.”
Richard Rueda, Assistant Director of the APH ConnectCenter, adds that the no-cost job seekers toolkit will remain featured prominently. “In one of APH ConnectCenter’s many partnerships, we worked with NSITE to take the toolkit from a large PDF to a five-course learning management system,” he says.
Maintaining a focus on what families need
According to Melisa Matthews, Digital Content Manager for For Families, one of the exciting aspects of bringing the three separate websites into one means there’s a good chance content will reach across audiences.
“Blindness doesn’t just happen at one stage or age in someone’s life,” she says. “I think there’s value in parents reading stories of adults who are blind or low vision, just like it will be heartwarming for adults to read stories of children and families doing the same.”
For Families will continue highlighting parent stories – one of its most popular features – as well as sharing with parents the kind of information they need to be empowered and knowledgeable about the latest advances in vision care and resources to help their children succeed in school and beyond.
Bringing a broader array of information
APH VisionAware has always been dedicated to adults with low vision or those with a recent diagnosis, giving them the tools they need to maintain their independence. That won’t change – it will only become a richer resource with the website redesign. In fact, that started happening even before the new website, with the addition of features such as webinars, says Pris Rogers, a Consultant for VisionAware and a Special Advisor on Aging and Vision Loss for AFB, who has been working with APH VisionAware for many more than five years.
“We want to encourage interaction and get people involved in finding the information they need to live independently after vision loss,” she says. “That is the strongest piece of bringing everything together in one place.”
Katie Frederick, Digital Content Manager for APH VisionAware, adds that optimizing and organizing content for searchability is a very important aspect of the revamped website.
“If people search for ‘advocacy,’ they’ll see blog posts not only for APH VisionAware but across the entire site,” she says. “There’s a lot of information that used to exist only on the APH ConnectCenter site that will be much easier to find.”
Expanding support services in numerous ways
Our I&R Line has long been a trusted resource for information, guidance, referrals, and more – for 50 years, says Alan Lovell, Information & Referral Services Coordinator.
When AFB staffed the phone lines, they received an average of one to two daily calls. Today, APH receives about 15 to 20 calls per day.
What’s more, APH recently joined forces with Be My Eyes, a mobile app that uses sighted volunteers to help people who are blind or low vision navigate daily life. Lovell and Sharon Hughey, an Information & Referral Services Specialist, both blind themselves, field inquiries that come in when people using Be My Eyes find APH ConnectCenter under the “specialized help” section of the app.
“It’s a great feeling to know we help people when they call, whether they reach us through the I&R Line or Be My Eyes,” Lovell says. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve learned more in 20 minutes with us than they have through their entire journey, as far as learning what services or technology are available.”
He adds that part of the I&R Line’s success is that the team can always turn to other APH ConnectCenter staff when they don’t know the answer to a question. It’s a team effort.
APH ConnectCenter has also established partnerships with organizations over the past five years, including The Elder Care Locator Service, the National Eye Institute, Mississippi State University, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and more.
“I think of APH ConnectCenter and our partners as this huge team of experts who bring an enormous amount of expertise to the table,” says Landa-Vialard. “We’re passionate about connecting people to the information and resources they need, and we intend to continue offering even more interactive services, more partnerships – more of everything that people of all ages need to thrive.”