Meegan Winters was a special education teacher in Jackson for many years. She taught students on the autism spectrum, which gave her a special insight into the challenges people with special sensory needs face. After working for her last three years as an assistant principal, she left education to start Able Eyes. Able Eyes is a nonprofit organization that provides virtual tours of public areas and buildings to spectrum-disorder and other special-needs clients.
Winters said the organization’s purpose is to provide an experiential accessibility tool for people to explore an environment prior to physically visiting. She said that over her years in special education, she recognized the unique challenges for her spectrum-disorder students on field trips. She explained that they found transitions to be difficult. To prepare them, she would take pictures and read books to set expectations. Every field trip took a great deal of planning and work.
“Through my experience, both as a teacher and an administrator, I identified a need to be filled,” said Winters. “There are so many families that have children with either physical disabilities or children with anxiety, or that are on the spectrum with difficulty with transitions to new places. And so many of those families are feeling uncomfortable or are missing the opportunity to going out to the community.”
Winters explained that simple things that we take for granted, like going to a new restaurant or grocery shopping, can be super challenging. When she learned about virtual tours, she said she was immediately struck with the potential the technology offered people to overcome these possible challenges.
“Things like doctor’s offices, parks, schools and travel destinations are great places for virtual tours. Really anything that’s open to the public is a great candidate for Able Eyes. The website is easy — enter in your ZIP Code and view the top virtual tours in your area.”
The organization and its site tools allow people to explore new spaces from the comfort of their own homes, whether it’s a far away destination or something around the corner. Able Eyes’ site indexes a variety of locations people may want to visit by category to make the user experience even easier. For example, searching for family friendly options will show results like Impression 5 Science Center and the Lansing Art Gallery.
“The idea is to have a tool for someone to virtually explore a space prior to physically visiting from the comfort of their own home,” said Winters. “If they want to look at it one time, or 20 times or 50 times before visiting, they have a chance to see what that space looks like.”
Businesses also can request adding a tour to Able Eyes’ services. They also can add the virtual tour of their space to the website. People can also request locations to add to the tours via the website or email.
“Through this journey, we have grown fast,” said Winters. “We have a folder full of testimonials of people saying that this has changed their lives. Our tours are now in 40 states. So, it’s really something that’s taking off on a national scale.”
When a business has an Able Eyes online tour, it is given a decal to place on its door. The business is considered Able Eyes accessible or Able Eyes recommended.
“Another important part of my story is that one of my best friends was a wheelchair user,” Winters said. “She had muscular dystrophy and passed away five years ago as a result of her disability and degenerative muscular disease. We had an amazing experience and didn’t ever feel like we were held back, but there were a lot of extra challenges.”
Winters explained that there was a need to research places before they could go there to make sure they could accommodate her wheelchair. Whether it was knowing if a restaurant had large enough stalls or a place near a tailgate with a public restroom — people with a variety of special needs and disabilities need tools to plan differently so they can make the most of their experiences.
“My best friend is still a huge part of this journey for me,” said Winters. “I truly believe that she’s on this journey with me. I just know that everything that I’m doing is something that could have helped her experience more things in life — and that it is doing a lot for so many now.