Category Archives: Disabilities rights

Is Accessibility Of Public Spaces So Impossible?

Beth SteinbergBy: Beth Steinberg

As I skied down that gorgeous piste on January 27th, I wasn’t considering that I was about to make myself a living monument to Jewish Disability Awareness Month. That came a few days later, after I fell, had been surgically repaired and was hobbling down the hallways on my brand new crutches in the lovely little hospital in rural Sallanche, France, in the shadow of the majestic Mont Blanc.

Jay Ruderman is fond of saying “everyone in their lifespan will experience disability in one way or another.” He explains further, “people with disabilities are…the one minority group that we will all join one day as we age.” Sobering. A sub-group that we are all likely to experience, whether because of illness, injury or some other aspect of the aging process.

Before you go and stick your head in the sand, consider some facts about disability. People with disabilities are the largest minority group worldwide, an estimated 1 billion people. This is a number that will grow, by the way, as the world’s population grows and as medicine helps us live longer. As a matter of fact, in countries where the life expectancy is over 70 years, people may experience disability for an average of 8 years, or 11.5 percent of their life span. Compelling, no?

I didn’t need to fall that day in order to understand disability. Quite frankly, as a parent to a child who walked at the age of 6, and who continues to need significant assistance navigating his life, I get what disability is about. And yet, to experience firsthand the problems of “crutching” around Jerusalem is to remind myself in a truly palpable way of the challenges that people with physical disabilities in particular experience every day, in a city that is probably one of the least accessible in the world.

Yes, I know that Jerusalem was built 2000 years ago. I get that its infrastructure was not exactly designed by an urban planner and that roads that wind and climb were originally made for mules, not cars. But it’s 2014, and Israel is a country where a certain percentage of soldiers become disabled due to war and army service, separate from those who develop disabilities at different points in their lives and those born with disabilities. It’s time to step up to the plate and force compliance in Jerusalem, as well as in the rest of the country and worldwide, certainly in countries with the ability to support such efforts.

Just recently I was in my favorite local sushi restaurant. On the surface it seemed accessible, that is until I asked to use the restroom, which was down a few stairs. What got left out of the architectural plans and what official signed off allowing the space to open when laws have been set into place that require handicapped accessibility? It boggles the mind.

Beth Steinberg walkingI’ll bet that almost every restaurant on Jerusalem’s popular Emek Refaim stretch lacks accessible restrooms, let alone accessible entrance ways and pathways. And that goes for one which recently underwent a lovely renovation. On my first visit, I noted that the bathroom is up a flight of stairs. I haven’t gone back.

That’s not all. In Jerusalem, ramps are built at the kind of angles that nobody would want to use them without fear of hurting themselves.  Walking paths are continually built from a polished Jerusalem stone that becomes slippery to the point of being downright dangerous during winter rains. And sidewalks remain the favorite place for parking one’s car – never mind pedestrians, babies in strollers, wheelchairs and yes, people on crutches.

Jerusalem, of course, is not alone. For the nine years that we pushed a stroller/wheelchair in urban Brooklyn and NYC we struggled with a mass transit system that wasn’t completely accessible (especially then), as well as with uneven sidewalks and inadequate ramp cuts. I still have lingering elbow problems from maneuvering through snow, over ice, up staircases and through the crowds, in small shops so crowded and narrow I had to leave. I’ve traveled throughout Europe and wondered at the continued inability of major cities – think Rome, Paris and London – to make their cities, their public spaces, their mass transit systems completely accessible. Each one, especially when it comes to mass transit, has complicated access points for anyone dealing with any kind of significant physical disability. If you’ve ever shlepped a suitcase up and down the staircases in the London Underground you know what I’m talking about.

As for me, I’m still getting a handle on this crutches thing. I’ve gone out just a bit since I got home and even the trip to my local health clinic wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, located as it is on a steep street with tough sidewalk access from the car. I’d like to get into work but I’m worried about the elevator to the 4th floor, it doesn’t always work, and the entrance into the building, not so perfectly pitched, and our flooring is a bit uneven.  I have a presentation I’m making next week – hoping to find a way to get into the building safely, otherwise I won’t be able to go. Forget about my favorite locations, like the outdoor market, Machane Yehuda, and even my new coffee place around the corner, down a flight of stairs. Until I get more secure handling stairs, it’s just not worth the risk.

But it’s only a couple of months. By April, I should be up on two feet, working at therapy and getting myself back to my crazy schedule of two jobs, working out a few times a week and generally running myself ragged. Because I will be able to – thankfully. What if I couldn’t? Quite frankly, I’d be considering moving out of Jerusalem.

So next time you think to yourself, “We don’t have any people with disabilities in our neighborhood,” consider the possibility that they’re shut into their houses because they’re simply unable to maneuver local streets and byways safely. I say it’s time for a change.

Beth Steinberg is the executive director and co-founder of Shutaf, offering year-round, inclusive informal-education programs for children and teens with disabilities in Jerusalem. Shutaf is committed to a teaching model that welcomes all children – with and without disabilities – regardless of educational, religious and socio-economic differences. Engage Shutaf on Twitter, Like them on Facebook, learn more about inclusion on their blog or, if you love pictures, follow them on Pinterest!

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All Year Round

jo ann cropBy: Jo Ann Simons

The Jewish community is celebrating Jewish Disability Awareness Month this month. It is a time to bring more attention and awareness to the issue of disability. I do not know when it started. I do know that it did not exist in 1979, when my son was born with Down syndrome and 4 heart defects.

I know this because the issue of disability and especially intellectual disability was something that made most of the Jewish community uncomfortable. Religious women were being told, by their rabbi’s, to give up children with Down syndrome for adoption and then require that they be adopted by Jewish families.

As a Board member of the National Down Syndrome Congress at that time, it made me and other Jewish board members feel much shame, as we knew that this requirement meant that it was unlikely that these children would be adopted. Few Jewish families were lining up to adopt children with disabilities.

I learned that Golda Meir was so ashamed of her granddaughter with Down syndrome that she refused to acknowledge her existence and she wrote Meira out of her autobiography.

It was against this backdrop that I was determined to do my part to make my son a full and equal member of our Jewish community. I can actually say that he has been welcomed and celebrated each step of the way: at 12 weeks old, he began day care at the North Shore Jewish Community Center and his therapist came there to provide him services and the other children learned sign language alongside of him. He continued at the “J” in all aspects of camping where he was the only camper with a significant disability. He began religious studies at age 5 at Temple Emanuel and became a Bar Mitzvah, Confirmed and Post-Confirmed.

JDAM logoThis is not about Jon but about the fact that our community needs an awareness month at all. It’s actually sad that we join the list below (and I am not sure that it is even a complete list) in vying for attention to disability issues.

Disability Awareness Calendar 2014

Jewish Disability Awareness Month
AMD/Low Vision Awareness Month

Intellectual and Developmental Disability Awareness Month
World Down Syndrome Day March 21, 2014

National Autism Awareness Month

Mental Health Month
National Children’s Mental Health Week May 2-8, 2014
Mental Health Awareness Week May 12-18, 2014
National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week May 4-9, 2014
National Schizophrenia Awareness Week May 19-25, 2014

National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day June 27, 2014

National Deaf Awareness Month

National Disability Employment Awareness Month
ADHD Awareness Month
National Down Syndrome Month
Rett Syndrome Awareness Month
Disability History and Awareness Month
Learning Disability Awareness Month
Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) – First week in October. October 3-9, 2014
World Mental Health Day – October 10, 2014
OCD Awareness Week October 9-15, 2014

Epilepsy Awareness Month
Mental Health Wellness Week  November 9 – 15, 2014

International Day of Persons with Disability (United Nations) – December 3, 2014

Some might suggest that disability awareness should be celebrated all year long but I suggest that I hope that time comes, very soon, when awareness months are not necessary because people with disabilities are fully included in Jewish life.

Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers

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Using Dance, Music And Theater To Foster A More Inclusive Environment

Elaine HallBy: Elaine Hall

Sarah sings like an angel, but if another child joins in, she screams and retreats into a corner. Ezra draws beautiful animation, except he doesn’t want to stop putting marker to paper to connect with others.  David is sitting back in his wheelchair, head downcast, gazing wishfully at his active peers. Chava needs to move her body – all the time. Brian is embarrassed by outbursts from his brother, Jason. Kenny makes fun of kids he thinks are not as cool as he is.

How can we use music, dance, and theater to foster inclusion for these aspiring artistic and differently abled minds? Through shared creative experiences in an inclusive environment – everyone benefits.  I have had the privilege over the past twenty-five years to witness transformations in individuals with and without disabilities and their families.  How do we bring out the best in others and ourselves?

1. Focus on the ability within each individual. In Exodus 4:10, when Moses shies away from G-d’s challenge to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” G-d replies, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak; therefore, go.” G-d tells us to use what strengths we have to be a positive influence in the world. We all have strengths and challenges. Being a creative type, myself, it is easier for me to write a script for a play than it is for me to copy, collate, and ultimately find a place to file it. If I were judged for not being able to adequately manage paperwork, my self-esteem would be diminished, impacting all aspects of my life; in time, even my writing would suffer. By focusing on each person’s abilities, everyone has an opportunity to shine.

For a child like Ezra, whose drawings bring him comfort and calm, we encourage him.  We do not remove his markers to stop him from drawing; on the contrary, while he is concentrating on his drawing, we notice him and his work, and every time he glances up, we say, “Ezra, you’re participating.” One second of engagement turns into five, which turns into minutes – until one day Ezra takes part in all aspects of the class and shouts, “I’m participating!” We soon learn that in addition to his drawing gifts, Ezra has a beautiful singing voice and now engages in the entire class, performing solos in our productions. Ezra’s drawings become the covers for our show programs and for the T-shirt designs.   He takes an animation class and his later artwork becomes the inspiration of best selling author and illustrator, Tom Lichtenheld’s book “E-mergency!”

Elaine Hall post I

Danny Wolf, a Miracle Project Judaica participant with Jason Weisbrod, Miracle Project Judaica staff member, performing on stage. (courtesy: The Miracle Project)

2.  Join in their world.  Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer teaches our parent group about the Baal Shem Tov’s (founder of Hassidism)  poignant parable of the “Turkey Prince,” where the King’s son thinks he’s a turkey and hides under a table. In the story, Royal doctors cannot cure the “turkey prince,” but a sage appears and sits under the table with the prince, gently guiding him one-step at a time, patiently, without judgment, helping him to rejoin regular kingdom life. Like the king’s dilemma, traditional therapies did not work for my own son, Neal, non-verbal, withdrawn into his own world, diagnosed with severe autism. My ‘sage,’ the esteemed Dr. Stanley Greenspan OB”M guided me to enter Neal’s world. When Neal stared intensely at his hand, I stared at mine. When he screeched, I screeched. When he spun in a circle, I took his hands and spun with him, round and round for as long as he wanted, until the two of us were breathless, connecting, relishing our own unique form of “Ring Around the Rosie.” All this led to a progression of days and experiences that were magical, unique, and amazing. Bit by bit, Neal relinquished his solitary, isolated world. Gradually he merged into mine.

So, too, do we join the interests and abilities of our students.

Dr. Greenspan encouraged me to rally my creative colleagues and use these same methods to enter the worlds of other individuals with disabilities. If one of our students is too frightened to participate in class, one of our volunteers will literally hide under a table with them, until they feel confident to come out.  Suzanne was so shy when she first started classes, she stayed by the door hugging onto her mother’s leg. Our volunteer stayed beside her; never forcing her to come in the room, but rather, building a relationship with her until she felt trusting and safe to join the group.  Within a few weeks, Suzanne chose on her own to sing, dance, and act with everyone.

(Part II next week)

Elaine Hall is an internationally renowned arts educator for her starring role in the HBO Emmy Award winning documentary, Autism: The Musical. Her groundbreaking Jewish musical theater and film program, The Miracle Project Judaica, has been named by the Slingshot Guide as one of North America’s best Jewish organizations to foster inclusion.  Elaine’s memoir, Now I See the Moon, was selected reading by The United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day 2011 and for Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month 2013. Elaine is a motivational speaker seeking to change attitudes towards Inclusion through her religious and arts education programs, and through the I Win (Inclusion from Within) programs. Elaine lives in Santa Monica, California with her inspiration, her son Neal Katz diagnosed with autism at age three, and husband,  therapist, Jeff Frymer  – as she answers the call to bring The Miracle Project Judaica to communities nationwide. Connect with Elaine on Twitter or learn more on Facebook.

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Opening The Doors

Tali CohenBy: Tali Cohen

Earlier this month I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the first Jewish Leadership Institute on Disability and Inclusion. The Institute brought together Jewish leaders from across North America who are working to make the Jewish community more inclusive of all its members, regardless of individual differences. As a young professional beginning what I hope to be a long and fulfilling career working with people with disabilities in the Jewish community, I cherished the opportunity to connect with other professionals who share my passion.

For me, one of the most valuable aspects of the Institute was the opportunity to meet colleagues from across North America, share ideas, and discuss our dreams for the future of inclusion in the Jewish community. In an article in the Times of Israel, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi called this new cohort of Jewish leaders “new chalutzim (pioneers),” comparing the quest for inclusion in the Jewish community to efforts of early Zionists who paved the way for a Jewish nation in Israel. As the youngest person in the room, I felt not only inspired by the presence of so many leaders in the Jewish disabilities field, but also empowered to continue working towards a more inclusive Jewish community.

Chanuka at Institute
My commitment to this work began when I was a child at Camp Ramah in Canada in the 1990s, and I have now worked in the Ramah programs for kids with disabilities in Canada, California, Georgia, and New England. Camp Ramah has a profound impact on the lives of those in the Tikvah program by providing these individuals with a unique opportunity to attend overnight summer camp and participate fully in Jewish communal life. Tikvah campers and their parents value the Camp Ramah experience so highly; I have often heard them comment that no experience during the year is able to parallel their experiences at camp.

While the impact of the program for the campers with disabilities and their families is widely known and praised, I wish to draw attention to the less obvious impact of the program, its impact on the camp community as a whole. In my work at Ramah I have the opportunity to work hard to promote inclusion, and have the amazing privilege to observe as incredible relationships grow between campers with and without disabilities. Growing up at Camp Ramah, children learn that individuals with disabilities are not so different as they may seem from afar. As several eight- and nine-year-old girls so beautifully said, “At first you think that the Tikvah campers are really different, and that might seem scary. But all you need to do is meet them. When you get to know them you realize they’re really not that different. They’re just like everyone else in the world. There is much more that is the same than different. They have so much in common where it really counts.” Growing up at Camp Ramah inspired me, along with many others, to pursue a career working to make the Jewish community more inclusive. I am proud to be part of a growing network of Ramah alumni who have chosen careers in this field.

My experience at the Jewish Leadership Institute for Disability and Inclusion solidified my commitment to working towards a more inclusive Jewish community through the replication of successful programs as well as continued innovation. The Institute encourages person-centered services that support individuals in making choices to direct their own lives. Through my work with the Vocational Education program at Camp Ramah in New England, I hope to empower our program participants and support them as they develop skills to enhance their ability to lead meaningful lives as integrated members of their home communities. Though my career is just beginning, I know that if we continue to work together, and truly work with and listen to the desires of Jews with disabilities and their families, we can open up the doors of the Jewish community to everyone and learn to embrace difference.

Tali Cohen is the Director of Tikvah Vocational Services for Camp Ramah in New England. She has also worked with Tikvah at Camp Ramah in Canada and Camp Ramah in California. She is a recent graduate of Pitzer College, where she studied International Education, focusing on developmental disabilities in developing countries.


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Inclusion In Ordinary Places

simonsBy: Jo Ann Simons

Those of us in the disability field look for inclusionary practices everywhere- education, employment, housing and in recreation and leisure activities. We demand economic policies that will not require people with disabilities to remain in poverty to receive the supports they need. While we expect inclusion from our institutions and applaud the vision of funders who support inclusion, we may not have noticed that retailers have taken notice that people with disabilities and their families are consumers.

It was with this in mind that I noticed, in one of Target’s holiday circulars, an adorable little boy in Santa pajamas seated in a Disney Car. The fact that this handsome boy has Down syndrome did not escape my appreciative gaze.  But, what I celebrate is that he was just there- on the same page as an Asian girl riding an electric scooter. He was not in a special catalogue, Differently Abled, that Toys R Us produces for children with a variety of disabilities. He was just in a typical Sunday circular and in being there he represents what we have been trying to tell the world: children with disabilities are more alike than they are different. Nowhere is this evident more than in being kids, choosing toys and having fun.

So while the media was bashing Target for their serious breach of customers credit information, I drove out of my way, straight to Target, to show my support for their inclusionary advertising practices.

I did pay cash.

Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers

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Including For Everyone’s Needs

nancy crownBy: Nancy J.Crown, Ph. D.

Last week, a mother describing her eight year old son who has disabilities had this to say:  “He is doing 6th grade math.  In fact, he goes around all day calculating pi, but he can’t find his classroom from the entrance of his school building.”  She went on to tell me, “This is a boy who is thinking about pi 24/7, and the school expects him to change classrooms, some of them in different buildings, for all his subjects.  They’ve given him a key, which he has no ability to use, let alone keep track of, to travel from building to building.  How is that inclusion!?”

As this mother suggests, inclusion is more complicated than it looks.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, inclusion is defined as:  “The act of including; the state of being included; the act or practice of including students with disabilities in regular school classes.”  The Merriam-Webster thesaurus claims there are no synonyms for “inclusion” and directs the searcher to “inclusive” under which the following are listed:  all embracing; all-in; complete, embracive; universal.

Now we are getting closer.  As a psychologist and the mother of a 28 year old daughter who has disabilities, to me and other kindred parents, inclusion means including for everyone’s needs.  If you simply plunk a kid down in a mainstream setting without the proper preparation, modifications and awareness, you are not “embracing” that child.  You are not setting them up for success.  This goes for adults with disabilities too.

Everyone wants to be included.  When a person experiences a profound and unexpected loss, or even an expected one, a rupture occurs in that person’s sense of belonging.  He or she feels a heightened sense of aloneness—a felt experience of being alone with the deep pain of difference that he and he alone must bear.  All of the parents I’ve talked with describe this kind of isolating pain upon receiving the news that their child has a disability.  As Andrew Solomon so aptly says in his recently published book Far From the Tree, “…our children are not us….And yet, we are our children.” (2012, p.1).  I think the same could be said about families.  This is why the effects of disability seep into the life of every member of the family.

Nancy Crown participates in a NY Jewish Week Forum on disabilities and inclusion. Credit: Michael Datikash

Nancy Crown participates in a NY Jewish Week Forum on disabilities and inclusion.
Credit: Michael Datikash

To the extent that we define spirituality as a meaningful connection to ourselves, others and something larger than ourselves, a parent’s realization of a marked problem with their child is a spiritual crisis.  It shatters one’s fundamental sense of a world that makes sense.  In time, most parents come to genuinely treasure their child in all of his or her splendid uniqueness, but the job of parenting (or brothering, sistering or grand-parenting) a child with any sort of disabling difference requires a kind of forbearance, courage, stamina and resourcefulness that no family is prepared to supply.

People with disabilities are the largest minority in our country.  With an ever growing older population, the percentage of us living with disabilities will only increase.  Research demonstrates an intimate connection between spirituality and positive coping with a disability, for individuals as well as for their families (2007, Boswell, Hammer, Knight, Glacoff & McChesney).  Participation in an accepting community acts as a kind of protective mechanism, a hedge against the loneliness, exhaustion and hopelessness that often accompany disability.

As families, we need our communities to understand that if the challenges we face aren’t recognized along with the unique opportunities, our heartache along with our joy, then we are not seen.  Similarly, to include us and our children requires an appreciation of what our families have to offer as well as the special care we need.  Cater only to our needs and you diminish us.  Pretend that our children are only delightful variations on a theme, and you dismiss the arduousness of our journey.  True acceptance and inclusion mean embracing the whole complicated package, and it means making room in communities for people who have very real difficulties alongside singular and sometimes fascinating gifts.

Dr. Nancy Crown is a clinical psychologist in private practice New York City.  She is the mother an adult on the autism spectrum, and co-founder/ co-director of “Shireinu”, the Congregation Rodeph Sholom initiative to create greater opportunities for inclusion in synagogue life of families with members who have disabilities.  She has presented widely, and published on topics related to disability.

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An Interview With Michael Stein Part II

I had the pleasure of interviewing visiting Professor at Harvard Michael Stein about a wide range of issues affecting people with disabilities. Professor Stein is an internationally recognized expert on disability rights, who participated in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and actively consults with international governments on their disability laws and policies.

Below is part two of the interview. I welcome you to read part one as well.
– Ephraim Gopin

Michael Stein1) How would you compare the status of people with disabilities in the US vs. Israel and I would also add US vs. Europe? 

US & Israel: My impression is that the US remains ahead of Israel on most fronts. Israel has some fabulous laws but it’s been very slow in enforcing them. I think the US disability civil society historically is much more advanced than that of Israel, which doesn’t take away from the accomplishments of some magnificent Israelis such as Yuval Wagner, Yoav Kreim and many others. The US has quite a number of years on Israel when it comes to including people in social participation. Of course, we have many challenges and shortcomings as well. I would love to do more work in Israel.

US vs Europe: Europe has a very sophisticated disability umbrella group, well-advanced beyond the US as far as consistently speaking with one voice. Generally, they’re able to press for particular policies in a more coherent way than the constellation of US disability groups do individually. I give a lot of credit to the European Disability Forum for pushing their agendas, such as policies on independent living. However, many EU member states do not have advanced policies. Some have yet to legislate regulations affecting public employment despite a longstanding framework directive, and there is a significant gap relative to the US regarding public accomodations.

2) “As someone with a disability (a rare illness left him in a wheelchair at 14), Stein has worked to debunk stereotypes, and his research offers innovative legal strategies and policy ideas that are regularly published in America’s prestigious law journals” ( are some of the innovative legal strategies & policy ideas you’ve come up with?

Without getting into specifics, I can say that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. When I work around the world, I try to listen and respond to the needs the local groups have identified. I bring them comparative advice and different models.  It’s not my role to tell local groups what they want- it’s my role to help them think thru what might be possible, give them info, tools and models so they can decide what’s best for them. If it’s useful, I’ll present ideas on their behalf to policy makers. My duty and pleasure is to serve these local groups.

3) How many countries have you worked in? What are you educating them on?

I have worked in close to 40 countries.

michael stein II

Picture courtesy of:

When I work with individual governments because they’ve asked me to review their laws or policies, there are good intentions from the government and there may even be large expenditures to help people with disabilities- but perhaps they’re not doing it in the most efficient way. For example, there may be programs of the Ministry of Health but they’re not coordinating with the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Social Welfare. Or they spend lots of money on poverty reduction without understanding that a large segment of the group of those they wish to affect have a disability. Making their programs integrated as opposed to separate may make their outlays more efficient.

There are times when the government has the will to do good things but they don’t have the experience. We talk together to see how they might consider conducting their programming differently. It almost always involves bringing in local disability groups who can highlight what their priorities are and where they think the buttons and levers for change are.

4) Do you think there’s something in Judaism which propels you to want to work on disability rights? Is there a connection between Judaism and our treatment of people with disabilities?

My work on disability rights arises from my experiences as a person with a disability, but it also arises from being the child of a Holocaust survivor and to being a human rights lawyer. In all these roles, I see my mission as cultivating the recognition of beauty and value of every individual and to try to  make the world a better place. To me, that is a very Jewish task.

5) Full inclusion/integration vs. separation- your take.

As a disability rights advocate, as well as a person with a disability, I am fully in favor of people with disabilities living in their own communities and cannot support segregation.

Michael Stein holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and is the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability. An internationally acclaimed expert on disability law and policy, Stein participated in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, works with disabled persons organizations around the world, actively consults with international governments on their disability laws and policies, and advises a number of United Nations bodies.

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