Category Archives: Disabilities rights


Jo Ann SimonsBy:  Jo Ann Simons

If it were not for Facebook, I would not be aware that Homecoming Kings and Queens are now synonymous with disability. Almost every day this high school football season, I have learned that another school is being lauded in social media, print and in broadcast for picking a king, queen and often both with a disability.

I wanted to know how widespread this practice has become- using Homecoming as a way to recognize students with disabilities. So i did a web search and let me tell you- it is happening.

These are feel good stories with smiling crowned faces and proud families. I know I would be pleased and proud if it were my child but it also makes me wonder if it is really inclusion. Do these moments propel our movement towards full acceptance, access to higher education and job opportunities for people with disabilities?

Is it happening for the right reasons or have typical kids decided they no longer hold on to becoming Homecoming King or Queen as a valued goal? Is it something to put on your college application? Does it matter? Is the status that was previously associated with this honor no longer relevant so it has been handed off to students with disabilities?

I don’t know the answer.

Full Disclosure-I went to a high school that did not have Homecoming or Homecoming King or Queen. We did have a winning football team and after we left for college, we came home for Thanksgiving and went to the football game- that was our homecoming. No crowns. No Homecoming Court and certainly no Kings and Queens. Only freezing outside in the New England weather to watch the game and gathering during the weekend at “The Spirit of 76″or “Maddie’s Sail Loft” (ok- there was a bar and alcohol involved but, it was during the brief period in the 1970’s when the drinking age was 18).

I never really understood the whole ritual of Homecoming pageantry.   Must be a regional thing because it’s not honored or celebrated in New England like it is in the rest of the county. I still don’t get what the criteria is besides winning a vote by students.

Mass Advocates Standing Strong logoSo forgive me if I don’t embrace this concept fully because I prefer to tell you about what I witnessed two weeks ago. In a hotel in Massachusetts, the self-advocacy organization, Mass Advocates Standing Strong, welcomed 450 self-advocates to a conference planned and conducted by self-advocates for self-advocates. There was a little organized chaos at registration- every oversubscribed conference I have ever attended looks this way. There were no kings or queens but the recognition that people with disabilities have a voice in their lives and in their community and work to support people with disabilities to do so.

When my son was born, over 30 years ago, I did not expect I would be driving him to such a conference. I didn’t know that he was to become an advocate with a voice. The conference was filled with workshops that were going to assist him in dealing with bullying, making informed voting choices and being safe.

Every month they are in our State House expressing their support of bills that will protect people with disabilities, making sure they are afforded the same rights and privileges.

Among the 450 people, there were no kings or queens but, there was a hotel filled with strong, self-confident and educated people.

And I was proud for all the right reasons.

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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Access to Web-Based Content: A Civil Right and a Human Right

Credit: Kanji Takeno

Credit: Kanji Takeno

By Dr. Jonathan Lazar

People with disabilities need to have equal access to web-based content and the resulting opportunities in education, socializing, employment, and commerce. If you are using an alternative form of input or output, such as a screen reader, alternative keyboard, alternative pointing device, or captioning, you need to have equal access. It’s a fundamental civil right and a human right. That last line often makes people pause, especially people who work strictly in technical fields. A civil right? A human right?

Well, think about this. You are Deaf, and there was a radio show in DC, on the topic of accessible technology, streamed online, but the show was not live captioned for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. So, you were cut out of participating in the show, or e-mailing into the panelists with questions. You were excluded from the conversation. You did not have equal access.

You are blind and utilize a screen reader, but the web sites of some major airlines are inaccessible. So, since the web site won’t work for you, you call the airline and ask for flight information, and when you are put on hold, the airline recorded message says, “lower fares available on our web site.” As it turns out, the airline does quote a higher fare on the phone than the price quoted online, and the airline also may charge you a “call center fee.” You have just paid a higher fare because you are blind, compared to people who can see, for the exact same airline ticket. You have just experienced pricing discrimination.

If you want to apply for a job, nearly all companies require that you apply for that job online. So you go to apply online, but the web site won’t work for you, either because you are blind and utilize a screen reader, or you have limited use of hands (due to a motor impairment such as repetitive strain injury), and can’t utilize a pointing device such as a mouse. You can’t apply for the job online. You call the employer to ask if you can apply on paper, or apply over the phone, and they demand to know why. Do you identify that you have a disability before even applying for the job? Or do you act sheepish and say, “it’s just hard to use” and then, it is likely that the employer will write you off as unqualified? You have just experienced employment discrimination.

If you want to apply for a job, nearly all companies require that you apply for that job online. So you go to apply online, but the web site won’t work for you, either because you are blind and utilize a screen reader, or you have limited use of hands (due to a motor impairment such as repetitive strain injury), and can’t utilize a pointing device such as a mouse. You can’t apply for the job online. You call the employer to ask if you can apply on paper, or apply over the phone, and they demand to know why. Do you identify that you have a disability before even applying for the job? Or do you act sheepish and say, “it’s just hard to use” and then, it is likely that the employer will write you off as unqualified? You have just experienced employment discrimination.

These are three examples of discrimination, which have previously been well-documented. International technical standards to make web sites accessible have been in existence since 1999. There is a large body of statutory law, regulations, case law, and best practices, for making web sites accessible for people with disabilities. Inaccessible web sites exclude people with disabilities from education, commerce, employment, and other opportunities to participate equally in society.

Yes, web accessibility is a civil right. In fact, inaccessible web sites that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, are investigated by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Related to human rights law, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) specifically mentions access to information technology and the Internet, in Articles 9 and 21. It’s not just about technology. It’s a civil right and a human right.

Dr. Jonathan Lazar is a Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at Towson University. He is the director of the undergraduate program in Information Systems. And some of the work mentioned in the blog posting, is based on the year he spent as the Shutzer Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

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Moving Towards A Mandate

Sharon Shapiro-LacksBy: Sharon Shapiro-Lacks and Rabbi Michael Levy

“Check this Out!” appeared in the subject line on an email to me by Rabbi Barry Kornblau, Director of Member Services from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). My heart pounding with anticipation, I double clicked the subject line.  It was a press release entitled “Disabled Jews Strengthen Orthodox Jewish Communities.”  I thought to myself, “This is big… really big.”  The RCA, a major Orthodox Rabbinic association officially proclaims the importance of involving Jews with obvious or hidden disabilities in our communities and for the communities to provide us the access, accommodations, and attitudinal shifts we, Jews with disabilities, need in order to be involved.

Courtesy of Sandee Brawarski, NY Jewish Week

Courtesy of Sandee Brawarski, NY Jewish Week

Early in 2014, and resulting from prior conversations, Rabbi Kornblau asked us at Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center  to provide the first draft of the “whereas” and “therefore” provisions for a proclamation regarding the imperatives to expand disability access to and participation in Jewish communities and Torah life.  His request was itself a breakthrough; clear evidence that the RCA, a visionary organization, understood that the voice of the Jewish disability contingent, speaking for itself, is vital in shaping disability policy.  We were gratified that the RCA selected Yad HaChazakah, an organization led by and for Jews with obvious or hidden disabilities within Orthodox parameters, to draft the provisions.

The Torah generally doesn’t speak in terms of “rights” of a particular individual or group.  Instead it stresses one’s obligations toward G-d or one’s fellow community member. We, Jews with disabilities or ongoing conditions, don’t demand “rights” within Torah, per se.  Rather, we understand that the Torah expects us to be part of the community, learn Torah according to our capacities, and perform the many mitzvot (c0mmandments) that apply to us.  We cannot achieve these Torah-based expectations unless our communities eliminate the physical, communication, and attitudinal barriers that prevent us from doing so.

Developing the proclamation, in consultation with Yad HaChazakah’s rabbinic advisor and RCA member, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, was an awesome responsibility!  It was necessary for the document to stress the Torah’s concerns for human dignity, our responsibilities towards our fellow Jews, and the mandate to be part of community life.  It was vital that it address the broad umbrella of people who are stigmatized due to conditions that affect their appearances, mobility, communication, cognition, mental health, or social or environmental sensitivities.  It was essential to use language that reflects the disability empowerment model; not well intentioned social service, special education, caregiver, or medical-rehabilitation terminology.

Honoring the passage of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Resolution on Increasing Access for and Participation of Jews with Disabilities in the Orthodox World. Rabbi Mark Dratch, RCA Executive Vice President (upper left), Rabbi Michael Levy (Upper right), Rabbi Barry Kornblau, RCA Director of Member Services and Sharon Shapiro-Lacks (lower left).

Honoring the passage of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Resolution on Increasing Access for and Participation of Jews with Disabilities in the Orthodox World. Rabbi Mark Dratch, RCA Executive Vice President (upper left), Rabbi Michael Levy (Upper right), Rabbi Barry Kornblau, RCA Director of Member Services and Sharon Shapiro-Lacks (lower left).

We congratulate the RCA for its pioneering breakthrough. We look forward to fulfilling the RCA proclamation as we educate Orthodox leaders and community members about the how to better involve people with disabilities in our communities as well as how to push us along with everyone else to learn Torah, do mitzvot and engage in communal services and events. Lastly, we encourage and invite community leaders and members to work with people with the full range of obvious and hidden disabilities and conditions in order to increase disability access and accommodations and to dispel myths and misconceptions.

Sharon Shapiro-Lacks is the Executive Director of Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center and Rabbi Michael Levy is the Board President. Yad HaChazakah provides guidance, resource information, advocacy, and community for people with obvious or hidden disabilities as we promote access to Jewish community life. Serving all people regardless of background, Yad HaChazakah is led by Jews with disabilities and is operated according to Orthodox Jewish standards. Follow Yad Hachazakah on Facebook.

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Say Yes

Lisa FriedmanBy: Lisa Friedman

We love blog posts that boast how you can “Change Your Life in 5 Easy Steps” or ones that offer us “10 Steps for Finding Happiness.” And as a regular blogger, I have written a handful of articles offering concrete, practical advice such as Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make and Ten Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive.

But I’d be lying if I said that you’d be all set if you just read and followed the advice in one of these articles. Even if I told you the exact steps that my congregation followed, you can’t just wrap our process up with a bow, plunk it down into your community and say, “Ok, now we are inclusive.”

Why not? Because becoming an inclusive community is a process. It is a deliberate and intentional transformation. It is a work in progress. Inclusion is a funny thing, really. When it is “done right”, it’s not something to talk about. It just is. When a community is inclusive, anyone who wants to participate can, to whatever extent he or she desires. Period. There’s no need for fanfare, no self-congratulatory pats on the back and no reason to advertise your accomplishments, because you are just a community doing what a community should do; welcoming everyone.

But inclusion, particularly inclusion of people with disabilities, is not always happening in the Jewish world; at least not naturally, comfortably and universally. And so, I will share one piece of solid, tried & true advice that I believe has been the single most powerful secret to the success of my congregation. Say yes.

Say yes because far too many have said no. Far too many still say no. Some “get around” to yes with a lot of pushing and prodding, but that can leave everyone involved with lingering frustrations and a sense of wariness.

Saying yes to inclusion

When you say, “Yes, I can meet your needs…please help me to understand how to do that,” you will build trust and enable your constituents to recognize that everyone is on the same team. I am not suggesting that every request and potential accommodation can and will be met with “yes”, but by opening the door you can set the stage for honest and trusting dialogues. It means that when something truly is not possible, there can be a calm and realistic conversation.

We are well into that time in the Jewish year where congregations dust off their brochures and ramp up their advertising. There is talk of “reaching the unaffiliated” alongside plans for membership drives, promotions and open houses. In my opinion, far too many congregations promote themselves as “warm, welcoming and inclusive.” Too often these are just the right words to put on brochures and websites. What separates congregations who are genuinely inclusive from those who say they are is their ability to say yes and mean it. These are the communities who recognize that inclusion isn’t a committee, that inclusion isn’t a program and that inclusion isn’t a classroom in the school.

The congregations that do it right recognize that inclusion defines them, that it is part of who they are. Someday (hopefully) inclusion will just be. Until then…

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she  oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She is also the Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks for Matan Inc. Lisa consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training.  Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.

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The Student Becomes The Teacher

Rabbi Charles S. ShermanBy: Rabbi Charles S. Sherman

For a lot of us, August is a month of transition — still trying to squeeze a bit more out of summer fun and warmth, but at the same time, recognizing summer is drawing to a close. Around the not-too-distant corner: school, routines, a little less leisure, cooler temperatures.

For my wife and me, this time of year always brought a little more anxiety. We are the parents of a son, Eyal, with significant disabilities- a quadriplegic, on a ventilator, totally dependent upon others. At this time of year, we would meet with Eyal’s teachers at our local public school. We would share with the teachers our expectations and try to address their concerns. While Eyal always worked on grade level, no teacher was really prepared to have a student with such challenges. He required medical equipment that made strange sounds. Communication was limited, it took enormous patience to read his lips. Eyal would bring with him an entourage- a nurse, a teacher’s aide, and frequently, my wife. I understood this whole thing could be intimidating.

For many years, our focus, and rightfully so, was on Eyal. How would he learn? Would the teacher make him feel comfortable and allow him to maximize whatever abilities and resources he has? How would the other students treat him?

Happily, Eyal was successful and graduated high school and college. Our advocacy definitely was necessary, but just as important, his teachers rose to the challenge. I thought this whole thing was about Eyal being the student. But I had something to learn, myself.

Eyal Sherman high school graduation

Eyal Sherman’s high school graduation

Eyal’s Physics tutor, a high school classmate, shared with us her college essay. It reads, in part: Eyal Sherman cannot walk or move his arms. He is unable to wash, dress, or feed himself without the assistance of others. He is a symbol of tragedy- a brain tumor and subsequent stroke at age four have left him a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. Now a teenager, he’s a young man who draws stares in the school halls, and is the object of pity. He could be the poster child for dozens of causes. No one wants to live like that. It is not a life.                           

Or so I thought. Everything that I have written in the previous paragraph is a snake-skin of bias that I used to wear, but now have discarded. I am ashamed that those words were my own, an example of my blindness and ignorance. They are a stereotypical description about those who are severely disabled.

I am Eyal’s tutor. But I have learned more from Eyal than anything I could ever teach him. I know now that our accomplishments are limited only by the boundaries of our dreams. This insight is not written down in words, not researched or lectured on. It is known in the heart, soul and mind of Eyal, and anyone who has overcome extreme obstacles on the road to success. Yes, I have helped Eyal raise his Physics grade, but the awareness that he has given me will help me pursue my own successes. I am his teacher, yet Eyal is my mentor.    

I have a favorite Rabbinic text that suggests, “Who is a wise person? One who learns from all persons.” As the Psalmist reminds us, “From all my teachers, have I gained understanding,” Psalm 119:99.

Rabbi Charles S. Sherman is the author of The Broken and The Whole, Discovering Joy After Heartbreak:  Lessons from a Life of Faith. (Scribern/Simon and Schuster March 2014). Learn more about Eyal by watching this Dateline NBC story about Eyal. Follow Rabbi Sherman on Facebook.

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Are They Related?

Jo Ann SimonsBy: Jo Ann Simons

In the past month the “Ice Bucket Challenge” for ALS, has quite literally “soaked” the United States. Everyone from Bill Gates to Tom Brady has poured a bucket of ice water over his or her head, made a donation to fight ALS and challenged others do the same or make a donation to fight ALS within twenty-four hours. Inspired by Pete Frates of Massachusetts, people are learning about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Robin Williams shocking death by suicide has led to an outpouring of admiration for the comic’s talents and a discussion about mental illness and depression. Depression, also known as major depression, clinical depression or major depressive disorder is a medical illness that causes a constant feeling of sadness and lack of interest. Depression affects how the person feels, behaves and thinks. We also learned that he recently received an early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Fellow comic and actor, Michael J. Fox, lives vibrantly with PD, a neurodegenerative brain disorder that progresses slowly in most people. Most individuals with PD will be living with PD for twenty years or more from the time of diagnosis.

Last week, residents of tony Beacon Hill in Boston (home to Secretary of State John Kerry), amounted their continued opposition and legal fight to curb cuts in their historic neighborhood. They are worried about altering the historic landscape in this section of Boston.

Curb cut

Curb cut

As I thought of these seemingly unrelated events, they began to merge together for me. We need to demand a national commitment to persons with disabilities. On all levels. We must commit more tax dollars towards finding cures and treatments for ALS, mental illness, Parkinson’s and all the other conditions that rob our friends and families.

We must raise the awareness that disability is a condition worth fighting, as Peter Frates shows us with his courage to live each day fully. After his diagnosis, he became a husband and in a few months, in spite of not being able to talk and move, he will know the joys of fatherhood.

I don’t pretend to know why Robin Williams took his life but I hope it was not his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s. If it was, I wish that Robin Williams could have seen clearly the life that Michael J. Fox lives and not the prospect of having a disability.

And how I wish that every street in Boston had curb cuts.

Because Pete Frates has the right to take his wheelchair anywhere he wants.

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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Accessibility: Technology’s Answer to the Golden Rule

Dana Marlowe

(credit: Rebecca Drobis Photography)

By: Dana Marlowe

What if there was a commentary in the ancient religious texts about technology? How would leaders in the early millennia have interpreted smart phones and tablets? We can take one page out of their user manuals and apply it to our tech products of today. One of the most memorable Talmud quotes was delivered to an individual who asked the scholar Hillel if he could learn the whole Torah standing on one foot. Hillel’s profound response was: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor…the rest is the explanation of this.” In modern society today, this tenet is referred to as “The Golden Rule.”

So, how does this tie into technology? It would be impossible to have one person master all of technology while standing on one foot. Products are innovating swiftly; the newest version is not always usable out of the box. Just as easily as technology opens up for some, it shuts the door for others. Especially those with disabilities. Fortunately, the solution is accessibility.

Accessibility and technology is the fusion of IT and disability; the focus on the user over the device. It is the human side of technology by personalizing the impersonal. Instead of shutting out individuals, or having organizations fearful of lawsuits, accessibility is a groundbreaking chance for new technological development with the inclusion of assistive devices. It can put people with disabilities at the helm of innovation and dictate progress focused on human experience.

As technology dictates our interpersonal reactions, accessibility can ensure that no one gets left out. Simple suggestions include screen magnification for users with visual disabilities, speech recognition for those with mobility disabilities, captions for those who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, alternative input and keyboards are standard in some devices, but not all. These options can be toggled on or off for a user’s preference, but don’t discriminate based on disability.

Technology and accessibility

Dana speaking with a man who is hard of hearing and visually impaired about innovative assistive technology while she was keynoting a conference in Trinidad.

On other levels, simple recommendations are to include alternative text for all images and non-textual items, have heading structures in documents, tables with headers, caption audiovisual media, and utilize proper color contrast. These are just a few suggestions. Accessibility enables anyone to use anything.

Yet, too often today, people are shut out of utilizing a piece of technology, whether a notebook, smartphone, desktop, touchscreen kiosk and beyond, due to inaccessibility. The best course of action is to have an open and consistent dialogue with developers and people with disabilities to create technology that is inclusive and powerful. It can propel a future where all can access any device or technology interface. By building in a strong foundation now, it ensures that all future developments move in the direction that benefits and values people with disabilities and fosters an inclusive society.

The Golden Rule teaches us to humbly consider the experiences of our neighbor. This value is applicable to technology innovation. Instead of trying to please lofty users with dazzling features, perhaps technology should think bigger picture, but closer to home. People with disabilities are the fastest growing demographic on the planet and one that anyone can join at any time in their life.

Accessibility might take some years to implement universally, but as Hillel also says, if we are only for ourselves, than what good are we?

Dana Marlowe is the Principal Partner of Accessibility Partners, L.L.C., an IT consulting firm. Dana works to remove barriers in technology, and to make opportunities available for people with disabilities. Dana partners with Federal Agencies, international organizations, and Fortune 500 businesses to help them create accessibility roadmaps and audit products to make them more usable for everyone. Like them on Facebook and engage Dana on Twitter to learn more.

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