Category Archives: Employment of People with Disabilities

How Innovation And Collaboration Can Deliver Talent

Rick LaferriereBy: Rick Laferriere

The recruitment of talent is one of the fiercest battles taking place in the world of commerce each day.  Employers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually hiring consultants, leveraging social media, and posting on big-board recruiting sites just to lure candidates. This investment, however, is yielding varying levels of success, as candidates are faced with a process that, in many cases, is increasingly devoid of human interaction and full of challenges and questions.

These challenges, including increased scrutiny around hiring practices and applications with personality assessments that immediately decide a candidate’s fate, have made the experience decidedly frustrating and disengaging for the applicant. Surely and somewhat begrudgingly, the days of walking into your local business office or supermarket asking for a job on the spot have joined the ole’ Victrola as a rare find and a reminder of simpler times.

Add into these challenges the fact that there is an increasing shortage of qualified talent in many fields and hiring leaders are keeping themselves awake at night trying to figure out how to staff their outfits. These same hiring leaders are left to roll the dice on the candidate that most effectively navigated the hiring minefield, all the while wondering if the best candidate may have never been presented for their consideration because of “the process.”  So for the hiring leader, all that’s left is to wait and hope that they chose wisely. This is not an effective strategy. Is there a better way?

There certainly is. Smart, creative employers are winning the talent battle by exploring non-traditional recruiting strategies, including proactive engagement with the community. Vocational rehabilitation agencies, community based organizations and other providers of employment services– especially to persons with disabilities- have long led the way on job driven training. These agencies have been effectively partnering with employers for many years to deliver high quality talent that commits for the long term. Employers that foster deeper partnerships with these community agencies are finding that a vast pool of talent is largely being overlooked and they can benefit from engaging that talent.

CVS employee Arina Karinin, who was recently honored at the Rhode Island State House and by Governor Chafee

CVS employee Arina Karinin, who was recently honored at the Rhode Island State House and by Governor Chafee

Together, employers who embrace this approach and partnering agencies are developing innovative pre-employment programs that are providing candidates with not only an immersion into the jobs employers need done, but also the culture of the employer’s workplace. Through these programs, employers are finding talent that is highly engaged and well trained even before their first official day of work. Candidates, too, are winning because they get to explore a career and determine if an employer is the right fit for them.

We know from research– both internal and external– that persons with disabilities are proven to be more reliable, more productive, more diverse, more creative and more likely to stay in the workplace. Quite simply, these factors reduce costs and increase profits. Inexplicably, not all employers find value in that data, but those that do are creatively leveraging resources to tap into this pipeline of talent and are realizing a competitive advantage.

In the end, through these innovative partnerships, employers are meeting talent goals and are building a more diverse workforce. More importantly, persons with disabilities are realizing that opportunity does truly exist for them in the workplace of their choice. With the bottom line in business more important today than it was yesterday, and the need to address the high rate of unemployment among persons with disabilities, it only makes sense that employers look to recruit talent collaboratively with partnering agencies that are far better prepared to do the jobs that employers want done.

Rick Laferriere is Lead Manager of Workforce Initiatives at CVS Health and a strong advocate for innovative community partnerships that connect employers with talented persons with disabilities. The CVS Health Workforce Initiatives team is a unique team of individuals whose purpose is to help people on their path to better health by cultivating innovative partnerships and programs that attract and equip diverse talent for dynamic and rewarding careers with CVS Health. A native of Boston’s North Shore, Rick holds a degree in Economics from Boston College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Commonwealth Corporation and on a number of local and national advisory councils focused on the creating pipelines of employment for persons with disabilities. Learn more about CVS Caremark which is helping to build a healthier workforce. Like CVS on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

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Is The Disability Real If It’s Not Physical?

Benjamin A. WinnickBy: Benjamin A. Winnick

This is the second post in a series entitled “Issues I face as a working adult with a disability.” Read the first post: To Disclose or Not to Disclose a Disability?

How do you explain to others that a disability is real when it is not physical?

It is really hard. It is easy to understand that accommodations are needed when someone has a physical disability. Society has come to accept that a physically disabled adult has limitations but also real competencies. My challenges are harder for people to understand because they are invisible. I don’t need a wheelchair or ramp, I don’t need a seeing-eye dog, I don’t need hearing aids; but I do need other types of accommodations that are more subtle and I need understanding when my social interactions don’t always mesh with accepted behavior. It is a constant struggle for me to monitor my behavior and control my impulses in order to live a successful independent life. Since my disability is subtle it is much harder for the general public to appreciate my abilities and it is hard for me to find a social niche where I am comfortable and accepted.

I have a non-verbal learning disorder diagnosis – so, what does that mean? It is a gray area and similar to Asperger’s syndrome…but most people don’t “get it.” When I first meet people they may not appreciate that I struggle in social situations and sometimes they may think that I act inappropriately.

At work I might be perceived as not capable, but if I have the right type of work, environment and supervision I can be very successful. If people don’t give me a chance and if I don’t have the accommodations that help me, I may appear either stupid or lazy; in reality I am neither and it is upsetting when I am treated as such.

Disclose a disability

Benjamin (right) and his fellow Transitions to Work graduates (credit: JVS staff)

My current job is a good fit; but it took quite some time for me to learn how to complete the expected tasks to my supervisor’s satisfaction, and the same amount of time for him to learn how to assign and supervise my work to allow me to succeed. He didn’t initially understand that I am easily distracted and disorganized – not because I wasn’t trying, but because I just couldn’t process too many instructions and responsibilities at one time and I have trouble staying on task. I was lucky to have a job coach from Jewish Vocation Services who helped explain my needs and issues to my boss and to help explain my boss’ issues to me. I am also lucky that my co-workers were willing to learn and adapt the work environment which helps me complete my assignments.

We now have a great working relationship and everyone I work with understands that I need very structured and limited work assignments. Every day I get a specific list of tasks that I am expected to accomplish…and I can do it! I am happy we have figured out how to make it work. I need to give a huge amount of effort and concentration to make it work and that is exhausting but I am grateful for the opportunity.

Ben Winnick is 32 years old and grew up in Needham, MA. He currently lives in Brighton, MA and works in the commercial kitchen at Newbridge on the Charles, an assisted living and skilled nursing facility in Dedham, MA. Ben loves animals and especially his family labradoodle, Kasey. The Ruderman Family Foundation is a proud partner in the Transitions to Work Program.

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To Disclose or not to Disclose a Disability?

Benjamin A. WinnickBy: Benjamin A. Winnick

This is the first post in a series entitled “Issues I face as a working adult with a disability”

Do I tell others about my disability? If yes, when? And if no, why not? And how much information is the right amount to share?

I have chosen to disclose my disability but it wasn’t an easy choice. I want to be treated and respected the same as my peers and co-workers, but without sharing the understanding of my specific issues I face the real possibility that I could be fired for behaviors that I can’t control. In a previous job I was fired because the supervisor did not understand how I communicate and he expected me to understand his subtle facial expressions when he was displeased with my work. I had no idea that things were going badly until the day I was fired.

As an adult with a non-verbal learning disability, I am not always aware of social cues and often misread communication that others take for granted. This is especially true when faced with supervisors who don’t understand [or are not willing to accommodate] the type of direct and, often, repetitive instructions that help me be successful. I also need someone who is willing to re-focus my attention on the work that needs to be done as I am easily distracted and am not always aware of my wandering attention away from the tasks at hand.

Disclose a disability

Benjamin (right) and his fellow Transitions to Work graduates (credit: JVS staff)

I am grateful that I was able to participate in the Jewish Vocational Service Transitions Program at Newbridge on the Charles (NBOC). I am currently working [and getting paid] 3 days a week at NBOC for an organization which has made a commitment to hire adults with disabilities. Because of their commitment and the training I received from the Transitions Program, I have kept my job for over 2 years. We do have instances where my boss is not happy with something I have done [or not done] and I am not always aware that he is not happy with my work. I am lucky that there continues to be a JVS job coach working in the building who can step in to help my supervisor communicate his concerns about my work.

I didn’t start out wanting to tell everyone about my disability and I don’t want to be treated differently in my work environment. I am willing to work hard. All I want is to be the same as everyone else and treated with respect. But now that I have learned that disclosing my issues and having others at work understand my unique needs helps me to be successful, I know this is the right thing to do for me.

Ben Winnick is 32 years old and grew up in Needham, MA. He currently lives in Brighton, MA and works in the commercial kitchen at Newbridge on the Charles, an assisted living and skilled nursing facility in Dedham, MA. Ben loves animals and especially his family labradoodle, Kasey. The Ruderman Family Foundation is a proud partner in the Transitions to Work Program.

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Sunflower Interview Part Two

Sara Portman Milner, Laurie Wexler

Sara Portman Milner (L), Laurie Wexler (R)

Sunflower Bakery was a recipient of the 2013 Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. Below is part two of an interview conducted with the founders where they discuss the challenges of running such a unique bakery, working with other employers and they share with us a most inspiring story about Cal and Drew. Part one of the interview discusses what makes the bakery unique, the community support and how they view inclusion.

What‘s the most rewarding thing about running the bakery?

Laurie: When people feel a sense of accomplishment: they can make the recipe, the chef says they’re doing a good job, you see them growing and gaining confidence. We then go out and see them in an internship, they’re doing well and the supervisor is happy with their work. Finally, when they get a job, that’s a very rewarding experience.

Sara: Knowing we’ve been able to provide the things they should have gotten all along for success.

How many workers and staff are in the bakery today?

3 full-time pastry chefs (2 are also instructors), 10-11 employees in total.

How many employers work with the bakery and what has been their feedback?

Sara: 25 different ones, 9-10 that are currently involved. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, comments such as “your students are so well prepared. We weren’t expecting that level of ability.” In one case, an employer had one slot open, interviewed two of our students and in the end, took both of them! Other people really liked the fact that our students were already trained.

Laurie: We’ve had some large national chains and small businesses as well. Quite a large range of employers. Each place had different benefits for our workers.

What would you say to other employers who may not want to hire people with disabilities?

Laurie: Try it- you might be surprised. Sometimes they’re really surprised in terms of the benefits- loyalty, showing up every day, really wanting to do the job. They may not be perfect but our students have had great success in our being able to train them very well for what they’ll experience on the job site and employers being pleasantly surprised at what they can do.

Sara: Be open-minded! Know that everyone needs a start-up. They’ll value this job more than someone who had a choice of eight jobs available to them.

What’s the biggest challenge you face today?

Laurie: We’re in a really small warehouse that we’re maxing out of. We want to move to the next phase that will take us in the direction of being able to bring in people with a wider range of disabilities and have them train on a wider variety of skills that are valued in the job market.

Sara: There are more people that want to work in the bakery than there are jobs available. We try and “carve” a job. We try to bring a potential employer to come see the person working and understand what an asset they would be, with the part wherein they excel.

Please share a story that happened at the bakery which made you proud or surprised you.

Sunflower Bakery Pastry Arts Training Program

Pastry Arts Training Program

Sunflower students are given a unique opportunity to be the best they can be, regardless of their former struggles throughout their school years. Two students, Cal and Drew, started their training together. Cal was referred by his Transition Teacher during his last year of high school. He has serious language disabilities, both receptive and expressive. He hoped to get training in baking at Sunflower, so that he could do a variety of cooking jobs and work his way up to being a supervisor. As he moved through his training at Sunflower, he had difficulty with multi-step assignments. By the time we started talking about internships, he had decided he wanted to focus on a more limited list of tasks that he felt he could perfect, adding more that would be similar, rather than trying to cover a broader spectrum. Indeed, by the end of his on-the-job training, he had confidently developed the selected skill set.

At the same time, his fellow student, Drew, had received resource help throughout his school years. From the very beginning of his training at Sunflower, he showed great promise, learning techniques and recipes, demonstrating excellent production skills and a seriousness in his approach to learning. However, he had very little self-confidence, since he was used to struggling with schoolwork and experiencing failure. Each time he mastered a new recipe, he was amazed that he had actually succeeded and in such excellent fashion. He completed the broader curriculum and showed great promise. When it was time to explore internships, he hesitantly said that he would be willing to try working in baking, if we thought he could do it.

As part of our Next Steps Employee Development Program, students make site visits to a variety of businesses that are interested in taking Sunflower interns. At the same time, the chefs and supervisors in the businesses meet a range of our students, who are still working in the on-site portion of our on-the-job training program, in preparation for the transition. Cal and Drew went on a number of site visits, along with other students. One particular site, a more upscale restaurant that is part of a local restaurant group, hosted such a visit. Their bakery has an open seating area so customers can watch pastry preparation as they dine.

Both Cal and Drew found the restaurant appealing as did the other visiting students. Sunflower’s employment specialist, who accompanied the group, explained that the restaurant would take two interns to be chosen by the restaurant. Cal and Drew were delighted to be chosen. Cal had shown potential for doing work that is repetitive and required consistency, both in the bakery and in the kitchen. He exuded confidence that impressed the employers. They wanted him to learn and do finite tasks. Drew was chosen because of his training successes and potential to do a wide repertoire of baking and kitchen tasks.

I visited them “on the job,” and it was wonderful to see each of them working in the bakery and in the kitchen, wearing their chef’s toques, busily working with minimal supervision. They looked impeccably professional and I was bursting with pride. They have both grown and enhanced skills learned at Sunflower and also have gained new kitchen skills. Even more amazing was hearing the effusive praise from their supervisors in the bakery and the kitchen. The management has loved having them as interns and are providing excellent references for future employment. Both Cal and Drew have become more confident, performing as professionals.

Since the accomplishments of our graduates never cease to amaze us, we were thrilled when Cal was offered a job at another restaurant in the same shopping area as the internship. Cal had lunch often at this restaurant and chatted about his internship with the manager. The manager was so impressed with his work ethic and enthusiasm, that he hired Cal as soon as he finished his internship! We have learned that if an individual is well-trained and has an excellent attitude along with a good work ethic, it doesn’t matter if they have a limited skill set. They are seen as desirable employees, valued by managers!

Sara Portman Milner and Laurie Wexler are the co-founders and co-directors of Sunflower Bakery located in Gaithersburg, MD.  They can be reached at sara@sunflowerbakery.org or laurie@sunflowerbakery.org. Visit them on Facebook at Sunflower Bakery. 

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The Illusion Of Inclusion

Courtesy: Braina Melanson

Credit: Braina Melanson

By: Robert Gumson

In my 40th year working in the field of advocacy and services by and for people with disabilities, I am compelled to speak my mind about inclusion. Inclusion shouldn’t be a buzzword; it needs to be a synonym for humanity and community. It isn’t a gift or reward; it is borne out of a hard won struggle—achieved in the same way the Jews of Egypt won freedom over slavery and passed the memory of that struggle down from generation to generation so others may learn. People with disabilities represent the largest and poorest minority group in America today, with 68% out of the workforce and three times the poverty rate of others. And we remain feared by the business world and enslaved by antiquated sub-minimum wage laws that hold us prisoners to charity rather than empower us with inclusion.

In the daytime I’m the administrator for the largest independent living program of advocacy and services controlled and guided by people with disabilities in the nation. At all times of the day, I am a husband, a father and the Board President of Jewish Family Services of Northeastern New York (JFS) in Albany. Since losing my vision as a child while growing up in Brooklyn in the 60’s, I have dedicated my life to living the American Dream, alongside and as part of the fabric of my community. However, as people with disabilities, no matter how typical the world around them and participatory in the world among them, we question if we are truly accepted as just another community member rather than someone special. Too many people I’ve known throughout my life believe I possess some unique strength, skill set, determination or spirituality just because I find ways of doing everything they take for granted. I know inside my own mind that I’d be just as determined and bold if I were blind or not. Sure, I probably gained some grit from rising up in adversity, but I probably learned more strategies because my parents let me grow up on the streets of Brooklyn.

Bob Gumson pictured with Ilene and Jerry Sykes (JFS Annual Celebration Honorees) and Christine Holle (JFS Executive Director). Credit: Braina Melanson

Robert Gumson pictured with Ilene and Jerry Sykes (JFS Annual Celebration Honorees) and Christine Holle (JFS Executive Director). Credit: Braina Melanson

My greatest realization that I have indeed achieved what I have strived for all my life, of being nothing more than an ordinary contributing community member, came to me over a year ago when JFS chose me as their Board President. Nobody second guessed if I could fill the role. Nobody worried about accommodating me or questioned if I could step up. If I had a need, it was left up to me to make it known. I couldn’t ask for a more fully inclusive and enlightened community to work amongst than the folks I have come to know and count on in the Capital Region of New York. Oddly enough, they do not know how I feel about all this because it is a very personal sense of fulfillment that I’m not sure translates well for anyone who hasn’t lived with a disability. Nevertheless, I want to shout it from a mountain because it is a rare moment to be accepted and included and it calls for celebration. I pray for a time in our chapter of human history when all people with disabilities are naturally integrated into society, because we have passed on the memories of how enriched our lives have become as a result.

Aside being ineligible to get a driver’s license, Bob Gumson lives a full and fascinating life since losing vision from an eye disease as a child. He has hitchhiked across America, earned a graduate degree, raised a family, been involved in disability rights, attended nearly a thousand live concerts and serves the community in a variety of volunteer positions. He writes poetry, personal essay, memoir and “fracoir”(fractured memoir).

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Follow The Money

Allison WohlBy: Allison Wohl

Several of our coalition’s partner groups had a discussion recently where we tried to define the three largest barriers that citizens with disabilities face in our country today. Our conclusion was that low expectations leads to segregation, which leads to permanent and intractable poverty. According to the US Department of Labor, Americans with disabilities have been the poorest minority group for the past ten years in a row. If low expectations lead to segregation, where do we begin to break down these barriers in our system of public services and supports? Just follow the money.

My son, who has Down syndrome, turned four last week. He is in a segregated public preschool class comprised of students with disabilities who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Because of federal funding mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), these classes must exist. Our county does not have a universal preschool program, so a segregated program is the only public option where he can receive the supports and services that he needs. We will push to have him integrated into a typical classroom through elementary school, but that will be increasingly challenging for the schools as he gets older. Ninety-five percent of students with intellectual disabilities in this country are educated in segregated classrooms apart from their typical peers. Segregated education prepares students for segregated working environments. It also sends the message to other students that students with disabilities are different and need to be educated separately—what is often referred to as the “tyranny of low expectations.”

Allison Wohl kidWhen my son ages-out of the youth system, he will enter the adult system. Many funds intended to support individuals to live, work and engage in their communities continue to be misdirected to services that produce the exact opposite outcomes. As a result, thousands of individuals continue to receive services that result in further segregation, impede individual progress, and create additional barriers for individuals to successfully participate in society. Again, the belief that young adults with disabilities cannot work is used to validate their segregation—and pay salaries below minimum wage. The businesses that serve this population receive federal dollars to do so; integrating this population would mean changing their business models, which they are loath to do.

These vulnerable and capable citizens are trapped in lives of isolation and poverty. Both the legality of sub-minimum wage and the outdated income restrictions of Social Security make it impossible for them to earn and save, making the poverty intractable.

The laws and attitudes that both support and trap citizens with disabilities were created for generations and expectations that have proven to be outdated. The civil rights of other minority groups have been championed and extolled. Systemic and societal discrimination against Americans with disabilities is still accepted and acceptable in this country. It is time to modernize our systems and fold the nearly 4.6 million citizens in this country who live with intellectual and developmental disabilities into our communities, our workplaces, our classrooms and our economy.

Allison Wohl is the Executive Director of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination (CPSD), a coalition of 21 national disability groups advocating for modernization of outdated and fragmented systems. Like CPSD on Facebook to learn more or engage them on Twitter.

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An Interview With Michael Stein

I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvard Professor 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 one of the interview. Part two will appear on the blog very soon.
– Ephraim Gopin

Michael Stein1) How well is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) being implemented?

The ADA has been a mixed bag. It’s been extraordinarily successful in creating access to public places and public accommodation, but it’s been extraordinarily unsuccessful in affecting employment.

According to many studies, the ADA has had a major effect as far as making the public areas a place where people with and without disabilities can come and go at their leisure and more accessible for people with disabilities. It has improved the quality of people’s lives immeasurably.

As far as employment, we’ve seen a consistent decrease in employment and holding since well before the ADA. It was hoped that the ADA would improve the employment situation but it has not. (Michael has studied disability employment in the US for over 25 years and around the world. A book on this topic will be coming out next month.)

2) What’s the most jarring finding you have found from your studies?

Almost 80% of working age adults with disabilities are unemployed. When the overall unemployment rate reached 9%, it was considered a matter of great public attention and almost a national crisis. But yet the national disability unemployment rate has never been lower than 66% and over the last few years it has held steady at nearly at 80%. The fact that it doesn’t raise the same sort of red flags and calls to action is concerning.

3) Is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) really a game changer? If yes, how so?

I view the CRPD as a remarkable tool that can be used to leverage change. It ultimately depends on local civil societies and how they use the tools. We see it as a lever on a national level for the creation of progressive and inclusive laws, policies and programming.

michael stein II

Picture courtesy of: http://b.globe.com/1gDj4y6

On an international level we see it being very effective in how the UN approaches disabilities. We’re seeing donor organizations now changing their guidelines to be inclusive- not as special projects but included in all the projects they’re doing bilaterally. On the individual national level- it really depends on the social and legal culture, what the alternatives are and how active the civil society is, which shows how conducive government is to change. In some places, I’ve been told by ministers that they will not change their policies. In other places, it’s been a wake-up call, it’s been an educational device and policy makers have begun to think how to approach differently almost invariably their largest minority group.

Is it a game- changer? At the end of the day, it depends how active civil society is and how well they pair with non-disability sectors to find areas of common interest and team up with them on projects.

4) The state of technology for people with disabilities- passing grade? Are apps made with people with disabilities in mind? If not, that’s a huge population to not serve.

Globally, new technology has in some areas embraced inclusion. The technology is certainly there to make all these apps accessible. The technology is cheap and incredibly easy to implement. But by and large, the needs and rights of people with disability are not taken into account.

It’s frustrating- I hear the anger and exclusion from many friends and different groups. Especially because this is a new world created by supposedly young, savvy, cosmopolitan people who have no excuse for excluding people with disabilities. To embed barriers into new structures seems to me to be a lost opportunity as well as a harmful and avoidable phenomenon.

Big businesses are by & large aware of it and some are more savvy than others. Microsoft has been rather good on accessibility. Amazon, on the other hand, has been obnoxious on the issue. For example, Amazon has been approached time and again about the Kindle but refuses to make it accessible.

5) Employment discrimination: Do you believe that people with disabilities face barriers to finding a job?

Empirical evidence from all over the globe suggests there’s a real disconnect policy-wise when we think about people with disabilities and the workplace. In terms of Western notions, people are viewed either as work capable or disabled; if they’re disabled, then they’re not meant to be working.  We don’t think enough about people’s different abilities, how to cultivate those abilities, getting them integrated into the workplace, why work is valuable especially when it comes to interacting with other people.

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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Our Inclusion Journey Is Just Beginning

Alan GillBy: Alan Gill

Meet Rachel and Dana.

These Israeli women, both in their late twenties, experienced a life passage recently that for many occurs at a much earlier age: they signed leases to move into their first apartments all on their own.

The twist?

Rachel and Dana both have severe physical disabilities that at one time might have consigned them for life to state institutions. But today, that is not their destiny.

Why? Because they were part of an innovative program that helps young Israeli adults with disabilities make the transition from institutions or from their parents homes to the larger community.

This achievement, a pinnacle in their lives, represents a tipping point of sorts, one I have seen throughout my travels around the world.

That’s because there is something extraordinary happening in Jewish communities and in Israel, something that demonstrates a real forward movement in how we embrace and create more inclusive communities for people with disabilities. And Rachel and Dana are just two examples of that change.

At the center – indeed the very heart– of this global transformation is the fact that inclusion is not just an easily tossed-about catchphrase in Jewish community life anymore. Today it is the driver.

For years now, we have talked about the importance of including Jews with disabilities in Jewish life or of helping people with disabilities live independently. In many ways these critically important slogans were the first step in achieving what is now a reality. But often we would stop short there, not doing enough to turn those words into action.

Today, however, we’re taking huge steps to ensure that Jewish life is available to all who seek it, creating opportunities for those who had faced barriers in the past, and providing unimpeded access to services and success and independence for people with disabilities. And in the process, we’ve begun to share and scale these models to create a “new normal” for our community.

So how did we get here?

In my opinion, by actualizing and bridging two great ideas: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” often attributed to Gandhi, and Herzl’s “If you will it, it is no dream.”

We have been blessed as a community to have standout leaders and activists who have pushed the envelope for the inclusion of people with disabilities across the global Jewish world. These advocates have embodied the very change they feel so passionately about.

Whether they themselves have a disability, have a friend or family member who has been impacted by a disability, or have been transformed by seeing the success achieved by a person with a disability when they are given the tools to thrive, these leaders are putting their professional reputations, philanthropic support, and personal talents where their mouths are. And to their credit they have not backed down.

Alan Gill (JDC)

I understand full well how that kind of passion and vision can impact organizations and communities. Since 2009, my organization JDC – together with our partners the Ruderman Family Foundation and the Government of Israel – has been working to ensure that Israel’s million plus citizens with disabilities have access to services, live independently, and that Israeli society becomes increasingly more inclusive of them.

We call this effort Israel Unlimited and to date, it has helped tens of thousands of Israelis with disabilities. Such transformative impact is the result of the leadership of my friend Jay Ruderman.

He has personified his passion, shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and his home in Israel to not just advocate for his vision of inclusion, but to fund life-changing initiatives, to award Jewish organizations and outlets that outshine with their achievements in this realm, and to push new models and ideas about inclusion, whether it be in the areas of employment or Jewish schooling.

And Jay is not alone. From the disabled director of a Center for Independent Living in Beersheva, a kindergarten teacher in Moscow bucking cultural fear of people with disabilities, or the rabbi of a suburban NJ synagogue welcoming families with children with disabilities into his congregation, these community members, and leaders in their own right, are boldly challenging the status quo – or simple ignorance – to ensure that people with disabilities are given their fair shot at the Jewish experience. They are the very change they desire in their communities.

When you have those kinds of inspiring leadership models, what follows next is action that changes lives. It wasn’t just enough, in JDC’s case, to walk the walk of inclusion. By embracing the change we wanted to make in lives of Israel’s citizens with disabilities and by then building out programs for them based on research, testing, and a better understanding of the services and opportunities they were lacking, we willed into being the very initiatives that would move the needle.

But we also did something else: we dreamed. For years now we have been running successful employment programs for an array of populations in Israel, most notably Haredim and Israeli Arabs. And we knew that Israelis with disabilities faced similar obstacles to the workforce – cultural misunderstanding of their abilities, lack of skills and training, and apprehension by employers.

We also knew from our previous successes that these obstacles were not true barriers if we marshaled resources and worked with our partners to ensure Israelis with disabilities had opportunities to work and thrive.

So just this summer, we launched RampUp, a program that trains pre-existing employment center staff to offer assistance and services to people with disabilities. Additionally, we included a variety of employers in RampUp’s roll-out, thereby creating a welcoming corporate culture for people with disabilities so that they are welcomed into the workforce and recognized for their skills and talents. With our initiative, Israelis with disabilities in five pilot cities in Northern Israel dream no longer about holding a job and living a life full of choice and dignity.

These achievements are about more than simple, pioneering efforts in the Jewish community to build inclusive, welcoming environments. They are about what is possible when you have the determination, unbridled passion, and tide of history on your side. You can make anything happen. And we have.

So let’s recommit to this task we have set forth for ourselves, whether we be Jewish professionals, philanthropists, or everyday community members. After all, our work is about strengthening Jewish people. And our shared dedication is to ensuring that people with disabilities – especially those in our global Jewish community – are right beside us and, in some cases, leading the way.

Together, with one voice, and many actions, we’re making it so. And future generations – like Rachel and Dana – will thank us.

Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). JDC works in more more than 70 countries and Israel to rescue Jews in danger, alleviate hunger and hardship, innovate Jewish life and create lasting Jewish connections, and provide a Jewish response to natural and man-made disasters. Follow them on Twitter for more info.

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When The Time Comes

Below is a speech given at the graduation ceremony for this year’s participants in Camp Ramah California’s Ezra voc-ed program.

Shaina BarnettBy: Shaina Barnett

Hello and bruchim habaim (welcome), everyone. My name is Shaina Barnett and I’m graduating this summer. I started in the summer of 2008 and entered the Ezra Staff Program in 2010, making a total of six summers here at Camp Ramah. Since joining Ezra, the jobs I’ve had were from helping sorting out mail, to working outside of camp at the Humane Society of Ventura County. The opportunities I have experienced while holding these jobs gave me a sense of confidence as well as feeling more responsible as an adult. Some other things I’ve learned about being in Ezra are how to interact with my peers, which is not always easy, and I’ve learned to be well aware to listen to others and be clear what my supervisors tell me.

To me, camp is one of many things: my second home, my own perfect world, a place where I can feel safe and where such magical things happen, cliche as it sounds. I feel that in this sacred and condensed environment, we are a community of more than just Jewish people. We are a community as a whole. Which is why I thank God that the Tikvah Program exists.

Growing up with autism all my life, the struggles and obstacles life threw at me were a constant battle. I never really knew or understand human relationships and had trouble trying to blend in or even structure a simple conversation. Relationships such as with friends or my siblings were strained because I never felt like myself; I always had to be someone else, desperate for acceptance. But Camp Ramah changed all that. With an environment structured with people from all walks of life, the feeling of being welcome among my peers and others of all ages is an overwhelmingly amazing feeling. I feel safe from harsh judgments and over time spending my summers here, I grew to accept the person I am. I am no longer ashamed of my autism. Even my social skills have improved greatly as my perspective of life and my spirituality.

As a young Jewish woman, my pride in my heritage grew at camp. Although the pride was always there, being at camp with Jews from all backgrounds and with Tikvah’s help making connections with other campers and staff helped me apply the teachings of Torah to my everyday life. This year, I achieved my desires of making my own tallit and speaking about my autism to the Machones on behalf of the Tikvah Program. These accomplishments will always be a reminder to me of what I can achieve.

California tikvah

We have all heard the expression “when one door closes, another one opens”. After moving out of my parents’ house the previous year and virtually living independently in my apartment, I knew I am ready for bigger challenges and better things life has to offer. The Tikvah Program helps and understands that. As adults, we have the obligation to move forward in life for life is not stationary. Of all the hardest decisions and transitions I have made in my life thus far, leaving camp and graduating Ezra is without doubt the hardest transition for me, because this to me is my home. Though many tears will be shed, we must remember that we the Jewish people have a saying for such transitions in life: we must remember that goodbyes are not forever, but a l’hitraot, until we meet again. Because we stuck together as if we were family and we shall forever more stick together in our hearts. With that being said, I wish you all good luck and success in your endeavors and a long, happy life.

I would like to take this time to thank all those who gave me not only six memorable summers here at Camp Ramah, but who have influenced me in my life. I would first like to thank my family and friends for their tough love and support to making me the person I am today and for giving me motivation to go forward. I give my thanks to my many awesome coordinators, to Deborah for her wisdom and teachings of Torah and Rabbi Joe for successfully running this wonderful place and making it better year after year.

Thank you Elana Naftalin-Kelman for her love for us and her endless hard work which enabled us to come together and build friendships and memories that would last a lifetime. Thank you David Abraham, our best friend, our big brother. His guidance and unlimited patience as he gave us tools to survive adulthood in the workforce are what truly benefit the Ezra Staff.

When I think of David, Elana, and those who I give thanks to, I think of the song, Darkeinu, Our Path. For we bless God for keeping us on the path we want to follow and we bless our staff and coordinators for helping us pursue our path. I am aware that following my part is no easy task, but I will prevail. I am no longer afraid of what is waiting ahead of me because I have already conquered challenges that lie behind me. I always mention the words “when the time comes…”, and now this is my time. This is my year. And I will own it and succeed. My heart goes out to you all and you will always be in my heart. A huge and ultimate Todah Rabah (thank you) to all of you for six memorable summers here at Camp Ramah. Todah Rabah.

My name is Shaina Roxanne Barnett. I am 22 years old from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, CA. I’ve been going to Camp Ramah in California for 6 summers and 7 sessions. I’m a student at Los Angeles Pierce College and a secretary at the Pierce College Gay Straight Alliance as well as a lead singer in Temple Aliyah’s OurSpace program called Kolot Tikvah. I love music, art, animals, and teaching the world about Autism and advocating for human equality.

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Customer Service When You Enter CVS

Michael LibermanBy Michael Liberman- Transitions to Work Graduate

When I first started Transitions to Work, the Director, Madeline Wenzel, told me I would be doing a 3 month training to learn register and customer service skills. I started the class and was taught how to use the cash register, stock the shelves, how to keep the store clean and how to properly greet customers.

One week after completing the training course, the staff from the Transitions to Work program helped me get a three month internship at the CVS in Government Center. The internship would give me a chance to apply what I had learned in the training to working in a real store. On the first day of my internship one of the co-workers in the store was showing me how to stock shelves. I was given an aisle and I had to put items on the shelves and keep them clean. I did that and I loved it.

A little while into my internship, my manager came up to me and told me that she wanted to hire me as a Greeter in the store. I went home and thought about the position of Greeter and made the decision to accept the offer. As a Greeter, it is my job to stand by the door and say “Hello, how are you today, do you need help finding anything,” and I tell the customer to have a great day when I finish helping him/her. If the customer needs help, I walk them to the aisle and show them where the item is and explain to them the sale of that particular product. I make sure to use all of the GOT (greet, offer and thank) steps I learned during my training to each customer so they all continue shopping at our store.

I have been working in this CVS for about 5 1/2 months and I really like the people I work with. It feels good to be making money and making some new friends too. My experience working at a CVS has been great. I have even been employee of the week twice!  Everybody keeps telling me what a good job I am doing and to keep up the good work. Getting such positive feedback from my manager and co-workers makes me feel good.

CVS Michael Wenzel and Lianne Tan

Michael with CVS manager Lianne Tan

The Store Manager of the store recently sent me an email sharing a customer comment. “This store is amazing. All the staff here is helpful and especially Michael. He is the face of your store and it’s so nice to have him walk me to my items and take his time to explain to me about the products. I really appreciate him!”  My Assistant Manager thanked me for all of my help and greeting customers as they walk in the store and told me that our customer feedback is positive when I am working. I continue to provide good customer service to the customers so they will continue shopping in this store.

As I am working I am meeting some more people to talk to. A graduate from the last Transitions to Work CVS session just started an internship in my store and I recently helped her by showing her what I do as a Greeter. I started working here on March 26, 2013 and I am happy that I had the opportunity to get this job. I am glad to have been a part of the Transitions to Work program and I am grateful to the Ruderman Family Foundation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, CVS and Jewish Vocational Service for making this program possible.

 Michael is a graduate of the Transitions to Work Program.  He is 21 years old and lives in Sharon, MA

TransitionsLogo_webTransitions to Work is a collaboration among Combined Jewish Philanthropies, The Ruderman Family Foundation and Jewish Vocational Service, to build relationships with employers to raise awareness about inclusive hiring practices and to engage corporate partners to consider young adults with disabilities as qualified, committed candidates for appropriate employment opportunities.  Transitions to Work provides an extensive 12 week training and internship program to enable young adults with disabilities to develop the skills needed for employment and place them into jobs that provide earnings and a sense of purpose.  

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