Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Mayim Bialik spent a shabbos with kids with disabilities


A few weeks ago, I was a guest at a Shabbat retreat (called a Shabbaton) at a synagogue near my house. I was invited by an organization called ETTA to experience the community they create for individuals with disabilities.
ETTA was started almost 25 years ago. They have five group homes in the Southern California area and they support activities and events that help individuals learn life skills and build confidence while participating in rewarding job, social, and recreational activities, including summer camps and Shabbat experiences such as the one I attended.
What’s special about ETTA is that the volunteer base for the organization is made up of many teenagers in the community who learn how to serve communities with disabilities. This approach to serving the needs of individuals with disabilities not only helps those in need, but it facilitates a community awareness of differences and raises a generation of teenagers who have learned sensitivity, skills, and compassion in a very meaningful way.
What I saw when I attended the Friday night portion of this Shabbaton was about 50 young adults with special needs accompanied by enthusiastic and supportive teenagers and adults who helped us all come to Shabbat services to pray together. Then we had a festive dinner which started with making the blessings over the wine and grape juice and the challah, and singing songs to welcome Shabbat in together.
There was a variety of young people with disabilities there at various levels of comfort; some were very shy and needed gentle coaxing to participate at their comfort level, and others were very outgoing, ready to answer questions the leaders asked about what’s something they were grateful for and what ETTA has done for their lives. There were some who needed a lot of guidance, and I was especially touched to see teenagers working so tenderly with those participants, speaking to them gently and assessing their comfort as the evening progressed.
I have so many memories of Shabbat dinners at camp which looked a lot like this: an over-excited leader getting everyone in the Shabbat mood who would invariably lose his voice by Saturday night because of his enthusiasm in leading us in song and prayer; the anticipation of what activities would be planned for a group of eager participants all weekend; the undeniably “Jewish” feeling you get when surrounded by a room full of people all singing songs together—even if you don’t know the words, you can “lai-la-lai-lai” along and feel part of something.
It was dinners and weekends like these when I started feeling part of something bigger than myself. They were about identifying something as positive rather than what other people may see as negative. It was finding the uniqueness in my Jewishness in a world and a country that may not always seem like they “get” us. That’s how I remember my camp time and my early experiences with Shabbatons. It’s profound.
And how critically important this is for individuals with special needs in particular, who may be marginalized and rejected by mainstream society or left out of conventional Jewish practice; who look different and act different in ways many of us can’t even fully comprehend.
I am so grateful ETTA and other organizations like ETTA exist; not only for the individuals with disabilities who they serve, but for those of us who get to volunteer, participate in their learning and their joy, and remember again how sweet it is to be loved and included and appreciated—how good and pleasant it is to sit together as part of the same family of humanity as Jews.
ETTA has a Gala fundraiser in Los Angeles on December 13. Please consider attending or donating to support their wonderful work. Visit their website http://www.ettagala.org/ for more information.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

cerbebal palsy won't slow down this amazing kid inventor


On the Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon welcomed kid inventors, one of whom was 16-year-old Sherwood from Ontario, Canada. Sherwood used an air compressor to create a fencing dummy, and while the invention worked, Fallon made quick work of the dummy by knocking its head off with a punch to the face.
Other kid inventions included a slider piano bench, which was created using a go-kart seat and skateboard wheels so that piano players with short arms could reach all the keys.
Perhaps the most impressive kid invention of the night came courtesy of two sisters, Claire and Sadie, from Weare, N.H. Ten-year-old Sadie proved that with the Amazing Curb Climber, nothing could stop her.
“So I have cerebral palsy, which means I have to use a walker. So one day I was at the library. And they have these big steps,” Sadie explained. “And I couldn’t get up because my walker couldn’t climb up curbs or stairs. So I decided to make one that could. And so I did.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Ford steps up to hire people with autisim


DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. plans next year to hire an additional 12 to 24 adults with autism, expanding a program with the Autism Alliance of Michigan that has more than 30 other local companies signed on.
The programs are growing quickly. For the companies, people with autism represent untapped talent, and the jobs mean an opportunity to earn a living for those on the spectrum who have typically been left behind.
In June, the automaker launched its pilot program by hiring four adults with autism who have college degrees to work in its product development department at its world headquarters. Those four were on temporary status, but have since been become regular employees at the automaker. Ford originally committed to hiring five employees, but two part-time positions were combined to create one full-time position to accommodate an exemplary candidate.
"When we started, we wanted to make sure we could do this and do it sustainably," said Kirstin Queen, manager of diversity and inclusion at Ford. "The program was found to be very successful, and the supervisors have said these individuals brought a new energy that spread to other employees."
The challenge of employing an adult with autism, while all are different, usually lies in the realm of social interactions. Employees with autism can lack social skills and social imagination and are often brutally honest, which can come across as rudeness.
The program was developed with the Autism Alliance of Michigan, a nonprofit founded by Dave Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer at DTE Energy Co. Autism Alliance trained Ford staffers how to interact with their new colleagues with autism, including creating direct, concise job functions as well as understanding the employees' social limitations.
Ford's vehicle evaluation and verification test lab participated in the pilot program, and Ford will expand the new hires into information technology and digital innovation departments, Queen said.
The 60- to 90-day ramp-up process has begun, and the jobs are expected to be filled in January.
The new positions will require a bachelor's degree, as did the previous positions.
Ford receives a federal work opportunity tax credit of $2,400 per adult with autism it hires. That credit, however, does not completely offset the costs of the program, said Colleen Allen, president and CEO of the Autism Alliance.
Since Ford began its program in June, dozens of other companies have sought similar programs through the Autism Alliance. The organization is working with 38 companies, either on creating programs or are already commencing pilot programs.
Allen declined to name the other companies as they navigate through their initial pilot programs, but they include 10 banking and finance firms, seven manufacturing companies, three IT companies and others in different industries.
"The expressed interest has shot through the roof this year," Allen said. "We're definitely ahead of the curve nationally."
Allen said the only limitation is the organizations' ability to keep up with demand. Roughly 200 adults with autism are looking to get placed.
"We're not in a hurry; we're not going to just dump someone in an open position," Allen said. "This is a thoughtful process, and we want to make sure we get it right" to benefit the employee and encourage the company to participate further.
Autism represents a hefty economic question as more and more of those diagnosed reach working age. It's imperative that employers adapt or miss out on a productive population with specialized skills, Allen said.
Autism's costs are growing -- estimated at $268 billion annually in the U.S. on treatment and loss of productivity in 2015, rising to $461 billion, or 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, by 2025, according to a 2015 study by researchers at the University of California-Davis and the University of Denver. Diabetes and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder are the only diseases that cost more than autism, and neither generally prevents people who have them from working.
In the U.S., it's estimated that more than 3.5 million people and one in 68 children (one in 42 for boys) being born have autism spectrum disorder — a complex brain condition associated with poor communication skills — according to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. In Michigan, the state estimates there are 50,000 or more adults with autism, and growing.
It's called a spectrum because the symptoms can range from not understanding nonverbal communication, to lack of empathy, to obsessive-compulsive behavior, to never speaking. Less-severe cases are often called Asperger's syndrome, but many experts no longer use that term.
More than half of people diagnosed with autism have average to above-average intelligence, according to a 2014 study.
Companies are becoming more aware of the benefits of hiring adults with autism, thanks to early adopters like Walgreen Co.
In 2007, Walgreens opened a distribution center in Anderson, S.C., and piloted a program to employ workers with disabilities -- 33 percent of the nearly 300 workers at that time -- many of whom had autism. To accommodate workers with autism, managers are instructed to avoid metaphors and use direct instruction and outfit a break room with beanbag chairs and puzzles to calm workers with autism who may feel sensory overload from the loud, often frantic pace of a distribution center, Workforce magazine reported in 2012.
The Anderson center now employs more than 40 percent with disabilities, and Walgreen opened a similar facility in Connecticut in 2009.
Allen said Southeast Michigan will be successful when autism hiring expands beyond seeking highly skilled adults with autism and looks to match those in every category with jobs they can do.
"There's a perception now that those on the spectrum are these really smart, highly functional people," Allen said. "Not everyone has three degrees."
You can reach Dustin Walsh at dwalsh@crain.com

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

All persons trail for people with disabilities


For a lot of people, taking a hike through a wooded park or wildlife sanctuary on a beautiful day is an invigorating, peaceful, even meditative experience. But that's not always the case for everyone.
“It can be scary to be in an unfamiliar environment," Jerry Berrier told me.
Berrier has been blind since birth. But he’s also a lifelong birder who loves the outdoors. Berrier birds by ear and records their calls and songs whenever he gets the chance.
Now Berrier can venture safely along a nature trail — on his own — more easily. That's because the state Department of Conservation and Recreation built a specially designed, accessible park very close to where he works at the Perkins School for the Blind.
“It is difficult for me as a person who’s totally blind to find places where I can spend an hour or two, or longer, all by myself if I choose to,” Berrier said while sitting on a bench on the Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail along the Charles River.
"This is a place I’m looking forward to coming to often because it will give me the opportunity to do that," he said. "If I want to bring an audio recorder with me and record some of the sounds: I can do that. It’s a wonderful thing because it’s not all that easy to find opportunities like that for us.”
Berrier hopes the Braille trail in Watertown will inspire people of all abilities to engage more deeply with nature. He says spending time outside opens his world, which he says can sometimes feel small when you have a disability. And it's helped Berrier discover other ways to find and experience beauty, since he's not able to see it.
Accessible trails with wider, rope-guided paths like the one in Watertown have been cropping up around the state, thanks in part to Berrier.
“I've very committed to that and have been for a long time,” he said.
For the past eight years Berrier has been an “accessibility consultant” to the Massachusetts Audubon Society. With his help, the organization is currently upgrading its 12th "All Persons Trail” with multi-sensory elements at the Habitat Wildlife and Education Center in Belmont.
Jerry Berrier sits in the Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail, which was created by design firm Sasaki. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Jerry Berrier sits in the Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail, which was created by design firm Sasaki. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On a recent, sun-filled morning, Audubon staff and volunteers raked a walkway and measured distances. They’d been doing a lot of prepping to install nine stop posts for rope guides along a stretch of a half-mile loop.
Half a million people visit Mass Audubon sanctuaries a year. Education projects manager Lucy Gertz said her goal is to boost that number because connecting people with nature is the organization’s core mission.
“Instead of connecting people with nature you can almost insert the word ‘all’ and say ‘connecting all people with nature,'” Gertz said. “So we’re giving everyone an opportunity -- whether they use a mobility device, or they’re low vision or blind, or have development or cognitive challenges, whatever they need -- we hope they can enjoy time on this trail and learn about nature.”
The Audubon's All Persons Trails have gently graded graveled or paved paths that make it easier for people with wheelchairs or mobility issues to navigate. Some include interpretive signs in both English and braille describing local ecology and history. There are tactile maps and brochures, too. Berrier has been using his audio skills to record and engineer audio tours people can dial up on their smartphones.
One new audio tour Berrier produced for the Belmont trail describes the small plots of land in the sanctuary’s community garden, its solar array and the trees overhead.
Berrier is also one of the accessibility testers who have experience working with people who have a wide range of disabilities.
Habitat director Roger Wrubel says the testers provided useful, critical feedback on the audio tour’s script, the trail itself and the interpretive stops that would be most compelling.
“It’s really hard to sort of imagine what it’s like for somebody who has those handicaps,” Wrubel said as we made our way through the leaf-covered trail. “So actually having somebody here with those challenges gave us a lot of information on how to revise things and make it more accommodating for those people.”
For example, Wrubel's team added more benches so disabled visitors can take rests along the way. And he says, thanks to Berrier, there’s a moment on the audio tour that encourages visitors to feel the different tree barks and even wrap their arms around a trunk.
ADA Compliance, And Cost
Wrubel says this safer trail is attracting more elderly people from assisted living homes and families with strollers, too.
But making outdoor areas more accessible comes with challenges. Most importantly, Gertz says the trails must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Staff and volunteers have to be trained on the law, but she adds that there’s a cultural component as well. Not everyone understands the etiquette it might take to make people who rely on wheelchairs or service animals feel welcome.
Then, there’s the money.
“Cost is definitely a big obstacle,” she said. “Some trails are just not going to become ADA-compliant, and some will take more work if you’re crossing over wetlands or elevating low areas.”
In 2010 the organization received a $100,000 federal grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences for its All Persons Trails Project. And Gertz’s team has created a free, 70-page “how-to” manual and video that's available online for other organizations hoping to design their own accessible trails.
Norman Orrall, chief of planning and engineering for the DCR (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Norman Orrall, chief of planning and engineering for the DCR (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The state-operated braille trail in Watertown cost $1.5 million and includes a beautifully crafted "sensory park" with an interactive instrument called the Braille Marimba. There are sculpture-like picnic tables, stone benches with smooth, polished surfaces and a rope guide with different shaped wooden blocks that indicate points of interest and plaques with information in braille.
Norman Orrall, chief of planning and engineering for the DCR, says making outdoor resources more available to more people is a priority for the Baker administration.
Orrall calls designing the braille trail — with help from the Perkins School — eye-opening.
“Most of the time we’re just thinking about a trail from point A to point B," Orrall said. "So I think this helped us all as designers to stop and listen to what’s going on around us, and to incorporate our other senses.”
Berrier is pleased with the way the braille trail in Watertown turned out. As we walked along a trail that runs parallel to the water we stopped at a granite pillar with some text. Berrier reached over and read about how the 20 dams built to power industry along the 80-mile-long river caused decades of pollution.
“The braille is good, the material it’s on feels pretty durable,” he offered as a critique.
Berrier hopes other people with disabilities, especially the young students where he works with nearby at Perkins, will come to the trail a lot.
Perkins student Tom Pelletier reads from an information marker about fish in the Charles River on the Watertown braille trail. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Perkins student Tom Pelletier reads from an information marker about fish in the Charles River on the Watertown braille trail. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

One of them, Tom Pelletier, stopped to read a sign post during his stroll through the trail.
The 20-year-old told me he could do without the history and geology lessons. But Pelletier — who has partial sight due to a cortical visual impairment — was clearly taken by the nature around him.
“I can see the leaves in the water,” Pelletier described as he focused his eyes intently on the Charles.” I can see the water. I can see the trees.”
Jacob Augenstern, Pelletier’s therapeutic support person, stood a few feet away and said a trail like this can really make a difference.
“Independent motion is something that sighted people often take for granted,” Augenstern said. “Nature is for everybody, and everyone should be able to experience it.”

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The rebbe on physical disabilities


check out the link to hear the recording

The Rebbe addresses a group of Paralympic athletes:
When someone has a physical weakness or lacking, it is no reason to be dejected; rather it is proof positive that the Creator has endowed him or her with special spiritual powers which enable him to overcome and succeed where the ordinary person cannot.
The term “handicapped” should not be used for anyone. To the contrary, he is someone special and exceptional by the Creator, with special powers above and beyond the capacity of an ordinary individual. They should therefore be called what they truly are: “exceptional.” This highlights the real and outstanding qualities which give them the ability to be a living example of joy and self-confidence. They express how every Jewish man and woman – regardless of their physical or bodily state – possesses a soul which is “an actual part of G-d above,” which overcomes any and every limitation.