Howard Blas's Posts

https://www.aisrael.org/eng

 

I had always heard of Access Israel but was formally introduced to Access Israel, their founders and leaders through Jamie Lassner, longtime friend, co-founder and executive director of FAISR, Friends of Access Israel.  I have become a big fan of the organization which operates from a country the size of New Jersey but with an international reach and reputation as a convener, disseminator of knowledge, and champion of inclusion and accessibility. 

I have been honored to get to know the leadership team of Yuval Wagner (founder), Michal Rimon (CEO) and Rani Benjamini (Deputy General Manager). I even met these 3 Disability Difference Makers recently in Israel as we celebrate Israel being one of the first countries in the world to (slowly) reopen to tourism in a (soon to be) post-Covid era.  (Jamie Lassner of FAISR and I connected by phone from Israel!)  Tourism in Israel, reports Rimon, is always accessible and is following proper Covid precautions.   Rimon is very excited about tourism returning to Israel and can’t wait to again host its world-famous Access Israel Conference.

Each year, over 800 people with and without disabilities from 22 countries visit Israel to participate in Access Israel’s International Conference, where they learn about accessibility from technology to tourism; experience Israel’s accessible beaches; visit the now-accessible Old City of Jerusalem; and learn about Access Israel’s work in Israel and worldwide.  “We are the only Israeli organization that focuses on accessibility and inclusion– not only for people in wheelchairs, not only for people who are blind or who have hearing impairments— but for all kinds of disabilities and in all fields of life,” reports Wagner. 

Wagner is the reason Access Israel exists. Twenty years ago, Yuval Wagner, a recently paralyzed helicopter pilot, ignited a public awareness campaign and founded Access Israel. Having elicited (then) President Ezer Weizman’s attention, the President invited Wagner to celebrate this accomplishment together. Access Israel’s impact on access and inclusion of people with disabilities is now experienced worldwide.

I was lucky enough to attend the Access Israel Conference last year.  It is one of the BEST, most action-packed conferences I have ever attended.  It was an opportunity to hear from great speakers, learn from colleagues, tour accessible Israel, and participate in Access Israel’s well-known Dinner of the Senses.

During Covid, Access Israel continued to provide important content on accessibility online.  They have hosted 8 international mega-webinars which often last 6 hours.  They are attended by 700 people from 80 countries. They have thus far addressed such topics as “Accessible and Inclusive Smart Cities for All During and Post COVID-19,” “Accessible Remote Education” and more. Each webinar features experts in the field and is fully accessible. 

The Access Israel website is a gem for such resources as their Accessible Vacation Guide, and their Israel Accessible Technology Developments guide.

All of Access Israel’s resources and knowledge would easily qualify them as Disability Difference Makers. their visionary leadership and commitment to assuring that EVERYONE is included truly makes Yuval, Michal, Rani, Jamie, Access Israel and FAISR TRUE Disability Difference Makers! 

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Phone: 855-AUTISM-2

I was introduced to Andrew through a very trusted colleague who said I “must” meet Andrew.  She was right, and I have chosen to be the first person I will profile in my new website feature, “Disability Difference Makers.”  I will be writing about people, programs and organizations I have been privileged to meet.

Andrew lives in Connecticut and is a Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP™) Certified Neurodiversity Professional (CNP®). Something very special sets Andrew apart from other financial planners—he reports that he received his Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis as an adult and immediately knew that he wanted to do something to work with the special needs community to provide answers and security in the financial world.  Andrew is the Founder of Planning Across the Spectrum and specializes in helping any self-advocating client or family with autism and intellectual disabilities.   He proudly reports that he “provides a unique planning perspective for those with special needs, their caregivers, and their families” because he has “walked in their shoes.”

I admire Andrew’s technical know-how, his ability to come up with creative solutions to complex problems, and his generosity with his time and expertise.  He is also a mensch.  Andrews has hired a number of neurodiverse individuals for his team, and they continue to do amazing work creating what I consider to be the definitive calendar of daily disability events across the country (https://planningacrossthespectrum.com/autism-special-needs-events-calendar/), and doing a lot of his firms videos and graphics work. Andre shares useful free resources including healthcare planning, money skills, ABLE accounts, transportation and driving and more.  One of my favorites is: 

https://planningacrossthespectrum.com/blog/disability-benefits-employment/ where Andrew makes the case for why it is almost always better to work than to not—he knows that SO many families worry they will be jeopardizing benefits by working. 

Check out the amazing work of Andrew and his team!

 

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Tuesday night, I celebrated a first, just as Deni Avdija was marking two firsts.  I attended my first in person sports event in over a year.  Deni, the Washington Wizards rookies from Israel, made his Madison Square Garden debut.  He scored 14 points before fouling out in a pretty big Wizards loss.  (As I started writing this blog, the Wizards were ahead of the Knicks in their Thursday rematch at MSG—for 3 periods. Sadly, they lost 106-102).

The fact that an entire season of basketball is taking place, in arenas across the country–a year into the Covid 19 pandemic—is nothing short of incredible. Last year, the NBA pulled it off by having everyone in a bubble.  No fans and few members of the media witnessed it in person.

This season, I have been lucky enough to have Washington Wizards media credentials, have been attending Zoom media sessions, and have written many articles for JNS and the Jerusalem Post about the 20 year old Israeli taken by the Wizards #9 in the recent NBA draft   I was eager to see Deni play in person.  When I saw that the Wizards would be in New York for a Sunday game against the Nets in Brooklyn and Tuesday/Thursday games against the Knicks, I applied for media credentials.  I fished my wish! I was granted credentials for Tuesday.

Here is where I tip my hat first to the NBA and then to the Knicks and Madison Square Garden.  The NBA takes great precautions to keep players, coaches and fans safe.  Players including Deni have been on Covid protocol at various points over the summer.  Some even missed the NBA All-Star game for the same reason. Once credentials were granted, I was told I would need to arrive no later than 3:45 pm for a 7:30 game.  Each staff member at MSG and all media are required to undergo onsite health screening and Covid testing. 

The process was organized and calm, and all employees of MSG remained similarly calm and in good spirits.  Everyone logged in to the system, was swabbed and waited for (hopefully) negative test results. I was told that there is an extra NBA stringency for media and I was escorted to a special seat (seat #1) in the balcony of the Theater at MSG. I was told it would take “about 45 minutes.”  I was told not to leave my seat under any circumstances.  I spoke from afar with a fellow journalist I knew from other sports events.  I had a 45-minute tutoring lesson about Passover with a student.  Two hours later, I was told I was negative.  After 15 more minutes, I was given a wristband and escorted with two other journalists to our seats on The Bridge at MSG.

Walking along The Bridge is a walk down MSG memory lane—one passes retired Knicks and Rangers jerseys, championship banners and special tributes to long concert runs (Phish, Billy Joel, etc.).  We were shown the bathrooms, the table with hot dogs, pretzels and water, and our very socially distanced work stations.  We were not to leave our area.  In past years, media was allowed to enter the locker room at appointed times to interview players (I once brought humus to Omri Casspi!), attend the coach press conference in the hallway, watch practice from the court, and we were free to wander the stadium to interview fans.  Not this year.

The Garden is at 10% capacity, which means no more than 2,000 fans. It was a ghost town, but a happy ghost town with fans cheering, a DJ for Noche Latina de los Knicks, and Knicks City Dancers—on the screen, prerecorded. I would have ordinarily gone down to speak with the two waving the Israeli flags to see why they are Deni and Wizards super-fans.  Not tonight.

Tonight was a night to feel lucky to see Deni in person.  It was a night to watch Deni high fiving such NBA stars as Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal and to remember that this 20-year-old Israeli is in the same league as these legends.  It was a night to think about just how far this young Israeli is from home—and to see just how adaptable and resilient he has been, traversing his new country, in the middle of a pandemic.  It was a night to hope that one day soon, I will get to meet and interview Deni.

Then, by dumb luck, I DID get to see Deni!  Two minutes after Deni spoke to the media via Zoom, I was leaving the Garden and spotted 20 religious boys chanting his name.  Then…Deni appeared!  He was behind a barricade, escorted to the team bus.  He was not permitted to sign autographs (though one shouted, “sign my tissue, Deni!”), but he smiled and waved to his admiring fans.

It is clear that Deni is here to stay. He is a young up and coming mensch who will one post-Covid day sign lots of autographs and schmooze with admiring fans—young and adult, Israeli and American, Jewish and non-Jewish, for years to come. Happy Passover, Deni! 






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On the Jewish holiday of Purim, which took place 3 weeks ago, there is a custom to give mishloach manot, gifts of ready to eat food, to friends.  While most people give “eat now” food—things which can be consumed right away, some have the custom of giving Kosher for Passover foods which can be eaten exactly one month later on Passover.  I am happy that the Chessler Family is in the first category!

Noah Chessler celebrated his bar mitzvah February 25th on Purim evening.  It was not the Purim bar mitzvah Noah or his family had envisioned.  For years, the Chesslers were anticipating a Purim bar mitzvah and party with an in person megillah reading and costumes, accompanied by hot dogs, cotton candy, games, booths and other festivities for all guests to enjoy. Instead, the bar mitzvah took place in their apartment, on Zoom.  In the age of Covid, Zoom bar mitzvahs have become the norm.  And it is up to families to make these events meaningful and fun.

I recently wrote an article about the Moving Traditions organization, and their guide booklet for Zoom bar and mitzvahs.  One key takeaway from Moving Traditions, rabbis and families interviewed is that these do-it-yourself b’mitzvahs have offered an unprecedented opportunity for a return to meaning and basics—with less emphasis on dress, invitations and the party.  And they are empowering to families. 

The Chesslers hired a skeleton crew to make sure the Zoom and the videos ran smoothly, they borrowed a megillah (Scroll of Esther) from Noah’s grandfather, and purchased cute and simple costumes (Ramen Noodle, potato chips and Heinz Ketchup t-shirts) for the family.  Noah read several megillah chapters “live,” from his home, while family and friends read megillah chapters from locations from New York to Massachusetts, California and even Israel!  The Chesslers made a truly inclusive and festive celebration out of a pretty straightforward 10-chapter story.  They essentially embellished the 10-chapter story by telling it in 20 acts with friends and sharing pre-recorded videos, tributes to Noah and more.

I was one of Noah’s teachers and was lucky enough to be on-site to help Noah lead maariv, the evening prayer, “spot him” as he read from the scroll, address him and present him with a bar mitzvah gift. I was also able to quickly change out of my dress clothes to sport an Israeli basketball uniform for most of the megillah reading.  It was a really fun evening! 

Noah's mom liked being able to personalize the experience and bring in and engage guests and participants.  “It really made the event feel lively and warm!”  In addition, she notes a silver lining of Zoom–“active” participation from Israel, Canada, the UK, Belize, and across the US including Oregon and New Hampshire!

I was impressed by nearly every decision the Chessler Family made in order to make the bar mitzvah fun and meaningful. One decision which was particularly close to my heart was Noah and the family’s support of three disability owned businesses as they planned their mishloach manot/guest bags. They provided gift bags and t-shirts printed by Spectrum Designs (https://www.spectrumdesigns.org/), flavored popcorn by Popcorn for the People (https://www.popcornforthepeople.com/), and chocolate covered treats by Truly Scrumptious by Alexa  (https://www.trulyscrumptiousbyalexa.com/).  Please read about Jewish organizations and individuals who have found ways to support disability owned businesses—and please consider ways to do the same!

Noah’s very special bar mitzvah is a recent memory, and Pesach is almost here.  We are all feeling hopeful that we will soon be able to return to in person prayer services and bar and bat mitzvahs.  May we continue to offer Zoom options as needed and appropriate, and may we continue to search for meaning—supporting disability owned businesses in the process is one great way!


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