At 7:30 pm tonight, I expect to see 40 plus excited Tikvah participants from across the US and Canada on Zoom, ready to participate in our 2nd of 12 virtual vocational training sessions.  The National Ramah Tikvah Network is pioneering a program for participants and alum of our job training programs, known in various camps as Ezra, Atzmayim and Voc Ed.  We will be meeting Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm to learn job skills, soft skills of a job, to do hands-on projects, and to hear from alum of our programs who describe their current jobs, living situations, Jewish involvement and social lives.  The participants will also have time at the end to socialize—and sing the “wind down the day song” of each camp, Rad Hayom.

In our first session, participants and staff introduced themselves, learned about Zoom, and learned about goals and goal-setting.  Tonight, we will experiment with breakout room so we can have smaller group discussions and more individualized instruction as we make cards for front line workers.

From our discussions with colleagues at the Foundation for Jewish camp, at other camps and at Task Force on Disabilities for the UJA-New York, it seems we are perhaps the first to move our robust in-person summer training programs online. We are taking careful notes and look forward to sharing “lessons learned.”      For now, off to prepare for an animated, action-packed hour with awesome young adults from Toronto, Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles and lots of other cities and towns!

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I am embarrassed to admit that as I child, I remember people using the term “deaf, dumb and blind.”  I am also embarrassed to admit that I only heard of “Deaf-Blind Awareness Week 2020” a few days ago, when it was just ending—and only thanks to a chance interview I saw on Facebook with Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School.

According to the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults, Deaf-Blind Awareness Week has been observed for 7 days starting the last Sunday in June since 1984.  It was this year from June 21st to 27th.   The theme this was “Deaf-Blind and Thriving.”  

I am a big fan of Josh Kantor, the organist for the Boston Red Sox and his Facebook program “7th Inning Stretch,” where he plays music every day at 3 pm, “until the baseball season starts.”  For some reason, I went to the Facebook page and he was interviewing Haben Girma.  There was an interpreter on the screen, and Haben’s friend, Gordon was transcribing what Josh said so Haben could read it in Braille.  Sally was captioning the discussion as well.   There is an audio/video recording of the interview here   

Haben Girma’s recent memoir is entitled, “Haben. The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law. A Memoir by Haben Girma.”   Her professional work is in several areas including accessibility of digital technologies.

The interview took place on what would have been Helen Keller’s 140th birthday.  Girma is one of 30 people to win the American Foundation for the Blind's Helen Keller Achievement Award.   Girma spoke about Keller as adult and noted that Helen was often frustrated that most stories capture her as a 7-year-old, and very little depict her in her 40s, 50s or 60s.    Girma noted that Keller was a social justice advocacy.  “When she tried to inspire people fix racism and other inequalities, they tried to silence her. But she would keep writing. She wrote many books and did many speeches.”

Girma, who spoke in her own voice in the presentation, addressed the issue of people with disabilities and the police. “A lot of times when a deaf person is arrested or has any kind of interaction with the police, there's no communication access. There's no interpreter, there's no captioning. And, that's not justice. So, many are arrested and have no idea what's going on, why they are being arrested. They will go through a trial without interpreters or captioning or any kind of access or they will be put in jail without the ability to talk to a lawyer or family members. It's not justice. And, I know a lot of people say oh, I don't have to worry about that, because I follow the laws. We're not talking about guilt or innocence. We are talking about all interactions with the police. And, that's terrifying for me as a Deafblind person. If an officer shouts something at me, I'm not going to hear it. And there's a good chance they would interpret that as a threat.  A lot of police officers expect people to immediately comply. They walk into a situation expecting non-disabled people. And if someone can't move in a certain way, can't hear, can't see, or has an invisible disability like psychiatric disabilities, too many officers interpret that as a threat. And that's a widespread problem; about a third to half of those killed by police are people with disabilities. And a significant number of those are Black people with disabilities. It's extremely dangerous when ableism is multiplied by racism.”

Girma spoke a lot about developments in the tech world which may benefit the deaf-blind community and others with disabilities.   She offered important advice to the tech sector: “if you know anyone working on tech, remind them — make it accessible. Hire more disabled engineers to be part of the team. Where teams are diverse and include Black people, disabled people, women in tech, then our products and services will also be stronger and better.”

Kantor asked about Girma’s love for dance, and she spoke of attending a camp for the blind in California, where she had a blind dance instructor. “She showed us there are many different ways to engage with music. She verbally described the different moves, but also, allowed us to touch our feet and feel the different movements. And that's how I was introduced to swing, salsa and merengue. I dance many of the different dances. Guess what. Helen Keller also waltzed and fox-trotted!”  In the interview, Girma also shared stories of meeting Stevie Wonder—at the White House!

Girma is an amazing person, a great spokesperson for the deaf-blind community, and a person who has done a lot to help change perceptions of people with disabilities.  I hope we will all mark our calendars so we meaningfully mark Deaf Blind Awareness Week—and Helen Keller’s 141st birthday—next year!

 

Links to General Information on deaf-blindness:

American Association of the Deaf-Blind: http://www.aadb.org/

Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths & Adults: www.helenkeller.org/hknc

National Center on Deaf-Blindness:  https://nationaldb.org/

World Federation of the DeafBlind: http://www.wfdb.eu/

National Family Association for Deaf-Blind (NFADB)  https://www.nfadb.org/

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What a treat when disability inclusion colleagues from near and far reach out.   And Australia is pretty far away!   Dean Cohen, CEO of Flying Fox runs an incredible organization which operates social programs and camps for people with disabilities.   We met in person in America and I was lucky enough to reciprocate the visit to Melbourne.

Flying Fox runs Camp Wings and Camp Sababa, sleep-away camps, Shortz weekend getaways for small groups of young adults, and SOCS (Siblings of Camp Sababa) which supports siblings of children with disabilities.  Every Flying Fox camp is a safe space for young people with disabilities to make friends and have fun.

What is most impressive is Fly Foxes commitment to creating an inclusive society.   And, it is youth led!  The organization has a wonderful youthful enthusiasm and they strive to teach skills so their young staff learn to live and work with people with disabilities.

Flying Fox now has a wonderful blog. Thank you, Tayla Cohen, head of fundraising and events, for the invitation to share about my experience a few months ago with FAISR (Friends of Access Israel) climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  The climb included four awesome participants with paraplegia.  The text is below.  The full article with photos is here.

 

 

The Climb of a Lifetime

Written by Howard Blas

 

June 29, 2020

 

My colleague and friend Jamie Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel (FAISR), recently heard a number of people using the phrase, “I feel paralysed” as they cope with trying times posed by COVID-19. Lassner’s lifelong friend, Alan T. Brown, who has been a wheelchair user since he became paralysed as a teenager 33 years ago – and who has an incredible sense of humor – remarked, “Welcome to my life!”

In fairness, what can people without paraplegia or quadriplegia possibly know about day-to-day life for a person who is paralysed? After nearly two weeks of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the famed 19,341-foot mountain in Tanzania – an experience that included not showering or using flush toilets, and hiking through the night in the cold and snow to reach the summit on the final ascent – 23 hikers came to know their four fellow climbers living with paralysis very well.

This past February, about a month before Covid-19 changed the lives of so many, a delegation of 27 climbers with different abilities from across the United States, Israel and Tanzania participated in the strenuous, multi-day, heavily-supported climb to benefit Friends of Access Israel (FAISR). FAISR is an organisation that promotes accessibility, inclusion and respect for people of all abilities around the world. FAISR's collaborative partner, Access Israel, was founded just over 20 years ago in Israel.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is no walk in the park. It is a bucket list item for many people. Friends wondered how my fellow hikers and I were training – especially since many of us live in New York City, with little access to high elevations for training. They wondered, though they may have been shy to ask, how people who cannot walk could possibly climb Africa’s highest mountain.

 

To start, never tell a woman who travels the world alone, dressed in her signature “The Journey of a Brave Woman” jean jacket, that something is impossible. Marcella Marañon, a Peruvian-born woman with paraplegia and who has an amputated foot, is simultaneously gentle and tough. She regularly shares experiences with accessibility, from Peru to India to Israel, on her very active social media sites.  

Starla Hilliard-Barnes, a twice-paralysed participant (yes, you read that right!), also refuses to be defined by her disabilities. She was selected as Ms. Wheelchair Montana in 2014 and became the first wheelchair user to compete in the Mrs. Montana pageant in 2016. She is also the founder of Moving Forward Adaptive Sports (an organisation that enables differently abled individuals to engage in adaptive recreational activities) and the charity, Gifts of Love (which brings holiday presents to individuals with disabilities, veterans, individuals in hospital and families in need). Starla was accompanied by her husband, Shannon Barnes, on the expedition. “The last day I was in pain but just tried to smile. I just tried to stay positive. That was me, happy and smiling the whole time.”


“[Friends] wondered, though they may have been shy to ask, how people who cannot walk could possibly climb Africa’s highest mountain.”


Arnon Amit was paralysed in a car accident during his Israel Defense Forces (IDF) army service. Arnon flew to Tanzania with fellow Israeli, Omer Zur, founder of Paratrek – the company that created the durable ‘Trekker’ chair used by the paralysed participants and their extensive support teams to ascend the mountain. Arnon’s next challenge is riding on horseback with two friends from Israel’s southernmost to northernmost points. The journey was scheduled for April but will be rescheduled due to Covid-19.  

Arnold John had spent his life watching others in his Tanzanian village ascend and even serve as porters on Kilimanjaro expeditions. This gentle 44-year-old paralysed father of three finally received the opportunity to climb the famed mountain himself with the FAISR delegation.

The group of climbers were supported throughout the journey by three cooks, 11 guides and 70 porters.  Porters carry all participant clothing and sleeping bags, as well as food, water and cooking supplies. Cooks provided kosher meals both at the huts and along the route. Daily mileage ranged from 3.1 miles on the acclimation days to 13.7 miles during the final midnight-to-sunrise ascent to the summit.  

 

Paratrek’s founder, Zur, summed up what I suspect the entire group felt during this experience: “ascending the peak of Kilimanjaro is a dream come true, not because of the mountain … The dream that we fulfilled is to see this group – people with and without disabilities, and major ones – climbing up together as a group; as people who see each other as equals.”  

Everyone returned home as friends and equals, with countless memories, dozens of photos and videos, strong bonds and an appreciation that we all have abilities beyond our disabilities. None of the trip participants speak of feeling paralysed; they speak very fondly of their new friends who happen to be paralysed. 

Thank you Marcela, Starla, Arnon and Arnold for being such great teachers!

To read more, visit https://howardblas.com/published-articles/

When Howard Blas is not busy covering US Open tennis for the Jerusalem Post or riding his bike around Israel to raise money for the Camp Ramah disabilities inclusion program, he can be found climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro for Access Israel. Howard is a social worker and special education teacher based in New York City and has been working in the field of disabilities inclusion for over 30 years.

 

 

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I learned to play tennis on the public courts at Deer Park Junior High School in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland.   They offered clinics for kids during summer mornings—the courts were obviously reserved for children at those hours.  But, in return, there were signs indicating “Adults have preference on weekends.”

In addition, there were also all kinds of written and unwritten rules and norms.  You play for no more than an hour if others are waiting, you never retrieve a ball from behind the baseline of the next court while their ball was in play, and you “reserve” a court by putting your racket in the fence under the sign with the number of the court you wanted.

Were the courts always perfect?  No.  There is a certain “unevenness” in what to expect out of public tennis courts.  Some are in pretty good shape.  Others have major cracks, causing the ball to travel in all sorts of directions.  Yet others have grass and even large plants growing out of the cracks.  Nets can be too high or too low and with a crank that feels soldered in one position.  Some courts have fairly decent drainage, while others have puddles on them even 5 days after a rain shower.  It is rare to find public courts with lights but when you find them, what a treat!

On occasion, I have had the privilege of playing on fancier courts—Yale University has 20+ courts which get re-paved each summer in preparation for a tournament which for many summers was the final pro tournament leading up to the US Open.  I once played in an old-fashioned private club in the Philadelphia suburbs where white shorts and shirts and shoes were REQUIRED.  I have played in some pretty fancy tennis bubbles.  And of course there are the 26 clay courts of Central Park in Manhattan which have procedures and codes of conduct all their own (rules about how and when to sign up; leaving the courts the MINUTE the alarm sounds on the hour, etc.).

When I look back on the entirety of my tennis playing life so far, I think most tennis has been played on public courts.   The experience of growing up on the public courts made a big impression on me and likely for thousands of others.

There is a certain charm to public courts.  There is almost always a free court (though it may have cracks or branches falling from a tree which hasn’t been trimmed in a decade, and which is dripping slippery sap on the court).  You can often get a game with other tennis lovers just hanging out and looking for a game.   You often see a dad with a bag or basket of balls, throwing or hitting to an 8-year-old daughter who may or may not be the next Serena or Venus Williams.

And when all else fails, there is the practice wall.  But don’t worry.  Some desperate 3-some will find you and ask you to fill in—even if you will be the only guy for miles in the women’s doubles match!



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