Original Article Published on The New York Jewish Week

Howard Blas shares an important lesson from the Access Israel Conference.

I have been struggling with the role of disabilities simulation activities for many years.  Five days at the Access Israel Conference, where such activities were handled thoughtfully, sensitively and mostly facilitated and processed by people with disabilities—has convinced me that they can play an important role in changing society’s attitudes toward people with disabilities. Let me explain.

In 2015, when Lisa Tobin, the then Director of Inclusion Initiatives at the Foundation for Jewish Camp and I were completing our 201-page Inclusion resource guide, we received some feedback from members of the disabilities community that we should reconsider including disabilities simulation activities. In short, they argued that such activities do not really replicate the disability experience and they can leave participants with increased negative perceptions of disability including feelings of pity.

We ultimately decided to include some simulation activities in the training manual —with a caveat: “They are intended to offer a glimpse into the very complex world of disability.” Five days at Access Israel’s recent 7th International Conference in Tel Aviv Access Israel Conference demonstrated that it is possible to effectively and sensitively use simulations in teaching about disabilities. They key ingredient is involving people with disabilities in the training.

At the Access Israel Conference. Courtesy of Howard Blas

The Access Israel conference brought together over 500 people from 22 countries. Attendees heard from experts on access and inclusion on such topics as Accessible Technology, Barrier-Free Tourism, Urban Accessibility Initiatives and Challenges from Around the World, and Global Models for the Implementation of Technology. They participated in customized sessions—and panels—on such topics as Inclusive Design, Culture for All and Justice and Democracy for All, visited Israeli programs, and toured the now-accessible Old City of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv/Jaffa. Many conference attendees and presenters were people with disabilities including app and product designers, government officials and even the co-founder of Space IL, Yariv Bash.

On the first day of the conference, several attendees toured the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Centre for Physical Education and Sport. We had the opportunity to experience a simulation activity, set up by Access Israel, during an Israeli Junior Olympics competition, which provided the judo participants, swimmers, and others the chance to play basketball with an Israeli wheelchair player, Liron Levy, navigate an obstacle course in a wheelchair, and eat a mystery cold substance in a cup—while blindfolded.

Our adult group also had the opportunity to participate in the basketball and ice cream eating activity. Liron shared his experience as a person who uses a wheelchair, and a young woman who is blind spoke to us about her experience being blind, completing university, etc. Such simulations take place with school children throughout Israel—and are always facilitated by people with disabilities. Participants in the simulation not only had a momentary glimpse in to the experience of navigating the world as a blind person, or as a wheelchair user; we had the opportunity to hear about the real life experience of people with disabilities as they navigate the world. And we engaged in a dialogue. As we better got to know our instructors who had disabilities, we did not feel pity, as critics had cautioned; rather, we felt better informed of their daily experiences navigating the world, including getting dressed, eating and traveling.

Three days later, as the main part of the conference got underway at Avenue Convention and Events Center in Airport City, conference attendees were greeted with many simulation stations as they passed through registration, on the way to the main conference hall. Again, people with disabilities were on hand to explain the simulation and to share their experiences of being blind, deaf or using a wheelchair. Many tried learning and communicating in Hebrew sign language, navigating a blind obstacle course and taking a wheelchair through a series of obstacles.

At the Access Israel Conference. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Later that evening, conference participants enjoyed a Feast of the Senses dinner. Following cocktails on a lovely Renanna event space terrace, everyone received an Access Israel blindfold and was escorted in to dinner. People in wheelchairs commented about the unique, important opportunity to experience the disabilities of others. Staff members patiently and carefully showed us to our seats, where we encouraged to feel our way to two wine glasses—and determine through our other senses which was white and which was red. And we were challenged to figure out which vegetables and fruits were in our salad.

At the Access Israel Conference. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Michal Rimon, CEO of Access Israel, introduced the meal. “We will be joined by people who live with disabilities. They will talk to you about their challenges, triumphs and successes. The more your let yourselves dive in, the more you will get from the experience.” Rimon, who has led this exercise at many past dinners, knew what the diners were going through. “Right now, you are compensating—you are using other senses more.” This helped explain my increased sensitivity to the noise in the room—and to my walking in to the room very intentionally, trying to maintain my balance.

Our blindfolds were removed and we engaged in a dialogue with an Israeli woman who lost her sight at age three and learned Braille at age four. She reported that only 10% of blind people know Braille since many lose their sight later in life, when it is very hard to learn. “Learning Braille is the greatest gift I was ever given,” our guide reported. One participant asked, “What do you see in dreams?”

Our second course was a sensory course, where each participant was challenged to eat with cooking mitts—with a wooden flat board inside. Finally, our last course was a deaf simulation. A deaf man shared his experiences navigating the world as another man translated for the audience.

As the third successful simulation drew to a close, I continued to wonder why our camping inclusion manual simulation activities were met with pushback, and what made the Access Israel exercises so successful? Rimon patiently considered my questions and conceded that they too had some difficulties at first. “In the beginning, it was a big challenge to do such activities. People thought such simulations would be bad for the kids, it would make them sad, so we had to find one or two schools to start.”

Rimon describes the four pillars to their approach: knowledge, experience, knowing the person behind the disability, and paying it forward. Rimon stresses the importance of giving participants in each class the tools to pass on the experience to others. Students are given homework to go home and discuss what they have learned with their families. She notes that” schools now stand in line to participate in the program.” Rimon feels the program is “changing the DNA of the children.”

At the Access Israel Conference. Courtesy of Howard Blas

The simulation activities we experienced at the Access Israel conference were useful. Spending five days of the conference sharing and learning, eating meals, riding the tour bus and navigating the Old together with colleagues and new friends with disabilities—from a German reporter and two commissioners on disabilities of major US cities who use wheelchairs, to a deaf museum executive, to a blind member of the Google Accessibility team–went even further in changing our DNA.

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Original article published on The New York Jewish Week

AKIM’s Dental Training Program, in collaboration with the TAU dental school and Israel’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs teaches employment skills in the dental field.

Visitors to Tel Aviv University’s Goldschleger School of Dental Medicine see something innovative and unsurprising as they enter the building–a vending machine sponsored by Colgate dispensing toothbrushes, mouthwash and other dental equipment. A red heart on the glass reads in Hebrew “My health begins in my mouth.”

When visitors go down one flight, they see something even more extraordinary and innovative—four enthusiastic men and women from AKIM, the National Organization for People with Intellectual Disabilities, in their white lab coats, studying and working at the dental school. These young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities make up the first cohort in the Dental Sterilization Officer Training Program, a collaborative venture of AKIM, the TAU dental school, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

The one-year training program started in October, 2018. Trainees participate five days a week—from Sundays through Thursdays–in theoretical and practical coursework. They learn important terminology and receive theoretical training in sterilization, disinfection and hygiene. They collect equipment from various departments, sterilize instruments and carefully scan codes to assure proper tracking of sterilized equipment. Participants work in the dental warehouse, where they prepare and deliver orders of equipment and substances for various clinics, and they learn and perform various administrative tasks.

The author with participants in AKIM Dental Training Program. Courtesy of Howard Blas

In addition, the trainees interact on a daily basis with the university’s dental students. They learn together in some classes, work in the dental clinics, and socialize in the hallways and dining rooms. The participants with disabilities have the additional important job of working in a TAU dental clinic which specializes in treating people with disabilities. Shani Yeshurun, AKIM Israel’s director of international relations, explains, “Everybody feels anxious when they go to the dentist. By seeing and interacting with people like themselves, the stress level of the patient with a disability is reduced.”

On a recent visit, three participants—Amir, Michael and Yael and their mentor, Donna, invited me to tour and witness the sophisticated sterilization equipment. They took turns explaining how the state-of-the-art autoclave sterilizes the equipment, is logged in and prepared for delivery. Michael travels independently each day for Netanya and hopes to get a job closer to home upon graduation. Yael patiently demonstrated how sterilized equipment is packaged and arranged in the store room.

A participant in AKIM Dental Training Program. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Dr. Rada Sumareva, a New York and New Jersey area periodontist and implant surgeon, sees tremendous benefits of the program beyond the practical job skills obtained by the trainees. “By training next to the dental students, the dental students will have a different perspective on people with disabilities. It is one thing to know about disabilities in theory; it is another to have a classmate with a disability and to train together, side by side. This will be very useful when they one-day employ the program graduates in their offices.” She is confident that this will “lead to a culture change in the way we train dentists.”

Sumareva also notes “a tremendous sense of ambassadorship” by having people with disabilities work in the clinics with patients with disabilities. “Patients and their families will see that people with disabilities can integrate, have a job and have a purpose in life!”

Sumereva serves as vice president of AKIM USA and is a member of TAU’s Board of Governors and American Friends of Tel Aviv University’s Board of Directors. Despite her personal deep connection to both dentistry and disabilities, it was her son, Robert Ukrainsky, who helped create the dental sterilization officer training program. While studying for his bar mitzvah several years ago, he participated in the “Give a Mitzvah, Do a Mitzvah” program of the UJA-Federation of New York. Robert, now a 10th grader at the Avenues: The World School in New York City, is a founding member and chair of the Young Friends of AKIM and has donated over $22,000 to date for the TAU/KAIM dental training program.

The first group of graduates will be employed by both the Tel Aviv University Dental Clinic and by AKIM’s network of 22 specialized dental clinics throughout Israel which specialize in treating people with disabilities. AKIM will offer ongoing employment guidance and job placement services to graduates, who will also have the option of working in other AKIM] [non-dental clinics throughout the country

AKIM was founded in 1951 and strives to promote quality of life and improve the welfare of people with Intellectual disabilities and their relatives. They currently work throughout Israel to serve 35,000 people and 140,000 family members.

Sumareva dreams of bringing both specialized clinics for people with disabilities and a dental training program like the one at Tel Aviv University to the United States.

The issue of lack of adequate dental care for people with disabilities has been in the news a lot in recent weeks:

To address this problem, in 2012 the Commission on Dental Accreditation mandated that all dental students learn to assess the treatment needs of people with disabilities. And New York University recently open the N.Y.U. College of Dentistry’s Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities. It will both offer exceptional care for patients with a wide range of disabilities, and it will provide dentists with necessary skills and experience for treating patients with disabilities. Dr. Ronald Kosinski, the Center’s director, acknowledges the historical lack of adequate care for people with disabilities—and of negative attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is insistent that society begin to do a better job. “People are afraid of them,” he said. “They are not looked at like people. We need to train dental students to stop throwing their hands up and to start embracing them.”

Thanks to AKIM and Tel Aviv University, important efforts are already underway in Israel for training dental students and people with disabilities, and attitudes are changing. The United States and other countries can surely benefit from Israel’s experiences thus far.

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I will be speaking and participating in the following event on 25 March.

Presentation will be for Establishing Trust and Getting What You Need Through The Intake Process.

To attend fill this form

FJC Yashar Training
The Yashar Training Days will take place on:
Monday, March 25 in New York
Thursday, April 4 in Chicago
Monday, April 15 in Los Angeles

If you have any questions, please contact marissa.becker@jewishcamp.org, or646-278-4512.

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Original Article in Respect Ability:

In considering great heroes, dates, places and milestones in the history of disabilities inclusion, one is more likely to think of Tom Harkin, ADA, and 1990 rather than think of Herb and Barbara Greenberg and Donny Adelman (z”l), 1970 and Camp Ramah in Glen Spey, New York. Yet, without the pioneers Greenberg and Adelman, there may have been no Jewish inclusive camping. The Ramah Camping Movement’s network of Tikvah (“Hope”) programs, which currently serves nearly 400 participants each summer in ten overnight camps, five day camps and Israel programs, is currently celebrating 50 years from that first memorable summer in 1970.

In the late 1960’s, the Greenbergs, two school teachers from Long Island, NY, proposed what seemed back then like a radical idea—including campers with disabilities in a typical Jewish overnight camp. Not surprisingly, they were met with institutional opposition from all sides: People worried about the financial impact; how the level of Hebrew in the camps would suffer; and that the “normal” campers would leave. Even the camp doctors felt ill-equipped to care for these campers.

One visionary director, Donny Adelman, saw the potential benefit not only for the campers with disabilities and their families, but for the entire camp community. Adelman felt that including campers with disabilities was consistent with the mission of Ramah –and Judaism.

That first summer, the Greenbergs invited eight campers with varied disabilities to participate in Tikvah. They spent a great deal of time problem solving and supporting the specialists working with the Tikvah campers. The experiment was so successful that other Ramah camps soon replicated the program. When Ramah Glen Spey relocated to New England, the Tikvah program went with it. In 1973, Tikvah was started at Ramah Wisconsin. Ojai, California joined in 1985 and Canada in 1993. Fast forward to 2018—Tikvah and a wide range of services and supports for children and young adults and families (from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds) currently exist in all Ramah camps.

In 2018, 387 young Jews participated in in Tikvah programs across North America, supported in typical bunks, as part of a Tikvah division, or as participants in vocational training programs. In addition, 227 people (64 children with disabilities from 59 families) participated in family camps at our various Ramah camps. Teenagers with disabilities are regularly supported each summer on Ramah Israel Seminar, and more than ten groups of Tikvah participants have visited Israel over the years on Ramah Israel Tikvah trips. When Rabbi Sarah Shulman became founding director of Camp Ramah in Northern California in 2016, she insisted they not open their doors without a Tikvah program!

Ramah continues to grow, evolve, innovate and lead the field. Graduates of our vocational training programs are salaried workers in some of our camps. Staff members go on to present at conferences and lead the field. Reshet Ramah, our alumni network, strives to include graduates in year-round activities. Other year-round programs include “Shabbos Is Calling” and “Shavua Tov,” weekly video chats where participants at various Ramah Tikvah programs discuss their week, learn about the portion of the week and just say “Shabbat Shalom.”

Perhaps Ramah and Tikvah’s biggest accomplishment to date has been pioneering the field of disabilities camping. It is no longer acceptable to tell a family of a child with a disability, “I wish I could help, but…” There are now dozens of camps across movements and across the country that support campers with a wide range of intellectual, developmental and mental health conditions. The Greenbergs and Donny Adelman showed what is possible, even in the face of institutional adversity. Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek—May we be strong, continue their mission, and strengthen one another as we grow in our efforts to support the growth of our people with disabilities through the world of Jewish camping.

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