Original Article Published On The New York Jewish Week

Inclusive Jewish summer camp options for children and young adults with disabilities now abound.

This is part of a series of essays in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.

When the Ramah Camping Movement started including campers with disabilities through its Tikvah Programs in 1970, the world was a very different place.  Tikvah’s founders, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, two Long Island school teachers, faced opposition and roadblocks almost every place they turned. They were told that “including people with disabilities would bankrupt the camps, disrupt the structure, lower the level of Hebrew and cause the ‘normal’ campers to leave.”  

One Ramah director, Danny Adelman, z’l, (director of Ramah Glen Spey in New York, and later, Camp Ramah in New England in Massachusetts) felt it was a Jewish value and imperative to include people with disabilities.  With that “yes” in the late 1960s, the Jewish inclusive camping movement was underway! Every Jewish summer camp, school, youth movement and Israel which program which supports and includes people with disabilities should pause to remember and pay tribute to the pioneering, brave work of the Greenbergs.

It wasn’t easy going at first.  Once the camp agreed to Tikvah, the Greenbergs first had to find those campers.  As the Greenbergs, long-time citizens of Israel after 29 years directing Tikvah, report, “They weren’t in the synagogues!”  Rabbis weren’t very helpful in identifying participants since families of children with disabilities weren’t coming to the synagogues—they didn’t feel welcomed.  They managed to find eight participants for that first Tikvah summer. 

That first summer 50 years ago laid the groundwork for inclusive camping within Ramah and in all of Jewish camping. Now, all 10 Ramah overnight programs and it various day camps support campers with disabilities and their families through camping programs, vocational training programs, supportive employment, Israel trips and Family Shabbatons.

In the past ten years, we have seen in increase in the number of Jewish overnight and day camps supporting campers with a range of disabilities, and a general shift in attitude toward inclusion.  Camps are doing a better job training their staffs, providing tools to support all campers. The Ramah Camping Movement offers an inclusion track at its twice a year national trainings, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has a network for inclusion specialists, and offers a disabilities inclusion track at its biannual Leaders Assembly. 

Families of children and young adults with disabilities now have more choices in summer camping—by location, religious affiliation, and type of camp.  And camps with camping programs are increasingly looking for ways to expand vocational training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities as they get older.  Keeping Jews in Jewish camp for as long as possible continues to be a goal of Jewish camping—for people with and without disabilities.  

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Original Article Published on The New York Jewish Week

Timed to coincide with February’s JDAIM, the international group will trek Africa’s tallest mountain using Israeli designed special assistance technology.

This year, I will not be spending Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month (JDAIM) with my colleagues and friends at 10th annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill (February 4th).  And I won’t be teaching about disability inclusion at synagogues or college campuses across the country.  While I will “miss” the more traditional marking of JDAIM, I will have the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Jewish disabilities inclusion in a very unconventional setting—Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania!

I will attempt to trek up the 19,341 foot mountain, through five ecosystems and vast game preserves, with 27 hikers from Texas, Montana, New York, and New Jersey, as well as with participants from Israel.  The delegation includes a twice paralyzed Utah athlete and her husband, a Peruvian born cyclist and skier who is also an amputee with paraplegia, an Israeli army veteran who is paralyzed, a 9/11 first responder who experienced PTSD, a local Tanzanian man with paraplegia and others who believe in the mission of FAISR—Friends of Access Israel.

FAISR, started only several months ago, and Access Israel, founded just over 20 years ago in Israel, is an organization which uses education, advocacy and technology to promote accessibility, inclusion, respect, removal of actual and perceived barriers, and an equitable environment for people of all abilities around the world.

The trekkers will ascend the Marangu route, also known as the Coca Cola trail, to reach the peak.  In accordance with best practices and Tanzanian law which assures the safety of hikers with and without disabilities, the delegation will be accompanied by three cooks, 11 guides, and 70 porters.  Daily mileage will range from 3.1 miles on the acclimation days, to a grueling 13.7 miles during the final ascent, setting out just before midnight Saturday night with the goal of reaching the summit at sunrise.

The group should be well-rested for the final, all-night Saturday night ascent.  We will be spending a relaxing Shabbat at 15,420 feet and will enjoy vegan kosher Shabbat meals, prayer services (including Shabbat morning where we will read the Song of the Sea from a torah scroll (yes, we are carrying a kosher torah scroll up the mountain!). And I will have the privilege of teaching a favorite JDAIM Talmud text on inclusion!

The climb up Kilimanjaro is believed to be the largest delegation of hikers with disabilities.  Starla Hilliard-Barnes, who was selected as Ms. Wheelchair Montana in 2014, became the first wheelchair-user to compete in the Mrs. Montana pageant in 2016.   She is founder of Moving Forward Adaptive Sports and the charity, Gifts of Love, and will be accompanied by husband, Shannon Barnes.  Hillard-Barnes will use a specialized wheelchair, known as a Paratrek, as she ascends Kilimanjaro.  “I’ve dreamed since I was a little girl to go climb Mount Kilimanjaro,” reports Starla.  She has been hearing about Africa and Kilimanjaro her whole life from her grandparents, who were missionaries there.

In a phone interview three weeks before the trip, Hillard-Barnes concedes that she has “never sat on a Paratrek” and “never even touched one!”  The good natured Hillard-Barnes playfully reports, “It will be interesting.”  The experienced hand-cyclist, who has a great deal of hiking and camping experience feels her biggest challenge will be “giving up my independence and letting someone else be in control.”   Unlike with hand cycling, which she does on her own, she will need to rely on others when she uses the Paratrek.

Omer Zur, founder and CEO of Paratrek, the Israeli company that specializes in finding solutions for people with disabilities to enable them to enjoy nature with groups of people with and without disabilities, is very aware of the need to find the right balance between assuring the independence of the trekker, and offering assistance as needed.  He designed the first Paratrek to enable his fiercely independent father who was paralyzed 35 years ago during the Yom Kippur War to climb mountains and go camping.  “My parents wanted us to be the best version of ourselves and to go out in nature and be comfortable.”  On a three-year post-army trek, Zur realized that his father never had this opportunity.  He set out to design an apparatus for his dad.  His father was not pleased with the initial concept—a stretcher carried by Omer’s friends.  Zur then created the Paratrek, and he and his father set out on a 33-day journey.

The Paratrek has a rickshaw-style bar in the front that fits around another hiker’s waist and handlebars in the back that a second person can use to stabilize or push the trekker with paraplegia, if needed. Zur will be traveling from Israel to Tanzania with five Paratreks, extra shock absorbers, wheels and other supplies.  On the trip, Zur will make sure the Paratreks are in proper working order, and he will be there to help assure the comfort and safety of each participant.

Hillard-Barnes initially learned of the Kilimanjaro hike from Facebook friend and fellow paraplegic, Marcela Maranon.  Peruvian-born Maranon, who lives in Dallas, Texas, lost her left leg and became paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash at age 19.  Following what she described as a “very dark period” of several years, she entered rehab in Baltimore, Maryland.  Her experiences with ReWalk, an Israeli-made, FDA approved wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI) to stand upright, walk, turn, and climb and descend stairs attracted a great deal of attention in the United States, Israel and around the world.  She went on to be the public face of Rewalk. She playfully notes, “I am the girl in the brochures!”  She has also fallen in love with Israel, reporting, “When I went to Israel, I felt Israel was my second home—it is so beautiful, the food is fantastic, they have the best beaches…”  Maranon and Hillard-Barnes will get to meet in person in Tanzania on February 2nd as they get acquainted with their fellow climbers and the Paratrek.

James Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel, is inspired by the unique stories of each of the participants.  “With our collective physical strengths, mental toughness, and diverse abilities, we are all looking forward to joining together to conquer Kilimanjaro as a team.  Our goal is to unite as one, laugh together, cry together, trek together, and celebrate together at 19,341 feet.”

When the delegation gathers at JFK airport in New York on February 2nd, they will be one step closer to reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, and spreading the word for inclusion.

Please follow the expedition’s updates on Facebook and Instagram.

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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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