Original Article Published on The eJP

[This is the second article in a 4-part series sponsored by The Covenant Foundation and written by Covenant Foundation Award recipients and grantees.]

In my work with young adults with disabilities and their families, I constantly hear the expression “falling off the cliff” to describe the lack of adequate job opportunities for people with disabilities once they complete high school.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities – both during the pandemic and in general – is higher than for the general population. As of March 2019, 1 in 5 workers with disabilities had been dismissed from employment, compared with 1 in 7 in the general population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the United Nations, in developing countries, 80% to 90% of persons with disabilities of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries the figure is between 50% and 70%. Further, in most developed countries the official unemployment rate for persons with disabilities of working age is at least twice that for those who have no disability.

Addressing this problem will take years of legislation, education and awareness – a real sea change. But there is a trend that gives me hope: community support of small businesses that are owned and operated by people with disabilities. During this month of Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion, the Jewish community can and should make a stronger commitment to supporting disability owned and run and disability-friendly businesses.

There are many Jewish individuals with disabilities around the country who are starting and running such businesses. Jacob Werbin and Uriel Levitt, two Washington, DC-area young men with Down Syndrome recently started Shred Support, a shredding business in Silver Spring, MD. Alexa Chalup runs Truly Scrumptious by Alexa, custom chocolate covered cookies, right out of her home on Long Island, NY. The Sunflower Bakery and Bake Shop of Rockville, MD provides skilled job training and employment opportunities in the baking and hospitality industries.

In my work, I have traveled the country and searched the Internet for similar businesses and have already identified more than 200. They include hydroponic farming, car washes, bakeries, computer recycling, cybersecurity, mammogram reading, dog treat companies and more. You can find many of these types of business listed here.

Businesses like Shred Support, Truly Scrumptous By Alexa and Sunflower Bakery all provide unprecedented opportunities for the Jewish community to be supportive while attaining what Maimonides would consider to be the highest level of tzedakah (which I prefer to translate as “righteous action” and not “charity”). The Rambam writes, “the highest form of tzedakah is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished … by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.”

Many Jewish organizations have already begun to undertake this righteous action. Synagogues and Jewish schools in the DC-area regularly order from Sunflower Bakery. Camp Ramah Darom recently ordered “early registration gifts” from John’s Crazy Socks – a sock company owned by a father and his son with Down Syndrome. When FAISR (Friends of Access Israel) organized a Kilimanjaro climb which included four people with paraplegia, it made perfect sense to order sweatshirts from Spectrum Designs in Port Washington, NY, a custom apparel and promotional items business, which, along with their Spectrum Bakes and Spectrum Suds (laundry business) has a social mission – to help individuals with autism obtain employment.

When a person with or without a disability works, there are obvious financial rewards. But there are also social, physical and mental health benefits. Employment provides a sense of accomplishment, pride and self-confidence. When a Jewish organization supports businesses which value people with disabilities, we are acknowledging that we are all created B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s Image.

During JDAIM, ask yourself two questions: Could I order those t-shirts, cookies or gift boxes from a business run by people with disabilities? And might my place of employment benefit from the often unique skills of a person with disabilities? If the answer is yes to either question and you take action, you are supporting a disability-run business while also attaining the highest level of tzedakah.

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Original Article published in the Jerusalem Post

“For Friends of Access Israel and our collaborative partners Access Israel, disability awareness and inclusion is our daily calling,” said executive director Jaime Lassner.

An online series featuring an array of impressive individuals who are involved in the field of disability access is taking place this month to mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).The series is the brainchild of Jamie Lassner, executive director of Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) who, when he first learned about JDAIM, began thinking of creative ways to share stories with the wider world of the strengths and accomplishments of people with disabilities. Lassner created and is hosting a month-long interactive Zoom series every Monday through Thursday in February (8 p.m. Israel time) featuring an all-star cast of speakers with disabilities and people connected to the disabilities’ community.

The series, titled, Access Is-Real features Richard Bernstein, a blind judge; Stephen Shore, an autistic professor; SpaceIL founder Yariv Bash; business owners Mark and John Cronin (John’s Crazy Socks) and Bill Morris (Blue Star Recyclers), who are noted for impressive practices of training and hiring people with disabilities; Omer and Shmulik Zur, creators of Paratrek; and other similarly impressive personalities. Lassner has reached out to schools around the world to participate and learn from the speakers and enjoy a break from the traditional day of in-person or virtual learning. FAISR will offer prizes to three winners who write poems or essays reflecting on what they have learned from the speaker series and on actions they will take to be more inclusive in their own lives.“For Friends of Access Israel and our collaborative partners Access Israel, disability awareness and inclusion is our daily calling. We hope that Access Is-Real is a catalyst for all to become more aware, involved and inclusive of all,” said Lassner.In the first session, Lassner interviewed Pascale Bercovitch, a paralympian who has participated in three Olympics in three different sports. She shared the story of losing both legs at age 17, making aliyah from France, and competing in swimming, hand-biking and currently in kayaking. She is proud of how far Israel has come in the area of accessibility.“Thirty-six years ago, I didn’t even know how to say ‘accessible’ in Hebrew! Nothing was accessible.” Thanks to the efforts of Access Israel, she reports that she is  now able to go to the beach, take buses and move around fairly freely. “Israel is now one of the more advanced countries when it comes to accessibility.”

The series is co-sponsored by the Consulate of Israel in New York, which has shared the event widely on social media.Access Israel regularly hosts an international conference in Israel each year, and recently hosted its seventh international online webinar, titled “Accessible Future: Innovation in Web and App Accessibility.” The webinar was attended by 800 people from 80 countries. Access Israel founder Yuval Wagner and CEO Michal Rimon were Access Is-Real guests on February 2nd.According to Shelly Christensen, CEO of Inclusion Innovations and co-founder of JDAIM in 2009, February has long been known in the Jewish world as Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month and is “a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities and mental health conditions and those who love them. JDAIM is a call to action for all of us to act in accordance with our Jewish values, honoring the gifts and strengths that we each possess.”During the month of February, the Jewish Federations of North America sponsors the similarly named Jewish Disability Advocacy Month, which they describe as “a month of education, solidarity-building, and empowerment in support of people with disabilities.” The theme for their month-long series of programs is “From Empowerment to Advocacy.”JDAIM events around the world, mostly virtual this year, are an important initiative to raise awareness about disabilities, inclusion and belonging in the Jewish world and in the larger society.

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Original Article Published on The Flyer Blog

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!

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