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Fellows Blog Series

I am not the suffering Quasimodo dog with short neck syndrome

Justin Tapp smiling wearing a pink t shirt that says "The Future Is Accessible"Rockville, Maryland, Feb. 28 – When Quasimodo, nicknamed “Quasi the great,” a German Shepherd, was discovered as a stray in Kentucky, he was scheduled to be euthanized because he has short spine syndrome. Fortunately a family decided to give him a second-hand home. He is described as a dog who does normal dog things but has a certain need for accommodations to help him do daily activities. Quasimodo represents one of just 15 dogs worldwide living with short-spine syndrome. He quickly became an internet sensation because of his disability, gaining more than 50,000 followers on Facebook. Who would have guessed that a dog having a disability could receive so much positivity? I didn’t, because I never do and here’s why.

It is a sunny day on August 17, 2015, and I am moving into President’s Hall, the dorm I chose for my freshmen year of college at The University of Toledo. I am excited as any entering freshmen student should be on the journey to a higher education. The day started early, at 8:00 a.m. because I wanted to move in as soon as possible. I was eager to meet everyone on campus. At the time I was an extrovert because my high school years were great. I had a great summer after high school graduation, and I wanted to continue having a great experience at the start of my college career. That dream was cut short.

As I was moving in, with the help of my family and the residential advisors for my dorm, I hear a loud shout, “HE DOESN’T HAVE A NECK!” In that moment, I stop in front of President’s Hall and I turn around. I see a car driving by with a person sticking their torso out the car window. That person’s comment was directed toward me because I was born with a congenital condition called Klippel-Feil syndrome. The medical definition of Klippel-Feil syndrome is “a musculoskeletal condition characterized by the fusion of at least two vertebrae of the neck. Common symptoms include a short neck, low hairline at the back of the head, and restricted mobility of the upper spine.” The common definition that society uses, including the person in the car, is “no neck.” [continue reading…]

Black Hollywood: The Struggle to Include Disability

Photo of Tatiana LeeAfrican Americans have had a long history of hardships in the United States. Brought to the Americas as slaves, many African Americans built a nation with their blood, sweat and tears. Contributing to music, art, sports, military and more, black and people of color still do not get the credit or respect that they deserve. With Black History Month getting more and more attention today, the one intersection that is rarely mentioned during this month is Black people with disabilities.

As a black woman with a disability, I want to see all aspects of me represented – and this includes in Hollywood. Sometimes I feel that Black Hollywood events are not welcoming of black people with disabilities. By not actively promoting that black, disabled actors to play character roles of a disabled person, Hollywood continues to give an inaccurate representation of Black people with disabilities and takes away jobs from black actors with real disabilities. [continue reading…]

“Rabbi” Steve Rabinowitz Provides Sage Advice for RespectAbility Fellows

Rockville, Maryland, Feb. 19 – Steve Rabinowitz, former White House director of design and production under the Clinton administration, spoke to RespectAbility’s staff and National Leadership Fellows about his incredible career in political communications. From campaign trail war stories to comedic tales of Air Force One, he entertained and engaged the room, while sprinkling nuggets of wisdom on each of us.

Rabinowitz is well known for his work with President William Jefferson Clinton. Most notably, he revolutionized town hall debates to the intimate and personal format that exists today. And he brilliantly orchestrated the historic White House lawn handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization Leader Yasser Arafat for the Oslo Accords.

Rabinowitz’s achievements are far-reaching and truly astounding. But his personality and character made the greatest impression. He regaled the RespectAbility team with incredible tales of success and defeat. He reminisced about working on the Hill in the 1970s, where “robo letters,” template letters generated via typewriter memory, were standard practice and facsimile machines were a dream come true. He spoke of the privilege of working as a youth coordinator, organizing on college campuses. He joked of the days before the Clinton campaign, when campaigns nicknamed him the “kiss of death” for his consistent losing streak in elections. And he shared memories of going on the presidential campaign trail with Bob Kerry, a Vietnam veteran amputee, who brought along his various wooden prosthetic legs for every occasion. [continue reading…]

A Path Between Me and You: David Belkin Discusses the Importance of Empathy in Fundraising

David Belkin with RespectAbility staff and Fellows in front of the RespectAbility banner

David Belkin with RespectAbility Staff and Fellows

Rockville, Maryland, Feb. 11 – With more than thirty years of experience in nonprofit fundraising, David Belkin has been asked many times about the processes he relies on to convince potential donors to invest in a cause. But, as Belkin puts it, fundraising does not involve any secret techniques or magic phrases, but rather one’s ability to utilize empathy. Empathy in fundraising does not require technical skill, but it does require the ability to listen to a donor’s goals and interests, not only to establish a connection with them, but to help the donor feel a connection to the fundraiser’s cause.

Belkin’s time in the nonprofit sector has taken him from one high-profile job to another. In all these positions, Belkin has been involved with nearly all aspects of fundraising, ranging from capital campaigns, endowments, planned giving programs and grant seeking. Because of his experience, Belkin was asked to address the Spring 2019 Fellows Cohort of RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program to discuss how to use empathy to attract donors. [continue reading…]

Super Bowl Commercials Improving But Still Lacking in Disability Representation Overall

Microsoft, Coca-Cola Make Intentional Decision to Be Inclusive

Rockville, Md., Feb. 4 – Mass media plays a huge part of what society believes and America’s favorite pastime besides football is watching their favorite commercials especially during the biggest primetime event of the year: The Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl preshow showcased inclusion as while Chloe X Halle and Gladys Knight sang America the Beautiful and the national anthem respectively, Deaf talent Aarron Loggins interpreted in ASL. Yet, CBS only showed him for a few seconds. To ensure true inclusion, the network could have shown him in picture-in-picture throughout the entire song. Furthermore, when a large American flag was spread out over the field, people with visible disabilities were absent. [continue reading…]

Hearts of Glass Shatters Exclusion of Workers with Disabilities

[UPDATE March 30, 2019] – Hearts of Glass will be showing at the ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York on Wednesday, April 3, Saturday, April 6 and Monday, April 8, 2019. All of the screenings include open captioning and most include audio description. RespectAbility’s Vice President, Communications, Lauren Appelbaum, will be moderating a panel discussion with the filmmaker and others following the April 6 showing in Manhattan.

Rockville, Maryland, Jan. 16 – In the United States, there are more than 20-million working-age people with disabilities. However, only a third of them have opportunities for employment. Around the country, there are state-wide employment programs for people with disabilities. But, it takes a special company to create its own employment program. Vertical Harvest, one of the world’s only multi-story hydroponic greenhouses, provides year-round produce in a rural mountain town and meaningful employment to community members with disabilities. The staff members and its inclusive atmosphere are highlighted in Hearts of Glass, a documentary that is premiering this month at the Wild & Scenic Festival.

Hearts of Glass documents the early beginnings of Vertical Harvest and its employees with disabilities. Some of the featured workers include Kyle Burson who loves to use his brain, Zac Knudsen who rides horses, Ty Warner who loves to go to the carnival, Johnny Fifles who is a self-made My Little Pony fanatic or “brony” and Mycah Miller, a hometown artist. The cameras roll at their first days of work, training, promotions and even during their daily lives.

Director Jennifer Tennican was looking forward to making stories about Jackson, Wyoming since moving there in 2002. She had one goal in mind for her stories: Community – and the story of Vertical Harvest captured her interest.

“I was drawn to documenting a once-in-a-lifetime story about innovation and possibility unfolding in my backyard,” said Tennican. “That story includes community members with disabilities.” [continue reading…]

Short Film about Playground Inclusion wins International Acclaim

[UPDATE March 30, 2019] – “Ian” will be showing at the ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York on Tuesday, April 2, 2019 in Queens and Saturday, April 6, 2019 in Manhattan. The festival is adding audio description to this animated short so people who are blind or who have low vision can enjoy it independently at the April 6th showing.

Rockville, Maryland, Dec. 6, 2018 – All kids want to play. Kids with disabilities are no different. “Ian” is a short, animated film inspired by the real-life Ian, a boy with a disability determined to get to the playground despite his playmates bullying him. This film sets out to show that children with disabilities can and should be included.

“Ian” premiered for audiences around the world on YouTube and was broadcast in Latin America simultaneously on Disney Junior, Cartoon Network, Discovery Kids, Nickelodeon, PakaPaka and YouTube Kids Nov. 30, 2018.

“Ian” started as a mother’s mission to educate her son’s bullies on the playground—one to one. When she realized that the need for inclusion was bigger than one playground, she wrote a book and founded Fundación ian to change thousands of minds and attitudes about people with disabilities. She approached MundoLoco, a top digital animation studio in Latin America, about creating “Ian,” an animated film to deliver the message of inclusion to audiences all over the world. [continue reading…]

Career Lessons from a Romance Writer: Robert Rudney on Life, Love and Pursing Your Career in D.C.

Bob Rudney with RespectAbility staff and Fellows in front of the RespectAbility banner

Robert Rudney with RespectAbility staff and Fellows

Rockville, Maryland, Nov. 13 – Disability advocate and author Robert Rudney had a fulfilling career in politics and advocacy. He began in the war field as a writer for the U.S. Air Force and later as a War Research Associate at University of Louvain in Belgium. Rudney was the Associate Intelligence Analyst at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he analyzed possible terrorist attacks and drug money laundering for the Department of Homeland Security. He publicized a report on employment opportunities for disabilities for the CEO of Booz Allen.

Noticeably, Rudney was the Chairman of EXCEL! Networking Group, a support group for jobseekers with disabilities. During his role, he hosted networking events, workshops and peer mentoring sessions. Rudney was a contributing writer for President Barack Obama’s Disability Power & Pride campaign. Rudney’s novel Lovers Lame about a steamy romance between a couple with disabilities has received positive reviews.

Today, he is retired and he still is consulting for jobseekers with disabilities. He stopped by the RespectAbility office to talk to the Fellows on making good impressions. [continue reading…]

Shabbat Smile 5779, Volume 9, by Josh Goodrich

As we all know, on Shabbat October 27th, The Tree of Life synagogue was holding three congregational services at the same time. One involved a baby naming ceremony. Our name is part of our identity, and our identity is something that we continue to develop as we age. David and Cecil Rosenthal had multiple pieces to their identity. Besides their name, they were brothers, members of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, “Yinzers”, Americans, and people with disabilities. However, they were both killed because of one aspect of their identity: they were Jewish. Let that sink in. The Rosenthal brothers were victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre because of this one aspect of their identity.

Jews have a history of being subjected to violence. As a child, during the Passover holiday, the older generations taught me about our persecution and enslavement in Egypt. Later, I learned about the Holocaust and the genocide of the Jewish people. I learned how Jews had to flee their homes, places they once thought were safe, so they would not have their name and their identity stripped away, replaced by a tattooed number on their forearms. As an adult I thought the violence against Jews had ended—at least in the U.S. I thought that the historical hatred was fading. On October 27th, the perpetrator reminded me and all fellow Jews and humanity of the evil in the world. The perpetrator reminded the Jewish community that some people hate us. The perpetrator, whose name I refuse to write, decided to act upon this evil and hatred.

When there is a tragedy, rather than focusing on the perpetrator and his identity, it is important to talk about and remember the victims. David and Cecil were 54 and 59 years old, respectively. They both had developmental disabilities and lived independently in a group home. Their home. They received residential supports through ACHIEVA, an organization that supports and empowers people with intellectual disabilities and their families. Achieva also helps find permanent jobs for people with disabilities, increasing Pittsburgh’s progress in hiring people with disabilities. [continue reading…]

How Congress is Working to Diversify its Staff: Lessons from Sam Flood, Diversity Initiative Research Aide

Speakers from the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative with RespectAbility staff and Fellows in front of the RespectAbility banner

Speakers from the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative with RespectAbility Staff and Fellows

Rockville, Maryland, Oct. 31 – Having the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill can seem like a prestigious honor that is out of reach for many, especially those who are part of minority groups such as members of the disabled community. However, the Senate Diversity Initiative (SDI) is working to ensure that congressional office staff is more inclusive of Americans across a spectrum of race, socioeconomic status, creed, sexual orientation and even disability. The hope is that this diversity can be accomplished by connecting Hill offices with skilled candidates who have diverse backgrounds through a managed database.

Sam Flood, the Diversity Initiative Research Aide, came to speak with the RespectAbility fellows about his program and how they can participate. Flood started with an overview of the Senate Diversity Initiative and then explained how a candidate can apply and what positions could be open for them. [continue reading…]

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