Inroads for the disabled

Highlighting his dedication to the advancement of rights for the disabled, Dr. Michael Stein is the first recipient of the Ruderman Family Foundation award for inclusion.

DR. MICHAEL STEIN, co-founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
DR. MICHAEL STEIN, co-founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Michael Stein has been putting his legal expertise and boundless energy to good use for some time now, in improving the lot of people with disabilities all over the globe, including disabled Jews such as himself.
Stein is co-founder and executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability (HPOD) and an internationally recognized expert on disability rights. Global and US disability rights groups have honored his work with awards, and The Boston Globe Magazine gave him the prestigious “Bostonian Changing the World” epithet.
Further augmenting Stein’s bulging honors résumé, the Ruderman Family Foundation has now conferred upon him the inaugural Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion. “Our foundation decided to establish an award in my father’s name to remember his values and work, which have touched so many lives,” RFF president Jay Ruderman says. “Those who knew my father agree that what drove his interest in disability inclusion was a bedrock commitment to fairness. He fervently believed that people with disabilities were not getting a fair shake in the Jewish community or in society at large. It was his belief that everyone deserves to be treated fairly that has inspired our mission to work toward the full inclusion of people with disabilities in our community.”
The inaugural recipient of the award clearly meets the demands of that goal. “We are honored to name Michael Stein as the first recipient of the Morton E.
Ruderman Award because his life’s work encompasses the values my father believed in,” Ruderman notes. “I know that my father would have liked him.”
With his many years of involvement in advocating a fairer deal for people with disabilities in the American Jewish community and all over the world, Stein is more keenly aware than most of the difficulties in effecting social change. Even when one manages to cut through the red tape, political minefields and other logistics and get some legislation in place, there is still the task of ensuring that the laws are applied.
“We put the project – HPOD – together in part as arising from my involvement in negotiations for the UN Disabilities Treaty, and in part looking forward towards implementing the treaty,” Stein notes. “It is one thing to have a piece of paper and set out wonderful standards, however aspirational they may be, and it is another thing to engage with people on the ground and to work together in partnership, and to serve the communities and try to get the ball moving again.”
HPOD is a vital cog in the ever-grinding wheel of progress for disability legislation and its implementation.
“In the 10 years that HPOD has existed, we have fought in nearly 40 countries on various projects,” Stein continues. “Sometimes we deal with ministries, and mostly it is working with civil society and helping them to think about their rights and supporting them. It has been a wonderful decade and an amazing experience.”
Stein says he would like his latest award to act as a springboard for the efforts that he and other like-minded people are making to ensure that people with disabilities get a fair deal and are not excluded from various areas of life. “I am, of course, very honored by the award, and encouraged that the award itself can act as an awareness- raising device for the need for inclusion of people with disabilities, both within the Jewish community and globally, and I am glad if it can shine a nice light on each part of the work we do as well,” he says.
Considering the existence of and media exposure for projects such as the Paralympic Games, one might think that people all over the world would be aware of the needs of the disabled – inter alia, the importance of providing convenient wheelchair access to all public buildings and public transport. Certainly, one would expect that people would not discriminate against the disabled when it comes to employment opportunities. But Stein says that “every country is a developing country when it comes to disability. Every country has things it does well and many things it needs to improve, and that includes the US.”
Stein points out that unfortunately there are a huge number of people around the world with various degrees of disability. “Around the year 2000, they said that around 10 percent of the world’s population had a disability. Now the World Health [Organization] says it’s closer to 15%. But the prevalence of people with disabilities living below the poverty line is twice that, out of the general population, so the situation of people with disabilities is quite dire. If you look at the demographics, I would say that around 80% of people with disabilities live in the developing world,” he says.
Stein says that while action is needed across the board, changing attitudes could facilitate that. “Around 2000, there were around 25 countries that had any kind of legislation – national level legislation – but most laws were framed in terms of charity and in terms of fixing medical conditions. While there is certainly room for generosity and rehabilitation, and for other services, inclusion was not on most countries’ agenda. There is a real need for official legal documentation, and there is a real need for worldwide law policy,” he says.
But, again, it is about far more than just devising laws that look neat and all-embracing. “Every country has a gap between the laws that they pass – the wonderfully written and progressive laws – and actual implementation.
In the United States, for example, [there is] the Americans with Disability Act [passed in 1990], which is very strongly worded and has a nondiscrimination tradition, yet we have failed magnificently as far as employing people with disabilities. Every country has the issue of do we have the right laws, and more importantly, when we have the right laws, do we actually enforce them? More deeply, do we have the cultures and environments in which all people can flourish, including people with disabilities?” Wheelchair-bound Stein has experienced difficulties himself over the years, logistical and otherwise, including at the prestigious Ivy League institution of higher education where he is a visiting professor of law. “Harvard is a wonderful place, but when I came here it was extraordinarily inaccessible. I was the first person with a disability at law school. I had to drag myself up stairs for two years,” he recalls.
Education, particularly of children, is an important component of generating healthy attitudes towards all people, regardless of race, sex or creed or special needs.
“Having a character in a wheelchair in Rehov Sumsum (Sesame Street) for many years is actually a very good example of awareness-raising. That is very helpful but the next question is, what about the children who go to school, and although they may have seen a disabled character on their TV now and then, they haven’t seen one in their classroom? Their parents don’t have friends who look like that at all. It is important to break down attitudes for children to see all sorts of people around them at all times. That’s how you break down what is called ‘otherness’ in sociology.”
Stein’s globe-trotting has included several visits to this country – he has picked up a decent smattering of Hebrew in the process – and he knows a thing or two about the situation here vis-à-vis the inclusion of people with disabilities. It seems things could be better.
“Israel has passed some significant civil rights laws regarding people with disabilities over the years,” he says, but “it has been rather slow on following up on these laws, and it has also been relatively slow on implementing many of the regulations. Like anywhere else, there is a gap between nice laws and regulations, and what happens with them. Israel has some good practices, and some practices that need improvement, as regards having people [with disabilities] living within the community, and moving them from institutions to community-based homes. On the other hand you have very talented netzivut [commissionership] that is working with the government, and there is the opportunity for Israel to jump ahead and really engage in some very good practices and set an example to many countries.”
The situation here appears to be improving, but there is still a long way to go. “It is frustrating to see the lack of employment [opportunities] and access to public areas and public transportation, you know, just being able to get around, to have sherutim [public toilets],” Stein notes. “But everything is relative.
Everything is a matter of perspective. My great hope is that Israel will lead rather than be slow. When we think about Jewish values, we think about inclusion and participation and hearing others’ voices.”
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