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William Kiernan Talks About Inclusion at UMass Boston Celebration by Anya Weber

On October 7, the University of Massachusetts Boston celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special event: Campus on the Common. ICI’s director, Dr. William E. Kiernan, gave a short “tent talk” during the celebration. You can watch his talk above.

Kiernan is both the ICI’s director and the dean of the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development (SGISD), the UMass Boston graduate school that houses the ICI. He talked about growing up with a dad who had polio, who could hit a baseball farther than anyone else in the neighborhood (but could never make it to first base).

“Disability is part of the human experience, and that’s what our household was about,” Kiernan remarked.

Kiernan highlighted disparities between expectations and opportunities for people with disabilities today. While about 86% of graduating students with disabilities expect to go on to find work, only about one in five (20%) actually does so.

This is one of the issues that SGISD aims to address. The school’s programs examine populations that get excluded globally, for reasons of disability, race, sexual orientation, and gender. Graduates go on to work in the nonprofit sector and in government, addressing issues of exclusion both globally and locally.

The big question driving the course of study, according to Kiernan, is this: “How do we get to the point that persons can have equality of opportunity, self-determination, and choice?”

At the end of his talk, Kiernan invited Ammany Stacy Ty, a freshman in the UMass Boston Asian American Studies program, to perform a spoken word piece about her name and her identity.

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From Bulgaria to Boston

by Anya Weber

Krasimir Chervenkov just joined the ICI as a Community Solutions Program Fellow. His fellowship is underwritten by a U.S. Department of State fellowship implemented by IREX.

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Hailing from Bulgaria, Krasimir will be spending four months living in Boston, learning about U.S. disability legislation, policies, practices, and implementation. After this fellowship, he will work to apply best practices, policy, and legislative changes regarding disability and access rights in his native country. 

Krasimir is particularly interested in visual disabilities and related accommodations. He will work closely with the Northeast Regional Center for Vision Education, learning about orientation and mobility and the newest technologies.

Krasimir works for the municipality in the city of Burgas (population 230,000). He’s been working at the Social Affairs and Employment Directorate for five years, and is currently in the Construction Department. He monitors construction companies to make sure that they are meeting codes, including those about accessibility.

More broadly, Krasimir and his team help create accessible environments in the city. This means making sure that people with disabilities can fully access hospitals, government offices, and other public buildings. He’s also worked around employment, helping businesses access government funding for hiring people with disabilities.

“We’ve actually employed people with disabilities in the administration in the municipality,” Krasimir says. “We employ people in cultural centers around the city. We also help the NGOs themselves apply and win such grants so that they can employ people with disabilities.”

Krasimir has had visual impairments all his life, and at the age of 18 lost all his vision in one eye (he still has some vision in the other). He’s had first-hand experience with the challenges people with disabilities face in school and in the workplace.

“The inaccessible environment is not only the physical one, but also access to information,” he explains. “It was a natural thing to realize that there is actually a need for change in the society. And OK, these changes are happening, but they’re taking too much time, and they’re not as effective as you would wish.”

Krasimir has seen many changes come to Bulgaria and to Burgas. In 2007, the city got a new mayor, who has been supportive of accessibility reform. That same year, Bulgaria joined the European Union, gaining access to additional funds and resources.

“Now people with disabilities have access to the administration building, they have access to hospitals and medical centers, they have access to cultural buildings,” says Krasimir. “And a lot of businesses nowadays are providing accessibility as well.”

Innovative technology has helped increase Burgas’s navigability. Unlike in Boston, where you push a button to get a “walk” sign, Burgas distributes hand-held remote controls that pedestrians (including people with disabilities, tourists, and other citizens) can use to get the signal. 

All buses and trolleys in Burgas are now accessible to people with mobility impairments, and new buildings are being constructed according to much improved codes. Bulgaria has also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Krasimir hopes will fuel even greater efforts forward full accessibility. 

There are still issues with the accessibility of many of the older buildings in Burgas. Krasimir’s IREX project, on his return to Bulgaria, will involve surveying people with disabilities in Burgas about which older municipal buildings are most in need of renovation. He will then work with all stakeholders to choose one building to renovate.

Krasimir is enjoying his time in Boston. He’s from a seaside town, so he likes the closeness to the ocean, as well as walking along the Charles River. He recently took a sailing expedition on the Charles with another ICI employee, David Hoff.

Welcome to the ICI, Krasimir!

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Working with Nepalis to Enhance Disability Inclusion, Part 2

by Paula Sotnik

I recently traveled to Nepal to learn and share information about disability inclusion. In this post, you can read the second part of an interview I gave to the Nepali nonprofit NAPD Nepal. Here’s the first part of the interview.

This interview will appear in NAPD Nepal’s annual publication. Some of the language has been adapted here for clarity and length.

4. As a disability rights expert, what do you see as the major steps needed to promote the rights of people with disabilities in Nepal? 

First, we need to increase the number of individuals with disabilities who have decision-making power in leadership roles in government.

Secondly, equality and inclusion is everyone’s business, not just people with disabilities and disability organizations. Thus, it is critical to educate government, employers, students, schools, health care workers, and more.

Education should not just focus on legal compliance, but also on stories of how citizens with disabilities are important to Nepali society. People with disabilities, with equal access and supports, can become teachers, doctors, lawyers, mothers, fathers, and leaders in Nepal. 

Third, I frequently heard that the government lacks a viable plan to promote the rights of people with disabilities. Strong Nepali nonprofits can work together to create a plan for accessibility and inclusion. This plan will need clear goals with concrete and measurable objectives, and most importantly an evaluation system that holds all parties accountable.

Finally, agencies that that are funded by the government can set an example in becoming accessible and inclusive. By doing so, these entities can lead the way for businesses and other community resources to achieve accessibility. 

5. It is the state’s first responsibility to protect and promote the fundamental rights of its citizens. However, many people with disabilities are excluded and even live in desperate conditions (not only in our country, but globally). Why do you think this is so?

‪Circumstances and views of people with disabilities are changing for the better, but very slowly. In the not-too-distant past, people with disabilities were viewed as recipients of charity, powerless and without a voice. Government officials did not prioritize the interests and needs of the disability community.

Over the past years, there has been an increased emphasis on supporting people with disabilities to vote and have a voice in choosing their political leaders. We are also now seeing people with disabilities assuming more leadership positions, in valued roles in the media, and actively engaged in their communities. 

However, in many developing countries, people with disabilities still lack access to education, work, health services, and participation in government. They are still facing prejudice and being thought of as “less than” by many of their fellow citizens.  

I am optimistic that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will mandate that all states uphold the rights of all their citizens. I see an increase in youth and young adults, here in Nepal and elsewhere, taking the convention very seriously, and strongly advocating for equal access and inclusion. This trend by our young leaders will create a future in which countries prioritize the needs and interests of individuals with disabilities. 

6. Thank you so much for your valuable time and opinions. Would you like to say anything more? 

Disability-focused nonprofits in Nepal work tirelessly, with little to no resources. Many of the staff are not paid, or paid very little for long hours. Funding is not enough to support all the work that is necessary to make a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.

From talking with staff at many of these organizations, it seems that an effort is needed to assist them to obtain and manage larger government and foundation grants. The focus should be on effective partnering with more seasoned organizations to build a strong proposal and use resources effectively. This strategy, successfully used in the Unites States, may hold promise for Nepali nonprofits to compete for and be awarded significant grants, without relying on larger international organizations for small subcontracts.

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Working with Nepalis to Enhance Disability Inclusion, Part 1

by Paula Sotnik

I recently traveled to Nepal to learn and share information about disability inclusion. Here’s the first part of an interview I gave to the Nepali nonprofit NAPD Nepal. The second part will follow in another blog post.

This interview will appear in NAPD Nepal’s annual publication. Some of the language has been adapted here for clarity and length.

1. Could you please share the purpose of your visit to Nepal?

Our organization, the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI), had the great opportunity to host an IREX Community Solutions Program fellow, Sagar Prasain, from Nepal last fall. This initiative was funded by the U.S. Department of State.

The ICI is a research and training center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Our work supports the rights of children and adults with disabilities to participate in all aspects of the community. 

Mr. Prasain’s goal was to learn about U.S. disability law, policies, and practices. He also educated our staff about what it’s like to live with a disability in Nepal. Mr. Prasain and I developed a project to address some of the access issues in Nepal, through his newly formed nongovernmental organization, Sangai Hami. I was fortunate to obtain a travel grant to Nepal to continue our work.

My main objectives were these: 

  1. Provide a training (to participants with and without disabilities) on access, accommodations, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  2. Learn as much as I could about what it’s like to live with a disability in Nepal.
  3. Learn about advocacy and disability services by visiting many disability organizations and talking to leaders in the disability community.

My trip to Nepal was a life-changing experience. I am truly grateful to everyone who spent time and educated me. Also, I am grateful for the U.S. Department of State grant awarded to the IREX Community Solutions Program, which made Mr. Prasain’s fellowship and my visit to Nepal possible.

I truly hope to return to this beautiful and embracing country one day in the future and continue to work with my new friends to achieve a fully inclusive Nepal.

2. How did you find the disability movement in Nepal? 

With very few resources, a group of dedicated people who are passionate about equality and inclusion, and possess a strong and consistent voice, are working to fully include individuals with disabilities in all aspects of their communities. From the leadership of the National Federation of the Disabled Nepal and the National Association of the Physically Disabled Nepal, to the dedicated mothers of children with Down syndrome who started the Down Syndrome Society of Nepal in a mother’s home, these individuals are providing opportunities for individuals with disabilities of all ages to learn, grow, and succeed.  

I met with a young woman who left her government position to start a much-needed school: the Special School for Disabled and Rehabilitation Center. This school has successfully transitioned children with autism and other developmental disabilities to regular education classes. And the staff at the National Association of Hard of Hearing and Deafened Nepal are educating schools and parents about hearing disabilities. 

I was inspired by the young leaders with disabilities who tirelessly, articulately, and intelligently study best practices, inclusive policies, and strategies for potential application to Nepal. I was also encouraged to see young leaders without disabilities in healthcare, architecture, and the media participate in our training. They developed plans for advancing equal rights, access, and inclusion in their various fields.

So while accessibility issues exist and progressive programs for people with significant disabilities are still in development, the efforts and strength of committed Nepalis, with and without disabilities, will continue the momentum necessary for including all citizens in their communities. 

3. What are the major differences you have found between your country and Nepal in terms of protecting and promoting the human rights of people with disabilities?

The United States has a long history of advocacy for equal rights, starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act laid the foundation for equal rights for individuals with disabilities, and led to a number of other laws, starting with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.

These laws would not have been passed without advocacy by individuals with disabilities. One action, called the Capitol Crawl, had a huge impact when the ADA was being debated. Over 60 activists left their wheelchairs and mobility devices and began crawling the 83 stone steps up to the U.S. Capitol building to demonstrate the unfairness and cruelties of inaccessibility.

The ADA was passed shortly after. This strong advocacy action symbolizes how people with disabilities unite, have a voice, and make a difference.

Although Nepal has ratified the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and enacted other laws, such as the Social Welfare Act (1992) and the Education Act (2000), Nepalis with disabilities indicate that these laws and related policies are not implemented, and there are no consequences for noncompliance. More importantly, I learned that these laws mandate what should be “provided” to people with disabilities, with rather than guaranteeing equal rights and full participation.

Also, under these laws, the government has the power to provide access and supports, but is not obligated to ensure equal and accessible resources and services. Thus, governmental authorities may be able to postpone or deny demands for equal conditions due to a lack of resources.

However, it may not be fair to compare countries, and we need to take Nepal’s political history into account. Nepalis have only been able to exercise their democratic rights since 2006. This newly democratic society will continue to set a strong foundation for the future development of rights-based disability policy.

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Vision Studies Program Wins $1.25 Million Grant

by Anya Weber

The Vision Studies program at the UMass Boston School for Global Inclusion and Social Development (SGISD) has been awarded a $1.25 million grant by the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The grant will allow the SGISD Vision Studies Orientation and Mobility program to sustain and expand its distance education options, adding Virginia and Puerto Rico to the states and territories with access to these online classes. 

The Vision Studies program trains its students to become highly qualified specialists in supporting people with visual impairments and blindness. The new grant will specifically fund distance education in Orientation and Mobility, or O&M. O&M focuses on supporting people with blindness and visual impairments to navigate safely and independently, for example, walking with a cane or with a guide dog.

The program’s distance-learning offerings already extend from Boston across the globe, with students right here in New England and as far away as the Pacific Islands.

Last year, OSEP awarded $1.25 million to the Vision Studies program’s “Teacher of Students with Visual Impairment,” or TVI, track. TVI involves training teachers to work in classrooms that include students with blindness and low vision.

“This expansion of our funding will let us increase the number of vision specialists available nationally,” says Robert McCulley, the director of the Northeast Regional Center for Vision Education (the ICI program within SGISD that houses these programs). “It will also bring in more students from diverse bilingual and cultural backgrounds.”

Laura Bozeman, Associate Professor and Program Director of Vision Studies, will be working with McCulley to run the expanded menu of newly funded classes.

The partnering universities on the new grant are the University of Puerto Rico (with a primarily Hispanic student body), and George Mason University in Virginia (which also has a high minority population). George Mason University is part of a vision consortium within Virginia that includes four other partnering schools, one of which is Norfolk State University, a member of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

Congratulations to the Vision Studies program for its continued success! 

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My Award from the Disability Law Center

by Ashley Wolfe (with Anya Weber)

On June 17, I received the Individual Leadership Award from the Disability Law Center (DLC). I accepted the award at the DLC’s Annual Benefit and Auction in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When I held up my trophy, I was showing the audience that I’m not only someone with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I’m also a real person with a real heart and a real life.

When I won this amazing award, I felt like I deserved it. I got the award because of the participatory human research that I do at the ICI. This kind of research lets people with disabilities be involved with the research process, instead of just being research subjects.

I also got the award because I am a self-advocate. That is someone who stands up for what she wants and needs, and helps others do the same.

Getting the award made me feel proud of the work I do. It also made me feel like I am part of a larger community.

The DLC is important for people with disabilities in Massachusetts. It helps protect our rights and fight discrimination. It also provides support and services to people with all kinds of disabilities. For example, it helps us get the accommodations we need to do our jobs well.

Getting this award showed me that I’m a good and compassionate person who can succeed just by being myself.

                   Wolfe speaking at the Annual Benefit and Auction

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ICI Staff Present at National APSE Conference

by Patrick Hoff

Five ICI staff members attended the 25th annual APSE conference in Long Beach, California, where they presented and participated in multiple sessions during the three-day event.

APSE is a national organization that focuses on integrated employment and career advancement opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Founded in 1988, it has chapters in 39 states and the District of Columbia, and over 3,000 members.

ICI staffers David Hoff, Cindy Thomas, Karen Flippo, Melanie Jordan, and John Butterworth each presented in at least one breakout session. Hoff (full disclosure: he’s this author’s dad) serves on the board of directors of APSE and just completed a two-year term as president. He was also the keynote speaker on the second day of the conference.

Hoff’s keynote, titled “Employment First: Time to Get Real,” focused on the progress that has been made in terms of Employment First. Employment First refers to public policies stating that employment that is fully integrated within the general workforce is the preferred option for all people with disabilities, and that programs and services supporting people with disabilities will align with these policies.

He also challenged audience members to consider their own views of employment of people with significant disabilities, and how day-to-day actions as individuals, service providers, and systems can run counter to the Employment First philosophy.

Cindy Thomas presented about the Massachusetts Blueprint for Success, a plan released by the state in November 2013 that presents a clear agenda for supporting individuals in integrated employment and closing sheltered workshops. Thomas reviewed the eight years of work that laid a foundation for the Blueprint, the key partnerships within the program, and the efforts currently underway. Thomas presented with Margaret Van Gelder of the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services.

Karen Flippo presented three times at the conference. Flippo, who is the treasurer of the Rhode Island chapter of APSE, first presented with Julie Barol, Katie Wolf Whaley, and Katie Pitts about chapter leadership and unique ideas that each of them have used to help their chapters.

Flippo’s second presentation, with Olivia Raynor, Rich Sanders, and fellow ICI staffer John Butterworth, discussed eight states that have received funding from the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to address barriers that young adults with disabilities experience when transitioning from high school to employment.

Flippo’s final presentation examined essential components of an employment services workforce development system and how it contributes to integrated employment outcomes. SueAnn Morrow, an employment services specialist from Iowa, was a co-presenter.

John Butterworth also led a presentation with Dorothy Hiersteiner and Josh Engler about employment trends for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The presenters examined data from the National Core Indicators and brought up suggestions for policy development to improve employment outcomes.

Melanie Jordan’s presentation helped participants to develop responses to objections employers typically voice when hiring job seekers with disabilities. Framed as a Jeopardy game, “contestants” (audience members) role-played responses to common business objections with a real employer. Jordan and her co-presenter Mark Winkler offered strategies for dealing with employer concerns, along with education resources and a summary of past research regarding employer attitudes about hiring people with disabilities. 

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APSE Keynote Speakers Address Disabilities in the Media

by Patrick Hoff

At the 25th annual APSE national conference, attendees heard dozens of presenters discuss the importance of employment for people with disabilities. Two of the conference’s keynote speakers addressed the representation of people with disabilities in media and entertainment.

Ray Bradford, a nationally recognized advocate for diversity, gave the opening keynote, and Jenni Gold, an acclaimed director and screenwriter, presented the closing keynote. Bradford spoke about opportunities for people with disabilities in the arts and media, and Gold discussed how people with disabilities are portrayed in the media.

Bradford founded the Bradford Advocacy Group, a consulting agency that lobbies for a more inclusive media landscape. He also served as the national director of policy and diversity advocacy for the labor union SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) before it merged with SAG in 2012.

Bradford is part of a global campaign seeking equal opportunities for people with disabilities in arts and media, called I AM PWD. The focus of the campaign is access (removing physical barriers and discrimination against people with disabilities), inclusion (both of actors with disabilities, and of disability within storylines), and accuracy (ensuring that stories about people with disabilities are complex and multi-dimensional).

Bradford shared with the audience a web series about an actress trying to navigate Hollywood in a wheelchair, called My Gimpy Life. Starring and created by Teal Sherer, two seasons of the comedy series are available on YouTube.

Jenni Gold, another keynote speaker, is a screenwriter, director, and editor, and has won multiple awards, including one at the Valley Film Festival for her documentary CinemAbility. She founded Gold Pictures, Inc., a development and production company, in 2001. Gold has muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair since the age of seven.

Gold’s documentary takes a look at how disabilities are portrayed in the media through interviews with studio executives, film historians, and celebrities. It also uses clips from movies and television programs to showcase the impact that the media has on society. The film has received high praise from the L.A. Times, Cinema Sentries, J.J. Abrams, and Vince Gilligan. 

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New Law Supports Employment for People with Disabilities (Part 2)

by Patrick Hoff 

This is the second of two posts about the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and how it impacts people with disabilities. Read the first post here.

The WIOA helps define a number of terms used within earlier legislation. Though the Rehabilitation Act had previously used the term competitive employment, the phrase was never defined. With the WIOA, the term competitive integrated employment (note the addition of “integrated”) means full-time or part-time work at minimum wage or higher, with wages and benefits comparable to those without disabilities performing the same work, and fully integrated with co-workers without disabilities.

The new act also provides a detailed definition of customized employment, a term previously undefined in federal statute. As a result, customized employment is now among the services available from public vocational rehabilitation (VR) nationwide.

The definition of supported employment has been modified to clarify that supported employment is integrated competitive employment. Customized employment is also now included within the definition of supported employment, and the standard post-employment support services have been extended from 18 to 24 months.

Under the WIOA, half of the money received under the Supported Employment State Grant program must be used to support youth up to age 24 with the most significant disabilities. These youth may receive extended services for up to four years.

Other provisions in the act change the way that One-Stop Career Centers (a.k.a. American Job Centers) are funded. The WIOA also changes the role of public VR in the One-Stop system, increases the requirements for workforce development systems to meet the needs of job seekers with disabilities, and moves several federal programs from the Department of Education to the Department of Health and Human Services.

For more on the WIOA and how it will roll out, consult the U.S. Department of Labor’s Training and Employment Notice.

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New Law Supports Employment for People with Disabilities (Part 1)

by Patrick Hoff

This is the first of two posts about the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and how it impacts people with disabilities.

On July 22, President Barack Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law. The WIOA is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that reauthorizes and improves upon the 1998 Workforce Innovation Act and Rehabilitation Act.

Though the new act improves workforce development for all Americans, one of its specific aims is to lower the unemployment rate of people with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities have the highest unemployment rate of any group, and almost three quarters do not participate in the workforce at all, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The WIOA has the potential to create significant advancement in employment for people with disabilities. Its provisions include limitations on the use of subminimum wage, increased funding for transitioning from school to adult life, defining terms such as competitive integrated employment and customized employment, and focusing supported employment state grants on youth.

In his comments, the President said that the WIOA “will help workers, including workers with disabilities, access employment, education, job-driven training, and support services that give them the chance to advance their careers and secure the good jobs of the future.”

Beginning in 2016, a series of steps must be followed before an individual under the age of 24 can be placed in a job that pays less than minimum wage (typically positions within sheltered workshops or enclaves). The WIOA also prohibits schools from contracting with sub-minimum wage providers, ensuring that schools will not be able to pay sheltered workshops to assist with the transition from school to the workforce.

In addition, vocational rehabilitation (VR) will have a larger role in transition from school to adult life. Fifteen percent of each state’s public VR funds must now be used for pre-employment transition services, including job exploration and counseling, work-based learning experiences, workplace readiness training, and training on self-advocacy.

For more on the WIOA and how it will roll out, consult the U.S. Department of Labor’s Training and Employment Notice.