Jason Harris had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, founder of Yad HaChazakah and a long time activist for those with disabilities. Having Cerebral Palsy herself, she brings a real perspective to her organization and others, and has made a big difference in New York City and the nation on the quality of life for those with disabilities.
The history of the Center for Independent Living is a very exciting one. It was started by a man named Ed Roberts. He advocated with a group of students with disabilities to get on the Berkeley campus.
I was very involved with the independent living movement and I still am. In New York State, I worked to get accessible voting. I was involved in getting the disability rent increase exemption passed in NYC. But most of all, I enjoy working with people. I work with disabilities because it’s self advocacy. I love watching people with disabilities become effective advocates.
JASON: WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR GOALS?
SHARON: Okay so, I wanted to bring the independent living concept to the jewish community. By the way, the center for independent for living must have a board with a disability. So 50% of the board must be composed of people with disabilities. So that we are lead by and for people with disabilities.
JASON: IS IT A DIVERSE GROUP OF DISABILITIES? IS THERE A WIDE RANGE OF DIFFERENT DISABILITIES ON THE BOARD?
SHARON: Yes. It includes physical and intellectual and hard of hearing and cancer and blind and any type of condition that would qualify someone under the ADA.
JASON: SO YOU TALKED ABOUT THE VOTING MACHINES – BUT WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO SEE IN THE DISABILITY AND INCLUSION MOVEMENTS IN THE FUTURE?
SHARON: I decided to take my work in the general community and steer it toward the Jewish community. Thats why I created Yad HaChazakah so we could take the model for Center for Independent Living and apply it to the Jewish community. What I was to see in the overall society is more presence of people with disabilities in the media. I think we need employment. I approach employment in a unique way. Personally, I don’t believe that can pressure employers to hire us. I am not one for workshops. I am totally against workshops. I kind of preferential employment – i don’t agree with that. I think its up to us to show our value. To show how the unique way that we develop as people with disabilities. Whether we grow up with a disability or we become disabled later in life. We approach life in a very unique way. The was we approach life can add to an employment situation. We have be more creative. We have to think out of the box more frequently than someone who doesn’t have a disability. I think that we really have to push that. We have to get in touch with how our uniquely capable and convey that to employers.
For example – I don’t think people with disabilities should automatically be slighted for food service jobs. I think that each person is unique. And each person has a different talent and different abilities. And its up to the person with the disability and the people working with im or her to really tap into those talents. And not to assume “oh they have a disability they can’t work here.” Don’t judge what people are able to do.
JASON: THERE ARE SUCH A WIDE RANGE OF DISABILITIES – SOME ARE INVISIBLE, LIKE AUTISM OR NARCOLEPSY. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT PEOPLE THAT HIDE THEIR DISABILITIES FROM THEIR EMPLOYER AND HOW DO YOU THINK THAT AFFECTS THE DISABILITY COMMUNITY AS A WHOLE?
SHARON: I don’t think that during an interview, you don’t need to mention that you have a disability. I think it’s important to focus on what you can contribute to the company. But once you are hired, great! I will need accommodation- I will need some time during the day where i can take a break. Or where I can get up during the day. I think after they call you up and say “Jason, you have the job!” Once they say Jason you have the Job, then its up to you or the employee to say Excellent, I look forward to working with you. I do have to discuss with you an accommodation I will need. And with that accommodation, I will be one of your best employees.
JASON: DO YOU THINK IT WOULD HELP THE DISABILITY COMMUNITY TO HAVE THOSE WITH HIDDEN DISABILITIES COME OUT AND BE MORE OPEN ABOUT THEIR DISABILITIES AT WORK. SO THEY CAN REPRESENT THOSE WITH DISABILITIES IN A GOOD LIGHT AND BE A CATALYST FOR MORE ACCEPTANCE OF WHAT THOSE WITH DISABILITIES CAN DO?
SHARON: I think that needs to happen just so people with hidden disabilities can feel less isolated. I think that is very important. I was addressing the interview process. I think on the interview you want to stick with what is relevant. And what is relevant to the employer is whether or not you can do the job. And how well you can do the job. Your disability is not relevant at that stage of the process. But once you are hired, you won’t be able to be who your are. You don’t want to have to hide who you are. I think yes, definitely once people are hired, they should come out and say “this is a part of me. My learning disability or my Asperger’s is a part of me and this is who I am. I think that is very important.”
JASON: YOU TALKED ABOUT WORKING WITH THE JEWISH COMMUNITY. YOU WORK WITH THE JEWISH EMPOWERMENT CENTER. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS IMPORTANT?
SHARON: For a number of reasons. Number one. Personally I observe the Torah. And its important for me to understand how I and other people with disabilities fit into God’s plan. Assuming that the Torah is God’s plan. So thats number one. So when I see my community, when I see steps that are going into stores or places of learning. I wonder how I fit in. Or when there are no sign language interpreters at a community gathering. I wonder wait a minute – don’t people who are deaf belong here? It is very important to discuss Yad HaChazakah is a hebrew word for Strong Arm or a Strong Hand. Most of the time, disability organizations come with a charitable name. And I wanted to turn that on its head and say no, we are the strong ones. People with disabilities are the strong ones. We are the givers. We are the ones that contribute to the community. Thats why we need Yad HaChazakah. We are working to making it on 2 levels. We work to make the community more accessible and involved more in the community. By the way, I do not say inclusion. We do not say inclusion. Because Inclusion that there is a bigger more powerful entity willing to include others. No, we say involvement. We say participation. And that’s a more equal footing than inclusion.
We work with Jews with disabilities to become leaders. To become leaders in their own lives and to develop leadership skills in the community. So we work on the community level and the individual level. We provide information and referral and individual advocacy when people are not getting what they need. When they’ve hit against a wall and can’t go any further. We provide the information needed for people to become leaders in the community and in their own lives.
JASON: THAT’S FANTASTIC. I THINK THAT PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES OFTEN ARE TAUGHT SKILLS, BUT NOT SKILLS FOR THEIR OWN EMPOWERMENT.
SHARON: Yes – and working all together, we will accomplish. You are getting people to take control their own lives.
Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University. Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University. He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View.
Mrs. Sharon Shapiro-Lacks founded Yad HaChazakah-JDEC in 2006 with the support of ten other board members. A woman who typically zips around by motorized wheelchair, Mrs. Shapiro-Lacks envisions Jewish communities where people with obvious or hidden disabilities are sought and valued for the strengths they bring. In her vision, leaders and community members will want to improve physical, communication, and attitudinal access to shuls, yeshivas, batei midrash, workplaces, shops, and family life – not only for the benefit to specific individuals, but also for the enrichment of entire communities. Mrs. Shapiro-Lacks has worked in the disability policy and human services arenas for over 25 years, spending most of her tenure in executive and management positions. As Executive Director, she is a nonvoting member of the board of directors.