Monday, December 10, 2012

Is God in your gut?

Although this is not about disability and employment, it tells you a bit about me. I'm on the Temple Sinai Board of Trustees. Each meeting a Board Member gives an interpretation, called a d'rash of that week's Torah Portion. Here is the one I wrote for the 12-12-12 board meeting.

D’var Torah – 12/12/2012

I want to thank Mike Baker for moving the board meeting up a week so that it doesn’t fall on my birthday and the Torah portion is the same one I had 47 years ago. Every time I read about how Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream, I wonder, ‘how did he do that?’ Where does the ability to interpret dreams and ‘just know something’ come from. Does it come from the gut or does it come from the heart? This year, that question has become especially relevant to me.

As many of you know, this year my disability has become more significant. I stopped driving my van. It is harder to dress and feed myself. My hands feel numb and weak. Two months ago, a MRI showed that the bones in my cervical spine were compressing the spinal cord and they were unstable. My doctors strongly recommended surgery, without which I could find myself needing to be on a respirator. They warned that the instability of the bones may result in my spinal cord being severed. Denise, and many of my family and friends, fearing for my life, insisted I get more information. My gut said that this was not life threatening and that as I age I will need more assistance with or without surgery. My gut told me that accepting more assistance may improve my quality of life by giving me more time and energy. Knowing better than to argue with Denise, we embarked to get more information. Through our contacts with the disability community we found experts all over the US. Connecting with at least 8 different doctors, we got at least 14 different opinions. The consensus was that it is not life threatening or life limiting. Barring unforeseen trauma such as car accidents or bad falls, the cervical bones will probably not sever the cord. Most doctors agreed that even if the surgery was successful, I will need increasingly more assistance as I age. The opinion I appreciated the most was to follow my gut.

During the High Holidays, Rabbi Mates-Muchin reminded us that most of us have very different images of God. For me, God is not this big old guy in the sky but an accumulation of all the knowledge and feelings of every living thing from the beginning of time until now. I fully believe that some people are able to communicate with God. However, for me in this lifetime that is but a spec of time, such communications were never achieved. I attend services not to pray but to listen, learn and think about the myriads of stories and ways people throughout history, have created to help us appreciate what we have and to help us do Tikkun Olam. In November, as I sat in the Shabbat Minyan Service, I thought about the Joseph Story. For the 1st time in all these many years, it hit me that Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dream probably came from his gut. It dawned on me that listening to one gut may be one way people communicate with God.

Rest assured, I am NOT saying that God told me not to have surgery. I promise not to hide behind my gut feelings to avoid doing research.  I just find it so intriguing how we can read the same stories year after year and continue to learn so much from them.

Happy Chanukah!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Remote Assistance Services

Remote Assistance Services

Several years ago, I had this idea of enabling live remote assistance using wearable webcams. At that time, mobile webcams weren't ready for the purposes I was imagining. I think they are ready now! Please read the description below and let me know what you think. Are there entrepreneurs ready to run with this?

As cell phones and PDA’s become ubiquitous, and as cameras, speakerphone and microphones in these devices become increasingly powerful, the opportunity to provide live remote assistance can now be a reality. Live Remote Assistants can enable people with disabilities a degree of independence never feasible before. Live Remote Assistants can provide remote supervision as never before. Live Remote Assistants can offer assistance to anyone in a fresh, exciting new way.

To the extent that this assistance can be provided by people with disabilities, this can represent an entirely new job market.

Here are a few examples of remote assistance services;

People with visual disabilities:
Using a mobile webcam and AssistMeLive, people with visual disabilities can be assisted
1. Navigating a community
2. Getting orientated to a new environment
3. Reading forms online that a screen reader cannot read
4. Trouble-shooting computer problems when assistive technology is not working properly
5. Navigating web sites that are not fully accessible
6. Reading signs and menus in public places
7. Having movies, plays, TV shows audio described.

People with hearing impairments:
Using AssistMeLive, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can be assisted
1. Communicating in public settings when in-person ASL interpreters are not available
2. Communicating with medical personnel
3. Communicating on conference calls
4. ‘Listening’ to movies, TV shows and videos that are not captioned

People with learning disabilities:
Using a mobile webcam and AssistMeLive, people with learning disabilities can be assisted
1. Attending and understanding class.
2. Understanding a new job or a new task
3. Deciphering street signs

People with autism:
Using a mobile webcam and communicating with a remote assistant via AssistMeLive, people with autism can be assisted
1. Staying focused and on-track
2. Getting orientated to a new community or environment

People with memory loss:
Using a mobile webcam and communicating with a remote assistant via AssistMeLive, people with memory loss can be assisted
1. Staying focused and on-track
2. Having companionship
3. Getting around the community and not getting lost

The general public
1. Needing language translation in public settings
2.Requiring language translation to watch videos, movies, or performances that are not captioned.
3. Needing tutorial help.
4. Wanting live remote guides at museums
5. Wanting fashion designs while shopping
6. Needing help with home repairs

The list is endless!

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Need to be Needed

Here is the presentation I gave at the Hebrew Union College on Feb.28,2012

The Need to be Needed

Back home, in California, I usually tell people that it will probably take them a while for them to understand my  New York accent.  Today, I’ve asked my friend Janet to read my prepared remarks in order to ensure we get to the Questions and Answers portion before Passover!

It is really an honor to be asked to tell my story to you today. As you listen to the story, please think about the idea that all of us need to be needed and that perhaps the best way to build a community is to ensure that all members feel needed.

In June, 2008, I retired from Wells Fargo as a Sr. Vice President in their IT area to start a business called Abilicorp. Abilicorp is a disability-focused employment company that does staffing and placement primarily in virtual call centers. I am on the Board of Trustees at Temple Sinai. I also co-chair the Center for Economic Growth (CEG) at the World Institute on Disability where we are working on designing and implementing new policies that will hopefully reduce the horrifying 75%+ unemployment rate for people with disabilities. Most importantly I am the husband of Denise for almost 29 years and the father of David who we adopted when he was 3 months old and who is now 25 years old.

To understand how I got to where I am now, probably the most significant thing you should know is that my parents are Holocaust survivors who taught me to be a survivor too. They both survived the Lodz Ghetto and my Mom survived Auschwitz. Having a child born with Cerebral Palsy was devastating to them. Disability equated to death. They were determined to make sure that I was as independent as I could be.

I truly believe that the most important lessons I learned from my parents and my Jewish upbringing was that there were things I HAD to do and that there was always a way to get those things done. My Mom woke me up at 5:30 every morning so I had time to dress myself before the school bus came. Twice a week the bus would drop me off at the synagogue where my Mom helped me walk up to my 2nd floor religious school class. By the way, before high school, these classes were the only classes I had with non-disabled children. My Mom would return 2 hours later to help me climb down the stairs and walk 3 blocks home.  I wasn’t allowed to have a wheelchair until I went to high school. At home, I had 2 dinners every evening. The 1st dinner I ate independently, causing me to exert so much energy as to make me hungrier after I ate than before. My mother fed me the 2nd dinner! Whenever I complained to my father, he would say, “life is hard, so?”

I am not advocating that our religious school should be moved to the 2nd floor of an inaccessible location or that we deny children with disabilities wheelchairs. I am advocating that we teach all children, including children with disabilities, how important they are, how needed they are, and how they can do Tikkun Olam.

The time I felt the most accepted was when our son, David, was a baby. Since Denise took care of him all day while I worked, I had night duty. When David woke up hungry at 2am, he didn’t ask if I was able to get up and warm a bottle for him. He didn’t ask if I was too tired. He didn’t ask how I was going to do it. He made no assumptions as to what I could or could not do. He cried and demanded his bottle. I was thrilled. I was needed!

Although big banks and big corporations have received bad press lately, working for Wells Fargo was wonderful for me. Working there, you really understood that if you did well and contributed to the bottom line, it didn’t matter what sex you were, what religion you practiced, what color you were or even what you sounded like. There were many nights when there were system problems. They would call me and inevitably find a way to understand what I was saying – because they needed to! One of my favorite stories happened near the beginning of my career, before there was online computing, The system crashed at 1AM. My van was in the shop, Trains in the Bay Area don’t run all night. Wells Fargo sent an armored van to transport me and my 300 pound powered wheelchair to the data center.

The last story I’d like to share with you is about one of my favorite rabbis. Rabbi Berlin, who now works for the URJ. She often relates the story of how her family found a welcoming synagogue when she was a child. Her family, which included a brother with a developmental disability, did not feel welcomed at their old synagogue. The rabbi at the new synagogue immediately asked her brother to please turn the lights off before Havdalah and turn the lights back on at the end of the service.  Her brother was thrilled! From then on he had his job. He knew he was needed. He and his family knew they were wanted. The rabbi had created an environment where everyone felt valued.

Imagine if every congregant had their ‘job’ and knew how important their job was to the congregation and felt how needed they were to the community. This is what I envision Judaism should be.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to your questions.

Go! Go! Go!