Thursday, November 18, 2010

VSA Founder Jean Kennedy Smith Named Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Last month I presented a press release from VSA, an organization that focuses on disabled peoples involvement in the arts. I am glad to announce through another press release today directly from VSA that the founder of this organization will be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What a grand honor to be bestowed on someone with such vast experience in advocacy for the disabled. The release is as follows:

―Yesterday, President Barack Obama named Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, the international organization on arts and disability, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Medal of Freedom is the country’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made great contributions to U.S. security or world peace, or made other cultural or significant accomplishments. President Obama will present the awards at a ceremony in early 2011.
(WASHINGTON, D.C.) November 18, 2010
“Ambassador Smith is a pioneer,” said Soula Antoniou, president of VSA. “Because of her work, students of all abilities today have opportunities to express themselves and learn through the arts. Doors are open for artists with disabilities, and their work is being celebrated for its quality.  

“On behalf of VSA, our advisory board of directors, artists, and the seven million people touched each year through our work, we congratulate Ambassador Smith on this well-deserved honor.”

Ambassador Smith founded VSA in 1974. For 46 years, she has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, which provides grants to promote awareness and advocacy in the field of intellectual disabilities. Her book, Chronicles of Courage: Very Special Artists, written in collaboration with George Plimpton, was published by Random House in April 1993. President Clinton named Smith U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, where she played a pivotal role in the peace process from 1993 to 1998. Ambassador Smith is the Secretary of the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center.

A quick listing of some of the other recipients of this award include:
Sidney Poitier  
Maya Angelou
President Jimmy Carter
Rosa Parks
Yo-Yo Ma
Ansel Adams
Walter Cronkite
Edward R. Murrow
Fred Rogers
Martin Luther King Jr.

If you are interested in reading a more comprehensive list of those honored with this award you can visit the wikipedia site here. Please visit VSA here.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Are we invisible?

According to the analysis of our contries Census persons with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States. With the seemingly endless amount of information available on the Internet, I find it quite interesting that there is little statistical information that speaks to the relative impact disability has on the nation’s workforce. In proper context, however, considering how this countries leadership over the last twenty five years has mostly moved away from an attitude of social responsibility to an affinity towards corporate welfare, perhaps this gross oversight in documentation ought not come as a surprise.

Realizing what would be necessary for the general populous to become focused on the disabled, it is necessary to show how disability affects us individually. Considering the stigmata from the general population that one with a disability faces  that disabled individual would tend to hide their disability if possible. I do this as well. I am legally blind and have a wandering eye. I try to keep the side of my face with that wandering eye forward to the person I am addressing so when my eye wanders it looks natural, like I am looking at them. Others with disabilities may behave in kind. We all desire to be treated equally. Many of the disabled have experienced inequality in many ways and desire anonynimity if it is obtainable. I  really do not care if the world is to know that I suffer a disability but I don't want to advertise it either. I can testify that I have affected you because either your or your parents tax dollars paid for my rehabilitation and education through social Government sponsored programs. My disability has affected you.

Visual and auditory impairments are mostly unseen unless they are extreme. Some disabled individuals are so affected by a disorder that their actions and/or communication demonstrates to others that they are disabled. It is the same with those who may suffer a mental disability. Many people do not see the mentally, visually, and auditorally disabled like myself because we communicate well. Our fellow man really only sees the evidence of the growing disabled population when we are gathered together for a cause or function of some sort.

The lack of exposure is blinding to the rest of our peers. They do not understand how disability touches everyone. They do not realize that one day we may face living with a disability or living with the affects of a loaved one's disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the disabled from being singled out, insuring anonymity if possible, but this same anonymity also affects the way our fellow man sees the disabled. They are, by design, unnoticed. The disabled individual is not required to mark themselves as disabled 

Through an analysis on the 1985 86 census bureau's paper "Disability, Functional Limitation and Health Insurance Coverage: 1985-86" we discover that one out of every 5 citizens aged 15 and over are affected in a way that they cannot perform basic functions due to a disability. Out of 36 million disabled Americans, 15 million are of working age. Only 5 million have jobs and of the 10 million who don't, 60 percent of them have been on disability unemployment for so long that the US Dept. of Labor doesn't include them in the ranks of the unemployed.

There are an estimated 43 million individuals with disabilities in this country. Disability touches nearly one out of every 2 adult Americans. And yet, for every dollar spent to rehabilitate disabled persons for employment, 10 or more dollars are returned into our economy as the individual becomes gainfully employed and no longer a burden to the taxpaying citizen. The individual now becomes a taxpaying citizen adding to the ranks of a productive and useful society, adding to our Gross National Product. The largest affect is that positive gains are seen in all areas for this effort. The individual is now empowered. With that empowerment comes pride and a perpetually increasing self image also adding to the civility of our generation.
To realize the logic of this investment in rehabilitation our fellow citizens must shift modalities of thinking. They must see that one day they will be forced to deal with disability personally, whether that be with themselves, their loved ones, a friend, or a colleague. The unemployed disabled and already affect all taxpayers with the expense of our social programs designed to assist the disabled. People must understand that this is investment and not charity.

To utilize the ideas of rehabilitation the disabled must first be seen. The part of America that has moved away from recognizing the need for social responsibility must give up this black and white thinking; how the disabled being rehabilitated burdens their wallets, their time, and their day to day life. This thinking is tantamount to the old ideas of tribal living of leading the weak to the desert in favor of the strong. The disabled must also stand to be recognized by those who would allow the importance of social responsibility. Our country must once again embraces the spirit of the words written on Lady Liberty "Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" and internalize this. The huddled mass is here, the largest minority group in our society is the disabled. We may not be seen but we are right next to you. We are not invisible.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Learning and Working with Disability in the Digital Age

Models for remote learning have been long utilized and proven effective. I have participated in such programs, engaged at the very beginning of virtual classroom interactivity since the early 1990's. The ability to train at my pace and interact with others at the same time has been empowering. And with increasing efficiency in technology, remote models for learning can be used even more effectively, not just for the classroom, but the office as well.

Employing digital technology has proven an effective means to further one's education and skill set, if it is available and affordable. This includes broadband access.

With the furthering of technology in the last decade we have seen a great increase of formally available jobs now going abroad; as in outsourcing. With the advances of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) a once greatly available job market has moved away from the handicapped workforce. The attractiveness of cheap overseas labor has sent the "teleworker" to the unemployment office. However, this same labor force is still available, and can be made a more efficient and less expensive by utilizing the virtual classroom at home and employing the willing worker in their den's and living rooms.

I have recently blogged about Linda Wilson. She found "telework" before the term was coined. Her household depended on this income. Now 25 years later I have also found work doing the same, although not from my home but from the office.

But consider this. Without the office, the employer would not have to pay a lease; no power or water bill. This should be attractive to corporate America, as it is the ultimate "downsizing." Continuing this train of thought, if this model were made available to everyone, opportunities could be created here and now by "onshoring", by bringing back the outsourced labor to the more affordable virtual office.

Taking a further step to integrating the handicapped workforce into this model of the virtual office also takes the step of anonymity. I have stated before that I have never received an offer letter from a potential employer after I informed them of my disability. This anonymity removes the perceived "trouble" of integrating an individual with a handicap into the office. With a certain amount of anonymity, the disabled individual can be seen only as another worker, evaluated as they should be, by their skills. 
How does one without opportunity develop these skills? In the same room that they will use to do the work, with the same equipment they will use to do the work, which will require a leap towards positivity, and a faith in the people that are looking towards opportunity.

The American with Disabilities Act guarantees individual a right to learn a useful skill. To this end, the government offers various vocational rehabilitation programs, but these programs still cost money, and some can be expensive. I recall seeing my bill for just one day of transportation, over $120 cab fare.

Through advancements in digital technology—broadband access—remote learning and working addresses many of these challenges, while still making viable, useful training available to a much larger base of talent.

Monday, September 27, 2010

VSAPlawright Discovery Program Engages Youth in Creative Expression

Each Year VSA Arts International produces a one-act play created by a promising theatrical artist. The Marionette Effect by Laura Hogikyan, is this year’s selection; to be presented at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts September 30 and October 1st. The play tells the story of a 15 year old, musically gifted teen forced to grapple with the realities of disability after experiencing a stroke.

It is a message of growth and healing.

Ever focusing on the positive and reaching for that which we would dare to dream we believe--that none is alone in their effort—those with disabilities know this path well, although there are many of us doing the same reaching, regardless of “abilities.”

In these efforts I do see hands stretched out in aid and understanding of what challenges the disabled individual may face in their expression of these dreams.

Personally I have been challenged as a musician. I have a great comprehension of musical theory but my exercise in sight reading has held me back in my early studies. The university I was attending at the time had an aid department that did all they could to assist me at the time. But of course, my own stubbornness and critical ear, interfered with my endeavors as well. 
I spent many hours maddening myself trying to memorize Tchaikovsky.

Now there is technology available that assists me in my creative process. The availability of this technology, though, is not an easy process if you do not have cash in hand and time to spend researching and implementing that technology. Watching my children in school I see the cuts in the government funding in all extracurricular activities. This affects the arts to the greatest degree.

When I was in school every child had some sort of artistic program daily, but this has changed. These changes lead me to question where would be if I were just beginning my foray into the arts? Who would be there to help? It used to be public schools. We now look to other organizations for this, and opportunities do exist. A friend has recently pointed me to one of these groups of interest:

Spending much time in researching these types of entities I find the site to be rich with current and pertinent information on the expression and creative process for the disabled artist and those whose lives they touch. To my delight I was informed about VSA through my friend's press request specifically announcing the winner of their playwright award and the celebration of that award with a viewing of her play. My joy is the subject of her play, one that touches me quite closely.
VSA's press release follows:

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) September 7, 2010―VSA, the international organization on arts and disability, is pleased to announce the recipient of the 2010 Playwright Discovery Award, The Marionette Effect by Laura Hogikyan (pictured above) of Superior Township, Michigan. This original dramatic work tells the story of a teenager whose musical career is derailed after she experiences a stroke at the age of 15. VSA will present this compelling one-act play as part of the VSA Playwright Discovery Evening at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, September 30 and October 1, 2010, at 7:30 p.m.

The VSAPlaywright Discovery Program is an annual competition that invites middle and high school students to take a closer look at the world around them, examine how disability affects their lives and the lives of others, and express their views through the art of playwriting. Hogikyan, 17, recently graduated from Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and will attend Harvard University this fall. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including the grand prize in the 2006 Michigan Young Playwrights Festival and two honorable mentions in the 2009 Nancy Thorpe National Poetry Contest. Her work has been published in the University of Michigan’s Armistice Magazine and in the Iowa Young Writers Anthology, and she has served as a student theater reviewer for

In addition to The Marionette Effect, the VSA Playwright Discovery Evening will feature a performance of Jack From Above, a one-man show about and starring Jack Hofsiss. For more than 20 years, VSA’s Playwright Discovery Artists Selection Committee has been chaired by Hofsiss, a Best Director Tony Award winner (The Elephant Man, 1979). With humor and pathos, Jack From Above chronicles Hofsiss’ experiences after a diving accident in 1985. The above image pictures Ethan Silverman, playwright and director, and Jack Hofsiss (photo credit: Photo Morgan McGivern/The East Hampton Star).
“We are very excited to present the work of an artist well-established in the theater world along with the work of a playwright just beginning her career,” commented Soula Antoniou, president of VSA. “That’s what VSA is all about: celebrating the achievements of artists already in the field and creating opportunities for the next generation.”

Tickets to this special double bill event are free with reservations. To make your reservation, please e-mail VSA’s Artist Services Coordinator at Include the number of tickets requested, the name under which the tickets should be held at the will call table, and any accessibility requests. More information may be found online at

It is encouraging to report on the event above and VSA itself. Promoting creativity and expression to every person and celebrating the individual is one of the marks of a civil society, a kind of people that I am proud to be among. The specific event noted above is in Washington, D.C. The site has great information for everyone and the organization is international and is a great resource no matter your location.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Remembering Linda Marie Wilson

It is easy to entertain the perception of weakness and inability when we look at someone with an obvious handicap. Growing up we are taught to categorize people, this begins with the distinguishing between sexes, then age, then race, then those that are relatively different. Looking at the handicapped individual through the eyes of their children we would see a completely different person that defies stereotypes. At the very least, we would see someone capable, and at the most we would see our hero. This is written in memory of one of these heroes.

Billy's mother, Linda Marie Wilson, like many people in the middle of our last century was born with polio before vaccination was readily available. She suffered painfully through her life being continually hospitalized for a myriad of complications. The disease had left her wheelchair bound, pain stricken, and with little use of all her limbs but her left arm. Billy knew the power of that left arm and when he misbehaved he knew it well. Billy learned to respect his mother.

As we celebrate the second year of her passing and her memory I am inspired by her example and the love of her children and through Billy’s request am writing now to let the world know that Linda "was not handicapped." She was instead a proud woman, despite the indignities of being carried to and fro, to be bathed and lifted into the car, and to be cared for by her children.

I met Billy and Linda twenty five years ago, his little sister Crystal was almost three years old. I did not see Linda as a helpless woman because I recall her getting after Billy one weekday afternoon when I came to visit. This boy was strong, bullheaded and 16 years old and he could not get away fast enough from Linda. Mounted on her wheelchair she would roll after him as he ran and would snatch Billy up quickly by the scruff of his neck with the same arm that she cooked the turkey at Thanksgiving. The same arm that she administered the proper wrath of a respectful mother she worked to the bone as a telemarketer and a craft hobbyist. And she ministered love with all of her being.

I know that Billy and Crystal learned pride from their mother. I remember times where there was little for them but she would not accept welfare. She pushed through to find work and made a place for herself in this world. She made a home and raised two children who I am proud to call friends. I know that she is peering down now with glimmering joy when she sees her children and who they are.

There is a Japanese proverb that reminds me much of Linda Marie Wilson; Nana korobi ya oki, or fall down seven times, get up eight. She is truly an example of what we all can be, no matter our physical attributes, or detributes. Her example is still seen: No matter what, push through and you will.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Joshua doesn't say "I'm sorry" anymore

Let me tell you about a guy named Joshua, who I met riding the bus to work. He made a distinct impression in my mind, because Joshua said “I’m sorry” a lot. That was the first thing that really made me notice him—his continual need to apologize. In saying “sorry” all the time, it was as if Joshua thought he was a burden.

From what I understand about his past, Joshua just barely a teenager when he suffered trauma in a car accident that left him mentally impaired. Can you imagine the frustration--how all his relationships immediately changed as a result of his diminished capacity to communicate?

Like a lot of folks, I really can't imagine his fate--the emotional turmoil that came from the source of that tragic event. And yet, his life did not end there.

All these years later, Joshua has a job scanning important documents into databases. He verifies that the written documents are consistent with the digital documents they were copied from. He works with other disabled persons, some who have behavioral disorders. From what he tells me, some of his co-workers who have behavior disorders tease him while he’s doing his job.

Joshua is rational. He understands things. His brain is damaged in a way where he has difficulty with motor functions. So for instance, he walks satisfactory, but his pace tends to be measured and slow. As well, he talks slow, and sometimes he stutters. For Joshua, the world around him is out of synch. It moves too fast.

Joshua has an iPod, so I gave him some music. He was thrilled with the 4.7GB DVD of music I made for him. I could see the joy written all over his face. And from that moment on, well, let’s just say it was official--we were definitely friends.

As he began to open up more about who he was and where he’d been, I told Joshua that he didn't have to be sorry anymore--that he wasn't a burden to this world. From his reaction, I don't think anyone had ever told him that before, but I think he really believed me when I said it.

I've known him for about two years now, and I don’t hear him say “I’m sorry” anymore. In fact, I haven't heard him apologize for being himself in at least a year.

So what’s the moral of this story? I suppose each reader will decide that. However, let me just say this: Joshua is a citizen. He’s a productive member of society. He pays taxes, and he’s not a criminal. Joshua is a brother, a son, and a friend. But most importantly, Joshua IS Joshua. He is his own person, with a unique identity, and he no longer has to apologize or feel sorry, because he has come to realize he’s accepted, valued and loved.

Friday, August 13, 2010

We are you too

Hello and welcome to We Are You, a blog about personal empowerment and transformation. 

My name is Doug Bialach, and I’m the site moderator.  I’m also a career professional specializing in digital hardware, content delivery, systems integration, and Internet tools.  I’m a family man and I have a disability.  I’m legally blind in both of my eyes.

In this live journal, I seek to convey information to my peers and the public-at-large about the daily experiences of disabled persons.  It is my hope that in sharing my own life experiences, the whole of the community can become more empowered; particularly as it relates to higher education and employability. 

At the behest of family, colleagues and friends, I will use my personal journeys as an able person living with a disability to tell my story and the story of others, while also providing a useful dialogue that informs of triumphs and challenges beyond conventional wisdom associated with the term “Disability.”

Persons with disabilities are not that different from everyone else.  You are us.  We are you too.