Voting: Your Right & Your Independence

American flags symbolize the importance of the vote voting for independence & self-advocacy among people with disabilities

“Election Night at Rockefeller Plaza” Photo by: Marco Verch, in the Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Voting. It’s the right of every American citizen. Voting: It’s your right. Participating in U.S. democracy is also a unique chance to self-advocate and express one’s independence. Both of these are core values at Advancing Opportunities as well; they are at the heart of our mission and credo. All too often, however, people with disabilities find themselves excluded from this critically important process. Fortunately, here in New Jersey, information and resources on voting are available to every individual with a disability.

Voting - Its Your Right

This brochure has information to help New Jersey voters. It was developed by the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School – Boggs Center, in collaboration with Disability Rights New Jersey and the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities.


Although the November general elections receive the greatest press (and social media) coverage, it is the primary election when the two major parties, the Democrats and Republicans nominate their candidates for the general election in November. These individuals represent a wide variety of views on important issues not only at the national level, but also (and sometimes more important) the state, county, and municipal levels. Information on the positions of the gubernatorial (in New Jersey) and other candidates are available on this special page.


Disability Rights NJ VotingDisability Rights New Jersey is New Jersey’s designated protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities pursuant to federal statutes intended to protect the legal, civil, and human rights of people with disabilities. The organization reminds us that people with a disability have the right to vote independently and in private. In addition, both the polling place and the machines must, by federal and state law, be fully accessible. Poll workers have been trained to offer voters with disabilities the assistance they need, but they cannot enter the voting booth or recommend a candidate. Voters with a disability may also bring a friend, family member, or agency worker to help out.

Although all voters should receive a paper sample ballot, one can also look up this information online at BallotpediaThe Alliance Center for Independence in New Jersey has many other excellent resources on its page should these be needed. General New Jersey voting information is available on the NJ Department of State website.

On Primary Election Day, June 6, 2017, Disability Rights New Jersey will have attorneys available by telephone to answer your questions concerning any disability-related voting problem you might experience. Call 800-922-7233 or e-mail between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Disability Rights New Jersey is New Jersey’s designated protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities pursuant to federal statutes intended to protect the legal, civil, and human rights of people with disabilities.

I Voted Sticker

Oh, yes, the November general election. The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), “a convener, connector, and catalyst for change, increasing the political and economic power of people with disabilities,” has set up July 17 through 21 as National Disability Voter Registration Week, the focus of its Rev Up! campaign. More information on that and Crip the Vote will be featured in a future article in this space.


April: Fostering an Awareness, Appreciation, and Understanding of Autism

World Autism Awareness Day

Central to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is “respect for the inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons… and full and effective participation and inclusion in society” (Article 3). This concept is reflected in this year’s theme for World Autism Awareness Day, “Toward Autonomy and Self-Determination.”


In the U.S. and throughout the world, the rate of autism is high, affecting children and adults of all socioeconomic and ethnic groups. According to the U.N., “Appropriate support, accommodation, and acceptance of this neurological condition allow those on the spectrum to enjoy equal opportunity, and full and effective participation in society.”

On March 31, 2017, the U.N. held conference on multiple aspects of autism, Toward Autonomy and Self-Determination, which included the following:

In welcoming everyone, Cristina Gallach, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said “We come together to renew our commitment to raising awareness of the rights of persons with autism – to equal opportunity and full participation in society, on an equal basis, with other citizens. To achieve this inclusive society that we aspire to, we must… ensure that the fundamental rights enshrined in the CRPD are respected.” This is a right that has been recognized since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was declared in 1948. Continued Ms. Gallach, “When [people with autism] enjoy equal opportunity for self-determination and autonomy, persons with autism will be empowered to make an even stronger positive impact on our shared future.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres could not be present, but he prepared a statement: “On this World Autism Awareness Day, let us play a part in changing attitudes toward persons with autism and in recognizing their rights as citizens who, like everyone else, are entitled to claim those rights and make decisions for their lives in accordance with their own will and preferences. Let us also renew our promise engraved in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one behind, and ensure that all people can contribute as active members to a peaceful and prosperous society.”

The keynote speaker, Simon Baron-Cohen, Director, Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, was gave an overview of the autism spectrum.

In regard to the “commitment to leave no one behind,” Jackie Pilgrim, a noted disability advocate spoke about dignity. In her work with NAMI Durham she spoke of her organization’s new 8-hour course for police and first-responders to replace the inadequate 1.5 hour course used previously, one for which they have shown “passion” to learn.

Barry Prizant, author of the landmark book Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, summarized his philosophy:

Uniquely Human

  • De-pathologize autistic behavior (echolalia, stimming). It’s the way we deal with stress and self-regulate. They should not be repressed or otherwise “managed.”
  • Autism is not a tragedy, it can become one
  • Self-determination begins in early childhood. Children at an early age
  • Let’s look at ourselves.

Added Micheal John Carley. The best way to help is to examine ourselves and change the way we view people with autism.

An autism research and education organization, Autism Speaks, initiated the worldwide Light It Up Blue, campaign in its effort to raise autism awareness.    Among many in the autism community, both advocates and self-advocates, Autism Speaks is highly controversial, because that organization is seeking a cure, whereas many people prefer to see autism as simply another way of being, “different, not broken.”


National Autism Awareness Month

A ribbon made of multicolored puzzle pieces.  It has become one the most recognizable symbols of autism in the world.  The various colors reflect the many “faces” of autism, a condition often referred to as the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because no two people with autism are alike.  (The cognitive abilities of people with ASD range from “nonverbal” to intellectually brilliant.)  The ribbon symbolizes solidarity and hope of a happy, fulfilling life for people with autism.  The puzzle pieces remind us that the condition and the people with it are still very much a mystery.

Autism Awareness Month first came to be some 25 years ago, when the Autism Society of America undertook an effort to promote autism awareness.  The primary objective was to “promote … inclusion and self-determination for all, and assure that each person with autism  is provided the opportunity to achieve the highest quality of life.”


Three short films that treat autism awareness and appreciation are worth noting:

  • “Make it Stop.” This is a brand-new awareness video to foster understanding of people with autism.
  •  “Talking in Pictures.”  This documentary dispels myths and stereotypes… at least as they apply to everyone with autism. “It’s not that we’re doing it wrong, it’s not that we’re autistic enough to fit in with the world’s idea of autism, it’s that the world’s idea of autism isn’t big enough to fit us all in!”
  • “Perfectly Normal,” is a film about Jordan, a man with Asperger’s, who discusses his everyday life, of which the New York Times publicized an important excerpt.

Furthermore, Sesame Street will debut Julia, a character with autism. This event will be covered in a later article.


And some noteworthy facts on autism:

  • In 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease for Disease Control estimated the prevalence of autism as being 1 in 68 births.
  • Autism comes from the Greek autos” meaning “self.” Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1910 used the New Latin term autismus to describe schizophrenic symptoms of children; US psychiatrist Leo Kanner first used the term autism in 1943.
  • Asperger’s syndrome is named after Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who in 1944 first described the symptoms in children he was observing.

With a sincere effort of autism awareness, we will be able to treat this population with the dignity they deserve.

World Down Syndrome Day: Finding My Voice in My Community

Web page - March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day, 3/21 in recognition of Trisomy 21

March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day, 3/21 in recognition of Trisomy 21.

March 21. That’s Three twenty-one. These numbers are symbolic of the medical name for Down syndrome: trisomy 21. In humans, each cell normally has 23 pairs of chromosomes, which contain the person’s genetic makeup. In people with Down syndrome, the 21st chromosome has three rather than the usual two copies. The condition of there being three copies is known as trisomy; Down syndrome is the most common trisomy condition (please see our earlier blog post on Trisomy Awareness Month). Such seemingly tiny genetic variations can have a tremendous impact on a person. A prime example is the 23rd chromosome: females have two copies of the X chromosome and males have one X and one Y.

The theme for World Down Syndrome Day this year is #MyVoiceMyCommunity, “enabling people with Down syndrome to speak up, be heard, and influence government policy and action, to be fully included in the community.” In addition, Down Syndrome International will hold a conference on March 21 at the United Nations World Headquarters, New York. The conference and campaign will address four questions:

  • Why it is important for people with Down syndrome and their advocates to speak up and influence policy makers at all levels?
  • What key policies affect the lives of people with Down syndrome? How can these policies ensure full inclusion in society?
  • How can advocates become involved?
  • How can we empower people with Down syndrome, along with those supporting them, to advocate for themselves?

These are important questions we should ask of ourselves in serving our consumers with Down syndrome.

For those interested in following the World Down Syndrome Day Conference at the U.N., the event is being streamed. Information on the speakers, along with important background knowledge, is available on March 21.

Some portraits in Down syndrome

Book Lucky Few - A mom finds joy in adopting a daughter with Down syndrome

Heather Avis is a mom who, with her husband, adopted a little girl with Down Syndrome. In this book, released on WDSD, she tells of the joy she has found.







A German man with Down syndrome who survived the Holocaust is independentWalter, now 63, survived the Nazi genocide against persons with disabilities. Instead, he has found dignity in his independence in the community.

ZEIT Magazine, Nr. 37, 6. September 1996




Screen shot of photo essay documenting the beauty of Down syndrome

The Huffington Post recently featured a photographer who compiled a photo essay depicting the beauty of children with Down syndrome.





Charles de Gaulle adores his daughter, Anne with Down syndrome

Former Prime Minister took the time to enjoy a precious moment with his daughter, Anne, who had Down syndrome.

Here’s a Handy Resource from the Boggs Center


The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, part of the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, has published a valuable resource for families of a child or other relative with a disability has published a helpful reference, Providing Respite: Supporting People and Families across the Lifespan, available as a fee PDF download. One of the co-sponsors of the booklet, the Family Resource Network, which includes Caregivers of New Jersey, a Service Coordinator.  As a leader in providing a wide range of services for people with disabilities in the state, Advancing Opportunities is ready to assist!


It Is Important to Reflect on Our Work to Continue Serving Our Individuals with Disabilities.


Important to Ask Ourselves…

For those of us who are direct-support professionals, in residential and respite care, at the end of the day, it is important to reflect on our work by asking ourselves the following:

  • How did I help this individual?
  • What did I do to enrich his life?
  • How did I acknowledge her accomplishments?
  • How did I ensure his voice was heard and that he had the opportunity to make his own decisions?

In addition to asking these questions of ourselves to serve others, it is important to document the answers on reports on the progress toward their ISP goals! This last consideration can be critical for an agency to continue to receive funds… to keep on serving their consumers with disabilities.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month – For the Good of Individuals, Society, and the Country

2015 NDEAM Poster English

Disability advocates and self-advocates do not allow disability to define who they are… or aren’t.  The same idea applies to employment.  In fact, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.  For 2015, the theme is “My Disability Is One Part of Who I Am.”  The idea goes back some 70 years, to October 1945, when President Harry S Truman declared the National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.  In recognizing people with all disabilities, the word “physically” was removed in 1962. Then, in 1988, Congress literally expanded the name to its current form.  Also noteworthy is the 1978 book by special-education teacher Marc Gold, Try Another Way, to teach adults with intellectual disabilities to perform complex tasks, becoming the basis of supported employment.

 Try Another Way by Marc Gold supported employment

This book, written by special-education teacher Marc Gold, would form the foundation of supported employment for people with disabilities.

One could also go back to the turn of the previous century and revisit the efforts of Elizabeth Farrell, who at the Henry Street School in New York City used manual work as one way to provide a meaningful experience for her students with severe special needs.

What’s Good
This year, 2015, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  This landmark legislation has done much to help ensure that people with disabilities have access to meaningful work.  There has been a marked trend in the increase of employment agencies and business leadership groups, most notably the U.S. Business Leadership Network, which specialize in helping job seekers with a disability find a job and for companies to find these candidates.  An important step was in 1983, with the founding of the Job Accommodation Network, an initiative that offers guidance and information to work toward solutions to benefit both parties on issues of hiring and accommodation.

A notable government effort, the AbilityOne Program, established in 2006, helps people with severe disabilities by requiring the federal government to purchase specific products and services from companies that hire these individuals.

The What Can You Do? Campaign for disability employment is “a collaborative effort to promote positive employment outcomes for people with disabilities by encouraging employers and others to recognize the value and talent they bring to the workplace” by offering a wide variety of resources.  Even more recent is the February 2015 the White House publication Recruiting, Hiring, Retaining and Promoting People with Disabilities.

Some organizations have specific groups in mind.  For young adults, there is the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability, to ensure that transition age youth are provided full access to high-quality services in integrated settings to gain education, employment, and access to independent living.

Noteworthy among regional efforts is the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, which launched a new public awareness campaign, Your Next Star, to alert employers to the benefits of having people with Down syndrome in the workplace.   Among the benefits of employing people with Down syndrome they cite the following:

  • With the right supports, they can perform just as well as their non-disabled peers.
  • Most employees with Down syndrome are more reliable and less likely to quit than their non-disabled peers.
  • Many households include someone with a disability; they are likely to want to support inclusive businesses.
  • Hiring people with a disability promotes good will and a positive public image.
  • With their positive outlook and sense of humor, people with Down syndrome often make the workplace a nice place to be a part of.

What’s Not So Good

If work is such an important part of citizenship and civic responsibility, then should not as many people as possible be working?   Moreover, having work confers individuals with status and a sense of meaning, as well as independence and dignity.  However, even with the considerable success of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), many people with disabilities remain unemployed or underemployed.  Recent U.S. Bureau of the Census statistics present a sobering picture:

  • $1,961: The average monthly earnings of people with any kind of disability.
  • $2,724: The average monthly earnings of people with no disability.
  • 28.6% of people 25 to 64 years old with a severe disability live in poverty.
  • 17.9%: The poverty rate for people with a non-severe disability.
  • 14.3%:  Poverty rate for people with no disability.

And we learn from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the following:

  • 9.3%: Unemployment rate for people with disabilities
  • 5.3%: Unemployment rate for persons with no disability, not seasonally adjusted
  • 20.0%: The percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force
  • 69.1%:  Percentage of people with no disability in the labor force.

In a recent report, just as young adults with autism feel disconnected in school, one in three feel the same in the work place afterward.

Looking Ahead
While significant challenges exist, one thing we can learn from many people with disabilities is that with hard work, challenges can be overcome.

"Disabled Does Not Mean Unable" was a classic among U.S. Post Office philatelic offerings.  It was issued in recognition of the International Year of Disabled Persons, 1981

“Disabled Does Not Mean Unable” was a classic among U.S. Post Office philatelic offerings. It was issued in recognition of the International Year of Disabled Persons, 1981

Cooking: A Fun and Useful Activity for Individuals with Disabilities

Almost as enjoyable as eating a satisfying meal is preparing one.  It’s not only fun, it can also be an educational activity.  What’s more, involving individuals in choosing and preparing the very food they eat is important for their physical health and emotional well-being.

life skills cooking independence disabilities

Cooking is not only fun, it can also be an educational activity. What’s more, involving individuals in choosing and preparing the very food they eat is important for their physical health and emotional well-being.

Life Skills
   Cooking and preparing food is a life skill, an essential part of independent living.  In addition to cooking, planning, preparation, hygiene, and clean-up activities are important parts of life.  Activities before, during, and after the actual cooking offers practice in the following life skills:

  • Allowing individuals to select what they want to eat will become an important part of their lives.  However, they will need guidance.  Nutrition is an extremely important issue: numerous studies and surveys show that people with disabilities are much more likely to be obese and their nondisabled counterparts.  As in special education, it is critical to consider each consumer’s individual abilities.  For example, a consumer with significant cognitive disabilities may need to select among two or three choices; picture prompts can be very effective and helpful.  Individuals with higher-functioning cognitive skills can apply lessons on nutrition, such as planning a balanced meal, using Choose My Plate, formerly known as the Food Pyramid.   The next step will be to create grocery lists together.
  • Time spent at the grocery store can be a satisfying scavenger hunt, with an element of logic thrown in (e.g., “In which department do we find the butter?”).   Previous conversations on nutrition can be reinforced by reading product labels.  Of course, in the end (literally and figuratively), any shopping experience affords practice with the mathematics of money.
  • Food Preparation. From reviewing recipes to cutting vegetables to actual cooking (e.g., baking, frying, and boiling), individuals learn the ABCs of preparing a meal.
  • Math and Measurement. Mathematical concepts are taught and absorbed in real-life contexts.  In addition to handling money at the store, individuals will learn about volume measurement (as well as what tools are best, for example, measuring spoon or measuring cup), and time.
  • Food Handling, Safety, and Hygiene. Instruction in food preparation should include other important skills: safety (for example, how to handle knives and hot objects) and hygiene, both personal (e.g., proper hand washing) and food-handling protocols (e.g., using separate cutting boards for vegetables and meat to avoiding bacterial cross-contamination and washing pots and utensils properly).
  • Working Together. Individuals learn much and derive considerable satisfaction from working together and benefiting from tangible team accomplishments.

General Tips
   The following are guidelines to keep in mind when teaching individuals with disabilities cooking and food preparation:

  • Give the individuals as much independence as they can handle. Visual or verbal prompts may be necessary; the type and level of the prompt will depend on each person’s abilities and challenges.
  • Pay attention to sequencing. Giving directions that can be followed easily is the most challenging aspect of teaching people with special needs.  “Lessons” must accommodate the cognitive and ability of the individual, his/her interests, and talents. In most cases, it is best to present steps one at a time.
  • Make it multisensory—sight, touch, smell and, of course, taste. Through questioning and the sense of taste, the consumer will determine, for example, how much seasoning to use or whether the mix of ingredients is a good one.  The individual gains independence not only learning a valuable skill, but also by being involved in making decisions.
  • Finally, show that making mistakes is OK. We all make mistakes, and that’s a good practical life lesson, too, especially for younger individuals.  Furthermore, the unintended result can be a tasty surprise!

In Sum
Cooking and associated skills are taught and used in a real-life context, which makes them much easier to learn and retain.  In addition, much of what people learn in cooking they can apply to other situations.  The individuals acquire a great deal of personal satisfaction through independence.