Ed Roberts: Crip the Vote, Not “Helpless Cripple”

“The doctor said, ‘Well, maybe you should hope he dies, because if he lives, he’ll be nothing more than a vegetable for the rest of his life.’”

Ed Roberts saw it differently. “If I’m a vegetable, I’ll be an artichoke – prickly on the outside but with a big heart in the middle.”

Edward Verne Roberts was born on January 23, 1939, in San Mateo, California. An athletic and energetic teen, he was stricken with the dreaded polio virus. Ed lost all use of his arms and legs. That was when doctors and others said his life would not be worth living.

It was back in the fall of 1962 that two young men broke barriers by enrolling at college. With the backing of U.S. Marshalls, a Black man named James Meredith attended the University of Mississippi. A white man with a severe physical disability was accepted to the University of California – Berkeley.

As with so many other students graduating high school, the idea of going off to college felt scary – for Ed, even more so. His mother, Zona, recalled him saying, “They’re all going to look at me. And then, he realized, they could look at him, and he could be a star.”

“A lot of years ago, I decided that people were gonna stare at me, and it was a lot better if I decided I was a star rather than a helpless cripple.”

By attending college at the University of California – Berkeley, he could open the door to other students with severe disabilities. And soon enough, other para- and quadriplegic signed up. They named themselves The Rolling Quads. They fought for accessibility changes such as curb cuts.

“There are very few people, even with the most severe disabilities, who cannot take control of their own life. The problem is that people around us don’t expect us to.”

 “The most important … is working with other people – moving away from your own problems to help somebody else. And that liberated me when I realized I could help others. It made me a lot freer to help myself.”

This was the beginning of the first Center for Independent Living, and the IL movement. The center was based on “the fundamental principle that people with disabilities are entitled to the same civil rights, options, and control over choices in their lives as people without disabilities.”

On January 23, the Center for Independent Living (UC Berkeley) will host its fifth annual Ed Roberts Awards to recognize and honor “individuals who carry Ed Roberts’s legacy in their work, activism, and contributions.” The theme this year is “The Intersection of Disability and Parenting.”

“We have to show our society that disability doesn’t affect work.”

“The number one issue is still old attitudes toward us, and those old attitudes see us as helpless and unable.”

You can find additional material on the disability rights and self-advocacy movements in the “From Charity to Independent Living” section of No Pity, by Joseph Shapiro.

Ed Roberts was also interviewed on 60 Minutes.

Itzchak Belfer: The Man Who Passed Korczak’s Love On

Itzchak Belfer dedicated his life to the memory of Janusz Korczak and the Holocaust.
Belfer’s website, http://itzchakbelfer.com/ displays his art and writing.

“Janusz Korczak and Stefa Wilczynska represent a ray of light and beacon along the somber journey of my life, from childhood in the orphanage under their direction, to this very day. Thanks to them, I have adopted a way of life based on values of humanity, honesty, justice, and consideration for others. Thanks to their theories and pedagogy, I have managed to overcome obstacles and to create a positive dialogue with people and the world in which I live.”

A book cover has the title "Janusz Korczak - Sculptor of Children's Souls" in black letters against a lilac background. Under the title is a silhouette of a man in a long coat, holding the hands of four children.

It was with these sentiments that an Israeli artist born in Warsaw, Poland, set out to capture his growing up in Korczak’s orphanage, a “white house in a gray city.” Korczak devoted his life to children. One of these was a quiet boy, Itczhak Belfer. That boy, grown up, dedicated his life to the memory of Janusz Korczak “The Man Who Knew How to Love Children,” as he titled his illustrated book for the children of today. “Many children have stories to tell of their childhood. My life’s mission is to tell about Janusz Korczak,” said Belfer, as recorded in the beautiful book, Janusz Korczak: Sculptor of Children’s Souls. The author, Marcia Talmadge Schneider, recorded how it was Stefa’s kindness that kindled Belfer’s love for art. She gave the quiet, studious boy a box of crayons and paints, along with brushes and a pad of drawing paper. “I will give you keys to the ‘small store’ (a small room with school supplies like erasers, pencils, and notebooks).” She and Korczak gave him the keys to that and so much more.

Born in Warsaw, Poland, February 1923, Itzchak Belfer died in Israel, his adopted country, on January 22, 2021. He was the last surviving child of Janusz Korczak’s orphanage.

“Itzchak has had 7 most wonderful and meaningful years in Dom Sierot Orphanage at 92 Krochmalna street in Warsaw.Itzchak Belfer was able to flee Nazi-Occupied Poland,” recalls Roman Wroblewski, a Korczak scholar living in Stockholm, Sweden, in his beautiful euology on the Facebook page for the Föreningen för Janusz Korczaks Levande Arv.

Belfer was able to escape Nazi-occupied Poland by way of Russia. Belfer returned to his native Warsaw, but the destruction was so total, he had to leave, this time for good. With considerable effort, he emigrated to Palestine, what was to become Israel. His beloved mentors, however, perished in the unimaginable hell of Treblinka. In his memory of Korczak, he made sure the Holocaust would never be forgotten. “I have visions of the Holocaust, of the Warsaw Ghetto, before and after the war,” said Itzchak in The Holocaust, a searing collection of his art. “Never again will my eyes behold the images of my loved ones. I can still hear the horrific accounts of the Holocaust sounding in my ears to this day, just as I did when I first heard them. I do not forget anything. My thoughts often take me back to that time.”

An art book is shown opened. The title page reads "The Holocaust: Paintings and Drawings by Itzchak Belfer." Facing this, on the left, is a dark, brooding picture of a Jewish victim of the Holocaust. A Star of David on his jacket is faintly visible.
This remarkable art book was published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, in 1971.

Korczak’s books for children, however, capture the empathy of an adult who could imagine life “when I am little again.” Two are biographical, two are retellings of Korczak’s beloved stories for younger audiences.

White House in a Gray City is a young adult biography of the writer framed in the seven years he was in Korczak’s home. Belfer wrote the other, so “I am now passing the story of this wonderful man on tou you, before there is no one left to remember and share his story.”

Belfer’s two illustrated stores he wrote in Polish, so as to best express the language of the originals. The translations, however, are faithful to both writers.

Said Itzchak Belfer of Korczak, “I lived in close proximity to him for ten years. I have lived my entire life in his light.”



She Made Light and Saw It Was Good.

A young Black woman smiles as she poses in front of the Library of Congress. She has long, thick braids and wears silver earings.
Amanda Gorman has always loved books. She smiles in front of the Library of Congress. Photo by LOC. in the public domain.

On the first day, there was light, and the light was good. When the light was from the darkness, there was morning, the first day.

The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

With those majestic words, Amanda Gorman, the youngest poet to perform for a new president being sworn in, closed her soaring poem “The Hill We Climb,” and inaugurated the hope of a new day. Ms. Gorman acknowledged her speech disability; saying these beautiful words took as much effort and perseverance as courage. This poem will appear in the highly anticipated volume of the same name. Furthermore, she said, “Maya Angelou was mute growing up as a child and she grew up to deliver the inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton.” The ring she wore was of a caged bird, given to her by Oprah Winfrey, a beloved mentor and role model for her.

Amanda Gorman will certainly become a role model for many children to come.

In this screen shot of a tweet by Barack Obama, Amanda Gorman recites her poetry. She wears a yellow suit and bright red cap.

At age 19, Amanda Gorman was the nation’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. A New York Times article two years ago showcased and animated two of her early poems, both of which elevated Black cultural consciousness: “Old Jim Crow Got to Go” and “Waiting for the Gourd Moon.”

Ms. Gorman has written also written a children’s book, Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem. Loren Long is the illustrator, whos art graces Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, by Barack Obama. (That book will be reviewed in this space soon.) President Obama has a well-deserved reputation for relating to children.

In this screen shot of a tweet a little white boy embraces a little black girl as they watch Amanda Gorman deliver her poetry at the Biden Inauguration.

For now, at this precious moment, Ms. Gorman is their future, and our future.

400 Lights Reflect a Nation in Mourning

This beautiful image is by Richard W.M. Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

Four hundred mournful light. On January 19, the chilly, onyx waters of the reflecting pool reflected 400 lights, each one standing for 1,000 lights of souls lost in the United States to COVID-19. Just one day earlier, we remembered the life of Martin Luther King Jr. “It’s impossible to consider that terrain without also thinking of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963,” said Micki McElya, a professor of history in an N.P.R. piece. The evening before they were inaugurated, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, along with their spouses, were sworn in, listened as Yolanda Adams sang “Hallelujah.” It was not even four months ago that the Mall was covered with American flags, 200,000 of them.

We are losing another person to this awful disease every 26 seconds, 3,300 deaths each day. As encouraging as the news of the new COVID-19 vaccines is, for these people it’s too late.

“My abiding hope. my abiding prayer, is that we emerge from this ordeal with a new wisdom, to cherish simple moments… and to open our hearts just a little bit more to one another,” said Harris at a memorial at the site, as Lori Marie Key, an emergency-room nurse sang “Amazing Grace.”

“To heal, we must remember,” said President-Elect Joe Biden. “It’s hard to remember, but that’s how we heal.”

Our collective mourning also serves as a reminder, a very painful one, that we must continue to be vigilant, practice hygiene, avoid close contact, and wear a mask. Though so bitterly divided, we must be united in taking these measures for the 400,000 souls we have lost – and for all our fellow Americans still blessed to be alive.

It Was Hate

A booth at a country fair shows Confederate flags hanging from the sides.
Disunited We Stand, at a 4-H fair, no less. I carefully snapped this picture in an affluent town in northwestern New Jersey, U.S.A., 2006.

About last week’s riots at the U.S. Capitol. This seems like old news. And it seemed like recent news. It’s neither. Statements such as “This isn’t who we are” are part of the “lies we tell ourselves about race.” Trump’s racism was known for many years, made even more public with his birther lie about Obama. And among the mobs at the Capitol that day, hate was on full display, and it must continue to be called out.

We have seen all the pictures of the damage to the U.S. Capitol, “the altar of our democracy, the sacred gathering spot of those who served, strove and died building this nation.” However, if were about criminal vandalism alone, it would be enough. If it were about the attack on our capital and Capitol, it would be enough. If it were about the attack on the sacredness of our democracy, it would be enough. It was something more sinister: hate.

Do not envy evil men;
Do not desire to be with tem;
For their hearts talk violence;
And their lips speak mischief.
Proverbs 24,1-2, translation by the Jewish Publication Society

The city is renewed upon its ancient ruins.
The scavengers are scattered,
the devourers have fled.”
Lecha Dodi, sung during the Jewish Friday night service, as translated by Marcia Prager, Jewish Renewal

Or a more recent telling by David Brooks: “But there are dark specters running through our nation — beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth. They have the stench of Know-Nothingism, the hot blood of the lynchers, and they ride the winds of nihilistic fury.”

Both the Times of Israel and the Forward identified Neo Nazi groups such as Baked Alaska, the Goyper Army (with their America First flag), Proud Boys, NSC-131, the Oath Keepers, along with “anti-circumcision” creeds. Crusader crosses, a holy religious symbol misappropriated by individuals glorifying an era of white, Christian wars against Muslims and Jews, are prominent. CNN identified the Three Percenters (an antigovernment militia group, Proud Boys “OK hand symbols,” the anti-Semitic Kekistan flag (home of Pepe the Frog), Oath Keepers with their black and gold hats, a man with a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. The Conversation noted the Mussolini-era 6MWE symbol.” an acronym common among the far right code for “6 Million Wasn’t Enough.” Reporters from WBEZ, Chicago, noted the Neo-Nazi neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. “Find the traitors; get the rope,” said another White Supremacist on the social media board Parler, a haven for bigotry. Only after two days following the riots was the violent app banned from Google and Apple.

Even more conspicuous were the bearded man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt, noted by a Dr. Eva Umlauf, a 78-year-old survivor of that death camp. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Dr. Umlauf said. “It really broke a taboo. I never would have believed that was possible from Americans.” Shirts emblazoned with popular 14-word white supremacist slogan, visible on signs outside the Capitol on Wednesday, reads “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The White Genocide Manifesto.” Its 14 planks insist that Jews are not white and actually endanger white civilization. “All Western nations are ruled by a Zionist conspiracy to mix, overrun and exterminate the White race,” the manifesto’s seventh plank reads.

If none of this is enough, Confederate flags and nooses were plenty visible. (The stark contrast of the lack of action by police and security on January 6 and protests involving people of color would provide sufficient material for a whole other column.)

The Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities, part of The Arc, in a statement noted “The response to the riot, which stood in stark contrast to recent responses to racial justice protests and symbols used by rioters – including the confederate flag and nooses on the Capitol lawn exemplify our nation’s racism and we urge that the rioters be held accountable for their actions to the full extent of the law.”

No, not all those in Washington were white supremacists, racists, bigots. They were following the crowds. They were, as Arnold Schwartznegger said, rapt in the the cynicism of so much public discourse, as our country sinking into an abyss. But hate spreads quickly among people. And that’s why me must never, ever stop calling out hate.

My Aunties Gave Me the Gift of Creating

January 2 is a bitter-sweet day for me. By coincidence, both my aunts, Jan and Jill, had their birthdays on this day. They are no longer with us, but I still feel they are with me. Underneath a shell that may have seemed tough, my Aunt Jill was an incredibly kind and tender person. I remember that day long ago, when as a college student, I needed to talk to someone. I phoned relatives. It was Aunt Jill (on my mother’s side) who “answered the call” that morning. She listened to what I had to say with empathy and wisdom. Likewise, my Aunt Jan (on my father’s side) was always there for me. This morning, I was thinking about how I could express my own creativity. That led me to recall book she wrote, The Best Invention of All. I loved this book as a child! Taking the volume off the shelf, I turned the cover to find she signed the volume for me, as a birthday gift. Here’s what the book is about.

Lucky is the child who receives a book that inspires him. For me, The Best Invention of All was just such a book. Jimbo is a creative soul, “who liked to think up new ways to do things.” With her characteristic humor, author Jan Slepian (accompanied by the sweet pen-and-ink drawings of Joseph Veno, along with co-author Ann Seidler) tells of our hero being the kind of boy to make a sandwich by placing a slice of bread between two pieces of cheese. Why, he even invented ways to brighten the drudgery of chores, like making his bed and cleaning his room. The problem was that by the time he was finished it was time for lunch. There must be a better way, he thought. One day, he slipped outside, looking for an idea that would inspire him. He spotted a sign pointing the way to “the inventors’ house.” As he soon discovered, this was no ordinary house! To enter, he had to climb a ladder to the roof and ride a slide down through the open living room window.

Inside, Father Inventor was standing on one end of a seesaw. He was trying to figure a way to have the contraption tilt, so he would be lifted to the window. Mother inventor rode a carousel horse, picking up the dirty dishes and trying to put them into the sink. Upstairs, their son trying to put on his pants by dropping from a ladder nailed to the ceiling. No one was succeeding. Jimbo taught each the regular way of doing these things. That led him to think of the best way of getting dressed and cleaning his room, so that he could be creative in his play outside. Within himself, Jimbo discovered the best invention of all.

Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler, The Best Invention of All. New York: Cowell-Collier Press, 1967.

Should the Old Year ‘Be Forgot’? We Must Keep Up the Good Fight of Waging Peace.

We may wish for “auld acquaintance be forgot,” but not so fast, say the creators of For the Sake of Old Times. (This powerful film will air on NPR stations nationwide.) A group of Black singers got together in a church that once refused to seat African Americans, in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that in 2020 removed its Confederate monument. As the chorus sings about moving from the old year to the new, clippings of archival footage remind us of the tragic events that seared our conscious and the efforts of people everywhere, of all colors, coming together. They came and continue to come, to say the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, not only to remember and not forget, but also to work together. For 2021, let us all make peace. Let us keep making this “good trouble,” to make the world a better place for all of us.

We Can Put Politics Aside; 2021 Is a Chance to Create Light

The Founders Sing is a highly creative group that engages in social commentary through song parodies. To ring in the new year, though, these musicians are taking a break from politics. “Hello 2021. Remember where we came from,” goes one refrain. “Now let’s turn our love lights on ‘Cause here comes a brand-new sun.”

“I have signed a pact with life: we will not get in each other’s way,” Janusz Korczak wrote in his Ghetto Diary. Even in the darkest days of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Old Doctor saw life – in the children he nurtured, the geraniums he cared for, and even a German soldier standing guard outside his window. A new year, 2021, gives us hope we will emerge from our own dark, narrow space.

Many of us hope that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will fulfill their vision and pledge to “build back better,” for all Americans and all the nations among which we share a single planet. Life, however, is beyond politics. It is that life with which Korczak made an agreement: for each one of us to make the choice to wage peace.

Indeed, New Year’s Day this time around falls on a Friday. That means children around the world continue fighting for the future.

In the Darkness, Children Have a Vision

Even in the darkness of 2020, a group of children isolated from their friends and peers got together virtually to sing “Make the World Better.” Charlotte Bowder, a talented teen from Maine, wrote the song. They are grateful all the everyday heroes “who give their courage and kindness, so we don’t feel so alone all the time.” But until they can see each other again, they will still be working. And though September 2020 did not bring the hoped-for reunion, September 2021 should. “We’ll be out of it soon, if we stay in it together.”