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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Moving at a glacier pace by Warren Brown

Photo by Luca Galuzzi -
I agree that overall awareness and empathy for those with differing abilities has increased somewhat over the last 50 years. Steps such as closed captioning at movie theatres, better access for those with physical disabilities, audio versions of UU World are all wonderful. And while I think its important to acknowledge such gains, I worry about being too self-congratulatory. As a society - and more importantly as UU communities - we ARE moving at a glacier pace. That is cause for concern. I truly believe that the progress we have seen so far only represents the very lowest of the low hanging fruit. What we have done is to address the most visible and least threatening problems. Its natural to see people in wheelchairs or with walkers and want to help - and we rightly should support and applaud those efforts. However, if we were to dig just a little deeper we would see how unaware we remain of the huge number of those who have to struggle in other ways to engage in our communities. We don't see hearing loss. We often turn away from those with mental or emotional challenges. The fact is that there are many who would like to join us who could if we were more conscious of their obstacles and sincere in our desire to learn how to help.

As an advocate for those with hearing loss, I have become most aware of the issues they face. How many times have you been in a large gathering of UU's when someone stands up to speak and refuses the microphone? "I'll speak up," they say not considering those who can only hear with the help of the sound system. How many UU churches have acoustics so bad that it's hard to understand even for those with mild hearing loss? Often people avoid those places. How many are under the misconception that FM headset systems in our sanctuaries are the solution for those who have trouble hearing services? Headset systems don't address the some of the most basic requirements to help people hear. So many of us never realize that there are countless members of our congregations who struggle to hear everyday.

UU's should be on the forefront of inclusion not only for those with hearing loss but for all who face disabilities of any kind. It's not that we don't care. It's just that we don't know. That needs to change. We need to step up our efforts and bring awareness to these problems. We must strive to pay closer attention to those around us. We should never assume that because its easy for us to participate, that others share the same experience. All of us can raise our level of empathy for our neighbors. To that end, I'd like to promote a workshop "Reaching Out To Those With Hearing Loss" that EqUUal Access, Carol Agate and I will be presenting at General Assembly. I hope many of you will join us Thursday, June 26 between 4 and 5:15 pm in the Rotunda. Let us all take BIGGER steps to include those of all abilities into our UU family.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Step By Step

It may move at glacier speed, but more and more the needs of people with disabilities are being addressed in our society in ways both large and small.  The latest to catch my eye involves
the simple but universal act of enjoying a night at the movie theater.  In the Philadelphia area, and, I imagine, in many areas around the country, movie theaters are now offering small devices that discreetly display captions to the individual moviegoer.  Some theaters offer eyeglasses that display captions across the bottom of the inside surface of the lens so that only the wearer can see them.  Others provide little screens mounted on the end of flexible arms that are positioned in the moviegoer's cupholder.  While there are still occasional glitches in the accuracy of the transcriptions, this is a wonderful step forward in helping people with hearing impairments (like me) follow the dialogue and more fully enjoy the movie.

Theaters are also installing devices that aid those with visual impairments as well.  In many theaters, moviegoers can wear an audio headset that includes both the regular movie dialogue as well as the voice of a narrator who describes the action on the screen, for example, whether they are driving a car, eating a meal, or even smiling or frowning.

At the Unitarian Universalist Association, we are constantly looking for ways to use existing technology to aid Unitarian Universalists with hearing and vision problems.  For two years now, we have offered audio versions of UU World.  We are exploring ways of better utilizing closed captions on various YouTube and other videos.  We are also investigating ways of making printed materials available to people with "print disabilities" via audio books, screen reader software and braille.  Resources are available to congregations who want to enhance the sound capacity in their buildings via headsets or loop system.

Whether its watching a movie, attending a worship service or enjoying a good book, everyone deserves the right to full access.  We in the UUA, as in the general society, are getting there.  Bear with us and thanks for your patience.

Mark Bernstein
Growth Consultant, Central East Regional Group and UUA Liaison to Equual Access

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Radical Love and Inclusion

Reprinted form 30 Days of Love.

Sometimes I forget that I’m different. Sometimes I’m part of the group, participating and being myself and being accepted for who I am. And then, out of the blue, I’m put back behind the barrier, reminded that my lived experience is, definitely, different. The funny thing about those painful moments is, usually, I’m the only one in the room who even knows it happened. Usually no one intended to exclude me, and they have no idea that they did. But they have made it clear that they are sure their lived experience is better than mine.

“I could never do what you do,” one says. Uh huh, I think, wondering what they mean by that. Please, let them say something about my talent for synthesizing a discussion, or that I’m a good listener. Nope. “I would have given up.” Really? And done what with the rest of your life? Hide under the bed? I don’t believe you.

There are a million versions of it, some gentler than others, more likely to be said in my presence. “You’re so courageous.” “You could have done so much. What a waste.” “I’d rather be dead than disabled.” The message remains the same – my lived experience is too different.

I understand about the fear. We are taught to value radical independence and self-reliance. But autonomy can be over-rated. In this world full of barriers, I ask for accommodations. Even for help. Rather than diminish me, it teaches me, again, that we are inter-dependent – all contributing in different ways.

I have multiple disabilities. I use a mobility scooter. I encounter the world differently. There are a lot of things I would never have experienced running up the stairs three at a time. Perspectives I only get down here at waist-level. Conversations I would never have had, if I had not been on a “slightly different path.”

Too often, when someone inadvertently “others” me, I don’t say anything. I decide against the “teaching moment.” There are too many of them. Yet, I know I feel included when I can point out a disempowering attitude or remark as ableist, and know that my intent will not be questioned and I can take up the teachable moments.

And I know I feel included when someone takes the trouble to draw my attention to ways I am excluding someone. When they bother to take up a teachable moment with me. The communities we live in are filled with so many differences that we will, almost certainly, “other” someone from time to time without meaning to do it, and without being aware of doing it. I do it. And, if that person I just “othered” decides to make it a “teaching moment,” I hope to have the grace to listen and to experience the discomfort that comes with realizing that I messed up, again. For me, it’s part of the journey.

In faith,

Suzanne Fast

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

As we begin a new year together, it is a time to be reflective. Many of us take time to consider the year just finished, and also consider the year that now begins. There are so many ways in which to reflect at this time of year.

Our EqUUal Access community is a special and dear group of people within the larger Unitarian Universalist community. Many of us deal with challenges that are daunting on a regular basis.

I would like to share some possible questions for reflection as we begin 2014:
  • What were your deepest joys during 2013?  
  • In what ways did you make a difference in someone else’s life in 2013?
  • How did you change in a positive way during 2013?
  • How did another person or group offer you help or kindness during 2013?
  • What was one important thing that you learned during 2013?
  • In what way do you hope to make a difference in someone’s life or in the world in 2014?
  • How would you like to change in a positive way during 2014?
  • To whom would you like to offer your help or kindness during 2014?
May we work together in peace, love, and hope. I wish each of you the very best—a warm thought, a compassionate moment, a blessing—in 2014.

With peace and hope,

Rev. Marcia Marino, D.Min.

Chair of Right Relations, EqUUal Access

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Passing of a Hero

The passing of Nelson Mandela this week reverberated throughout the world.  Rarely has a human being received such universal acclaim and appreciation for his presence on earth.  Mandela represented the highest ideals of compassion, forgiveness, truth, honesty and love.  
So it is not surprising that he also spoke eloquently of the needs and rights of people with disabilities in our society.  Here is what he said,
"It is not a question of patronizing philanthropy towards disabled people. They do not need the patronage of the non-disabled. It is not for them to adapt to the dominant and dominating world of the so-called non-disabled. It is for us to adapt our understanding of a common humanity; to learn of the richness of how human life is diverse; to recognize the presence of disability in our human midst as an enrichment of our diversity." 
We mourn the passing of this great man.  The world is poorer today because he is not in it.

Mark Bernstein
Growth Consultant, Central East Regional Group and UUA Liaison to Equual Access

Monday, November 4, 2013

Celebrating the Truth

The Today Show ran a short piece recently on Jimmy Jenson, a 48 year old man with Down syndrome.  He ran the New York City Marathon on Sunday and became the first person with Down syndrome to complete this landmark race.  You can see the video by following this link:

This is no doubt a great achievement, but I wonder....Do we lift up these kinds of stories because we don't expect people with disabilities to succeed in ways like this? Are we celebrating Jimmy's greatness or our own willingness to admit that people are people and that “disability” is an imaginary barrier?

It seems that whenever a person with a disability accomplishes something or otherwise makes a difference in the world, we consider them to be extraordinary.   Not just because what they did was extraordinary but because they did it WITH A DISABILITY.  I came across a website recently that touted the “Top 10 Extraordinary People with Disabilities.”  They included people like Van Gogh, Beethoven, Christy Brown, John Nash, Stephen Hawking, and Helen Keller.  It wasn’t enough that these people created breathtaking music or inspiring artwork or intellectual breakthroughs in science and mathematics.  It’s that they did it WITH A DISABILITY, as if the achievement would be less significant if they hadn’t had a disability.

So maybe, it is important that we lift up stories like the one involving Jimmy Jenson…because no one had ever heard of Jimmy Jenson before.  It’s people like Jimmy who live in anonymity while they fight for their rights; struggle to be accepted in their communities; and persevere in the face of prejudice and doubt.  That is what makes them extraordinary, not the accomplishments they achieve.

Lucy Daniel is the Policy Officer at CBM Australia, an international development agency that works with people with disabilities in the world's poorest countries.  She once wrote, “I no longer focus solely on the problems faced by people with disabilities over the people themselves, because I can now see these problems in the context of everything that people with disabilities have and can achieve…I see a chance to celebrate the truth that each and every person living with disability has the potential to contribute hugely to their family and community.”

So, way to go, Jimmy…and keep on running.

With respect,

Mark Bernstein

Consultant, Central East Regional Group and UUA Liaison to Equual Access

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

The Disability/Ability Action Program is under way and so Unitarian Universalism begins a new chapter in its commitment to inclusion of people who historically have been on the margins of society.  A collaboration of Equual Access and the UUA, this groundbreaking program challenges congregations to welcome, embrace, support and integrate people with disabilities and their families into congregational life. 

Congregations seeking certification will conduct an assessment of accessibility and inclusion of people with disabilities, create an action plan of worship, workshops and projects, have that plan approved by the Disability/Ability Certification Committee and then implement the plan. When the plan has been fully implemented, the congregation can vote to be recognized as a congregation with a Disability/Ability Action Program certificate.  The program is designed to meet the needs of the entire congregation and includes workshops and activities for children and youth as well as adults.

Ten congregations are currently participating in the two year pilot project:

First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, MI
First Parish in Bedford, MA
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Buffalo, NY
First Parish Cambridge, MA
First Parish Kingston, MA
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruses, NM
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, IL
The Congregational Society, Unitarian Universalist Peterborough, NH 
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, NC
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Rochester, MN

The plan is for the project to be offered to congregations around the country in 2015 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Beautiful friendship, indeed.

For more information about the Disability/Ability Action Program, contact me at or Reverend Barbara Meyers at

With respect,

Mark Bernstein

Consultant, Central East Regional Group and UUA Liaison to Equual Access