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August 31, 2015 / 16 Elul, 5775
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Jewish Harvard Law Prof Recipient of Prize for Disability Rights

Michael Stein had to drag himself up two flights of stairs several times a day at the Harvard Law Review. There were no accommodations for people in wheelchairs.
Prof. Michael A. Stein received the inaugural Ruderman Award for Inclusion and is exec. dir. of the Harvard Project on Disability

Prof. Michael A. Stein received the inaugural Ruderman Award for Inclusion and is exec. dir. of the Harvard Project on Disability
Photo Credit: YouTube

Every once in awhile you read about something that reminds you there are still good people in this world who do good things just because it is the right thing to do, and not because it is politically advantageous.

On Monday, Jan. 27, the Boston and Israel-based Ruderman Family Foundation announced its inaugural Morton E. Ruderman Prize in Inclusion to Michael A. Stein, visiting professor of law at Harvard Law School.  Stein received the $100,000 prize based on his “extraordinary contribution towards including people with disabilities in the Jewish world and the greater public.”

Stein is a perfect choice for the inaugural Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. He was Phi Beta Kappa at New York University, an editor of the Law Review at Harvard Law School, had a coveted federal clerkship, has a master’s and a PhD from Cambridge University, and has enjoyed teaching appointments at Harvard, Stanford, NYU and is a full professor at the William & Mary Law School.

Beyond mere academics, Stein has been involved in and accomplished even greater strides on the national and international stage for the rights of those with disabilities.

At the national level, Stein helped to found and serve as co-director of the Harvard Project on Disabilities, and serves on disability rights advisory boards and was an American Bar Association Commissioner on Mental and Physical Disability Law.

On the international level, Stein worked to help craft, draft and pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The CRPD was adopted by the United Nations in 2006. It affirms that people with disabilities have the same human rights as all other people. He has served as legal counsel to the Special Olympics International, advises a number of United Nations bodies. This is just a small sampling of the kinds of work Stein has spearheaded in extending the rights of those with disabilities on the global stage.

The Jewish Press spoke with Stein on Monday afternoon.  Despite the obvious match for someone who has a disability to go into the field of disability law, Stein went to law school with the idea of focusing on legal history.

But Stein, no matter his intellectual virtuosity, was confronted with the reality of a world that did not think much about, and acted even less to, provide those with disabilities the necessary tools to engage in a public life, the kinds of tools everyone else took for granted.

For example, Stein was rewarded with a position on the Harvard Law Review – one of the most highly regarded academic journals in the world.  Only the very best first year law students are invited to become members of the law review.

There he was at the pinnacle of the legal academic world, but for the two years that Stein was on the law review, he had to pull himself up two flights of stairs several times every day because there was no accommodation for people in wheelchairs.

Despite what he hoped to do, what he had to do became clear.

Today, as executive director of the Harvard Project on Disability, Stein has assisted more than three dozen countries to develop and improve their laws on the rights of those with disabilities.

Stein wearily responded when asked which country is the most advanced, in terms of their disability rights laws.

“All countries are developing countries when it comes to the rights of the disabled,” he quipped.

“The United States has some very advanced laws, such as for public access to transportation, or in buildings.”  But in other ways, Stein says, “such as employment law, the rights of those with disabilities is quite limited.”  He pointed out that 80 percent of Americans with disabilities are unemployed.

Why?

Stein says he believes it is because, historically, Americans kept “others” out of the public sphere. That used to mean women and people of color were kept in the back, and it still often means that those with disabilities remain largely unseen. But while there has been some forward movement on several fronts, there remains a reticence to tell employers how to deal with their employees. It is, he conjectures, “a lingering libertarianism.”

Stein grew up in a New York, Orthodox family, and he has been to Israel many times.

“Israel fairly quickly signed on to the United Nations Treaty granting civil rights to persons with disabilities,” Stein explained. “But then, passing the regulations with which the law could be implemented and enforced – that took much longer.”

It was not until the very end of his interview with The Jewish Press that Stein revealed an experience he had growing up that exemplified what Morton Ruderman, the founder of the Ruderman Foundation, sought to correct in the Jewish world.

Growing up, Stein attended a yeshiva in New York City. After his disablement – he must use a wheelchair – the teachers told his parents “that it was probably not appropriate for him to continue at the yeshiva.”

Stein’s parents were having none of that. He continued on and did well at the school. But a person at the yeshiva whose title was “guidance counselor,” went to his parents and told them that “people like Michael are not intended to go to university.”

This “guidance counselor” did more than tell his parents – he wrote a letter to all the schools to which Stein was applying, sharing with them the same message he had delivered to Stein’s parents.

Luckily, New York University judged Stein on his merits, and as proof of the correctness of its decision, Stein graduated number one in his class.

Jay Ruderman, Morton Ruderman’s son, runs the family foundation now.  He said it was somewhat fortuitous that his family decided to focus its philanthropy on disability.

“What happened was, our family was part of a large education initiative in the Boston Jewish community, and we realized that children with disabilities are excluded from the Jewish education system,” Ruderman told The Jewish Press.

“My father, Morton Ruderman was someone who believed very strongly that no one in the Jewish community should be excluded. While the disabled constitute the largest minority in the world,” Ruderman said, “Yet it is one area where most people still think segregation is okay.”

Ruderman was particularly pointed with respect to parts of the American Jewish community: “We’re all about this big tent, when in truth we really are still a very exclusionary society.”

“Giving up on 20 percent of the Jewish population,” – it is estimated that 20 percent of the general population is disabled – “means that we are missing the boat when we talk about Jewish continuity. And for every disabled child, we are also telling the family members of that child that we don’t care about them, either,” Ruderman said.

When asked about the inaugural Ruderman Award in Inclusion being given to Michael Stein, Ruderman was clearly pleased.

“Michael Stein is the right person to be the first recipient of this award. Because now he really is a representative of the Ruderman Family Foundation.  He is a mensch and he is a leader, inside and outside of the Jewish community,” Ruderman said.

“I’ve met Michael Stein several times over the years, and I am only sorry my father never got to meet him, because I know he would have really loved that.”

About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com


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