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.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus