If it Ain’t Broke…

You know the tried and true maxim, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Just about everyone believes that is a sound way of living one’s life. That’s what I thought too until a few weeks ago when I went to the funeral of Will Simmons, the son of a friend of mine and great disability advocate, Liz Hecht and her husband Scott Simmons.

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I got to know Will through my synagogue, as Will had his Bar Mitzvah there about 14 years ago. Since I was President of our synagogue, I had the good fortune of saying a few words of congratulations to Will and bestowing upon him a gift from our synagogue.

Will’s Bar Mitzvah was not a typical Bar Mitzvah. Will had some disabilities, and as a result his speech was very hard for most people to understand. To accommodate his disability, Will read the Torah and led other parts of the service using a computerized voice. This was the first, and is still the only time, that I have seen anyone become a Bar Mitzvah using assistive technology.

Will went on from his Bar Mitzvah and earned a college degree. He even became certified in scuba diving despite many physical challenges.

Sadly, Will died unexpectedly in his sleep a few weeks ago, and I was fortunate to be able to attend his funeral service. Many beautiful eulogies were given by friends and family, but the most profound eulogy came from his roommate and best friend, Sam Katz. Sam also has some disabilities, but like Will, he is also a college graduate, and refuses to let his disabilities stop him from accomplishing his goals.

During Sam’s eulogy, he shared with the hundreds of friends and family members who gathered to pay tribute to Will, that Will’s favorite saying was,

If it ain’t broke, you’re not trying hard enough.

As you might imagine, hearing this tried and true phrase turned inside out made me and probably everyone else, think about why one would prefer to break things rather than leave well enough alone.

As soon as I heard Sam share this inside out version of the truism, I smiled, as I realized that Will had a passion for viewing the world in a way that would work for him, rather than  remain content with a world that was not built for someone who used a wheelchair and whose speech was difficult to understand.

As someone who has dedicated most of my life to systems change, I realized that Will’s view of the world makes a lot of sense. While it might be easier to leave things alone if they are not broken, the truth is that the status quo is simply not acceptable for the vast number of people that do not fit neatly into mainstream society’s norms.

For Will, if computer software did not perform in a way that fit his needs, even if it was not necessarily broken, he knew that he would have to try harder to make the software (or any other tool or device) fit his needs, even if it meant breaking it to do so.

Nobody ever discovered anything new by remaining content with the status quo. Will refused to be content with the status quo because it was not built for him. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable modifications and accommodations to buildings and programs so that those with disabilities can fully participate in society.

Will’s abbreviated life, and the way he chose to live it, with tremendous support from his  parents, sister, family, friends and caregivers, which sadly ended too soon, provides important lessons for those who may be square pegs trying to fit into society’s round holes. As he said, “If it ain’t broke, you’re not trying hard enough.”

May Will’s memory be a blessing and his lesson help many live a better life.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Defending the Civil Rights of Children with Disabilities in Voucher Schools

The challenges which disenfranchised people face are as old as mankind. Fortunately, the courage to defend their civil rights also goes back millennia.  As the famous Rabbi Hillel said,

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a compelling sermon invoking the “if not now, when?” question at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta just 6 months before his assassination.

King specifically referenced the system of justice in his famous and compelling, Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he stated:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider…”

It was in that spirit that I joined with the ACLU in filing a complaint with the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ) which clearly documents that Wisconsin’s private school voucher program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Recently, after a lengthy investigation, DOJ issued a directive to the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), which makes clear that DPI must eliminate discrimination against children with disabilities in the Milwaukee voucher program and orders DPI to undertake the following actions:

  1. Establish and publicize a complaint process for parents of children with disabilities who believe their children have been discriminated against in the Milwaukee voucher program.
  2. Collect data to determine the extent to which children with disabilities are being served by voucher schools.
  3. Conduct outreach to parents of children with disabilities to inform them of their rights related to attending voucher schools
  4. Monitor and oversee voucher schools to ensure that they do not discriminate against children with disabilities.
  5. Provide ADA training to voucher schools; and
  6. Provide written guidance to voucher schools on ADA compliance.

Sadly, to date, well over a month after the DOJ issued its directives, DPI has done absolutely nothing to comply with these directives.  In fact, rather than decry disability discrimination by voucher schools, and pledge to eliminate it, DPI has repeatedly stated that it is reviewing the directives which are now more than a month old, and wrongly believes it needs more legal authority to enforce them.

DPI’s response demonstrates that it simply cannot be counted on to defend the civil rights of children with disabilities.  It is a mystery why DPI has failed in its legal obligation to enforce the ADA ever since that law went into effect over 20 years ago, while children with disabilities suffer rampant discrimination at the hands of voucher schools.  But even more shocking is DPI’s reticence to follow DOJ’s directives.

In my nearly 2 decades of advocating to protect the civil rights of children with disabilities in school, my observation has always been that DPI considers schools as its clients or customers.  This DOJ directive gives DPI the opportunity to change that paradigm and understand that its true mission should be consider Wisconsin’s students as its customers.

As Rabbi Hillel and Martin Luther King, Jr. made clear, there is no higher calling than defending civil rights.  Now is the time for DPI to take on that mantle and defend the civil rights of children with disabilities.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.