It’s not every day that Tina Brown describes someone in her column in The Daily Beast and Newsweek as “an amazing woman.”
But Brown, who has a 26-year-old son with Aspergers Syndrome, described Fredda Rosen just this way. Rosen is executive director of Job Path, a not-for-profit organization helping adults with developmental disabilities find jobs, live as independently as possible and become part of community life.
Rosen, who is 63 and lives in Manhattan, spoke with The Sisterhood about her work, how Judaism informs it, and why the needs of the developmentally disabled should be considered a civil rights issue.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: How many clients does Job Path have and how do you help them?
Fredda Rosen: We currently have about 225 clients. Some receive more than one service from us. Some people come into the employment program and after a year or two can work independently. Other people do require longer-term support, so we’ll stay with them as long as they need us.
We’ve placed close to 3,000 people in employment since we were founded [in 1978]. Everyone should have the opportunity to work no matter how severe your disabilities. Everyone should have the opportunity to be full participants in community life as well. Some of our new programs are aimed at helping people be part of the social and civic life of their communities.
We also have a small residential program. We realized there was no need for us to set up group homes because there are many agencies that run them. But what was really needed was for people to live in their own homes with the support they needed. We have a program that provides residential support to about 35 people across New York City.
People get varying levels of support depending what they need to maintain their independence. It ranges from a couple of hours a week to 24 hours around the clock, support to do whatever people need. In some cases it’s to manage their households and figure out shopping and budgeting and laundry. In situations for people with more significant needs, we provide personal care, medication, oversight of medical issues.
What is needed to help the developmentally disabled work?
There are not enough of the right kinds of supports and strategies, in terms of full employment, out there. We support a number of people with Aspergers who can work in technology jobs. We have one working for the Geek Squad. We have someone else doing actuarial work.
On the other end of the spectrum we have one man in his 50s who is blind and in a wheelchair working in a pet store socializing cats to prepare them for adoption. It’s a part time job but he’s earning a paycheck and he’s part of the crew at the pet store. Many people with intellectual disabilities work in entry-level clerical jobs, maintenance and food service jobs. That is typical, unfortunately, but we try to get beyond the typical and see how we can make an individual’s skills and interests into an employment possibility.
Tell me about your Jewish background and identity.
I was born and raised in Akron Ohio, with a very small Jewish community. When you grow up in that kind of very tightly knit Jewish community, everybody knows everybody. There was very active synagogue life and I was very active in youth groups. I moved to New York in my early 20s, and that was a revelation. I got here and thought ‘geez, everybody here is Jewish!’ In Akron when I was growing up there were clubs that wouldn’t admit Jews. You knew you were part of a minority and that you weren’t always welcome. Coming to New York I felt like “wow, you can be who you are.”
Today I belong to Congregation Rodeph Sholom. I have a daughter who’s a junior in high school and family still back in Akron.
How has Judaism’s focus on repairing the world informed your work?
Oh, incredibly. That was the message I got from my parents about being Jewish. My family belonged to a Conservative synagogue so there was a certain level of observance, but the strongest message I got was repairing the world and speaking justice. In my work one thing that’s often not recognized is that people with developmental disabilities being included in mainstream society is a civil rights issue.
Because they’re viewed as so vulnerable and indeed many are, the first impulse is to protect them and keep them in special programs. We forget that people with developmental disabilities are people as well, and their inclusion in the work force and community life is as important for a person with developmental disabilities as for anyone else. Seeing it as a justice issue comes very much from my Jewish upbringing.
How has the Jewish community doing in terms of including people with developmental disabilities?
Rodeph Sholom has started in the past few years some services for people with special needs. Last time I was there I ran into some people I knew from Job Path. The synagogue created a separate sensory-friendly service especially with the needs of families with autism in mind. The plan for next year is to have an integrated service.
A couple of other synagogues on the Upper West Side have begun to do it so there’s a kind of community. The services are a terrific experience. Really the next step is full inclusion, particularly for the younger families who have children with autism to feel that they are welcome as part of congregational and community life, that they can come to religious services, to events, that if their child needs some support they can go off for awhile and come back and participate.
I’d like it to be not at all unusual to see children, teenagers and adults with disabilities just there as part of the congregation. Today it’s not unusual to include gay couples in synagogue life. That’s been a huge difference and very much accepted, to have families of all kinds. People with disabilities are the last group left to be fully included, and that’s what I mean when I talk about the civil rights issue. That’s the biggest challenge we face.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
A Champion for the Developmentally Disabled