Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide and educating Israeli leaders on the American Jewish community. Recent he spoke with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan about his philanthropy across a range of initiatives.
Chet Cooper: How did the Ruderman Family Foundation, get started?
Jay Ruderman: The family got together and said, “Since we’re fairly wealthy, we’d like to give back to society.” We’ve been evolving ever since in terms of how we run the organization and our focus. We chose the area of disability, and one of our first major investments was in Jewish day schools in Boston to make them more inclusive. For us, it was an issue of fairness. I mean, why
are some children denied access to Jewish day schools and others accepted? That didn’t seem very fair. So we put a lot of funding in that and have been engaged in that area for about a dozen years.
We’ve been in operation for about 15 years now and stay in contact with a lot of people to get different ideas. If it has to do with television or the media, we have a person who does our communications and advocacy. If it’s something related to employment, then it’s a different person. We have 20 people who work for the foundation, and they all do something a little different. It depends on what it is.
Lia Martirosyan: What did you do before the foundation?
Ruderman: I’d done a lot of different things. I’d been an assistant district attorney; I’d been in politics. But in 2008 when I took over running the foundation, I decided to let go of everything else that wasn’t focused on disability inclusion. Disability rights is a civil rights issue and a human rights issue. We don’t take proposals from people, instead we try to determine the programs we think show good practice in terms of inclusion. More recently, we’ve gotten involved in advocacy. We’ve also become very active in speaking out.
Cooper: Where did the money come from? A corporation? Real estate?
Ruderman: My dad founded a medical-technology company called Meditech, and then moved away from that and spent most of his career in real estate. He was successful in different ventures. As a family, we’re actively involved in our philanthropy; we’re not just in the check-writing business.
Cooper: That’s good. It seems like you’re going into different areas, different types of disabilities. You have a dynamic foundation that’s making a difference.
Ruderman: We’re trying. We want to move the needle. I’ll tell you, the deeper I get involved, the more I feel like the world is so big and complex. People think with social media, it’s easier to reach people, but people sometimes just feel bombarded. We’re trying to do more networking in the disability community. I think the more we work together, the more members of Congress, the administration, the media, etc., have to pay attention to us. If we’re all in our different silos though, we’re not as effective. Our foundation is doing our part to add value.
My nephew was diagnosed with autism. His diagnosis brought the issue closer to home for our family. Then my dad developed a disease called alpha 1-antitrypsin, which gradually reduced his lung capacity. He became more and more disabled, which was also so personal for our family.
Martirosyan: All families are affected in some way or another.
Ruderman: When I do public speaking, I ask the audience, “Who has a family member, a neighbor, a friend with some form of disability?” Every single hand goes up. We’re all connected. One of our grantees in Israel is an organization call Access Israel. The guy who runs it is a former helicopter pilot who was injured in an accident. He says that people with disabilities is a group that some day we all will join. We don’t think of it that way, but it’s true.
As people live longer, disability becomes more of an issue. And there seems to be more children born with a disability. I don’t know if it’s true, or if we’re just better at diagnosing certain disabilities than in the past.
Cooper: A lot of people don’t identify the word “disability” with a certain health condition or situation because it’s perceived as a negative that means completely nonfunctioning. It’s sometimes a challenge to get acknowledgement, even from people who are awakened to the fact that they, or a family member, have a disability in terms of what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Amendment Act says. check this out
Ruderman: I’ll tell you one thing: our foundation doesn’t define “disability” for a reason. One is because the disability community is extremely fractured on the subject. About 20 percent of the population has some form of disability. Yet when we started getting involved in advocacy and pulled together some of the leading disability organizations in Washington, they were focused on a particular disability: a learning disability, autism or a physical disability. But they didn’t seem to see themselves as being connected to each other.
Cooper: We’re quite aware of that. One of the things we’ve been trying to do with the magazine over the past 20-some years is bring everyone under one voice, which I think is so important. The fact that they miss that is frustrating.
I’m curious. With your background in law, did you have any connection to the ADA or accessibility prior to taking over the foundation?
Ruderman: Not really. My background is in criminal law, although since getting involved I’ve gotten to know more about the ADA. We have a council of advisors whom we turn to when we have questions. One of them, Tony Coelho, used to be majority whip in the House and was one of the authors of the ADA. We recognized Tom Harkin, former senator, with an award we give every year in my dad’s memory. We got to know him a little bit. So I’ve gotten to know people who were pretty instrumental in the ADA.
Recently, we released a white paper on Hollywood and disability, which revealed 95 percent of the characters shown with a disability on television are played by ablebodied actors. We did that with Danny Woodburn, who is an actor and an activist. The issue came up of how to define disability, because we’d never defined it. So we went back to the council, and they said, “Use the definition given by the ADA. It’s the broadest definition. It incorporates everything.” It was a difficult exercise for us because there were things we just didn’t think about and had never focused on. But when you’re looking at characters, and you’re looking at their disabilities, then you have to think about it.
Martirosyan: I got called in to an audition for Google for people of all sorts of shapes and sizes and abilities. It’s interesting that they’re branching out—
Ruderman: That’s great. I know Google has put an emphasis on trying to do something on this issue. Congratulations.
Martirosyan: Thank you.
Cooper: Do you know diversity agent Gail Williamson?
Ruderman: Yes. We did a white paper on television. We do white papers to target traditional media and social media to get a discussion going. Now we’re doing a follow-up event with different studio heads and actors; Gail’s going to moderate it at an upcoming event in Los Angeles. We’d be happy to have you involved. Our philosophy is not to recreate the wheel. We’re trying to work with disability marketing strategist Tari Hartman Squire, director Jenni Gold and, of course, Gail. We’ve connected with people from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. There are many different people involved. And then the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, has a committee on disability, and they’ve connected with us. We’re trying to pull in different people who’ve been active in the past. Danny Woodburn and actor Robert David Hall have been involved with the union for a while.
Cooper: Robert has probably been the most active of the actors. More recently, Danny has become very active. Allen Rucker had been involved too; he’s a writer and author of The Best Seat in the House about waking up one morning paralyzed for life. If you’re able to bring the key players in, they can make decisions and create awareness around disability issues beyond what currently exists.
We featured Danny Woodburn. Almost everybody you mentioned, Tony Coelho, when he was running the American Association of People with Disabilities, Gail Williamson, and actor Robert David Hall have been featured in the magazine. Senator Harkin wrote a column for us for probably 10 years before he retired, and Allen Rucker wrote for us regularly, as well.
Ruderman: We get the magazine, and I usually go through it. But I’m going to make an effort to go through it more thoroughly now.
Cooper: Let’s talk more about the work you’re doing and the organizations you grant. How much do you fund a year?
Ruderman: We fund around $10 million a year. We have three different offices: one in Israel, one in Boston and one in New York. The advocacy work we do we tend to do in-house. Funding in Israel is nationwide. There’s a partnership with the government. While Israel has a majority of Jews, it’s also Muslim and Christian. In the US, we started out in Boston, mainly in the Jewish area, and then started funding nationally to what we felt were influential Jewish organizations. But we’re evolving further and getting more involved with some organizations that are not in the Jewish community, like we recently got involved with the Boys and Girls Club in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. The project’s aim is to bring the police and young people with disabilities together, so police are more familiar with them, and they are more familiar with the police. Hopefully we can avoid some of the tragedies where someone with a disability gets killed by a police officer because of a misunderstanding, which we’ve seen almost on a weekly basis around the country.
Cooper: That’s so important. Supporting initiatives like these have tended to suffer because of a lack of funding. Also, what you’re doing in Hollywood is a great approach to raising visibility, which helps change attitudes in society.
Ruderman: Popular culture does a lot to shape attitudes. You can’t compare different communities to each other, but in my lifetime the gay and lesbian community has become much more mainstream in society. I would venture to say it’s in part because people began to feel more comfortable when they saw that group on TV.
In a Washington Post article on disability and Hollywood, we came out very strongly against the movie Me Before You because the lead character had a disability, but was played by an able-bodied actor. After that we got a call from a reporter from the LA Times who had just done a big spread on diversity in Hollywood and talked about the hundred people with whom Hollywood should engage to become more diverse: black, Asian, and Hispanic actors and producers, but no one with a disability. After publishing his story, he called us up and said, “I think I left something out here.” So we started to talk to him. People are starting to realize that the disability community has been disenfranchised and deserves to have its rights recognized, which I see as a positive trend. I don’t think it’ll be a quick process, but I see more attention being given to it.
Cooper: Being in this arena for 27 years, we see a tick upward, but it’s still an amazingly slow grind. It’s different than other civil rights issues and other minorities. A different type of fear base. It’s disenfranchised, as you mentioned. There isn’t one voice that helps push though; you might be one of those key players who breaks the mold and gets things moving.
Ruderman: As the years go on, I’ve become connected with more and more activists, foundations and organizations; it’s not difficult to get to know a lot of key players in the community because there are not many of them. We’re sending out a letter with our brochure to 400 foundations that focus on social justice and poverty. I do see some changes coming about, and yet when I run into people who know me, they’ll say: “Oh, you help people with disabilities,” I say, “Not really, we’re trying to foster more inclusion.”
I often meet parents who have started groups because of an issue related to their child. Sometimes they’re not the most inclusive. I’ve always told people, “Listen, it’s not my job to judge you. I don’t judge my brother and how he tries to raise his child. But I do think society needs to have more options for inclusion.”
Martirosyan: How did you choose the 400 foundations?
Ruderman: Someone gave us a list that said, “These foundations are major foundations that focus on social justice and poverty,” and we started to reach out to them. I am becoming connected with more; I’ve done some work to try to pull together foundations that focus on the issue of disability. We tend to speak to each other. We don’t all do the same thing. Some of us don’t do any capital campaigns; we won’t fund any buildings or projects like that. And yet there are other foundations that do. We focus on advocacy, while other foundations don’t want to get into that. There’s a saying that once you know one foundation, you know one foundation. I think that’s true.
Sometimes I’ll hear from people in the funding world who say, “We don’t do disability.” I’m like, “That doesn’t make any sense. You’re going to ignore 20 percent of the population?” It’s all about educating people. Throughout history people with disabilities have been institutionalized and segregated, which tends to make you think that it’s a group in need of charity. It’s not about charity, it’s about empowerment.
Martirosyan: Good point.
Ruderman: One that’s not often well understood.
Cooper: Do you know Jean Judes of Beit Issie Shapiro?
Ruderman: Oh, yeah, sure, we work with them. Someone you probably have also come across is Michael Stein, the professor who runs the Harvard Law School Project on Disability.
Ruderman: He does a lot of consulting in different countries.
Cooper: We met him in Israel. I think the last time I talked to Michael, Jean had invited us to an event. Matter of fact, when it comes to Israel, we’ve done a lot of different things. We’ve done an editorial with some great science that’s coming out of Israel. It’s amazing how small the country is, and how much incredible technology they do that connects to disabilities.
Ruderman: It’s a pretty entrepreneurial place. I was talking to someone about ReWalk. Have you heard of them?
Cooper: Yes, we were there. Lia was going to try their exoskeleton, but it was too heavy for her. Do you know about the shoes for children with cerebral palsy (CP), using chaos theory to retrain their gait?
Ruderman: I’m not familiar with that.
Cooper: It was created by Dr. Simona bar-Haim who’s been working in this arena for years. Children who have a problem with their walking because of a disability—usually CP—put on these high-tech shoes, which help reprogram their mind, and the children start walking in a more consistent pattern. It’s absolutely amazing.
Ruderman: Wow! We’ve been behind an incubator in Israel where people come and learn how to be an entrepreneur and advance their ideas. We’ll be doing a white paper on self-driving cars, which could be transformative in terms of disability and mobility.
Cooper: Do you know Amnon Shashua? He owns MobileEye. He would have been part of that group with the self-driving cars. They’re right in the forefront. They took that technology and created OrCam a device you put on your eye glass frame and it recognizes objects for people with low vision. We held a panel at the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and invited OrCam and Sesame Enable.
Ruderman: We might have funded part of that panel. Sesame Enable is one of the companies that started in our incubator; they’re probably our most successful model. There are some great advances in technology.
Cooper: That incubator in Israel—are you thinking of doing anything like that in the States?
Ruderman: We haven’t done that yet. I’m open to these ideas. We have some new staff and we’re training them to get them onboard. I think that we could look at that. The organization we work with in Israel operates worldwide. It could be interesting. We did this thing in Tel Aviv called TOM.
Martirosyan: We know them.
Ruderman: And we were thinking of bringing it here. We do a summit in Boston. We did one in 2016 and had 550 people. The next one will be in 2017; we’re aiming a little bit higher for this one. It’s a networking summit on the issue of disability inclusion. Maybe we would do it in conjunction with that.
Cooper: That would be fun. We just started partnering with Hackaday. They have a $150,000 prize to come up with innovative creations that make life easier for people with disabilities. It’s the idea of using technologies as a fun way to direct engineers and designers to help others move better, see better, live better.
Martirosyan: Were you communicating with Oded Ben-Dov of Sesame Enable?
Ruderman: Yeah, I don’t know him personally, but I’m familiar with their work.
Cooper: Lia drinks with them often.
Just kidding. But they were on our panel. Have you gone to the CRPD?
Ruderman: I haven’t. My wife was invited to the one Jean attended. We did some funding there. We have four little kids, so it’s hard for us to attend everything.
Cooper: We’ll probably hold another one next year. If you would like to be on the panel, we would definitely be happy to have you.
Ruderman: That’d be great.