Nothing About Us, Without Us: A Disability Rights Advocate Fights for Accessibility and Inclusion

When Ashton Rosin went to Israel for her JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) fellowship, she discovered the challenges and opportunities that Israelis with disabilities face.

By Ashton Rosin - JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow, 2014-2015 | February 28, 2021

Ashton presents her research on disability-inclusive development at an academic conference in Jerusalem.

When Ashton Rosin lived in Israel during her JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) fellowship, she threw herself into disability rights advocacy. While volunteering for Israel Unlimited, Ashton discovered the challenges and opportunities that Israelis with disabilities face.

A partnership between JDC, the Government of Israel, and the Ruderman Family Foundation, Israel Unlimited is an innovative program for people with disabilities, one that we’re happy to spotlight during Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month.

I stood at the base of what seemed like a mountain. My gaze tilted steeply upwards, yet I focused my attention on the facial expressions of the people around me. We watched as the college dean cheerfully showed off the “ramp” that had just been built so that students with physical disabilities could access the library. As my nerves started to erupt, knowing what I needed to do next, I turned to my counterparts, students with disabilities, to assess their reactions. I had only just arrived in Israel for my fellowship with the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC), where I served with Israel Unlimited, and my conversational Hebrew — let alone my Hebrew disability vocabulary — was so broken it was barely coherent. 

Ashton Rosin

We didn’t need to have an eloquent conversation, though. Rather than words, the students and I exchanged glances that communicated all the frustration we felt. As an outsider, I set my nerves aside, knowing I’d been given a platform to elevate the voices of those students. I kindly congratulated the dean on the well-intentioned triumph before gently informing him that the ramp was no ramp, but a barrier; it was built with such a steep slope that any person with a disability who tried to use it would be in danger.

Though I was new to Israel’s disability landscape, I had seen this story play out many times before in academic settings where I did research in the pursuit of my degree in Disability Studies or while working on policy at a disability advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. The building blocks were completely accessible in that moment — the will to improve accessibility, available funding to create inclusive infrastructure, and student engagement. And yet, the students themselves were not consulted on their own needs. 

Good intentions can be counter-intuitive. Later that evening, at my apartment in Jerusalem, I kept  replaying one of the marquee slogans of the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us.”.Those students felt totally ignored when they saw that ramp; it was almost a bad joke. But at the same time, who was I to waltz in there and tell the dean that what he did was wrong, and what’s more, somewhat destructive to the students’ psyches? Inclusion is but lip service if people with disabilities are not themselves leading these conversations — no matter what country, college, or measure we’re discussing. It was this moment, the looks on those students’ faces, and the lack of an outlet to share their perspectives, that further inspired my work to cultivate the reach of Campus Unlimited.

During my fellowship, I had the privilege of promoting accessibility and inclusion for college and university students with disabilities all across Israel. With the support of JDC Entwine and Israel Unlimited, Campus Unlimited created bridges between students of all abilities and campus administrators. These bridges were constructed as platforms for self-empowerment — onramps to advocacy, inroads to education, and bonds of empathy. As a cohort of student leaders, we supported many initiatives: the creation of an inter-ability comedic troop to combat stereotypes, advocacy for creating accessible campus shelters for schools that experience regular rocket fire, and sign language interpretation at political rallies where prime ministerial candidates visited campuses. These experiences culminated in the first-ever training for student leaders who had never before had access to disability studies curriculum. Ultimately, these coalitions of inclusion were built by and for students with disabilities. They were effective because this population, so often silenced, made itself heard. 

Ashton, left, meets with a Campus Unlimited leader to discuss program expansion and leadership training.

Today, citizens across the globe find themselves isolated, seeking human connection amidst a pandemic. But rather than ache for the comfort of years past, we should seek a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible world. At a time where the world is more acutely aware of the fragility of health, of luxuries like access to the workplace, restaurants, and even medical tests, the opportunity for change is obvious and urgent. 

Disability rights are about equity and dignity. These are also Jewish values. Judaism teaches us not to settle for the way things are, but to ask questions, to probe the status quo, so that we can improve the world around us. Disability rights seek to illuminate the voiceless, to develop strong and resilient communities. Judaism speaks to these goals, too. As Jews, we believe in fighting for justice together, whether or not we’re directly impacted by that injustice. 

I am reminded of the strength and grace of the student leaders who saw each and every day as an opportunity to fight for the dignity of others. But the battle for inclusion is not just their struggle. It’s incumbent upon each of us to change our world, rather than ask those with disabilities to change for us.

We can only achieve a more human world when the vulnerable speak for themselves.

Access and inclusion are more important now than ever; vaccine measures continue to ignore people with disabilities, even though they are more affected by COVID-19 than the average person. In this moment, when we’ve all been reminded of our own vulnerability, we should work together towards a world that is safer, healthier, and more inclusive for all.

“Nothing about us without us” is more than just a slogan. It means that we can only achieve a brighter, more connected, more human world, when vulnerable people speak for themselves. 

Ashton Rosin spends her time cultivating partnerships in the financial services industry as the leader of strategic relationships for a boutique investment firm in Los Angeles.

Ashton began her career in the disability advocacy ecosystem after obtaining degrees in International Development & Disability Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Ashton translated her disability work into advocacy efforts in Washington, D.C. before serving in a project management role within Israel Unlimited during her time as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Israel from 2014-2015.

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