05/31/2013 04:39 EDT | Updated 07/31/2013 05:12 EDT

Empowering Individuals with Developmental Disabilities

The launch of synapsABILITY -- a social venture that will evolve into a digital platform connecting individuals with disabilities and the support networks that care for them -- promises to bring the power of social media to an increasingly cash-strapped system of care.

The launch of synapsABILITY -- a social venture that will evolve into a digital platform connecting individuals with disabilities and the support networks that care for them -- promises to bring the power of social media to an increasingly cash-strapped system of care. As government funding dwindles restlessly -- most recently, the proposed axing of the Ontario Disability Support Program -- now is a critical time to harness the creative energy and spirit that exists in spades within Ontario's disability care networks. After all, government is unable to be everything to everyone, and, in some cases, government may not be best placed to act.

There is no reason why people with disabilities should not benefit from the panoply of social media tools available today. Furthermore, initiatives like synapsABILITY will allow for meaningful and global social connections to be formed. The platform will enable knowledge sharing between individuals (notice I do not say "patients" or "clients"), family members, and care professionals - indeed all of those people who constitute a compassionate, adaptive system of care. Moreover, it will provide opportunities for accessing resources and networks around common areas of interest and need in an effort to build effective, "hyperlocal" communities. The aim is also to create a youthful and accessible mechanism for empowerment, ensuring the voices of people with disabilities are at the centre of important conversations concerning issues directly affecting them.

My friend, Jeff Bernstein, and his co-founder, Joe McDonald, envisioned the project as something that would be of value and utility for themselves as they support their brothers, both of whom have autism. Similar to Jeff, my interest and involvement in synapsABILITY is fully inspired by the individuals with whom I have interacted - my friends - who have disabilities. I have had the privilege of working with youth and adults with developmental disabilities in a number of contexts - from Ottawa to Jerusalem - and I'm grateful for the opportunity to reflect on those experiences here.


Part 1: Stepping Onstage

I say this often and loudly: theatre changed my life. When I was 11, I started taking drama classes at the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama. In the blink of an eye, I transformed from a perplexed, shy kid to a confident, collaborative performer. It wasn't long before I found myself passing on my skills in drama and music to others. At 14, I began working as a counsellor at Ottawa's popular Dovercourt Recreation Association, and a significant number of my drama campers were on the autism spectrum. While these campers posed behavioural challenges when transitioning between activities, when they took their spot onstage they found a place of exceptional focus and commitment. To the delight of their families (not to mention us counsellors), they rose to the challenges of memorizing lines, following musical cues, and executing choreography. Still, I was quite young at the time and did not fully grasp the magic occurring before my eyes.

In the Fall of 2009, during my first year studying psychology at the University of Ottawa, I auditioned for a unique production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The Tamir Foundation of Ottawa, which is dedicated to assisting people with developmental disabilities realize their potential in a supportive, Jewish environment, decided to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a full-scale production that would showcase the talents of the Tamir participants - including the members of its well-known choir - performing alongside local actors, both professional and amateur.

Since the final product was a sold-out success, it is easy for all involved to forget that the "Joseph" rehearsal process was, although rewarding, tumultuous and fraught with creative and logistical disagreements. There were major questions to answer, and the clock was ticking towards opening night. What should be the role of the Tamir participants in the show? Is there a possibility to include Tamir participants who are non-verbal in the show? How should the rehearsal process be structured?

There is no magic formula, but somehow our ensemble managed to pull off high production values and at the same time ensure everyone had a meaningful experience. Most characters in the show were doubled up - for instance, a professional actor and a very talented Tamir member shared the role of Joseph. Instead of 12 sons for Jacob, there were about 24 (I played Benjamin!), and so forth. This doubling up was crucial, since it allowed for us to form close relationships with our primary partner, who in my case was Frank, a gracious and energetic performer.

Frank and I backstage at Centrepointe Theatre, preparing to go on stage as brothers in Tamir's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

Fortunately, the producers had the foresight to commission a half-hour documentary - directed with sensitivity by Pixie Cram - covering the creative process and shining light on the lives and perspectives of the Tamir participants. The film has been screened at festivals in North America and Israel, and can be viewed online for free here.

The "Joseph" experience was elating and eye opening in many ways. Putting on a musical is always a feat of the extraordinary, requiring a massive, hard-working team. This particular production had all of that and the participation of the entire Tamir staff and the families of the participants. It was touching to observe - and to be part of - this encounter between the theatre community and the "Tamir gang".

Luckily for me, my involvement in "Joseph" was not a one-off experience, but rather the beginning of my involvement in empowering youth and adults with developmental disabilities to gain confidence, teamwork skills, as well as a proud Jewish identity. Just a month after "Joseph" opened and closed at Centrepointe Theatre in Ottawa, I headed to Camp Ramah (near beautiful Huntsville, Ontario) for my first summer at a residential camp. I was a counsellor in the Tikvah program, which enables campers with special needs to have socially and spiritually enriching summer experiences.

Like "Joseph," Ramah was a transformative experience, and I look forward to reflecting on it in my next post. In the meantime, I invite you to join in the synapsABILITY conversation. Have you or someone you love been touched by disability? What are the greatest things you have learned while engaging in initiatives that enable inclusion and integration?

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