The Daily Challenges of Disability Addressed by Innovative Sixth Graders

Photo courtesy JCC Manhattan JJP
Photo courtesy JCC Manhattan JJP

I started noticing them three years ago.
And then, I couldn’t unsee them.

Stubborn offenders in this New York City I’ve called home for the past five years.
I grew obsessed.

I started counting them…

One in front of the bar.
My own building has three.
Two at my favourite restaurant.
The coffee shop has one. Steps.

I am a product of the Jewish day school system. Rabbi Tarfon’s Pirke Avot courses through me: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.” I had to do something. Admittedly, this rude awakening only occurred because a roommate was dating a man who uses a wheelchair.  I could have gone my whole life without knowing the full impact of steps’ imprint on our civic landscape. I was earning a Master’s at NYU’s ITP program, a wild design and engineering program that awakened my inner builder. A class in Assistive Technology showed me  the power of individuals to envision and build their own solutions. I decided to make my thesis the making of prototypes for portable wheelchair ramps.

As part of the research process I did something… intense. I “accepted upon” myself T9 spinal cord injury, and spent a week in a wheelchair. Partners at Wheeling Forward lent me a chair. An OT professor gave me a few lessons in basic navigation.

I had to move out of my apartment (narrow four story walkups have no love for big wheels). Transport took me at least 2x as long. Hello buses. (Less than 20% of subway stations in NYC are accessible.) Many an Alice in Wonderland moment was had with kitchen counters (so tall!). February’s wintery mix trashed five pairs of gloves because they picked up the wheel’s grime. Strangers grabbed the chair in an effort to “help” me cross the street faster (ask first!)

Fast forward a few years. My thesis work lives on after work and on weekends, and I’ve found a new outlet for my passion, the classroom. I am a proud founding teacher of the Jewish Journey Project, at JCC Manhattan. It’s a project-based-learning breath of fresh Hebrew school air. I conceived Jewish Disability Makerspace, a course that would expose students to the daily challenges of disability and also give them the tools and design thinking to create innovative solutions.

Through my research, I spoke with passionate leaders in the access world. Luke Anderson being a standout. Luke became quadriplegic after a biking accident 16 years ago. The multitude of single step storefronts that barred his access frustrated him to action. So he founded the StopGap Foundation, a community-led organization that has brought 800+ ramps to storefronts across Canada.

I knew I needed to bring Stopgap to America, and my classroom seemed the perfect vehicle… One winter’s Sunday in February, my students gathered in anticipation around a wheelchair I’d brought in for the day. They all took turns navigating JCC Manhattan atop four wheels. And then we were off to the streets of Manhattan to convince storefronts to let us build a free custom ramp for them. We partnered with the Adaptive Design Association who provided the tools and assistance to construct the ramp.

This past Sunday, I’m proud to say, our 6th grade Jewish Disability Makerspace brought Stopgap to NYC. In the spirit of experiential Jewish education, the ethos of my teaching, the student’s created the ceremony.

Jake, 6th grade, told a crowd of parents and supporters “You may be wondering why this ramp is firetruck red. We wanted people to notice the ramp from far away, and for the ramp to be a bold statement.”

Cecilia, another transformed 6th grader, proudly shared that “This ramp is important because it ensures that all people who want to access this storefront can. This includes wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, delivery people, and many more, which makes it a universal design. We are also hoping this inspires many store owners on the Upper West Side, and across Manhattan, and really the whole world, to make their stores accessible to all.”

Even the store manager, Eric, was moved to share these words: “It’s one thing to be accessible, which we are in the back and side of the store, it’s another thing to be welcoming. And this ramp enables that.”

Amanda Gelb is fascinated by the process of bringing information and ideas to life. She completed an advanced degree in Interactive Telecommunications at NYU’s Tisch school for the Arts. Amanda studied Social Innovation at McGill University where she also served as Youth Program Director for Canada’s largest and oldest synagogue. She studied Experiential Jewish Education at Yeshiva University. In addition to being a proud founding faculty member of the Jewish Journey Project, Amanda consults at the nexus of innovation and design. She is currently leading UX Research for a covert Virtual Reality team at Google NY.