Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities works for civil rights

By Logan C. Ritchie

Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities Executive Director Eric Jacobson poses with first lady Sandra Deal and Gov. Nathan Deal at the 2013 Disability Day at the Capitol downtown

Eric Jacobson, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, got his start at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Parents seeking support from Federation in the 1990s turned him on to the needs and rights of those living with disabilities.

He talked to the Atlanta Jewish Times to mark the arrival of February, which is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. As part of the month’s observance, Jacobson will speak at Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell during Shabbat services Feb. 20 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit kehillatchaim.org.

He also is preparing for the annual Disability Day at the Georgia Capitol on March 5; visit GCDD.org to get more information and register.

How did this work become your passion?

This is a civil rights issue. It’s easy to get caught up in the energy and passion of people involved with fighting for the rights of those with disabilities. If you make a place in the world for those with disabilities, you can make a place for everybody.

You have been at the GCDD since 1992. What is your greatest accomplishment?

My greatest accomplishment is the creation of communities that bring people with and without disabilities together, figuring out how to integrate people within communities so that those with disabilities are contributing members of a community.

For example?

In Clarkston, we worked with a mom who lives in an apartment complex with a child with disabilities. There was no place for children to play safely — the local playground was concrete and full of glass. We worked with the landlord to build a playground for all children, which brought other moms together. This group of working moms discovered commonalities, formed a co-op day care, and now the children with disabilities are in an inclusive day care program.

The moral of the story is …

Clarkston residents recognized that common interests are more important than interests that tear people apart.

What will March 5, Disability Day at the Capitol, look like?

We use it as an opportunity for people to get in front of their legislators. There’s a huge energy. We get 2,500 people for one of the largest events GCDD hosts. When I am talking with that group, I absorb that energy, and there is no better place for me to be. We have a great time showing legislators the power of disability.

If you could have one guest who really made the event amazing, who would it be?

Can I name two? President Barack Obama and Rep. John Lewis. The president has done so much to elevate the conversation about disabilities. He encourages employment, supports efforts to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and closed institutions, which is what needed to happen. And John Lewis because of the civil rights connection.

I knew you were going to say John Lewis!

You did? Both together would make an incredible voice about where we need to go as a country, as a people, as people with disabilities. Either of them would deliver the exact message I want to hear resonated at that rally.

Years ago I chaperoned seventh-graders from the Epstein School to Washington, D.C. John Lewis came to speak. There was John Lewis wading into a crowd of seventh-graders, sitting with them on the steps of the Capitol, telling these kids, “I know your grandmother. She and I marched together.” It was a tear-jerker. This man was telling the story of civil rights to seventh-graders, who have no attention span; they were mesmerized. He’d be so great at Disability Day.

Have you reached out?

Yes. It’s still a possibility. You never know.

What is different about this year’s rally?

This year is the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It is considered a civil right that those people with disabilities can go to work, have a place to live, be an active part of their community, a member of society. There will be events in Georgia and across the country in celebration of ADA. We are using that day as the kickoff for the Georgia celebration of ADA.

This year’s motto?

Fulfilling the promise of ADA with real careers, real homes, real communities and real learning.

What is the most important issue on the docket this year for legislation?

The wait list: 7,500 people are waiting for services. That number is actually low because some people have never registered for the services they need. We estimate the true number to be around 20,000. We have to talk about what we are willing to pay for and what we’re not. For many with developmental disabilities and their families, they want to be part of community, but they need support. Those are often paid supports [funded by the government]. If we aren’t willing to ante up dollars, we will leave people in the dust.

How do you hope to connect the Jewish community with disability issues during your talk on Feb. 20?

I’ve learned over the last 20-something years to listen to people’s stories and pull out the gifts that people have. Once we recognize there are gifts, how do we use those to make a congregation a better place? If our synagogue community is segregating even one person, shame on us. My grandparents and elders taught me that we are all in this together. We take care of each other. If we are not willing to tell legislators that more money needs to go to the wait list, we miss a great opportunity.