How could it happen?

After reading a recent blog piece about a New York State brain injury council being in total disarray a friend of mine asked, “How could it happen?”

Good question.

How could a council, formed by an act of a state legislature, drift so glaringly far from its mandated purpose? The New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Council (TBISCC) is, “Under Article 27-CC of the New York State Public Health Law…mandated to recommend long-range objectives, goals and priorities, as well as provide advice on the planning, development and coordination of a comprehensive, statewide TBI program.” Yet, as readers of this blog already know, nothing has happened.

There are two people claiming to be chair and vice-chair who aren’t. If the council were to abide by its by-laws, one of the two hasn’t been a member of the council for more than nine years.

What is it that leads people to turn a blind eye, remain silent, including other council members, when others blatantly break the rules? That, and what leads those who break the rules to do so knowing their actions will damage the lives of people with disabilities, in this case New Yorkers with brain injuries? It is not a coincidence that several of the current vacancies on the council are meant for people with brain injuries, yet the agenda for the upcoming December 10 meeting doesn’t mention this.

Back to, how could this happen?

When my friend first asked the question the first thing that came to mind was Abraham Lincoln’s quote: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” 

Sit in on a few meetings with Michael Kaplen ( he still insists he is the council’s chair) and you’ll quickly learn he is a bully. I’ve been in meetings with him as participant and observer and witnessed him yelling at people and threatening people. Judith Avner, whose term on the council has been over for more than nine years yet still claims to be the council’s vice-chair, is another kettle of fish entirely. She charms, cajoles, and, were there awards for lip-service skill, would win gold or silver every time.

Having said all this, Avner and Kaplen are not hard to understand. Both strike me as being rather weak and insecure people who, by inflicting their will on others are able to feel some sense of control in life and some sense of, well, power. But what’s the cost? New Yorkers with brain injuries and their loved ones suffer as a result. The fact Kaplen and Avner, both attorneys, know their behavior leaves New Yorkers with brain injuries in the lurch reveals a lack of character.

The real question is, what empowers the enablers? The New York State Department of Health knows full well the council is a mess. Thus far it has said and done nothing. In fact, it sends high-ranking staff to council meetings and answers some council questions.  Perhaps one reason for the lack of DOH oversight can gleaned by  considering a July 5, 2011 blog post: “Minutes from a September 9, 2003 meeting say the council drafted a letter to then DOH official Betty Rice expressing the council’s dissatisfaction “with not being allowed to review (TBI Waiver Manual’s) revisions.”  This underscores what has been an ongoing pattern with the DOH for years; they are not interested in outside input. An ineffective council is to its liking.

But why the silence from other council members? Why the silence from members of the NY State Legislature? What are people afraid of, if, in fact, it is fear that gets in their way?

Perhaps, if council members, and others, listened to and heeded the advice of two heroes of mine (and many others) things might take a turn for the better.

  • Elie Wiesel: “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  “Our lives begin to end the day we become  silent about things that matter.”

This writer did send an email along with information about the council to Dr. Nirav Shah, the New York State Commissioner for the Department of Health.

Time to say goodbye to BIANYS’ Avner

Until and unless the board of the Brain Injury Association of NY State takes action, BIANYS will remain an insular presence controlled by a dictatorial executive director who should resign or be fired.

It seems clear that executive director Judith Avner has no real interest in truly interacting with or listening to BIANYS members, including those of us who live with brain injuries. She  shuts down  any and all attempts to improve transparency, maintains a dictatorial grip on the BIANYS board, website, Facebook page,  and newsletter, and has the board president marching to her orders. However, Ms. Avner is all too happy to ask anyone and everyone to donate money, appear at fundraisers, and have her picture taken with any and all celebrities who support BIANYS, mistakenly thinking BIANYS does what Ms. Avner says it does. I suspect it is safe to assume Ms. Avner is diligent about accepting her roughly $2,000 a week paycheck.

Save for its remaining valiant support group facilitators (volunteers all) and a small group of underpaid staff, most of whom are equally valiant in their work with those who sustained brain injuries in their youth, not as adults,  BIANYS has become little more than window dressing thanks to Ms. Avner, a seemingly anemic board, and a cluster of sycophants.

It’s hard enough managing life with a brain injury. It’s even harder when those who claim to care about you and say they advocate for you do anything but care and advocate, unless, of course, you count lip service. 

Over the past few weeks several BIANYS members and former BIANYS board members have been involved in series of email exchanges with BIANYS seeking answers to several questions and offering to help, not hurt, BIANYS, if, in fact, the answers are not all one would hope they’d be. While Ms. Avner will say all the things one would hope to hear at fundraisers and  BIANYS conferences, she refuses to even respond to any of the emails, some of which asked BIANYS to create an online forum for open discussion, whether that be a message board or the discussion component of their FB page.

Instead, the task of responding was given to Marie Cavallo, the BIANYS board president, a volunteer. As one person who read the email exchanges observed: “It looks like Marie’s lost her mojo.” Ms. Cavallo said BIANYS rejected the notion of a message board because it would be too time consuming. She said BIANYS rejected opening the FB page to discussion because, she claimed, healthcare providers had used the page to tout their wares. When it was pointed out that FB allows one to block companies and individuals, the next excuse she offered for nixing the FB idea was it’s too time consuming. Then, in what gave us all a flutter of hope, she said she would talk with BIANYS staff about opening the FB page (One wonders why it’s the board president and not the executive director talking with staff when the executive director is their supervisor. Perhaps Ms. Avner doesn’t have time for staff either.). Since then Ms. Cavallo has chosen to walk in lockstep with Ms. Avner and has ignored our emails and, needless to say, their FB page is still closed to discussion.

You may be wondering what were the questions we asked. Here’s a taste: Can you tell us how BIANYS informs its membership what it is advocating for? How does BIANYS decide what it will advocate for and how does BIANYS include its members in the discussion? (At one point Ms. Cavallo pointed out that BIANYS issues an annual report and publishes newsletters on its website. All true. But you’ve got a better chance of finding a needle in the Sahara desert than you do of finding word-one about BIANYS’ advocacy in the annuals reports or newsletters). We also asked how many person with a brain injury does BIANYS currently employ and how many has BIANYS employed since Ms. Avner took the helm on or about 1987. No answer.

Lest you think any of us are out to do anything other than hold BIANYS accountable let me say that in our emails we offered to help and support BIANYS in identifying individuals with brain injuries for employment and issues of advocacy. No response.

Lastly (for now), there are times the choices we make in life reveal our true colors. Several years ago when I was on the BIANYS board a fellow board member died. This board member, like me lived with a brain injury and had been in poor health for some time. However, poor health or not,  this person’s heartfelt commitment to BIANYS and devotion to those of us who live with brain injuries and our loves ones was unflinching. Had anyone on that board suffered a calamity in his or her life this person, poor health or not, would be there for them come hell or high water. Yet, when this good and decent human being left this world, Ms. Avner and Ms. Cavallo were no shows at the memorial service.

And then there’s this. At the first board meeting following this person’s death, Ms. Cavallo announced that Ms. Avner (who was sitting next to her) had been in frequent contact with the board member’s family and the family was doing well. Not long after this, I had the chance to have coffee with two members of the family (the board member’s spouse and child). I said I was glad Ms. Avner had been staying in touch with them. Both looked stunned. Ms. Avner had never called them, not even once.

Like I said at the outset, until and unless the board of the Brain Injury Association of NY State takes action, BIANYS will remain an insular presence controlled by a dictatorial executive director who should resign or be fired.

An Update for My Readers

Since the birth of this blog in late 2006 this has been the longest stretch of “silence” on my part. I thought it might be a good idea to bring regular blog readers (there are more than 1,500 of you) up to speed.

As some of you know already, I recently moved to Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts. I am steadfastly going through box after box of my belongings, deciding what to keep and what to toss. It is astonishing how much stuff one accumulates over the years. I work on this culling process on a daily basis and, after careful calculation, have determined that I will complete it on April 15, 2032, at 2:07 p.m.

I have several times been tempted to write about New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state agency that would, or so the governor says, pursue allegations of abuse of people with disabilities in the care of the state. In my view the proposal is little more than a headline grabber intended to make the governor look good – or so he hopes. It is especially troubling when the 100 or so companies that came out in support of the proposal are, for the most part, the very companies that would be overseen by the agency. Disability rights advocate Michael Carey is spot on accurate when he said the governor’s proposal was an example of the fox guarding the henhouse. Carey’s 13-year-old son, Jonathan, who lived with autism, was killed while in the care of the state.

I advocated for people with brain injuries for years in New York State and, until recently, the state never informed people with brain injuries what the results of their complaints were. This withholding of information was by design, not by happenstance, and it serves to underscore Mr. Carey’s point.

If New York or any state is sincere about tracking allegations of abuse for those under state care, they’ll make sure it is done by an independent group. The fact the proposed agency would be a state agency serves to document the insincerity of the proposal.

Here’s a suggestion. If New York State wants to get serious about protecting people with disability in its care, an independent entity like the Center for Disability Rights out of Rochester might well be the way to go.

Enough on this – for now.

I’ve been back on my bike for the first time in a long time and it feels good. I live near Mount Greylock. At nearly 3,500 feet it is the tallest peak in Massachusetts and there is a road filled with switchbacks that winds its way to the top. The climb is about six and a half miles and I have every intention of biking that before winter arrives. I also have my eyes on a bike ride of about 50 miles to help raise funds for the Western Massachusetts Food Bank.

And, of course, I am reading, voraciously as always. I do not think I would have lived as long as I have without books. I mean this sincerely. They have provided refuge for me during difficult times and vacations for me during good times.

I’ve received a emails from people lamenting the fact I was not at this years conference hosted by the Brain Injury Association of NY State. I was not invited. BIANYS leadership does not like being held accountable, at least not publicly, and certainly not by me. There are good people on the BIANYS board and I think those at the head of BIANYS are essentially good people. But they need to humble up and realize that the world, meaning, in this case, the association, does not revolve around them.

I can remember some time ago when BIANYS leadership, to its credit, had a number of us who facilitated support groups meet to discuss ways of improving and growing the support groups. Nothing came of it. In fact, when I suggested that BIANYS take a page from the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts and run background checks on group facilitators, the idea was immediately shot down by Judy Avner, the executive director, because, she said, it would be too costly. I pointed out, to no avail, that were a group facilitator to do something truly out of line somewhere down the road, not only would group members suffer, but, when it came to light that BIANYS willfully chose not to run background checks on group facilitators, things would be far more costly.

Enough on this – for now.

Those of you who know me and know my own struggles with my brain injury and PTSD will be happy to know I am getting out of the house more than I was a few months ago. I am, like you are, a work in progress.

It has been good writing this rather rambling missive to you all. I wish I could truly tell my regular readers how very grateful I am to you, and how humbling it is for me to know you read my writing on a regular basis. To those passing by, thank you for the visit. And to all of you, I hope life is treating you well, and always, always, remember to live.

And yes, I’ll be back.

When it comes to equal rights, it is personal

I can think of no better time than now, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to say a few words to all, including those who, if they abide by the requirements of their respective roles, are bound to the notion that people with disabilities deserve equal rights meaning, they deserve their freedom. There can be no freedom without equal rights. My disability is a brain injury as a result of being held-up and shot in the head in 1984.

In my state  of New York the struggle for equal rights for people with disabilities (and seniors) often finds itself confronting those who are seeking to save money at the expense of those rights which includes the right to live as independently as possible. In some cases this means having access to the services they deserve to make this possible. The struggle is, at times, with some of those who loudly pronounce their support for those of us with disabilities, but, when the forces that seek to deny us our rights raise their heads, they fall silent.

Over the years I have made friends and lost friends because I hold people, companies, agencies, councils, committees, and governments accountable for their actions. There are some who think that I start out holding these folks accountable publicly. Not true. In many instances, and, in some cases, for significant periods of time, I have held the aforementioned accountable in conversations behind the scenes. But when that fails, the dysfunction and the glaring disloyalty to their professed cause must be brought into the light of day. There is no doubt I have angered some and there is no doubt some have taken my actions personally.

I don’t advocate for equal rights to make people angry and I don’t advocate for equal rights to wound someone personally. Has it ever occurred to anyone that having your equal rights denied might make you angry? Has it ever occurred to anyone that having your equal rights denied is personal? When you lose your equal rights, you lose your freedom. For some of us with disabilities, losing our freedom includes losing our freedom to remain in the community! Our freedom to choose where we live, what we eat, what we wear, when we sleep, when we get up, where we go during the day, what we hear, what we see…   This is no exaggeration. I wish it was, but it isn’t. Just imagine losing your freedom in any or all of the ways just mentioned and then ask yourself if it wouldn’t make you angry. Ask yourself if maybe just maybe you might take the loss of your freedom personally.

There are some groups in New York who truly do practice what they preach. The Center for Disability Rights  headed up by Bruce Darling, a man I genuinely love and respect, comes to mind. On the CDR homepage, Mr. Darling writes, “Some people say we are never satisfied. Others try to portray us as complainers. I feel we just call it as we see it.” Thank God they do.  And what is it they do? They hold everyone accountable and, at times,  they do so publically. After all, sunshine is the best disinfectant.

And then too there is the extraordinary group, ADAPT, whose battle cry is, accurately and not surprisingly, Free Our People!  And, in my state, we have NYSILC, the New York State Independent Living Council, along with some  Independent Living Centers across the state who are indeed remarkable. But we need more groups like this. The fledgling Kahrmann Advocacy Coalition has, in a very short time, taken the role as the largest grassroots advocacy group for people with brain injuries in the state. Why? Because it was a huge void that needed (and deserved) to be filled.

If all that’s been said here and other places about the need for public advocacy for equal rights has not swayed you, then perhaps the words of the man whose day this is might help. Perhaps his words might help those who remain silent when the rights of any people are being denied to change their ways and speak out.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

  • “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
  • "A right delayed is a right denied.”
  • “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
  • “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
  • “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
  • “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

Let us also remember that the reason this day belongs to Dr. King, and therefore all of us, is because, like CDR, ADAPT, the NAACP and more, he called it the way he saw it, and he did so in a way we all heard, understood and believed.

We shall overcome.


Lip Service Advocates

Even at 57 a deep sadness staggers me when I find myself realizing that the claim some make to being advocates for people with brain injuries is only true when it  makes them look good, gets them attention, and or when they and only they are calling the shots. They are the lip-service advocates, advocates when being advocates is comfortable, risk free.

Real advocates in the world of disability, and I know quite a few, Bruce Darling who heads up the Rochester, New York-based Center for Disability Rights, comes to mind, will tell you advocacy can be scary, lonely, unsettling, heartbreaking, angering, and, at times, joyous. It is, they will tell you, anything but easy. You have to be willing to go into the dysfunction storm, not flee it the moment it appears.

It is, sadly, not unique that there are those who, needing to feel a sense of control in their life, gravitate to the world of disability because large swaths of society’s so-called support systems make those of us who live with a disability controllable. Want those services? Want that wheelchair? Want that assistive technology? Want to come to our conference? Want that subsidy? Be prepared to pay the piper which, in part, will require your willingness to sing our praises, even though we don’t deserve them.

Not a price I’m willing to pay.