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A New Way For Blind People To Read At Bat And Bar Mitzvah

January 18, 2019

When 12-year-old Batya Sperling-Milner stood before her community at her bat mitzvah, a key coming-of-age ritual for Jews, she read from the Torah, just like any other Jewish kid. At the same time, the Saturday service at Ohev Sholom synagogue on a snowy D.C. Sabbath morning was absolutely unique to the little girl with the brown bob and the elaborate henna on her left hand.

The third of four children in a devout Modern Orthodox family, the daughter of a mother who is a Jewish educator and a father who is a lay cantor, Sperling-Milner never considered she’d not have a bat mitzvah, the ceremony marking the time when a Jew becomes responsible for keeping Jewish law. For kids in her crew, it’s also a key party, when you get literally showered with candy and gifts and receive a turn at the pulpit.

For Sperling-Milner, who is blind, and her family, it was just a question of how it would all happen.

It turned out that reading Torah in a service — and reading from the holy book for your community is a central ritual of a bat mitzvah — presents challenges for a blind person. The NW Washington family thought innovations might be needed, so they went on a journey to find them. By the end, Sperling-Milner’s mother, Aliza Sperling, wound up writing a 40-page paper that made the case for blind Torah readers and lectured from it in synagogue, launching a new conversation in the D.C. area’s Modern Orthodox community. And a software engineer created encoding and a computer program that may wind up transforming the Torah-reading experience for visually impaired people.

It all began last year, when Sperling-Milner, then 11, began to study the prayers and Torah section connected with the date of her bat mitzvah. She is already accustomed to often needing to get special school materials created — — on topics from Judaics to math, because they aren’t always available for the visually impaired. And to learn the nearly one hour of services she’d be leading in Hebrew, an organization called the Jewish Braille Institute was creating for her big fat, wide books of Braille Hebrew scripture.

But her family hadn’t known that there was no Braille system for the “trop,” the symbols that are above and below the Hebrew letters of the text that instruct the reader to sing the specific ritual chants, or sounds, to make at each word.

There are about 20 trops and each has several notes and sounds like a short tune.

Once Sperling-Milner started to practice last spring, she and her family realized they had a problem.

“How far did we get, Bat?” Joshua Milner, 45, a National Institutes of Health researcher of pediatric allergies and immunology, asked earlier this month of his second daughter during a practice session at Ohev Sholom.

“Not very far,” she laughed. Memorizing nearly an hour of the trops without being able to read them in practice (“read” in Braille) while learning the long Torah section seemed daunting. Forging ahead was the only option, they recalled.

“I didn’t think about it. I just knew I was going to do it,” she said.

The number of people in this situation is tiny. According to the National Federation of the Blind, there are about 62,000 blind children in the United States. Jews make up a little less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, according to Pew Research. But Sperling-Milner comes from a segment of the Jewish population that is even smaller — the segment that works to live very deliberately in decisions small and large by Jewish law.

It’s not that there aren’t Jewish kids — sighted or blind — who never really learn the trop markings. Some may listen to a cantor singing on a tape and try to memorize them. Sperling-Milner happened to get assigned a day with a longer-than-usual segment of scripture — called a “Torah portion” by Jews — and wanted to read the full thing herself, along with additional prayers that less devout children sometimes don’t learn.

That led a family friend in Israel, Danny Sadinoff, who is a software engineer, to passionately take up the question of how to quickly create a system she could use to study. Over time Sadinoff created two things. He made a Braille character to stick in the middle of a Hebrew Braille word that signals: “A trop is coming,” and then new Braille characters for all the trops. Then he wrote a computer program that translates the trop and combines it with existing Braille Bibles so that a reader can select any Bible verse and have the text with trop. Then a printer can spit out the corresponding Braille on paper.

The key challenge for the family is that they are Modern Orthodox — a group within Orthodoxy wishing to live completely according to the rules of the Torah, while also living and adapting to the modern world. For such Jews, messing up a single letter of the Torah or a single note of the chants would render her service problematic. For liberal Jews — which is the vast majority of American Jews — meeting every detail of the law wouldn’t matter as much.

But there were bigger issues for the family, that went well beyond Sperling-Milner’s access to materials and the difficulty of the task for her. The family also wanted the girl and her community to fully accept her reading. And in Orthodox Judaism, faith means religious practice, and there are rules and debates that go back millennia about who qualifies to carry out practices.

In preparing Sperling-Milner for her bat mitzvah, the family confronted the reality that there has long been a rabbinical debate about whether blind people — along with illiterate people — under Jewish law qualify to “read” the Torah before the community as public leaders. The debate began centuries ago, before publishing, and when many were illiterate. The rabbis banned public readers who memorized rather than read the Torah. God’s mandate was so important that nothing could be left to error.

“The rabbis felt there was a deep importance in seeing and reading the scroll. After all, [reading publicly] is reenacting God giving [Jews] the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every time we read, we are liturgically reenacting Matan Torah,” Lauren Tuchman, a blind Conservative rabbi from D.C., said of the Hebrew term for the biblical story of the Jews receiving scripture. “We want to honor the Torah, giving honor as we read it.”

This issue set Sperling, the girl’s mother, on a quest that resulted on Jan. 1 in a 2 ½-hour weekday lecture at the synagogue on the topic. She argued that blind Jews should be allowed to read from a Braille Torah. As a respected Jewish educator in the synagogue, Sperling’s case convinced some in the congregation that a blind person can count as a reader. For others, it simply opened up a topic they’d never considered.

Her paper argues that, in part, some of the older arguments against blind people reading have been rendered null by the creation of Hebrew Braille in the 1940s. She also argues for the pain felt by Jews who are kept from full access to the Torah.

Tuchman, who is part of the more liberal Conservative Movement and works with young Jews, said she can relate.

“When we say: ‘You can’t because of who you are,’ we are sending a very alienating message. And there is no question people are told they are spiritual outsiders,” she said. “If we are going to be in the highest degree of spiritual leadership, we have to know every Jew is part of the Jewish community.” Traditional Jews who care about following the law closely, she said, are balancing how to honor tradition along with being pragmatic.

Sperling-Milner, who grew up being read Torah stories at bedtime by her mom, said it was important to her to do what her friends could do, but also to do it by the book.

Holding close the thick text of white Braille papers created for her to practice, Sperling-Milner said during one weekday rehearsal that “when I stand up here, I think about people who read before me and I want to do what they did,” she said. “I want to do what you’re supposed to according to Jewish law. If this could become my Torah it would mean a lot.”

On her special day, friends painted her left hand — she uses both hands to read Braille but is a lefty — with henna to look like a ‘yad,’ or pointer device sighted people use to read from an actual Torah without touching the sacred page.

She gave an analysis in English about her segment, which included God plunging the Egyptians into darkness as one of the plagues set upon them as the Jews fled.

Of all the sections in the Torah on which her day could have been, Saturday was about darkness, she said with a sense of humor in her voice. It must be a sign from God!

Her reading impressed the congregation.

“Every single person in the synagogue showed up to hear her read, and we all felt we were in the presence of greatness,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi at Ohev Sholom.

That night at her party, Sperling-Milner’s parents played a special slide show of photos from her life. It’s a popular choice for such parties, and it’s what the girl wanted, even if she couldn’t see it herself.

Even so, she wanted to show her community the different parts of her life — just like any other bat mitzvah girl would. And Saturday, she did.


Chris Fonseca- Deaf Greatest Dancer Contestant

January 17, 2019

I haven’t seen the programme, but I wish him well and would be very happy to see him win the competition.

Nike’s Self Lacing, Phone-Controlled Basketball Shoes

January 17, 2019

These have just been launched and are due to go on sale in February. Nike says it’s going to roll the technology out to other shoes in its range.

Michael Sawh, editor of Wareable,wondered yesterday to the BBC whether “a shoe that removes the need for laces is necessary.”

Our editor answers that with a very big, very loud OF COURSE!!! A shoe that removes the need for laces is very necessary, and the idea of one is very exciting, for disabled people who can’t do up their own shoe laces.

When Nike finally rolls out this technology to its everyday trainers, and when the technology becomes a little more affordable than the current price of $350, disabled people who can’t do up their own shoe laces will be able to wear trendy trainers again. Gone will be the days of big, bulky velcro trainers and having to buy the same design of shoe ten times over.

These self lacing shoes will take disabled people one ‘step’ closer to independence- pun very much intended- and for that, our editor sincerely thanks their inventor.

We at Same Difference are already excitedly waiting for the rollout Nike has promised!




Costs Up, Not Down, In DWP PIP Disaster

January 16, 2019

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

A report released today by the Office For Budget Responsibility (OBR) reveals that far from cutting the cost of disability benefits by 20 per cent as the DWP intended, personal independence payment (PIP) has resulted in an increase in costs of 15 to 20 per cent.

When PIP was introduced, the DWP openly admitted that the aim was to cut the cost of disability benefits by 20%, by supposedly targeting payments on the most severely disabled.

PIP was introduced in April 2013. The full rollout was intended to be completed by 2015-16, with the savings in place by then.

In reality, by 2017-18 the rollout was only two thirds completed and the cost had increased by 15-20 per cent compared to what disability living allowance for working age claimants was projected to have cost.

PIP versus DLA spending

The OBR has listed some of the reasons for the unexpected cost of PIP as:

Volumes of new claims to PIP being higher than for DLA. DLA claims had been falling prior to PIP introduction, so we did not expect an increase in claims. But they have continued to increase over the past five years.

Success rates for new claims being higher than expected. Success rates for ‘normal rules’ claims were initially between 50 and 60 per cent, but as administrative processes stabilised they fell less than expected, to around 45 per cent. That was substantially higher than the 35 per cent assumed in the December 2012 forecast on the basis of the results from the 900-person sample of DLA claimants.

Reassessment volumes being lower than expected, initially from fewer natural migrations, but later from the successive delays to managed migration. Since PIP was originally expected to cost less than DLA, this increased forecast spending.

Success rates at reassessments being higher than expected. Natural migration success rates averaged 78 per cent in 2015-16, after reconsiderations and appeals. They have since fallen to just below the 74 per cent assumed in December 2012 for all reassessments. For managed reassessments, they have settled at around 82 per cent.

Outflows initially being lower than expected, despite PIP having a higher proportion of short-term awards than DLA. Greater use of fixed-term awards may have discouraged claimants from reporting changes of condition, instead awaiting their next renewal date. Outflows caught up once award review outcomes started to come through.

Average awards being significantly higher than expected, for both new claims (by

around £10 a week) and reassessments (by around £14 a week).

The OBR also notes that legal challenges have led to an increase in the cost of PIP, with just one case leading to an increase in awards of around £400 million a year, in addition to backdating.

This was a reference to the attempts by the DWP to make it much harder for claimants who have difficulty going out because of overwhelming psychological distress to successfully claim the PIP mobility component.

Those attempts were defeated by one brave claimant, supported by funds raised largely by Benefits and Work readers.

Once again a cost cutting reform has proved to simply be an expensive exercise in creating avoidable misery.

It happened with employment and support allowance, it has now happened with personal independence payment and it will happen with universal credit too.

You can download the full OBR Welfare Trends Report.

Bronwyn Berg On Having A Stranger Control Her Wheelchair

January 16, 2019

This Tweet has, quite rightly, had a huge reaction.

Have you ever had a similar experience, readers?


Transplant Hope For Becca Henderson, 24, After Heart Cancer

January 16, 2019

Having lost a close family member to heart cancer a few years ago, I couldn’t be happier to read this.

A woman who carries an artificial heart in a rucksack after her own organ was removed because of cancer has been added to the transplant list.

Becca Henderson, 24, has been given the green light to receive a donor heart after scans showed she has been clear of cancer for a year.

Now she is on the list, the Oxford University post-graduate student could get a new heart in weeks.

“At no point did it ever occur to me to give up,” she told the BBC.

“No matter how hard it is for me, even if it is hard for me, it will then be easier for the next person.

“I had my sister’s wedding and I had to get to that, I have other friends’ weddings, I’ve got my mum, my dad, and I’m not going to be outlived by the dog.”

In October she returned to study at Oxford – along with her parents, who are on standby in case the 7kg machine stops and the batteries need changing.

Ms Henderson said: “If anything goes wrong with the machine, they are the ones who can do the changeover in four minutes and save my life.”

Ms Henderson is one of two people in the UK with an artificial heart.

Heart surgeon Stephen Westaby said Ms Henderson “must be the most courageous young woman”.

He congratulated her on the news there had been no sign the cancer had spread.

“Miniscule numbers of people” ever had cancer in the heart, he said, and it was the “most fearful condition”.

DWP disclose controversial mortality rates of those awaiting PIP assessments

January 15, 2019

Politics and Insights

Image result for PIP assessments kittysjonesThe Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has disclosed that over 21,000 ill and disabled people died waiting for their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment to be completed, between April 2013 and 30 April 2018. PIP is claimed by people with a range of health conditions and disabilities, many of which are chronic, degenerative or life limiting.

newtonSarah Newton, the Minister of State for Disabled People, published the figures on 11 January following a question raised in parliament by Labour MP Madeleine Moon in December: “How many people have died while waiting for their personal independence payment assessment to be completed; and what were the conditions those people died from?”

Newton responded: “All benefit claims can be made under the special rules for people who are terminally ill which will mean that they are fast tracked. These are currently being cleared within 6 working days for new claimants to PIP. The…

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