Eric Rosenthal, Disability Rights Pioneer, Wins Charles Bronfman Prize
06/04/2013 - 14:00
Kenneth Kalman
Eric Rosenthal visiting people with disabilities and documenting conditions in Romania. Photo courtesy Charles Bronfman Prize
Eric Rosenthal visiting people with disabilities and documenting conditions in Romania. Photo courtesy Charles Bronfman Prize

For the first time in its nine-year history, the Charles Bronfman Prize is going to a disability rights advocate, the award committee announced on June 3.

Eric Rosenthal, the founder and executive director of Disability Rights International, will join such past recipients of the $100,000 prize as inaugural winner Jay Feinberg, who started the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation; Rachel Andres, founder of the Jewish World Watch Solar Cooker Project and Karen Tal, former principal of the Bialik-Rogozin School and co-founder of Education Insights.

As Disability Rights International’s leader over the past two decades, Rosenthal has documented the conditions individuals with disabilities face worldwide and fostered international leadership to protect the rights of persons with disabilities.   

"The Jewish principle from the Torah -- Do not oppress the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt -- has been very powerful in my life,” Rosenthal said on receiving the award. “I feel that from personal experience and from our collective history we as a people should be extra aware of excluding people from society. We are a people who care deeply about family and community, so if there is any group that is going to care about helping the disabled among us grow up with families and be part of communities and not marginalize and put them away, it ought to be our own Jewish community."

Rosenthal has played a major role in securing ratification by 130 countries of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But the challenge of delivering on the convention’s promises remains.

“We still have a lot to do,” Rosenthal said. “The abuses on the ground still exist. The segregation still exists. But I hope within 10 years we'll be able to bring about a change in attitude and an understanding that human rights law prohibits placing any child in an institution on the basis of their disability."

Unlike the United States, Israel has ratified the treaty, for example. But Israeli parents say both children and adults in Israel are treated harshly, and segregated institutions are common.

"Embedded in Eric's heart is the belief that we are all created in the image of God, and so every human must be treated with respect,” said Bronfman. “By tirelessly exposing the horrendous conditions under which some of the most vulnerable among us are institutionalized and forgotten, and forcing the world to take notice and make change, he exemplifies how one individual can turn values into impact."

Kenneth “Kenny” Kalman is a recent graduate of American University and is a summer fellow with Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi as she starts a new non-Profit, RespectAbility. In the fall, Kenny plans to attend the University of Delaware as an MPA candidate. Through his fellowship and studies, Kenny hopes to gain knowledge on and open the door into the field of disability advocacy, especially that which occurs in the Jewish world. Kenny has multiple disabilities, including Asperger’s and a genetic connective tissue disorder called Stickler Syndrome, and has also taken part in many Jewish opportunities, such as Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s Tikvah and Atzmayim programs. He seeks to ensure each individual, regardless of ability, has access and is fully included in such opportunities.   

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