The Boggs Center (NJ UCEDD) Holds Arab American Communities and Disabilities Conference

January 31, 2012

"We are making history here!" said Amani Shahin, one of the Arab American panelists at Arab American Communities and Disabilities Conference held at the Somerset Doubletree Hotel on December 10, 2011. Ms. Shahin, who has a sibling with a developmental disability, was one of a dynamic panel of parents, siblings and individuals with disabilities. The panel, moderated by Raja Salloum, a therapist at the Mental Health Center of Passaic County, followed an excellent keynote by Helen Samhan, the former Executive Director of the Arab American Institute based in Washington, DC, who gave the whole audience a rich overview of the history and culture of Arab Americans in the United States.

The conference was coordinated by The Boggs Center, working in collaboration with its NJ ADD partners, Disability Rights New Jersey and the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, other statewide disability organizations, including the NJ Division of Developmental Disabilities, the NJ Division of Disability Services, and the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, other co-sponsors and partners, and Arab American organizations. The Arab American Communities and Disabilities conference was the third in a series of cultural awareness conferences. The first two conferences focused on Latino and South Asian communities, respectively.

Over 150 people attended the conference. Approximately half of the registrants were families and professionals from Arab American communities and networks in New Jersey; the other half was professionals who work for disability and human service organizations in New Jersey. Half of the workshops were geared toward helping Arab Americans to understand the resources and services open to them as citizens and residents of New Jersey, from infancy to adulthood. The other half were focused on issues, customs, and cultural dynamics within Arab American communities that need to be understood in order to develop more effective, culturally sensitive supports for families and individuals.

Why was it "history making?" The conference was the first conference that participants were aware of that focused on Arab Americans and disabilities in the United States. The strong support in planning the conference from leaders in Arab American organizations in New Jersey led to articles in Arabic newspapers, a first ever Radio Tahrir interview with leaders of the conference on disability in the Arab American community about ten days before the conference, and the filming of interviews and parts of the conference for weekly show called "The Bridge" on ART, Arab Radio and TV.

But it was the spirit of the day and the pervasive sense of gratitude for a place to talk about issues related to disabilities that were the real highlights. Commissioner Jennifer Velez, in her opening remarks, noted the commitment of the NJ Department of Human Services to serve Arab American individuals and families more effectively. The spirit led to a decision midway through the day to organize an Arab American support network in New Jersey for families. (For information, email AAdisabilitysupport@googlegroups.com).  

Everyone enjoyed a wonderful lunch of Middle Eastern cuisine and the chance to browse nearly 20 exhibits for more information on available supports and services. Maysoon Zayid, a nationally known comedian and commentator who happens to have cerebral palsy, was also part of the panel. The people who wanted to meet her afterward were one indication of her celebrity status.

For more information, see the conference resources, including the conference program and plenary recordings at http://rwjms.umdnj.edu/boggscenter/conferences/CulturalAwarenessConference.html.