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A “Nobel Prize for Disabilities”

December 18 2013 | by

Tony Coehlo speaks to a crowd at a Washington rally about CRPD

There are prizes for peace, there are prizes for science and now, there is an award that pays tribute to leaders with disabilities.

The Henry Viscardi Achievement Awards is in its second year, and while his name might not seem important—it is. Dr. Viscardi, who wore prosthetic legs, advised no less than eight presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, on hot-button disability issues of their days.

Any individual who has served as a force for change or helped to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities can apply for the 2014 awards. “It’s like the Nobel Prize for disabilities advocacy,” says John Kemp, CEO and President of The Viscardi Center. This year, the aim is to encourage more nominees who can give a “contemporary, international” face to the program, Kemp says.

He points to actor Michael J. Fox, who is breaking new ground on prime-time television on The Michael J. Fox Show, where much of the humor is about how society treats people with disabilities. “We want people from all walks of life, from business and innovation, to nonprofit and public service, to entertainment and athletics, Kemp says.

In other words, nominees need not be advocates in the traditional way, though many of last year’s winners certainly were. The nine 2013 winners included Tony Coehlo, a former Congressman and prime sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act; Laurie Ahern, President of Disability Rights International; and Michael Ashley Stein, who created the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, which offered pro bono legal services to help advance the tenets of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (The U.S. has not yet ratified the CRPD treaty, though 126 countries have, to date.)

There’s another group that Viscardi Center hopes to make more visible: Advocates for veterans with service-connected disabilities. Senator Bob Dole, a veteran who chairs the awards selection committee, says he wants to encourage nominees who have helped disabled veterans as they ”re-integrate into civilian life.”

Dr. Viscardi created Abilities, Inc. in 1952, which was renamed The Viscardi Center last year. He started Abilities out of his Long Island, N.Y. garage in 1952 and arranged with Grumman, General Electric, IBM and other industry giants to employ disabled World War II and Korean War veterans for factory and assembly work.

Given that his original vision was to aid employment, the Viscardi Center today has many corporate partners through the National Business & Disability Council, a resource for companies to hire qualified people with disabilities. One key initiative is Emerging Leaders, which offers internships to college students with disabilities at well-heeled area firms like Goldman Sachs and New York Life Insurance Company.

This isn’t the only award out there for disability rights advocates, but it’s one of the few focused closely on individual achievement and impact across a broad range of disciplines from academia to healthcare.

The American Association of People with Disabilities’ annual Hearne Award bestows $10,000 each to two emerging leaders with disabilities who exemplify leadership, advocacy, and dedication to and for the broader disability community. My good friend, Mark Barlet, founder of AbleGamers Foundation, received the award in 2012.

There’s the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, given annually to a Major League Baseball player. Member states of the United Nations can turn to the Franklin D. Roosevelt International Disability Rights Award, where the winning country nominates an associated non-governmental organization to receive a $50,000 grant.

Those interested in design and innovation can try for the Paralyzed Veterans’ Barrier-Free America Award, which honors leadership and innovation in the architectural and design communities for people with disabilities. One winner: The TreeHouse Guys, LLC, a company that designs accessible tree houses across camps and parks in America.

And a brief mention for a new award with which I’m associated: The Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability, administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University. Inaugural winners included reporters from California Watch and The New York Times Magazine, which commissioned an article about a Danish company that is hiring youth with autism.

So even if you’re no Emmy-award-winning actor, The Viscardi Center wants your nomination. If you think you’ve helped people with disabilities in a profound way this year, submit your nomination for The 2014 Henry Viscardi Achievement Awards by February 28, 2014, (or have someone do it on your behalf). There’s no monetary prize, but winners receive accolades among their peers and notable figures around the world. Good luck!


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