My name is Jacob Waltuck, and my friend Jacob Ross and I interviewed each other in honor of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which is December 3. Both of us are employees at the 14th Street Y, and we’ve known each other since high school. Both of us share the same love of community service and disability rights. So, we’ve interviewed each other to talk about how we want to build better lives for ourselves and other people. Here is a segment of our conversation.
JR: How do you see yourself?
JW: Working on films and stories, helping people and animals, learning how to handle situations on my own and also collaborating with other people.
JR: Who was the first person you knew with a disability?
JW: The first people I knew with disabilities were the other kids I was friends with in childhood.
JR: What are the most challenging parts of your community?
JW: A lot of noise, sometimes it’s hard when there are a lot of crowds. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got to fake an emotion, I try to keep my disability in control, but sometimes things get overwhelming
JR: I can relate to that, things get overwhelming, we have to power through it.
JW: We do our best.
JR: How do you see yourself in your community?
JW: I see myself as an individual, someone who’s taking time to be a part of it, someone who is willing to do good things for the community
JR: How do you see the future?
JW: Being more aware of people with disabilities. I see myself building a positive community. Disability is a right.
JW: What does your job mean to you?
JR: It means a professional work place where the people who I work with are acting professionally.
JW: What does your community mean to you?
JR: It means family. It’s like a family to me.
JW: How does your community empower you?
JR: I have a great community of friends at the JCC, for example. We all get together and socialize on a daily basis, through Zoom. Before the coronavirus we would go on a lot of social outings, like going bowling, going to movies.
JW: What do you hope for?
JR: I hope that we can achieve our goals in life.
Jake Waltuck’s Personal Statement:
Long ago, before and during the early 20th century, people with disabilities were hardly noticed. Nowadays, people are becoming more and more aware of them. Since its founding in 1992, International Day of Persons with Disabilities has been a stepping stone to raising disability awareness.
When I was young, I had no idea that I had a disability. I was born with high-functioning autism, which affected me in positive and negative ways. Sometimes I had outbursts and got in trouble for not paying attention in school. Autism makes me see things in minute detail and leads me to see what things can become. It’s not easy having a disability, but it can also be a special part of you.
Back in the 1990s, I didn’t know how tough and wonderful it was having autism. There were plenty of people who helped me understand it, like my family. I also had friends who had disabilities. However, there weren’t any people with disabilities, autism included, that were presented on the silver screen. Many protagonists I saw in films were simply outsiders, but the first main character with a disability I was introduced to was Garrett, the vision impaired warrior in Quest for Camelot.
The 2000s was when I learned that I had Asperger syndrome. I was bullied for my disability and for my interests when I was at summer camp, the worst being in a camp in Belize in 2008. It was sometimes very hard for me to maintain control of my autism in these traumatic times, but now I can do it.
In 2010, I was introduced to a special camp called Zeno Mountain Farm, which is a camp that welcomes people with and without disabilities. Unlike the camp in Belize, Zeno Mountain Farm’s campers and counselors were aware of each other. I got to know these people and starred in three films of theirs that were inclusive.
As the years passed, I was introduced to special new friends with autism. One of them was a friend who was an artistic visionary. Both of us shared the same passion for art and storytelling. Nowadays, I’m connecting to people both with and without disabilities. In addition, I’ve been helping people in the community, recommending autism-friendly practices for theaters and doctor’s offices.
I was also introduced to more characters with disabilities, as well as autism, from Claire Danes’ portrayal of Temple Grandin to Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Seeing that people with disabilities are hardly noticed in reality and presented in fiction in an authentic manner has driven me to stand up for disability rights. It also drives me to create stories that feature characters that are diverse and with disabilities, like Kingdom of the Fairies, which is about a fairy princess with autism and the inability to produce magic.
International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a day we all need, because it emphasizes the fact that disability rights shouldn’t go unnoticed. I hope that the world can raise the bar for diversity, including awareness for people with disabilities. Hopefully, people with disabilities can play a major role in making the world a better place and people like myself can be seen as equals.
Jacob Ross’s Personal Statement:
To me, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is about inclusion. It is about being able to participate in whatever activities other people are doing without being excluded because of my disability. Many of my earliest memories of that feeling of inclusion come from the schools I went to as a child. I had one teacher who let me play with the telephone in her classroom. I would pick it up and pretend I was on a phone call. We would both laugh.
I had a special relationship with another teacher who I remember making me feel proud of myself. She helped me believe in my capability and potential. When I graduated from elementary school there was a ceremony. I wore a white cap and graduation gown. I felt very proud of what I had accomplished, and my teachers played an important role in helping me get there.
School also gave me the opportunity to make friends, including other kids with disabilities. Many of the friendships I developed all the way back in elementary school are still my friends to this day. Sometimes kids can be pretty mean, and there were times that I was bullied and felt very excluded. But more often I felt like an important member of my community with many close friends.
Another thing that the International Day of Persons with Disabilities means to me is about advocacy. In school when I was young, with the support of teachers and friends, I learned about the importance of advocating for yourself. I learned how to speak up for myself and ask for things and share my point of view. Advocating for yourself is one of the most important skills you can learn and it’s the best way to ensure that you get what you want in life.
Now I am an employee and member of the 14th Street Y community. I got here through hard work and self-advocacy, and I have always felt included by my colleagues and other members of the community. That is why I am so pleased that the 14Y is honoring the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and I’m happy to be able to share some of my thoughts about this important day.