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Jay Ruderman | All About Change

Think Inclusive: Season 10 Episode 11

For this episode, Tim speaks with Jay Ruderman, the President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, focusing on inclusion, diversity, and social justice. He hosts All About Change, a podcast focused on activism, change, and courage.

Jay is a social justice activist who has spent his life promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities. Through his foundation, he has been an integral part of holding the entertainment industry accountable for its lack of authentic representation of people with disabilities.

Just a quick content warning, Jay and I discuss some sensitive topics, such as suicide, school shootings, and gun violence. Our conversation was recorded in May of 2022.

Thanks for listening, and if you haven't already, please give us a ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Transcript:

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Cover Art Image Description: black background; think inclusive logo in the top left; rainbow-colored waves overlayed with a headshot of Jay Ruderman; text reads: Jay Ruderman, All About Change; S10E11; MCIE logo in the bottom right

Mentioned in this episode:


Think Inclusive is written, edited, and sound designed by Tim Villegas and is produced by MCIE.

Original music by Miles Kredich.

Support Think Inclusive by becoming a patron!

Audio Transcript

Tim Villegas 0:01

Hi everyone, wherever you are in the world, Happy Holidays from me and everyone at the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. We are taking some much needed rest the last couple of weeks of 2022. But we have a ton of great new content in store for 2023. Stay tuned to your podcast feed. And if you aren't already, make sure you are signed up for the MCIE email list, who is ready to move the inclusion needle for 2023?

My name is Tim Villegas from the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education and you are listening to Think Inclusive a show where with every conversation, we try to build bridges between families, educators and disability rights advocates to create a shared understanding of inclusive education and what inclusion looks like in the real world. You can learn more about who we are and what we do at For this episode, I speak with Jay Ruderman, the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on inclusion, diversity and social justice. He is the host of All About Change, a podcast focused on activism, change, and courage. Jay is a social justice activist who has spent his life promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities and through his foundation has been an integral part of holding the entertainment industry accountable for its lack of authentic representation of people with disabilities. Just a quick content warning, Jay and I discuss some sensitive topics, such as suicide, school shootings and gun violence. Our conversation was recorded in May of 2022. Thank you so much for listening. And now my interview with Jay Ruderman.

Welcome to the Think Inclusive Podcast, Jay.

Jay Ruderman 2:04

Thank you, Tim. It's a pleasure to be your guest.

Tim Villegas 2:07

So Jay, would you take some time and introduce yourself to our audience of inclusionists?

Jay Ruderman 2:15

So I am a social justice activist based in Boston, I run the Ruderman Family Foundation, which is the foundation that historically has focused on disability rights, we came into the issue of inclusion sort of, as an issue of fairness, our first major grant was to improve the day schools in Boston, which were not inclusive, and were excluding children with disabilities and to make them an inclusive system. And that was that was over a decade in the making. But since then, we expanded to work in partnership with the Israeli government and change policy regarding people with disabilities in Israel and make it more person centered and to move away from the segregationist model of group homes and segregated schools and sheltered workshops to position people with disabilities as full fledged members of society. And I think from there, we really got very heavily into the advocacy aspect and speaking out against injustices against people with disabilities, whether they were by corporations or governments or celebrities speaking poorly, the entertainment industry, which we've done a tremendous amount of work in, in sort of changing the dynamic in the in the entertainment industry. And so we really sort of became an advocacy organization. Now we're also I represent a foundation, which is a philanthropic organization, and is a grant making organization. However, a lot of those grants are made in conjunction with us bringing the idea to an organization that we think is influential, and shaping their policy to be more inclusive and more person centered.

Tim Villegas 4:17

Gotcha. So with the grants that that you provide, you're really looking for organizations that you can help direct policy? Is that what I'm hearing?

Jay Ruderman 4:29

Yeah, exactly. We were looking for influential organizations that may not have gotten this issue completely correct. And then to try to work with them to make their policies more just and equitable. And I guess the best example is, is is the entertainment industry with the entertainment industry since it's such a large industry, we had to first come at it by being super critical and criticizing films and casting people without disabilities inauthentically and roles of disabilities and, and really being like the fly in the ointment and really being, you know, super critical to get the attention of the industry. And then we shifted to do a couple things, one to work with the studios. And I have to really thank some people that I worked with, like Danny Woodburn, who's an actor Marlee Matlin, an actress, but also, Peter, Bobby Farrelly, who are directors are very connected for years in the industry, to open up some doors for while we were banging on doors, where we weren't getting anywhere. But all of a sudden, when we got to the executive level, we said, listen, you know, the entertainment industry is changing. And they realize that in authentic representation is a problem. It's a problem with African Americans problem with Asian Americans, probably Native Americans, you know, in many, many different groups that, you know, historically were not represented correctly, and were not represented enough. And with the disability community, it was sort of the last community to the table. And we really had to sort of make the case because it traditionally the, with with the entertainment industry was coming back to us with was, Hey, isn't acting all about playing people that aren't like you. And and you should know that, in the last 30 years, half the men that have won the Best Actor Oscar have wanted for playing a disability. So what we what we did is we had a pledge, and we got four major studios to pledge to open all of their auditions to people with disabilities. And then we started to highlight those productions, whether they be TV or film that did authentically cast people with disabilities. And, and we started to see a change. And then we're seeing more and more films, more and more TV shows with people with disabilities authentically represented. And I should say, in, in the interim, we did many, many white papers showing the injustice within the industry, and also the economic value that people really wanted to pay to see our authentic representation. And then finally, I would say, we started to give out what we call the seal of approval. So recognizing these these films and TV shows for doing, you know, a good job and, and I think I think it impacted I mean, at least if you look at the last Oscars, where Coda won for Best Picture, and, and Tony, won for Best Supporting Actor. I mean, I think that the message got through, the message got through to the 1000 plus members of the academy that were voting, and they understood that disability was an issue that that deserves to be paid attention to.

Tim Villegas 8:09

When you were developing your strategy for how you were going to, you know, advocate for change, was this based on any sort of like implementation science or kind of systems change thought? Or was it more like you were just, you were just doing what you thought was what would make the biggest impact?

Jay Ruderman 8:31

Well, to be completely honest, I think it started not with a strategy, it started with like, hey, this is an injustice, and someone should speak out against it. Now we have many allies, and we had advisory groups made up people disabilities, and, you know, I totally accepted and, and try to live by the model of Nothing about us without us. So, you know, I never want to speak even though we're a philanthropic organization, you know, and I'm an activist, who doesn't necessarily identify as a person with disability, but I'm not doing this in a vacuum. And then it developed into, well, wait a second, you know, if we keep on being super critical, you know, becoming the fly in the ointment, we're not going to get anywhere. So then we had to start to talk the language of the industry, which was showing them data, data that could actually help them and make money. And, and, you know, sort of transitioned from being the critic to being like, hey, we're going to start to praise you. And this is going to benefit you as an organization. And also, I think that, you know, the culture in America has changed. I mean, if you look at film, and TV, it's changed. I mean, you see much more authentic representation. It was not like that when I grew up. And in fact, we did a PSA several years ago with Octavia Spencer. And she said, the first time she saw someone like herself on TV was a show called The Jeffersons, which you may or may not remember. But I think all of us at some point, see ourselves authentically portrayed. And I think that's very powerful. And I also think we're living in an age where authenticity matters. So we sort of caught everything correct. But but, you know, there were many groups ahead of us that really were making the inroads and, and I do remember an article coming out in the LA Times, that was written by a reporter where the here's the top 100 People who can change the diversity conversation in Hollywood. And it included people from every different ethnic minority background, except for people with disabilities. And so we wrote to him. And his response was like oops, I think I left I think I left that category out. And then Danny Woodburn and I wrote an op ed in the LA Times, saying, you know, basically like, hey, you guys are overlooking people with disabilities. So, you know, I think there has been a change, is it perfect? Is everything going to be smooth sailing here on out? No, it won't be. And it's a slow moving industry, TV moves faster than then than film. But there are more advocates. And there are more people in positions of power, that care about it. And people like Scott Silveri, you know, people like Glen Mazzara, John Krasinski, there are so many people who are making movies who said, you know, something, I really want to have the position of the young, deaf girl played by a young deaf girl, and not someone who's acting like they're deaf. So, you know, these things are happening, but we need more leadership. But I think that, you know, once culture starts to change it moves forward.

Tim Villegas 12:14

So our audience is mostly educators, and mostly educators who are interested in authentic, inclusive education. So not just a student with the disability in a classroom that isn't participating in with what the rest of the classes is or, you know, in an island in the back, but is actually that has membership and belonging and community within, within that. Do you think that the education, or the K 12, or even you know, K through college community can learn anything about how the entertainment industry has changed their mindset?

Jay Ruderman 12:55

Well, I think change happens slowly. But I think that there's a way to affect change, and I don't think you need to run a foundation in order to do this. I think you can be anyone, essentially, when you see injustice, when you see the system acting, inappropriately, speak out, and get others to speak out with you, and speak out forcefully. And, you know, in our case, which I think is not a bad idea, use the media. Because people, you know, find that the media puts pressure on them. And, and even the biggest corporation, the biggest studio pays attention to the media. So if you're talking about a school system, or city or town or whatever, believe me, people see their names in the newspaper, and there's an issue, they take exception, and they start looking at the issue a little bit more carefully. So I would say, you know, speak out, organize, get other people to speak out. And then I think change, you know, will come I think the legal resource is the last resource. That's when people are sort of just, you know, extremely adamant and like, we're not changing anything. I don't think it needs to get to that point. But then it's at some point, you have to, you have to switch from like, Okay, you're doing the wrong thing. And we've shown you how you're doing the wrong thing to let us help you. Let's work together to improve the situation. I think most people are receptive to doing it. They want to be on the right side of history. And I think sometimes it takes a concerted strategy to get there.

Tim Villegas 14:41

So let's talk about your podcast. So on your last podcast, the most recent one, there was a just a passing comment about how things might be changing. So I'm wondering is that something that you can let us in on?

Jay Ruderman 14:57

Oh, you mean like like the what the podcast is going to become. So the podcast developed from a disability oriented podcast to an activism podcast. So we are changing the name of the podcast to All About Change. And what we're really trying to do is to better reflect that, you know, what we're trying to champion, which is people that have turned adversity into opportunity and are working to make the world better. And it was an evolution for me to start talking about issues that I really didn't know a lot. I know a lot about the issue of disability. I mean, you know, I've really been engrossed in that professionally for 20 years, some of the issues that I talk about, I don't know a lot about, but you know, change is important, we always have to change as individuals we have to change as, as a society. And that's really what the podcast is going to be about now change.

Tim Villegas 15:58

It was something that you were already highlighting. Right, so. So the new podcast name seems like it's even a better fit.

Jay Ruderman 16:09

Yeah, I hope it works. I hope, I hope it's, you know, the podcast industry is a big industry. There's a lot of podcasts out there. There's a lot of, you know, saturation. I think it's great. I think that, you know, people learn so much from podcasts. By the way, I think they also learn from entertainment, which is why we really focus for many, many years, on the entertainment industry, because whether you're watching a documentary, or a TV show or movie, you're taking away a lot from consuming that content. And it's shaping, you know, who you are. I mean, I've been doing a lot of thought, over the last few days, about these mass shootings in America, because it's just awful. It's beyond awful. It's horrific. And in a country, as advanced as the United States, the fact that we cannot come up with a solution to this issue is just, it's embarrassing. It's, it's heart rending. But, you know, I've been doing a lot of thought about it. And, and, and, you know, how, how do we get there, I think that we have to really tell stories about people that have gone through this, and what it's doing and how it's destroyed their lives. And I don't know what the solution is. But I think that's the that's what a podcast should do. You should listen to a podcast, walk away from it. And say, I learned something, what can I do based on what I learned?

Tim Villegas 17:52

Yeah, you know, storytelling is something that has been on my mind lately. And I guess you could say, Think Inclusive is going through a bit of a transformation as well, because, you know, when I first started, it was like, you know, I called people on Skype, you know, and, and recorded a phone conversation, and I didn't know what I was doing.

And, and now, especially now that I've had time to develop, you know, what we're trying to do, what you're saying with me about, like how people change or how people change their mindset. It keeps coming back to stories. So I think about the podcasts that have affected me the most. And sure, a conversation that's interesting is great, but I'm thinking about more narrative, storytelling types of podcasts that have really put something on my heart to either learn more about the one thing or to change my behavior. Right. And I think that, that, that's the kind of storytelling that I want to be a part of. It sounds like that's what you want to do as well.

Jay Ruderman 19:20

Yeah, I mean, I think storytelling is key. You know, if you can, if you can have a story that grips people. I mean, I used to be all about like, Oh, I'll contact everyone I know who's famous and I'll, you know, put them on the podcast and yes, people do want to hear from celebrities. But sometimes the most interesting podcasts are people that you just don't know, but have gone through something you know, so traumatic, like Kevin Hines and jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and surviving, which is a miracle. But he keeps telling the story, he's like, Listen, if anyone as I was taking the bus to the Golden Gate Bridge or walking on the Golden if anyone had stopped me. I mean, he's like I was I was I was distraught if anyone had stopped me and said, Hey, man, are you okay? Can I do something for you? Can I buy you a cup of coffee, you want to talk about it? He's like, I completely would have changed my direction and not and not jumped off the bridge. And that's really, really powerful. And I think that that storytelling is so important, because that's how we learn we learn from stories. I mean, why do we read books? Why do we listen to podcasts? Why do we watch you know, movies or TV? Yes, we want to be entertained. But we also want to take something away from it, and the best books that we read, and the best podcasts and so forth. We're listening to it, we're like, wow, I learned something. And I have to, I have to do something about it. And by the way, there are podcasts that I do, where I don't I mean, I do a lot of research, but I don't really know what to expect. So you have a podcast that's going to come out in a couple of weeks, where I interview, Maria Garcia, who's a investigative journalist, and she did a podcast called something for Everything for Selena. And Selena was like the number one Latina performer before she was assassinated. But the impact Selena decades after she's been gone, the impact she's had on so many people. And, you know, that's just profound. And that's a story that, yeah, it's been out there and everything, but to hear someone talk about it, in such a passionate way. And what Selena did for her community, and for so many people, is so powerful. And I think that sometimes I walk away, and you know, and, and I listened to the podcast, and it's like, after the podcast, I'm still learning, I'm still investigating, I'm still listening to the music, I'm still, you know, they really impact me personally. And I think that that's what, you know, why do we do this? Why are we involved in activism? Why do we, you know, because we care deeply. We want to make the world a better place. And so we do these episodes. And what we're trying to take away from it is like, Gee, how can i What can I do? In whatever my position, what can I do to try to make our world a little bit better, and our world needs a lot of working on?

Tim Villegas

What's, what's the story that you want to tell?

So I think that people, we go through an evolutionary process, and we always try to, you know, grow and become better, and do more interesting things. I'm always looking to connect with people who are doing interesting things. But you know, more than that people I can trust and people that I that I know, that I can work with. I think the podcast is one thing that I do, because I think that, you know, I work with some people that I'm getting really interesting stories that are really about, you know, aspects of society that we're all struggling with, and thinking about. I've written a book, it's not done yet. We're still putting the finishing touches on it. And it probably took a while to get out there. But it's my story of growing up in activism and how I became an activist and how I did my activism and what success I had as an activist. And I want to get that out there. Because I don't think activism is talked enough about we talk about celebrities, we talk about, you know, politicians, and an actors and people who have extreme wealth. But we don't really celebrate the activist. And, and yet, when we look back, the activists are really the people that are changing our culture. So you know, that's one thing. And the other thing that I've come to through my association with Hollywood, is how impactful entertainment can be in shaping opinions. So that's, that's sort of like the new road that I'm going down, you know, supporting documentaries, supporting, you know, film that can really change hearts and minds and get people to think a little bit differently. So, you know, I'm excited about the future and excited about different ways that, you know, we can move forward and as I said, you know, you're always looking for your next challenge. But as you're looking for your next challenge, the you know, at my age, the number one piece of advice that I would give out is work with people that you trust, and that you like, it's the most important thing you know, Life is short, and you come across a lot of people. But you know, there are really good people out there and you have to connect with them and in people that it just doesn't click with, you got to move on.

Tim Villegas 25:13

You talked about the school shootings. You know. And so in preparation for our conversation, I, you know, I listened to your latest podcast, and I just can't believe how timely it was. You know,

Jay Ruderman 25:28

Yeah, it was actually a podcast that we recorded and released a while ago. And as a result of what happened in in Buffalo at the Tops supermarket, we rereleased it. I had no idea. I mean, ironically, you know, now, we had the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. But it was just such a powerful one that we decided we need to put it out there again. I think, you know, listen, I'm a parent, I have four children. They're all in school. And it used to be like, oh, yeah, school is the safe place, you know, that you send your kids to, to learn and to become better people and to move on in life. And now, every time we send our kids out the door, it's like, you know, we don't know what's going to happen next. I think this is something tragic. That is happening in our country. And we're unwilling to address it. I mean, I never get very political, I put issues out there that could touch on politics, because I never advocate. I mean, it's as a foundation, we don't advocate for pieces of legislation, we're forbidden from doing so. But certainly to talk about issues, but there's an there's a lack of willingness in this country to address something. I mean, someone sent me something on social media, that in Scotland in the early 2000s, they had a mass shooting, and they changed their gun laws, and they haven't had one since then. And, you know, I am, I'm not a hunter. I'm not a gun owner. But, you know, I believe in the right to own weapons. I think that that's, you know, part of the American culture, I don't understand the easy access that that that, that people have to buy weapons of mass destruction. I it just doesn't make any sense to me. And I don't think it makes sense to the world. And, and, you know, at some point, we need some profiles in courage and for people to say, Listen, okay, guns are part of the American culture, and hunting and shooting. And, you know, all of that is, is part of, you know, who we are as an American people. But this is crazy, this can't go on, you know, a country that sort of can say, well, this is horrible that we lost our own children. But we're going to get beyond this, and nothing's going to change this country that is ill and needs to be and I understand we live in a polarized country. But we have to do something. I mean, to go on like, this is just not it's just not right. We can't we cannot be a society that could turn our heads when dozens of children are killed. It's just not right.

Tim Villegas 25:32

Well, I think in the interview you did with Nicole, as she talked about access. And so it's not just, you know, a mental health issue. Like of course, there's, there's always things that we can do better, but simply having access to weapons. It's just it's too easy, right? It's too easy. So you mentioned Kevin Hines. I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's Talking to Strangers. I think that he has a chapter in there about access for people who attempt or who die by suicide. And the numbers of if you just restrict access to certain kinds of activities, the suicide rate drops. And so it's just it. I mean, it just seems so simple. But yet we still aren't making any movement towards that.

Jay Ruderman 29:36

Right. Well, sometimes things happen. Like for example, the Golden Gate Bridge is is a mecca for people that you know, attempt suicide. So, you know, Kevin, one of the things that he wanted to do was to set up some nets, you know, right below the bridge, and that would have been a failsafe and, and, and, and I believe that he was finally successful in doing that with others. So, you know, we have to take certain precautions to make ourselves safer. And we do and every time we do something, you know, there's there's pushback. I mean, I remember when I grew up, which was a long time ago, you know, no one wear seatbelts. You know, there may have been seatbelts in the car, but it's like, no one were seats, seatbelts. And now, you know, everyone wears a seatbelt for almost everyone. And it saves a lot of lives. And, you know, we've made a lot of progress. And as a former prosecutor, you know, drunk driving has made a lot of progress, the laws have toughened up and the penalties have toughened up and, and there are things that we can do. In terms of, you know, these these massive inner shootings. It is not a cut and dry issue. I think the access to weapons is something that we have to address. Is there political willpower to address it? I don't know, it doesn't seem to be. But also, you know, there are issues of mental health and mental health, the access to mental health services is lacking in this country, especially what we've gone through with COVID. And, and, you know, so many different things that we're going through with inflation and war. And, you know, mental health is, is as important as physical health and we just don't recognize that that way. I mean, we're coming through a period of time where there was tremendous stigma around the issue of mental health. And I think now, you know, people like Kevin Love and you know, others who are celebrities, and they speak out about their own mental health, you know, Selena Gomez and Simone Biles and Noemi Asaka, and, and so many others, I think that helps. But we also need services, you know, we have so many different laws, I was just thinking today, you know, the only thing in this country that you seem not to have need to have a license is to be a parent, anyone can get pregnant have a child, and there's no license, there's no, there's no manual, and people are struggling. And, and, and you know, too often as a society. And I've lived in other societies and other countries, where there's more interaction between neighbors, there's more interaction between, you know, people on the street, and sometimes we tend to turn the other way. And we don't want to deal with with the problems of someone, especially if they look like they're really distraught. We got to do better. We're all in this together. And I think, you know, turning away and locking ourselves in our homes and, and arming ourselves, and I just don't see that as a solution to healthy society.

Tim Villegas 33:00

Absolutely. Is there any final thoughts that you want to leave our audience with, as far as you know, inclusion, mental health, disability?

Jay Ruderman 33:11

I think all the issues that you mentioned, fighting for inclusion, fighting for disability rights, fighting for equality, all of them are super, super complex issues. They're requiring people to engage in in change, asking people to change. Change is really hard for people. And you may not see success, you know, right away, you may see failure along the way, the biggest thing is not to get discouraged, and to keep doing what you believe in, and even if you fail and fail and fail, you know, ultimately, if you work hard enough, and if you connect with other people and not do it in a silo, and are open to allies, that's the other thing that I would I would really stress which is very important is Ally ship. You know, you may be from a certain community, but you need allies and allies are important. And I think we have to be more open. I think we're we're in a more polarized society, where people don't want to seek ally ship, but ally ship works. And I think that the more that we seek that out, we will have successes I think most people and I think most people involved in advocacy, and and and pushing for inclusion. I think they're good people. And I believe most people out there are good people. And if enough good people connect, I think change does happen.

Tim Villegas 34:49

Jay Ruderman thank you so much for being on the Thick Inclusive podcasts and thank you for all the work you've done with your foundation.

Jay Ruderman 34:58

Thank you so much, Tim. It's been a pleasure.

Tim Villegas 35:07

Think Inclusive is written edited in sound designed by Tim Villegas and is a production of MCIE. Original music by Miles Kredich. If you enjoyed today's episode, here are some ways that you can help our podcast grow. Share it with your friends, family and colleagues. And if you haven't already, give us a five star review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. Special thanks to our patrons Melissa H., Sonya A., Pamela P., Mark C., Kathy B., Kathleen T., Jarrett T., Gabby M., Erin P., and Paula W., for their support of Think Inclusive. For more information about inclusive education or to learn how MCIE can partner with you in your school or district, visit We will be back in a couple of weeks. See you next year. Thanks for your time and attention. And remember inclusion always works.

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