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Blind contestant with autism leaves “America’s Got Talent” judges and audience in awe after inspiring performance

Blind contestant with autism leaves “America’s Got Talent” judges and audience in awe after inspiring performance

Blind contestant with autism leaves “America’s Got Talent” judges and audience in awe after inspiring performance

An “America’s Got Talent” contestant who is blind and has autism wowed judges on the show and received a standing ovation from the entire audience. With his mother alongside him, pianist and singer Kodi Lee delivered an inspirational performance for the ages, earning him a trip to the show’s final and becoming an overnight sensation.

During the show’s broadcast Tuesday night, Lee, 22, emerged on stage with his mom Tina and performed Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You.” Some of the judges teared up during his act. Every single person in the audience stood up and clapped for Lee, who left everyone in awe.

America’s Got Talent
It looks like @Kodileerocks just proved to the world that talent is limitless!

Simon Cowell, one the show’s judges, considered the performance unforgettable. “What just happened there was really extraordinary. I’m going to remember this moment for the rest of my life.”

Before Kodi’s star turn, Tina shared her son’s origins with music and said he loved it “very early on.”

“His eyes just went huge,” she said. “He started singing and that’s when I was in tears because that’s when I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s an entertainer.'”

She added that music allowed him to excel despite his struggles. “Through music and performing he was able to withstand living in this world because when you’re autistic it’s really hard to do what everybody else does. It actually has saved his life, playing music.”

Gabrielle Union, a new mother herself, praised Tina for doing everything possible for her child.

“I’m a new judge this season and I’m also a new mom this year,” Union said. “It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had, it’s also the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. You just want to give your kids, the moon, the stars and the rainbows. Tonight I’m giving you something special.”

She then rewarded Kodi Lee with a golden buzzer, her first of the season, which ensures his bid in the show’s final round. All four judges, including Howie Mandel and Julianne Hough, hugged Lee.

Union told Kodi, “You just changed the world.” She later explained in an “AGT” video on Wednesday why she rang for Lee.

“I’ve been saving my golden buzzer for just this moment,” she said. “I wanted an act, I wanted a performer that was going to change the world… and I believe Kodi was that act.”

America’s Got Talent
There is no feeling quite like hitting your first #GoldenBuzzer.@itsgabrielleu breaks down why she chose to use hers on @Kodileerocks.

Kodi’s mother said, “Thank you Gabrielle, you just made Kodi’s dreams come true.”

First published on May 30, 2019 / 12:31 PM
© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Letter – May, 2019

Letter – May, 2019


The Memorial Day Weekend with its many parades and events honoring our nation’s heroes marks the official beginning of our summer season.  At hip we have several traditions that mark our summer and we want to make sure that you’re aware of them.

The 66 days of Summer Raffle tickets are being distributed and the drawings will begin on Monday July 1st at Noon.  That means that there is still time to order your tickets so you don’t miss the opportunity to win all summer long. This year we’ve changed the dates of the contest to start on July 1st and end on September 30th. We will post pictures of each drawing and the results on each Tuesday.

The Annual hip Picnic will be held on Tuesday June 18th at the Englewood Boat Basin in Englewood Cliffs. This is a great event that brings us all together for an evening of fun, food and friendship; not to mention that entertainment provided by the River Jam Band featuring Bill Jones and Company.

This summer will also mark the kick-off for our plans to celebrate hip’s 40th Anniversary in 2020. We will be having a gala celebration on May 1, 2020 at the Double Tree Hotel in Fort Lee.

At hip the summer also means that our Bergen Modification Access Project (MAP) is in full swing. The good weather is a perfect time to complete those outside projects. In Hudson, The Special Assistance for Independent Living (SAIL) program makes similar accommodations for those who need them.  Please consult the latest newsletter for a full list of all the programs that we provide.

Remember we’re open all summer and ready to answer your questions and direct you to the resources that you need. We’re always happy to hear from you.



The Gift of Purpose

The Gift of Purpose

The Gift of Purpose

By Marianne Valls

My mother had given my life but Heightened Independence and Progress (hip) gave my life purpose and direction. I was born with cerebral palsy and although I earned a college degree, I thought that employment was impossible. All I could see were my limitations rather than focusing on all the things that learned along the way.

But that all changed in 1989 when I was volunteering at United Cerebral Palsy Center (UCP)  of Hudson County, I was asked to attend a meeting concerning the creation of a new organization designed to help people with disabilities integrate into the community.  Already established in Bergan County, Hudson hip’s mission was to introduce the Independent Movement to Hudson County.

For a while I divided my time between the Center and hip, but soon I began spending more time at this new organization.   It was the first time in my life that I saw people with disabilities taking charge of their own lives. They worked,  had active social lives and lived quite independently.

At the time I was married, but unfortunately, it did not give me the freedom I desired.   When I was married, I saw myself as a helpless creature having no choice but to rely on a man to support me. (Please note my ex-husband was a good man.  The fault of our break-up was entirely mine.) However, getting involved with hip, made me realize that I could have goals and a career beyond the duties of being a wife and homemaker.

In the beginning there were only two of us working at Hudson hip.  Bob Greenberg was the first part-time coordinator of the office and he suggested that I spend more time volunteering for hip.  At that time hip was housed in the office of the Hudson County branch of the NJ Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS). Bob thought that by volunteering the rehabilitation counselors could see my skills, which perhaps, would lead them to recommend me for employment. This made sense so I started to work on office tasks like filing, coordinating schedules and mailings  It may sound silly but in those days those days I was even afraid to use the copier.

Soon Bob left for a full time job and Maryanne Vacca replaced him.  Maryanne was totally blind so I became her reader.  Much to my surprise she learned to understand my speech which, up until  then I thought unrecognizable by anyone but  family and close friends. hip helped me find a voice which up to that point had been silenced by fear. Those who know me may find this strange since I’m known for speaking my mind, however, there was a small voice inside me that wondered whether people were really understanding me.    It was one of the first of many things that my employment at Hudson hip did for me. It did what Centers for independent Living are supposed to do; start one’s journey toward empowerment.

Eventually, MaryAnn left to marry and have a child and Kathy Wood took over to become coordinator of Hudson hip.  It was still the two of us and since Kathy is visually impaired I was still a reader. But now there were other tasks to do that required hand coordination which was challenging for me. Kathy didn’t seem to mind and soon neither did I; all that mattered was that we got the job done.

When Kathy went on medical leave I was left in charge of the office leaving me responsible for everything including answering the telephone. Admittedly answering the phone is one of my least favorite things to do, however, the call I answered led to the start of a lifelong friendship with Marily Gonzalez who joined the staff. She would later assume her current role as the Executive Director of the Hudson Branch.

Our office family was completed by Maria Smith who was hired as an independent living specialist with a heavy emphasis on clerical work. My cerebral palsy affects my motor skills and prevents me from doing tasks which require fine hand control so Maria and I worked as a team with her take my dictation when writing by hand or typing became difficult for me.

Though the years, my job evolved into writing flyers, press releases, and a quarterly column for the newsletter.  I would also go to health fairs and conferences on behalf of hip with Marily or Cathy. I was a member of the hip team and I got the chance to offer my opinions on disability issues and develop strategies for our consumers. Our workplace was filled with friendship, laughter and good will as we worked to remove barriers that prevent people from leading independent lives.

On one occasion Marily had been assigned to organize a conference with an emphasis on issues facing the Hispanic/Latino community. She was given the task of planning the meal and asked me for some advice about the menu.   I emphasized that the meal should not include rice since many people find it difficult to manage. I still smile when I recall the panic in Marily’s eyes as she rushed from the podium to apologize to me because the committee overruled her suggestion and rice was the main attraction. It was just one of those things but Marily was concerned that I’d be upset that my advice went unheeded.

While a paycheck is important work gives us so much more. It enhances one’s self-esteem and self-worth and enables people to make social contacts that can sustain us for a lifetime. Even though technology has changed the workplace in many ways by leveling the field for people with disabilities it’s the relationships that make the difference. Work is who we are and how we are viewed by others. It completes the life experience and I’m happy that I got to experience that in a place like hip.

What companies gain by including persons with disabilities

What companies gain by including persons with disabilities

What companies gain by including persons with disabilities


More than one billion people in this world are living with some form of disability. That’s one in seven of us. Eighty percent of these people acquire their disability between the ages of 18 and 64 – the average working age for most – and they are 50% more likely to be unemployed.


At Davos 2019, a panel of business leaders including Accenture’s North America CEO Julie Sweet discussed the power of disability inclusion, led by Binc founder Dr Caroline Casey. At a time when there are more job vacancies than workers in several countries, businesses are realizing the advantages of recruiting from a diverse and inclusive talent pool. Companies in the US that are advancing disability inclusion are also achieving significant gains in profitability, value creation and shareholder returns. However, some companies are still not recognizing the importance – and potential business benefits – of hiring persons with disabilities.


In the US alone, there are 15.1 million people of working age living with visible and nonvisible disabilities, many of whom are un- or underemployed. If companies were to embrace disability inclusion, they would gain access to a new talent pool of more than 10.7 million people, suggests Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, a recent report from Accenture in partnership with Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). This represents a significant opportunity to strengthen their business and the economy.

Why are companies not capitalizing on this untapped resource? Some buy into the misconception that it might be costly for businesses to accommodate specific needs of persons with disabilities. However, our research indicates the opposite – that those companies embracing best practices for employing and supporting persons with disabilities in their workforce are also outperforming their peers and achieving tangible financial benefits.


In fact, the research shows that more inclusive companies are twice as likely to have higher total shareholder returns than their peers, on average. Additionally, companies that have become more inclusive over time are four times more likely to have total shareholder returns that outperform those of their peer group. When it comes to profitability and value creation, these companies achieved 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins over the four-year period we analyzed, on average.

These gains more than offset the cost of accommodating persons with disabilities. A separate study by the Job Accommodation Network revealed 60% of workplace accommodations can be made for free, while the remaining cost is $500 per employee, on average.

Of course, the benefits of disability-inclusive hiring practices extend far beyond the bottom line. Persons with disabilities must be creative to adapt to the world around them. Strengths such as problem-solving skills, agility, persistence, forethought and a willingness to experiment – all of which are essential for innovation – are an inherent part of reality.

More inclusive workplaces also perform well when it comes to staff retention. Studies show that working alongside employees with disabilities makes non-disabled individuals more aware of how to make the workplace more inclusive and better for everyone. Staff turnover is also lower – by up to 30% – when a well-run disability community outreach programme is in place.


Then, of course, there are the reputational benefits. A survey undertaken by the National Business and Disability Council in 2017 found that 66% of consumers will purchase goods and services from a business that features persons with disabilities in their advertising, while 78% will purchase goods and services from a business that takes steps to ensure easy access for individuals with disabilities at their physical locations. Diversity-inclusive supply chains are also correlated with stronger financial returns, brand enhancement and innovation.

Several companies are raising the bar for disability employment and inclusion. T-Mobile has started sponsoring National Wheelchair Basketball Association youth events, where staff speak with children about what it means to work at T-Mobile, opening children’s eyes to new opportunities. Bank of America has created a support services team comprised of 300 people with intellectual disabilities to manage fulfilment services and external client engagement.


At Boston Scientific, the onboarding process includes a virtual tour and videos from leaders speaking about their diversity and inclusion (D&I) commitments, sharing valuable information for individuals to understand resources available to all employees. CVS Health has refocused its training programmes, from philanthropy to skill search, to capitalize on the unique qualities brought by persons with disabilities, such as creativity, problem-solving and loyalty.

Many companies have seen tangible benefits from disability inclusion, and they are finding that employing persons with disabilities isn’t as challenging as often assumed. For example, Microsoft has built a successful disability hiring programme specific to people on the autism spectrum. The goal of this programme is to attract talent and build an inclusive approach to support individuals on the autism spectrum that will contribute to the way they work as a company in building and servicing its products. The Hiring Program is a multiple-day, hands-on academy that focuses on workability, team projects and skills assessment. The event gives candidates an opportunity to showcase their unique talents and meet hiring managers and teams, while learning about Microsoft as an employer of choice.


At Accenture, we found that being honest about where you stand can be a hard yet crucial first step toward becoming a more inclusive company. As one of the first companies to publicly disclose the demographics of our US workforce by gender, ethnicity, veterans and persons with disabilities, we learned that transparency creates trust.

In 2018, 4.5% of our people in the US have voluntarily self-identified as having a disability, up from 3% the previous year. Accountability and creating an environment of trust where employees feel comfortable self-identifying as having a disability are important measures of inclusion.

Understanding the experiences of our people at Accenture was a critical first step to learning more about how to make disability inclusion an advantage. In partnership with Disability:IN and the AAPD, we analyzed the disability practices and financial performance of the 140 companies participating in the Disability Equality Index. The study Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage revealed four key actions that companies should take to bring about change.



Organizations must ensure that persons with disabilities are represented in their workplace and in their talent pipeline. Beyond hiring, employers should implement practices that encourage and progress persons with disabilities.



Leaders must provide employees with disabilities with accessible tools and technology and/or a formal accommodations programme. To improve awareness and integration across teams, companies should consider introducing formal training programmes for employees without disabilities to learn about the tools and accommodations available to their colleagues.



To foster an inclusive culture throughout the organization, companies must invest in awareness-building through recruitment efforts, disability education programmes and grassroots-led efforts (for example, employee resource groups) and events.



Companies must offer mentoring and coaching initiatives, as well as skilling/reskilling programmes, to ensure that persons with disabilities continue to grow and succeed. Persons with disabilities should occupy roles at all levels, including top leadership positions.


To unleash the trapped value within the persons-with-disabilities community, organizations must assess where they are by leveraging benchmarking tools such as the Disability Equality Index, self-identification of their current employee base, and employee engagement and awareness surveys.


At the same time, CEOs and investors need to understand the strong qualitative and quantitative business case for robust disability inclusion programmes. By making companies aware of the potential gains, sharing success stories and demonstrating how to build a more inclusive talent pipeline, we can quickly get more persons with disabilities into the workforce.

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By: Diomayra F. Ramos
May 14, 2019

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word special? Do you instantly think of someone you love who is very special to you? Or, of someone who told you that you were very special? Upon hearing the word, we often relate it to love and admiration, sadly that isn’t always the case.

This past April, Netflix released “Special”; a TV show based on the life of the actor and writer Ryan O’Connell who has Cerebral Palsy.  Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a neurological disorder that is caused before, during or after birth, which can affect muscle movements, motor skills, and even speech.  Throughout the show, viewers can appreciate how much effort Ryan puts into concealing his disability to avoid being treated differently.  Denying his disability wasn’t intentional until he began noticing how accepting others were of his limp assuming it was the result of an accident rather than CP. It’s sad to think that the way a person maneuvers through life is more important than who he is as a person. What should matter is the type of person that he is on the inside. Having a special way of walking doesn’t take away from the awesome person that he is.

If you ask me, proving to others that you’re more than your disability can be pretty exhausting. Throughout the eight episodes of the series, Ryan tried endlessly to make others see that there was more to him than meets the eyes. Even though he walks differently, he had the same wants and needs as any gay individual. His sexual preference was never an issue, quite the opposite. So why be ashamed of your disability and not of your sexuality when both are part of the minority? The problem is that society has made disability such a taboo topic that it is easier to pretend you are not disabled, instead of having to work endlessly to show the world that you are more than your condition. That is what a disability is a condition, that’s it!

Sadly, society has put such a great emphasis for us to “fit in” that we end up doing everything to appear less different or in this case special. Since birth we were taught to behave and act a certain way to blend-in and not be considered an outcast. Instead of celebrating self-love and self-acceptance we’ve chosen to suppress that part of our lives. How can we learn to love ourselves just the way we are if we learned at a very young age that it’s wrong to be different? We cannot, it’s impossible.  We were taught to be closed-minded and to disregard anything that doesn’t make sense, rather than taking the time to get familiar with it. Don’t consider someone special just because they look or act differently; instead, take the time to really get to know them. By allowing yourself this opportunity you will see how special they are as individuals with unique qualities.

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