Ali Stroker: Staging an Encore

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By Brady Rhoades

Don’t be surprised if one day you see Tony Award-winning actress and singer Alyson “Ali” Stroker on the Big Screen, and don’t think twice if you’re smiling.

“I want to create content that makes people feel good,” Stroker, who won a historic Tony for portraying Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, told DIVERSEability Magazine. “There’s a lot of stress and anxiety in the world and we as artists have the ability to change that.”

Stroker is the first actress in a wheelchair to win a Tony. It happened on June 9 of this year. Hearts fluttered, heartbeats quickened, tears flowed and…

“It’s been unbelievable,” said the 32-year-old native of New Jersey. “For the disabled community it’s really cool to see yourself represented in this arena.”

Stroker, paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident when she was 2, is a role model for the disabled. While she avoids sermonizing, she doesn’t hesitate to talk about the virtues of work, perseverance and independence.

“Putting your destiny in someone else’s hands is never going to make you feel powerful,” she said. “I’m more inclined to tell disabled people to create communities of people you trust, and then create your own work. It’s better to do that than to talk.”

And for all young artists, she has a question.

“What do you want to create?”

That’s a core challenge for Stroker. It’s at the heart of being an artist.

It’s what she asked herself as a child (“I sang all day, every day”) and what she asks herself as an adult, and as a star.

Willie Geist, Craig Melvin, Savannah Guthrie and Ali Stroker on the Today Show.
Willie Geist, Craig Melvin, Savannah Guthrie and Ali Stroker on the Today Show. 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC
TOC: PHOTO BY WALTER MCBRIDE/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES
But it should be stressed that Stroker earned the Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for just one reason: she’s really, really good.

“It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, you did something to overcome being in a chair,’” she said. “It was actually, ‘We’re recognizing you for being at the highest level of your field.’ That’s what I’ve always wanted.”

Stroker was born with a passion for the stage, but it took hold—with the strength of a farmer—when she was 7, in a backyard production of Annie.

“When I got on stage, it was the first time that I felt powerful,” Stroker said. “I was used to people staring at me, but they were staring at me because I was in a wheelchair. And when I was on stage, they were staring at me because I was the star… I particularly feel that I can’t hide on stage and that’s a gift.”

It’s fitting that, 25 years later, she’s wowing crowds on Broadway as Ado Annie, who is so unwilling be anything but herself that her catch-line is, “How can I be what I ain’t?”

“She doesn’t ever apologize for who she is,” Stroker said. “She doesn’t have any shame about who she is. Her wants, her desires, are so clear.”

Ali Stroker winner Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! at The 73rd Annual Tony Awards, broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York, Sunday, June 9 on the CBS Television Network. JOHN P. FILO/CBS ©2019 CBS BROADCASTING INC.
Ali Stroker winner Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The 73rd Annual Tony Awards. JOHN P. FILO/CBS ©2019 CBS BROADCASTING INC.

Alyson Mackenzie Stroker was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey. She studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned a bachelor of fine arts. She was the first actress in a wheelchair to earn a degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

After graduation, she auditioned for The Glee Project at a casting call in New York City. Stroker is a Mezzo-Soprano but because she is paralyzed, she cannot engage her diaphragm, so she created her own singing techniques “to develop resonance so my voice would carry.”

Stroker guest-starred on Season 4 of Glee, then her agent sent her to audition for a Deaf West Theatre production of Spring Awakening.

In 2015, Stroker won the role of Anna. When Spring Awakening opened on Broadway, Stroker became the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage.

The show was a smash. So was Stroker.

She has had several stage, TV and film parts, and she will have many more, but to date she is best known for Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!

But there’s more to her than her craft. Did you know she’s a strong swimmer, and is learning to surf? Did you know she’s co-chair of Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City? And she’s a founding member of Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign which tours the country connecting with thousands of students each year. She’s also gone to South Africa with ARTS InsideOut, where she has held theater classes and workshops for women and children affected by HIV and AIDS.

She credits a strong support system for her success. That support system includes her parents and boyfriend. “I’m so glad to have a partner who gets it,” she said. “He encourages me when I’m scared to go after the things I want.”

When Stroker won her Tony Award at Radio City Music Hall, she did not emerge from the crowd. She was backstage. Like many old buildings, the Music Hall, which opened in 1932, was not wheelchair accessible from the audience.

Stroker said the Music Hall did the best it could, but was limited by

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Ali Stroker from the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" performs on April 2, 2019 ANDREW LIPOVSKY/NBC Ali: Ali Stroker on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Ali Stroker from the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” ANDREW LIPOVSKY/NBC
Ali: Ali Stroker on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 NATHAN CONGLETON/NBC

its infrastructure.

It’s not a problem unique to the Music Hall, but it is emblematic.

For the disabled community, access is a profound word.

Access to stages. To roles. To higher education. To jobs. To Stroker and thousands upon thousands of others, access is opportunity.

“As a society, we have to work on improving access,” Stroker said. “I’ve found that theaters being built now are doing that.”

William Shakespeare famously said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

If that’s true, then Stroker is a player in the limelight, staging her encore. As she stated in a recent interview with The New York Times, “I know in many ways that this is what I was born to do…it’s so clear I was meant to be in this seat.”

Florida Mom Says Neighbor’s Christmas Display Inspired Non-Verbal Daughter with Autism to Speak

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Kaitlyn seated outside in the driveway in front of the house with Christams light decorations

A Florida mother who took her 13-year-old daughter to see their neighbor’s Christmas lights had no idea that the festive display would have such a large impact on the teenager, who has autism.

Since Kaitlyn De Jesus was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old, she hasn’t spoken more than two words, her mother Marisabel Figueroa told Today.

That all changed on Saturday when Figueroa took her daughter to their neighbor Don Weaver’s driveway — a visit they’ve made daily — to see the elaborate Christmas light display he has set up on his front lawn since 2007.

“She got up from the chair and started singing,” Figueroa recalled to the outlet.

“She said, ‘Mom! Look at the blue lights. Look at the snowmen. Santa’s coming!’

I started crying. I couldn’t believe it.”

The incredible moment was something Figueroa had waited 10 years to witness after learning of her daughter’s diagnosis when she was a toddler.

“The neurologist who saw Kaitlyn said she was going to be non-verbal for all of her life,” Figueroa, a single mom who lives in Mulberry and works as a managerA closer look at Kaitlyn seated outside in the driveway in front of the house with Christmas light decorations at a local McDonald’s, explained to Today.

“I refused to accept that.”

Over the years, Figueroa said Kaitlyn would speak with visual prompts, but remained primarily nonverbal — even when the mother-daughter duo would make daily trips to Weaver’s driveway to see the musical, 200,000-light display.

“Our usual routine is to go after 6 when it gets dark,” Figueroa told the outlet.

“Mr. Weaver puts down a special chair just for Kaitlyn and she sits there dancing and tapping her feet.”

Continue on to People to read the complete article.

Carnival Cruise Line now certified as ‘Sensory Inclusive’

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Carnival Cruise Ship pictured at dock

Cruises can be a dazzling display of lights and sound with an overwhelming amount of things to do – and for some people with autism, ADHD, PTSD, Down Syndrome and other sensory disabilities, that can lead to sensory overload. But Carnival Cruise Line has gone out of its way to be more accommodating to its guests, and that has paid off with the company becoming the first cruise line to be certified “sensory inclusive” by KultureCity, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to accessibility and inclusion for individuals with sensory needs and invisible disabilities.

All of Carnival’s South Florida-based ships are now certified, with the rest of the fleet scheduled to also earn that distinction by March of 2020.

“Carnival Cruise Line and KultureCity share a heartfelt commitment to acceptance and inclusivity,” Vicky Rey, Carnival’s vice president of guest care and communications and the company’s ADA Responsibility Officer, said in a statement. “Working together, all of our guests can maximize their enjoyment and be the truest versions of themselves during their time on board.”

KultureCity co-founder Dr. Julian Maha echoed her thoughts.

“We’re proud and grateful to partner with Carnival Cruise Line, offering guests with sensory needs an opportunity to more fully enjoy their vacations and create wonderful memories with their friends, families and loved ones,” he said. “We appreciate Carnival Cruise Line for taking this important step in making their vacations accessible to everyone.”

Carnival’s rollout of the sensitivity training began in October. Hundreds have been trained to understand and help adults, youth and children with sensory-related questions or needs.

Continue on to Fox News to read the complete article.

Google Seeks Help From People With Down Syndrome

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A man with voice recognition on his phone

Voice computing is the future of tech— devices like smart-home systems and internet-enabled speakers are leading a shift away from screens and towards speech. But for people with unique speech patterns, these devices can be inaccessible when speech-recognition technology fails to understand what users are saying.

Google is aiming to change that with a new initiative dubbed “Project Understood.” The company is partnering with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society to solicit hundreds of voice recordings from people with Down syndrome in order to train its voice recognition AI to better understand them.

“Out of the box, Google’s speech recognizer would not recognize every third word for a person with Down syndrome, and that makes the technology not very usable,” Google engineer Jimmy Tobin said in a video introducing the project.

Voice assistants — which offer AI-driven scheduling, reminders, and lifestyle tools — have the potential to let people with Down syndrome live more independently, according to Matt MacNeil, who has Down syndrome and is working with Google on the project.

“When I started doing the project, the first thing that came to my mind is really helping more people be independent,” MacNeil said in the announcement video.

Continue on to Business Insider to read the complete article.

Golfer Embraces Fan With Down Syndrome Whose Yell Caused Him to Lose Crucial Game-Making Shot

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golfer hugs spectator

Pro golfer Brandon Matthews was preparing to advance to one of golf’s biggest tournaments—all he had to do was sink a simple putt. The 25-year-old golfer had been in a sudden-death playoff match in Argentina on the PGA Tour in Mexico last month when he found himself facing an 8-foot putt. If he landed the shot, he would keep his guaranteed slot in The Open golf tournament.

Just as he was preparing to make the shot, however, a spectator’s shout from the gallery disrupted his concentration so that he flinched and missed the putt, thus losing the match and his spot in The Open.

Matthews thought that someone had distracted him on purpose—but then the tournament administrator approached him in the locker room and told him who had screamed.

A middle-aged man with Down syndrome had gotten so excited over the match, he had not been able to keep himself from letting out a scream during Matthews’s shot.

Immediately after hearing the details about the situation, Matthews asked to meet the fan.

“I was around mental disability growing up, and I have a soft spot in my heart for it. Those are really special people,” Matthews told The Golf Channel. “I felt so terrible that I was even upset. I just wanted to make sure that he didn’t feel bad.”

After they were introduced, Matthews offered the man a signed glove, made sure he was having a good time, and gave him a hug.

WATCH: Soccer Team is Winning Hearts After They Stopped Championship Play to Help Opponent Fix Her Hijab in Privacy

“I just wanted to make sure he was enjoying himself, that he had no hard feelings, that he didn’t feel bad about what happened,” Matthews added. “I didn’t want to anyone to be mad at him. I didn’t want him to be mad at himself. I wanted to make sure he knew that I wasn’t mad. That’s all I wanted to do.”

Tournament administrators said that the fan was “very happy” over the exchange—and Matthews said that he was simply happy to turn his disappointment into acceptance and compassion.

Continue on to the Good News Network to read the complete article.

Workforce Recruitment Program Gives This Mom Her ‘Can-Do Attitude’ Back

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Judith Roma Tuazon holds up her award

By Terri Moon Cronk

After raising her children, Judith Roma Tuazon wanted to go to work for the federal government. “I wanted to give back to the government, and especially to the Navy, because I had been married to a Navy man,” she said.

But Tuazon had doubts any agency would hire her due to a viral infection in her spine that left her paralyzed from the waist down in 1993.

As a student, she saw a poster on campus about the Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP), a federal government-wide recruitment and referral program. The WRP connects college students and recent graduates with disabilities who are interested in federal employment opportunities. The WRP is the recruitment resource used by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to build a meaningful pipeline of candidates with disabilities. For the DOD, the WRP underscores the department’s commitment to workforce diversity.

“I can be useful again”

Tuazon applied to the WRP for an internship with a federal agency and was chosen as a candidate soon after. Even so, she said, as she waited for an offer she worried that maybe her disability was too much. Before long though, Tuazon was selected as an audit readiness analyst in logistics for the Navy Reserve Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. She recalled her excitement of being re-employed: “I can be useful again. This is like an extension of life, something to look forward to every day,” Tuazon said. “I’m so enthusiastic about my job … I thank WRP—they really help those of us with disabilities.”

Disability becomes ability
Tuazon said her disability lead her to realize some of her greatest abilities. She now has satisfaction from her work and the respect of her leaders. “Before, I felt like nobody—like I was invisible,” Tuazon said. But now, “they just see a woman sitting in a chair. They don’t make me feel like I have a disability.”

Last July, the audit readiness analyst was recognized for her outstanding performance at the annual WRP awards ceremony at the Pentagon. When asked about her advice to other people with disabilities who worry about landing a job, Tuazon said, “Just keep going and believe in yourself that you can do it, because there are people who will believe in you,” she said. “Because they do, you’ll start to really believe in yourself. That’s how they make me feel at WRP and where I’m working. They give me the work and I say, ‘OK, I’ve got this. I can do it.’”

Source: dod.defense.gov

Disability in the Workplace: It’s on Us

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Vincenzo Piscopo with RespectAbility Staff and Fellows

After more than two decades of working for the Coca-Cola Company, actor Vincenzo Piscopo knows what it means to leverage opportunities for people with disabilities within a company. Educating employers and encouraging volunteerism in the community are all ways he’s found success within Coca-Cola’s philanthropic endeavors.

Piscopo’s career with Coca-Cola has taken him to several different areas of the organization, including finance, IT, marketing and innovation. His extensive background in advocating for people with a disability within the workplace has given him a broad understanding of what other companies lack. He has been the director of community and stakeholder relations for a year now and has been given the opportunity to “fill his file cabinet,” as Piscopo says, with knowledge about how to advocate for women, Hispanics, African Americans, LGBTQ and people with disabilities.

Marketplace, Workplace, and Community

Coca-Cola created a Business Resource Group (BRG) to promote inclusion in the workplace with subgroups for specific minorities. Each group has three main objectives within the BRG: marketplace, workplace and community.

For people with disabilities, the goal in terms of the marketplace is to ensure the company leverages the opportunity that people bring as consumers. “Yes, it’s the right thing, but it’s also an opportunity,” Piscopo says about the business standpoint of hiring people with disabilities and the value they bring to the workplace.

The workplace objective refers to increasing the hiring and retaining of employees with disabilities. Piscopo discussed the importance of educating people within the company on disability etiquette, how to recognize when something is not accessible, how to provide accommodations, etc.

Vincenzo Piscopo and Vivian O’Neal
Vincenzo Piscopo and Vivian O’Neal

The third and final objective, community, works to provide community partnerships, collaborate and promote volunteerism.

It’s on Us: Disability in the Workplace

Many times, advocates find themselves frustrated with those who don’t know how to conduct themselves when working with people with disabilities. However, as Piscopo points out, “it’s on us” to educate and make people aware.

Piscopo worked for Coca-Cola before an accident ultimately left him paralyzed from the waist down. Since his accident, Piscopo’s employees have become more curious about the disability community and genuine accessibility.

Ignorance is often not disguised as discrimination, but rather fear of the unknown. Piscopo says diversity in the workplace expands our “file cabinet” and gives employers more resources to enlighten everyone on disability etiquette.

Piscopo is a proud board member of RespectAbility, a non-profit that fights stigmas and focuses on advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

Source: respectability.org

Santa Offering Sensory-Friendly Events Nationwide

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Santa Claus holing a finger up to his lips giving the quiet sign

Ahead of his big night, hundreds of special events across the country will offer kids with disabilities a chance to visit with Santa Claus in a calmer setting.

Some 747 sensory-friendly Santa events are planned at 582 shopping centers in the United States and Canada this holiday season.

The so-called “Santa Cares” events will feature dimmed lights and music set to a lower volume. Santa is specially trained before all of the events to take cues from parents and on interacting with children who have special needs.

“Most of all, Santa remains flexible, standing behind his chair or kneeling beside a wheelchair to capture unforgettable moments and smiles on camera,” said Ruth Rosenquist of Cherry Hill Programs, which organizes the events in conjunction with Autism Speaks.

“Santa Cares” events are held at malls and other shopping centers before they open for the day to allow visits with Santa before the crush of holiday shoppers arrive.

Santa welcomes people of all ages and abilities! Sensory-friendly Santa Experiences for families are now in more premier destinations than ever before!

All families with children with autism and other special needs can enjoy the time-honored tradition of a visit with Santa, in a more subdued and calm environment. Sensory-friendly visits with Santa are free and keepsake photo packages will be available for purchase.

Space is limited, please RSVP to reserve your spot

To participate, families are asked to reserve a time online in advance so that children with special needs can be called up individually and don’t have to wait in line.

Continue on to Exceptionalchild.com to read the complete article.

Number of Characters with Disabilities on TV Reaches 10-Year Record High

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Perfect Harmony

Scripted broadcast programming added nine more series regular characters with disabilities for the 2019-2020 season in comparison to last year, a new report by GLAAD found. This means that the percentage of characters with disabilities has risen a full percentage point to 3.1 percent. While this is a record high, the report cautions the data “still falls far short of reflecting reality,” as more than twenty percent of people in the U.S. have a disability.

Of the 879 series regulars on broadcast programming, GLAAD found that 3.1 percent (27 characters) have disabilities, in comparison to 2.1 percent (18 characters) last year. There are nine characters across all three platforms tracked (broadcast, cable, streaming) with HIV and AIDS, an increase from the seven characters counted last year and a substantial increase from the two counted two years ago.

GLAAD’s 2019-2020 Where We Are on TV Report includes the only analysis of primetime scripted series regulars on broadcast networks of characters with disabilities. Largely known for tracking the number of LGBTQ+ characters on broadcast and cable networks, as well as streaming services, the Where We Are on TV Report also tracks racial, gender and disability inclusion on television.

The GLAAD report is based on self-reporting by the networks and content providers. GLAAD looked at 879 characters expected to appear on scripted prime time shows broadcast on ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX and NBC. Counts are based on original scripted series premiering or which are expected to premiere a new season in primetime between June 1, 2019 and May 31, 2020 for which casting has been announced and confirmed by networks.

The report finds that NBC leads the pack with 13 series regular characters having a disability, which is more than double than last year. “It is heartening to see NBC making strides in the disabilities represented on their programming – it is time for other networks to follow suit,” the report states. However, many of these characters are played by actors without the disabilities the character has.

One NBC show bucking that trend with guest stars is New Amsterdam, which has cast actors such as Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf, Marilee Talkington, who is legally blind, and Ghaliyah “Gigi” Cunningham, who has Down syndrome. However, since this study only includes series regulars, guest stars are not included in the count.

ABC has five series regular characters with disabilities while CBS, FOX and The CW each include three. Of note are ABC’s Stumptown, CBS’ NCIS: New Orleans and FOX’s 9-1-1, all of which include a series regular where the actor has the disability being portrayed by the character – Cole Sibus, who has Down syndrome; Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, who uses a wheelchair; and Gavin McHugh, who has cerebral palsy.

“Inclusion of characters – and actors – with disabilities – must be an intentional effort,” said Lauren Appelbaum, who leads RespectAbility’s Hollywood Inclusion efforts as the organization’s Vice President of Communications and author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit. “What we see on screen influences how we act in real life. The entertainment industry has an opportunity to help remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with individuals with disabilities. Seeing these characters on primetime TV, especially when they are portrayed as multi-dimensional beings and their disability is not the sole focus in the story, goes a long way in educating viewers.”

Gail Williamson is a talent agent for Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin and Associates (KMR), leading their Diversity Department, seeking out the right roles for talented actors with disabilities. Her clients include Jamie Brewer, known for American Horror Story, and Lauren Ridloff, who will play Marvel’s first Deaf superhero in The Eternals, as well as Cole Sibus and Gavin McHugh mentioned above.

“In the past six years, our Diversity Department at Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates, representing talent with disabilities, has seen the talents’ collective earnings grow from $50,000 in 2013 to over $3,000,000 in 2019,” Williamson said. “We hope that number will continue to climb as productions realize the value of the authenticity and diversity talent with disabilities bring to a project.”

Increased Representation of Learning Disabilities

Another positive outcome discovered in this year’s report is the increased representation of learning disabilities. In NBC’s Perfect Harmony, a young boy is diagnosed with dyslexia after acting out in school. His mother, who is going through a divorce, blames herself for his behavior until she is told of the diagnosis. He then learns new tools and ways of reading and learning the information.

Continue on to Respectability.org to read the complete article.

SUNRISE MEDICAL Announces JAY® SyncraTM Seating Specifically Engineered for Tilt and Recline

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Man sitting on a boardwalk in a tilt and recline position in his wheelchair with the beach in the background

Sunrise Medical recently announced the launch of the JAY Syncra Seating System, a cohesive and attractive seating system intentionally designed for tilt and recline.

Available exclusively on the SEDEO® PROTM seat frame, Syncra is a comprehensive seating system engineered so that the cushion and the back work in tandem to minimize movement and help avoid body displacement.

The combination of the Syncra’s scalloped back shell and the cushions’ lowered pelvic wall and deeper femoral troughs assist in keeping the body in optimal position during the recline motion. “Many times therapists have to make sacrifices when adapting aftermarket seating to powered seat frames, but with JAY Syncra it eliminates the guess work and helps ensure a proper fit,” said Jeff Rogers, Director of Power Product Management.

To complement this new product offering, there are a variety of positioning accessories available to help support and stabilize the client in their chair such as new removable JAY Lateral Thigh Supports. Both the Syncra Cushion and Syncra Back are available in 3 upholstery options: Syncra Premium Leatherette, Syncra Stretch, and Syncra 3DX Microclimatic.

The Syncra Cushion is available in multiple interchangeable wellwheelchair pictured that has a tilt and recline feature options including the JAY Fluid with Cryo TM Technology or Visco Foam to accommodate changing clinical needs. The industry favorite JAY Fluid is now enhanced with the revolutionary, patent pending Cryo Technology. Research has shown that several factors increase the risk of a pressure injury including four risk elements correlated to wheelchair seating: pressure, shear, temperature, and moisture. The CryoFluidTM insert addresses these risk factors and actively cools the skin for up to eight hours while evenly distributing pressure, reducing shear, and lowering the risk of moisture.

With these new additions to the Sunrise Medical portfolio, clinicians have more options to help find that optimal fit for their clients’ positioning, comfort and lifestyle needs.

Learn more about JAY Syncra Seating and the new Cryo technology by visiting sunrisemedical.com.

About Sunrise Medical: A world leader in the development, design, manufacture and distribution of manual wheelchairs, power wheelchairs, motorized scooters and both standard and customized seating and positioning systems, Sunrise Medical manufactures products in their own facilities in the United States, Mexico, Germany, United Kingdom, Spain, China, Holland, and Poland. Sunrise Medical’s key products, marketed under the QUICKIE®, Sopur, ZIPPIE®, Sterling, JAY®, WHITMYER® and SWITCH-IT® proprietary brands, are sold through a network of homecare medical product dealers or distributors in more than 130 countries. The company is headquartered in Malsch, Germany, with North American headquarters in Fresno, Calif., and employs more than 2,200 associates worldwide.

Kean University Student-Veteran Receives K-9 Service Dog

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K-9 Keen and Jason Pryor stand outside in a group photos with student body members

Jason Pryor of Elizabeth received the K-9, named Keen, as a gift from the Kean Office of Student Government.

A special Veterans Day ceremony was held on Kean University’s Union campus as senior Jason Pryor, a U.S. Army veteran, introduced the K-9 service dog that he received through an on-campus fundraiser.

Pryor, a senior from Elizabeth majoring in exercise science, did tours in Iraq and Honduras and suffers from PTSD. He received the K-9, named Keen, at the start of the Fall semester as a gift from the Kean Office of Student Government.

“Being with Keen has taught me to be more patient,” said Pryor, whose dog accompanies him to class. “Keen is used as a measure to help prevent me from going through the symptoms and effects of spiraling down, by me tending to his needs and having him tend to me.”

Kean is ranked first in the nation among large public schools for its programs supporting student-veterans, according to the Military Friendly Schools survey.

Student Government raised nearly $20,000 to support service dogs through Rebuilding Warriors, a volunteer non-profit organization whose mission is to provide trained service dogs to veterans. The bulk of the funds raised went toward training Pryor’s dog, and the rest was donated to Rebuilding Warriors to help train other K-9 dogs.

At the ceremony held outside Miron Student Center, Vito Zajda, director of Veteran Student Services at Kean and a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, called Pryor a remarkable student.

“He has been a big support and influential person in our program,” Zajda said. “He has helped open our eyes about how the University can best support its vets.”

Vice President of Rebuilding Warriors Jeff Mullins, also a veteran, said post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that can’t be seen by others. ”It’s invisible, stays with you your entire life, and it’s not easy sometimes,” he said. “Our goal is to provide veterans and first responders with a service dog to help them achieve their new normal.”

The University’s Veterans Day event included a color guard, a performance of the national anthem by the Kean Gospel Choir, and the presentation of other honors.

Juan Leon Torres, a senior from Spotswood also studying exercise science and a U.S. Navy veteran, received the 2019 Kean Veteran’s Award for OutstandingK-9 Keen service dog to U.S. Army Veteran pictured sitting next to his new owner Mentor. He develops transition opportunities and initiatives, and mentors a student-veteran each semester.

“Being a veteran and going back to school is super hard because you go from one community to a different lifestyle,” Torres said.

Zajda noted that it is important to support veterans at all times. “The importance of Veterans Day is to recognize that it’s 365 days a year, as veterans go through different highs and lows in their lives,” he said.

K-9 Keen, the service dog accompanying student-veteran Jason Pryor (pictured at top, left of center, in red shirt), is part of the Kean University community. The Kean Office of Student Government raised funds to donate the dog.

About Kean University

Founded in 1855, Kean University is one of the largest metropolitan institutions of higher education in the region, with a richly diverse student, faculty and staff population. Kean continues to play a key role in the training of teachers and is a hub of educational, technological and cultural enrichment serving more than 16,000 students. The University’s six undergraduate colleges offer more than 50 undergraduate degrees over a full range of academic subjects. The Nathan Weiss Graduate College offers six doctoral degree programs and more than 80 options for graduate study leading to master’s degrees, professional diplomas or certifications. With campuses in Union, Toms River, Jefferson and Manahawkin, New Jersey, and Wenzhou, China, Kean University furthers its mission by providing an affordable and accessible world-class education. Visit kean.edu.