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A Letter from Gwen Orlowski

Our Executive Director


Dear Friend of Disability Rights New Jersey,

It’s springtime in New Jersey.

As I write this, the peonies in my garden are about to bloom, chickadees are nesting in our backyard, and cicadas are just starting to emerge from their seventeen-year long lockdown. So, too, are we emerging from our long period of isolation and anxiety as the COVID-19 virus finally eases its grip on our lives. It’s been a time of great sacrifice, suffering, and national reckoning. Many lives were lost, many heroes were made, and many lessons were learned.

While there is no doubt that COVID disproportionately affected those living in congregate settings, older adults, and people of color, the pandemic has served as a wake-up call because suddenly, none of us were invulnerable. Everyone was at risk. Now that we all have experienced this kind of vulnerability together, my hope is that we as a society will have a greater sense of connection with those among us who live each day with disabilities, and a better understanding of what it must be like to be a person for whom vulnerability can be a part of everyday life.

So now our labors begin anew. At Disability Rights NJ, we are dedicated to certain fundamental, core principles, enshrined in the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000, that inform everything we do. In particular, we are guided by the premise that disability is a natural part of the human experience and does not diminish anyone’s right to live as they see fit, independently, exercising control and choice, fully participating in and contributing to their communities through full integration and inclusion. To that end, we labor to fight discrimination, to prevent neglect and abuse, to provide access to services, to engage families and loved ones, to provide information and education, and to ensure the protection and advancement of human, civil, and legal rights. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that individuals with disabilities are empowered to live productive, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.

I know from experience the importance of the work we do. My beloved grandmother spent many years institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. As a result, I was raised in a family where disability was a part of everyday life – sometimes out in the open, sometimes in the dark corners of unspoken shame. I’ve experienced the devastating toll that strain can take on people with disabilities and their families. Disability Rights NJ is my life’s calling. I am so grateful to be able to play my part in this effort, to stand on the formidable shoulders of those who came before, and to work now with such dedicated and talented colleagues, Board members, as well as ATAC and PAIMI Advisory members.

Most of all, though, I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve you, all New Jerseyeans with disabilities. I honor your courage and dedication, and that of your families and loved ones. You are the true heroes. You show us what it means to strive against adversity, to persevere against long odds, and to trust in the ever-renewing power of hope. In a world too often defined by cynicism and self-interest, you are a powerful reminder of the animating spirit of spring.

Best regards to you and your family,