Gary Shulman confesses that his career advocating for families of children with disabilities has been “a combination of obsession and passion.” He feels fulfilled after nearly 50 years of supporting students, adults, and their guardians, and still can’t turn away those who need a little more help.

It was a selfish career choice because it makes me feel so good to do it,” Gary explained. “People know that ‘you have to tell Gary to stop helping you.’ That’s what brought me joy. Parents appreciate that somebody is thinking about them. I still get emails from parents that don’t know I’m retired. I still feel as wonderful and excited as I did when I started—you don’t retire from helping people. If you can help people, you do it.”

Gary’s thoughts on his career, recent world events, and the disability experience are featured in his poetry book, Reflections from a Soul in the Winter of Life.

I’ve always enjoyed creative writing,” Gary said. “Instead of sending a birthday card, I’d write a personal poem. Staying home and twiddling my thumbs during Covid made me more introspective. The poetry just started flowing and I went into a trance.”

A Productive Career

Gary’s career began in 1974 at a Head Start program where at least 17 percent of the students had a diagnosed disability. “I got to meet parents, and began getting more interested in advocacy, seeing the importance of inclusion and children learning compassion and kindness when working with kids that were different than they were.”

His next role was as the Brooklyn Museum’s Special Needs Coordinator, providing programming and outreach for children with disabilities. From there, Gary spent 24 years at Resources for Children with Special Needs Inc., now known as INCLUDEnyc, directly connecting families to the agencies, programs, and people they needed to best support their loved ones with disabilities. Part of Gary’s duties included providing in-person, and later virtual, workshops to families across New York City, including those supported by AHRC NYC.

Information is useless if you don’t know how to access and organize it. I enjoyed doing the whole package,” Gary said. “Our workshops would sometimes go over 100 people. They were interactive and always a lot of fun.”

Gary says his unyielding passion for helping families is an offshoot of his obsessive compulsiveness, which has cemented his work ethic and thirst for knowledge even with the challenges the disorder can exhibit.

I could not rest until I found every possible option to help a family,” he explained. “In a way, it fed my own disability to help them. Part of your job is to research everything, and you must do that every day and things change every day.”

“Families Are Their Own Best Advocates”

Gary advises families to learn as much they can about their child’s disability, to find an empowering support network as soon as possible, and to learn what resources are available to them locally and nationally.

Gary Shulman

Gary Shulman

People think parents are born with the book of knowledge,” Gary says. “A lot of folks don’t understand it’s a constant journey of research—knowing what the systems are and how important they are, which regulations have changed, and learning how families can be their own best advocates.”

These same families have influenced Gary’s new passion as a published poet. Gary’s poems often carry a message of kindness, appreciation of simple pleasures, acceptance, and rejection of discrimination.

Sometimes I get really upset with the inequity and the evil in this world, and with not learning from the mistakes of our past,” Gary explained. “I see so much beauty too. Why is no one else just stopping to see what’s happening with this tree, or a hummingbird, or the way the clouds are forming? Rembrandt could paint this sky; I have to write about it. It’s more important to remember that when we see the ugliness around us.”

After a lifetime in Brooklyn, Gary and his partner moved to Palm Springs for a short period and have now settled in Arlington, VA. While he is enjoying his retirement to the fullest, Gary wants the families he supports to recognize the stakes of today’s national environment and to be active in maintaining their rights.

As quickly as they’ll do away with my rights as a gay man, they can do away with disability rights. The ADA is not set in stone. We can easily go back to the times of Willowbrook depending on who is in power.”