Learning from the disability experts with Sara Portman Milner


Sara Portman Milner said that 25 percent of the population has some sort of disability. Some are identifiable. Others are what she calls “hidden disabilities.”

“If we all are lucky enough to live long enough,” everyone will develop some sort of disability, whether it’s losing vision or having trouble remembering things, says Portman Milner, 73, who has spent her career creating opportunities for people with disabilities.

“But people who have been disabled from an early age — they never knew another brain. So they think they’re fine until other people put them down and/or the school is set up for certain kinds of kids and anybody that fits that mold. And if the teachers aren’t taught to teach and meet their learning needs, it piles onto their learning disability.”

Best known in the Washington area as co-founder of Sunflower Bakery to help train people with intellectual disabilities, Portman Milner received her master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973. She moved to the Washington area a few months later to work at what is now the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.


While Portman Milner did learn a lot from her education in social work, she credits the children and young adults that she worked with in the field for teaching her even more.

“Everything I learned that’s been most helpful, I’ve learned from the people with the diagnosed disabilities and their families,” said Portman Milner, a member of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac. “They are the experts. They know what they need.”

While the United States sought to make its institutions more accessible with measures such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, Portman Milner said some schools around the country were still not equipped to teach kids with these differences.

One way in which some of those with learning disabilities were at a disadvantage was that they did not have the opportunity to get a job in high school.

“It was like their parents either didn’t have expectations for them or nobody stopped to tell them how important it was for them to have some kind of job, whether it was picking up pinecones or mowing someone’s yard,” Portman Milner said.

In 2008, Portman Milner co-founded Sunflower Bakery with Laurie Wexler.

“We wanted to give people opportunities to naturally be in situations where they could learn how to handle certain situations before they get into a more inclusive environment,” Portman Milner said. “Then when they get in a more inclusive environment, they should have the support they need to succeed.”

Portman Milner said she learned that baking was a really good match for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, who benefit from a structured environment.

“You did the same thing every day,” Portman Milner said. “You came in, washed your hands, you put on your apron. Those who have autism might be into ritualizing things. They will only do some things in a certain order. It was comfortable to have structure. It helped them a lot.”

Portman Milner grew up with a brother with Down syndrome. He was the first person with a developmental disability in their Savannah, Ga., synagogue to become a bar mitzvah.

Portman Milner said she never saw any effort from agencies, programs or services to include her brother, while her parents did their best to assimilate him into the community. Her father – who was president of their synagogue — brought her brother there every Shabbat.

“That was my introduction [to the disability field],” Portman Milner said.
At the JCC in Rockville, Portman Milner helped to start including children with disabilities in their camp program, beginning with younger kids. There, she had a revelation that helped to guide the way she approaches the field now.

“There were always kids who had learning disabilities who were in camp that drove the counselors crazy, and it drove the kids crazy,” Portman Milner said. “Because nobody stopped to say, ‘What do you need to help you be more successful?’”

Portman Milner said “every single person” should learn to ask this question.

The most important thing to Portman Milner is that children and young adults should not be separated from their own community as long as they are comfortable.

“If they’re comfortable being included with support, they should be,” Portman Milner said. “If they are more comfortable being with other people who are more like them, or they want to gradually get included, that’s great. “

The biggest barrier to achieving total support for those with learning disabilities, Portman Milner said, is not actually finances, but rather people’s attitudes toward those with learning differences.

“It doesn’t cost a penny to any agency, group or organization to have an attitude that this is important and shows that they value every human being,” she said.

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