The baby with Down syndrome. The senior citizen using a walker. The woman with limited vision. The teen with a hearing impairment. The child on the Autism spectrum.
People with disabilities live in our neighborhoods, go to school with our children, shop at our stores, but too often we don’t know them. We notice their presence, of course, but we don’t always consider how to accommodate their needs so they can participate fully in Jewish life. We too often don’t look at our institutions of Jewish life and ask whether these places and the programming they provide are accessible to everyone.
Instead, without intending to do harm, we ignore the biblical injunction that we not “insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” We forget that we have been taught that “if there be among you a needy person, thou shalt not harden thy heart, but thou shalt surely open thy hand.” We need to work harder to remove those stumbling blocks.
It’s been more than two decades since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, and while our country and Jewish community have made tremendous strides in accommodation and services since then, we must do much more.
Before we can make further strides, though, we must be aware of those around us and their needs.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, an effort to bring that awareness to Jewish communities nationwide. Each year since the first JDAM in 2009, we’ve seen an elevated focus on inclusion. During the month, Jewish communities across the country host important programs to shed light on the issues facing people with disabilities.
In addition, the Jewish Federations of North America has partnered with the Ruderman Family Foundation to help young adults with disabilities gain meaningful employment experience through internships and fellowships at five federations nationwide as well as in JFNA’s Washington office. The Ruderman Family Foundation Opportunity Initiative is designed to help our federations develop a sustainable model for inclusion.
While we must continue to look within our community for answers, we must also look to our leaders to help move our society forward. We must move our elected leaders to pass legislation that ensures people with disabilities have the same opportunities to succeed as anyone else.
The Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, a bill that would provide a tax-advantaged savings account of up to $100,000 for disability-related expenses and long-term care, has broad support in both chambers of Congress but has not yet come to a vote. We must contact our senators and representatives and urge them to send the ABLE Act to the floor for passage.
We also must also prod the Senate to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international treaty based on our own ADA that protects and ensures the rights of the more than 1 billion people worldwide with disabilities.
The treaty would protect more than 50 million Americans when they travel abroad and reinforces America’s global leadership on disability issues.
The disability treaty fell five votes short of ratification in 2012, and negotiations to bring it back to a vote in the full Senate this year remain at a stalemate. The Senate should ratify this important treaty.
Let’s make inclusion a guiding force in our lives every day.
William Daroff is the senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America. Follow him @Daroff