Activists lobby Congress for disabled

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), center, speaks withcenter, speaks with attendees. Photo by Suzanne Pollak
U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), center, speaks with attendees. Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Ninety activists from across the country urged members of Congress to preserve social security disability insurance and increase funding for transportation during Jewish Disability Advocacy Day Feb. 25.

The day-long event was sponsored by two dozen organizations and included lobbying on Capitol Hill and speeches by disability experts. The group was addressed by Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

It is important to fight “not just for Jewish people but for all the disabled in the world,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, executive director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, one of the event’s sponsors.

Jewish people “shouldn’t allow there to be stragglers at all,” he said. People with disabilities “belong at the center of our community, not the rear.”

Panelist Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, agreed. “We take a radical view. We believe all people with disabilities can be included,” he said. “Disability rights are human rights.”

Attendees, most of whom are employed at Jewish and disability organizations, spent the afternoon in meetings trying to convince members of Congress and their staff to increase funding for transportation programs that enable people with disabilities to get to their jobs and doctor appointments.

Funding for the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, the 2012   transportation reauthorization bill, expires May 31, and Congress currently is deciding on its future funding. Jennifer Dexter, assistant vice president of government relations at Easter Seals, spoke of the need to increase money going to individual states to provide for the transportation needs of the elderly and those with disabilities.

Congress should allocate at least $5 million, she said, adding, “It’s a small program that makes a difference.”

Attendees also learned of the need to shift social security funds from its retirement program to its disability insurance program. Rachel Goldberg, director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, said if more money isn’t placed in the Social Security Disability Insurance fund, it will be insolvent by the fall of 2016.

“We’ve known this was coming” for 25 years, she said.

The retirement part of social security is expected to last through 2034. If the requested shift of one-tenth of 1% is agreed upon, that would hasten the program’s insolvency by one year, to 2033. Shifting money from one fund to the other does not require additional money to be added to the social security fund, she said.

Without the money shift, people would receive 20 percent fewer dollars, she said.

“We have a financial gun to our heads” to get this done quickly, Goldberg said. “A band aid is what this actually requires, because this is not a gaping wound.”

The number of people receiving disability funds has increased recently. Currently, 8.9 million workers with disabilities and 2 million of their spouses and children receive disability funds. About 70 percent of the recipients are older than 50 and about one million of them are military veterans.

Ari Ne’eman, a Silver Spring resident who is president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, advised the attendees to tell their Congress members that helping people with disabilities enables them to hold jobs and save money.

Widening doors so someone in a wheelchair can enter, making curb cuts and constructing accessible bathrooms has helped a lot, but there is much to be done, he said.

“Disability is just a normal part [of life]. It’s not right. It’s not wrong. It’s just a part of who we are.”

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