When he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law 25 years ago this July, President George H.W. Bush aimed to change the lives of millions of Americans living with disabilities.
According to Virginia Knowlton Marcus, executive director of the Maryland Disability Law Center, the broad-based law mandated access to governmental services, employment, business and transportation, allowing people to achieve goals and live their lives integrated into a community like everyone else.
But while the ADA, as the legislation is known, was, in the words of Ruderman Family Foundation president Jay Ruderman, who presides over projects benefiting the disabled in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities, a “landmark statement by the government” in the realm of equality and civil rights, implementation of the law, say critics, has fallen short. Whether in terms of enforcement or the state of economic opportunities for the disabled, many acknowledge that a lot more work is left to be done.
“[The ADA has] been the beginning of a sea change in how people with disabilities are regarded in our society,” said Marcus. “There’s a long history of discrimination and segregation that the ADA provided a legal tool to overcome, and we have made significant progress in the last 25 years.
“Before the ADA, there were hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities shut away in large facilities rather than being included with their families and their communities,” she added. “[The ADA] has begun a shift of resources out of the outmoded way of dealing with people with disabilities.”
Ruderman agreed that the ADA was “significant.”
“It shifted the way people think about disabilities,” he said. “Before the ADA there was a medical approach: ‘Disabled people have problems. We have to cure them.’ What the ADA said was, ‘No, we need to change the environment, make our public institutions accessible institutions.’”
But one of its biggest flaws, he pointed out, was in exempting religious institutions from certain aspects of accommodation.
“I think our Jewish values teach us that every Jewish soul deserves to be included in our community. Unfortunately, we don’t live up to those values in our Jewish communities,” he said. “We tend to focus on the best and the brightest, and we don’t tend to look after the people on the fringes of our community.
“[People say it’s] expensive to include people with disabilities, but that’s a cop-out,” he continued. “There’s enough money in our community to do what we want. Our community is very focused on social justice, on being a light to the world — that’s a very important value; unfortunately, we don’t look at ourselves.”
So many Jewish philanthropies are focused on the continuation of the Jewish people while ignoring a large segment of the population that wants to be connected, he charged. “When I hear philanthropists don’t do disability, to me, that’s an absurd statement. You want to connect the Jewish community, but you’re willing to write off 20 percent of the community and their families? That tells me we need to change attitudes, and part of that is self-advocates standing up and demanding their rights.”
Ben Dubin, a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation who has testified in Annapolis on disabilities and serves as vice chair of the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities, agrees with Ruderman.
Dubin, whose adult daughter is deaf, sees lack of compliance with the law as a significant barrier to the disabled.
“I guess its unfortunate today that people have to sue [to meet ADA standards],” said Dubin. “I’m really cognizant of venues, facilities when there is not a signer or oral interpreter for the deaf, or captioned for the deaf. When I take my daughter to these places, why do I constantly have to ask in advance [if these services are offered]?”
Answering his own question, Dubin offered that “some of it is still attitudinal. People don’t think people with disabilities can do what people with disabilities can do with regard to the job market, but if you hold businesses and government [agencies] to the letter of the ADA, what’s in the law, things would be ideal.”
According to national statistics provided by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed. In Maryland, where slightly more than 80 percent of those aged 21 to 64 are employed, only slightly more than 42 percent of people with disabilities in the same age bracket are employed, according to disabilitystatistics.org, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
In her writings, Mizrahi points out that while other minority groups have made huge gains in employment opportunities, disabled individuals are no more likely to be employed than they were before the ADA was passed.
That’s why she wants to see the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which was signed into law in July 2014, succeed. Mizrahi, who is dyslexic and suffered a car accident before the passage of the ADA, testified before the U.S. Department of Labor Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities, calling the committee’s attention to the “Disability Employment First Planning Tool” crafted in conjunction with other leading disability advocates.
“We want to see the investment the taxpayer is making [used wisely], giving people with disabilities [a] better future,” said Mizrahi.
Shelly Christensen, co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) — now running for the seventh consecutive February — literally wrote the book on inclusion, titled, “Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities.” Her advocacy efforts were inspired by her middle son, Jacob, who has Asperger’s syndrome and was not diagnosed until he was 15.
“We always saw Jacob as Jacob and if he had a disability going on then we needed to work with him and not marginalize him and not create a persona that was less than,” she said. “And the one place that we did not have problems was at our synagogue and our religious school. Jacob was just Jacob there.”
“The whole idea of inclusion isn’t complicated: You treat people with dignity and respect that all people are created in God’s image and it’s not a mitzvah project,” she added. “We have a ways to go.”
Joining Christensen in spreading the message that inclusivity must be an ideal constantly pursued is Lisa Friedman, education co-director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, N.J. She blogs about JDAM at jewishspecialneeds.blogspot.com and matankids.org, and offers her expertise to Jewish communal groups, particularly religious schools and synagogues. This year, she is challenging other disability advocates to think about inspiration, awareness, acceptance and inclusion each week of February.
“[The] tagline of JDAM is from awareness to inclusion,” said Friedman. “Often when I present, there’s this progression: First, you have to make sure people are on board, that they agree [with inclusion], and that’s pretty easy, but a lot of times that’s where it stops. … I went in this direction of, ‘OK, you’re inspired, now learn.’”
Two of the biggest challenges congregations often cite are lack of funds and lack of expertise.
“I’ll [be told], ‘Sure, it’s easy for you to say xyz because you’re an expert in [inclusion], but we’re not experts,’” said Friedman. When it comes to “money, people get scared off. … But there are simple ways to be more inclusive, like offering large print books or video streaming.”
Locally, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has made inclusion an organizational priority, and says it has programs taking place.
Its first Inclusion Task Force will develop a criteria of focus that will enhance inclusion awareness, education and community integration.
“From Strength to Strength” is a morning-long discussion on disability inclusion scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Feb. 22 at the Federation building. Guest speaker Yishai Barth will be followed by discussion groups facilitated by professionals in the field. Participants will explore ways to foster a community where Jewish life is accessible for all.
The JConnect website, www.JConnect.org, offers a collection of Jewish Disabilities Month Resources including event listings, resources and dates for community dialogues on the topic of inclusion.
For information, contact Lisa Handelman at [email protected] or 301-230-7278.
Melissa Apter is a staff reporter with WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.
Senior Writer David Holzel contributed to this article.