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 Jewish Federation of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism along with two dozen other 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-Il.)
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,” he said.
Panelist Jay Ruderman, president of the Riderman 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 of the federal Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century expires May 31 and Congress currently is deciding on funding levels. Jennifer Dexter, assistant vice president of government relations at Easter Seals, spoke of the need to increase money that goes to individual states to provide for transportation needs of those with disabilities and the elderly.
Congress should allocate at least $5 million, she said, adding, “It’s a small program that makes a difference.”
Attendees also learned of the importance of shifting 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 wasn’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 lessen the program’s insolvency date 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.
If more money isn’t shifted into the disability fund, individuals would receive 20% fewer dollars, she said. “We have a financial gun to our heads,” Goldberg said. “A band aid is what this actually requires, because this is not a gaping wound.”
The number of people receiving social security 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, 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,” said Ne’eman.