At AIPAC Conference, Improved Inclusion Efforts For People With Disabilities
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At AIPAC Conference, Improved Inclusion Efforts For People With Disabilities

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She works regularly with disability organizations, national, state and local policy leaders, workforce development professionals, media, employers, philanthropists, celebrities and faith-based organizations in order to expand opportunities for people with disabilities. Mizrahi has led numerous national polls and brought significant visibility to the issues of America’s 56 million citizens with disabilities. She is the co-author of a major toolkit on best practices on employment for people with disabilities and frequently hosts webinars on this topic. Mizrahi has published dozens of op-eds and publications on disability issues, including in USA Today, Huffington Post, The Hill and other publications. Dyslexic herself, she also knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities. Reach her at JenniferM@RespectAbilityUSA.org.

As all organizations know, it is much easier to say you will be inclusive than to actually become inclusive. Real inclusion is intentional, not accidental. It takes real leadership and implementation efforts. Thankfully, during the past two years, AIPAC has made huge strides in this arena.

Text on Sign: Delegates with Disabilities Help Desk

Two years ago, the policy conference lacked both captioning and sign language interpreters for people who are hard of hearing. RespectAbility raised the issue in the New York Jewish Week, and last year, AIPAC had live captions during the main plenaries. This was a big step forward.

Sadly, however, this year, as the largest Jewish gathering in the United States welcomed the presidential candidates, including Trump, to speak to its 18,000 delegates, the conference again lacked live captioning – both in person and on the official Jewish Life TV live stream for thousands of people watching from home.

Scooters and wheelchairs were available in the convention center, but not in the Verizon Center where the major speeches take place. Still, however, there were noticeable improvements in other areas of inclusion that must be commended. The conference had a help desk and brochure of services for “delegates with disabilities” seeking accessibility services in both locations—the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center—are ADA accessible. Wheelchairs and scooters were available at the Convention Center’s help desk. In addition, people could pick up listening devices from the help desk or sit in a special section available in each location for people who are deaf or hard of hearing with an ASL interpreter.

However, for Naomi Adler, the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia’s CEO, that is not enough. During Sunday night’s opening session, she tweeted out her dismay at the lack of captioning. “As someone who just witnessed a wonderful session on Israel innovation by a company transforming disability access, I am very distressed that those who cannot hear all of the wonderful presentations are not seeing captions at the #AIPAC2016 plenary sessions,” Adler followed up Monday morning. “Providing a sign language interpreter is NOT enough. The most inclusive way to address this issue is to use captioning and I call upon the leadership of AIPAC to rectify this situation immediately!”

Image of wheelchairs and scooters

RespectAbility agrees that people with disabilities should not have to sit in a segregated section when it is not needed.

However, the conference showcases many efforts of inclusion that we should all be very proud of — and they did it from the main stage in front of 18,000 people. This is a major breakthrough that is worthy of note.

Early Monday morning, AIPAC highlighted two Israeli groups offering innovations for people with disabilities – Softwheels’ acrobat wheel for wheelchairs and Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) by the Reut Group, a community with goal of developing affordable assistive technology for people with disabilities. Later at the conference they also showcased Unit 990 in the IDF that recruits, tr

ains and employs people with Autism. In so doing AIPAC put disability inclusion on the stage front and center.

Additionally, in the AIPAC Village there were places that showcased innovations like Softwheels and TOM in a wonderful way. ALUT, an Autism organization from Israel, and Unit 990 also had booths and experts as well. Delegate were able to experience how these technologies and efforts work first-hand and meet people on the front lines of creating these technologies and systems changes.

Stel Penhasov and Dror Cohen talking in their wheelchairs

Still, while TOM’s featured products were innovative and will help people with disabilities around the world, the video generally only included captions when the speaker was speaking in Hebrew.

By including captions throughout the entire video, AIPAC would have been much more inclusive.

Inclusion can be a process. We are moving in the right direction. AIPAC is doing better and it is setting the tone for other groups to do so as well. With 18,000 pro-Israel Americans from all 50 states – including 4,000 college students – attending this year’s policy conference, AIPAC has the opportunity and the responsibility to lead by example.

The Jewish community is a stronger community when it lives up to our values–when we are welcoming, diverse, moral, and respect each other. AIPAC’s inclusion is not perfect, but it has improved greatly. Because of its large size, the conference battles unique accessibility issues and the inability of the shuttle busses between the two venues to accommodate people with disabilities needs to be addressed. By doing so – and ensuring that live captions are included on both the in-person and live-stream videos, AIPAC can serve as a role model in shaping opinion and policies for years to come.

Image of headsets

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of RespectAbilityUSA which includes many resources for inclusion.

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