Our sage, Hillel, asks, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)
This summer’s U.S. legislative season will give us Jews with disabilities, in fact all Americans with disabilities, the opportunity to respond fully to the last two of Hillel’s three questions.
What seems like yesterday to some of us and a world ago to others, the Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land. Prior to that, we people with disabilities were literally considered second-class citizens.
We, and only we, (with some family members or loved ones) were “for ourselves” when we wrote letters, made phone calls, marched, protested, sat-in, or climbed out of our wheelchairs and dragged ourselves, hand over hand, up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. We did all this to be heard. We did not rest until we were recognized and were given the full rights we U.S. citizens deserved.
No one was “for us” had we not been for ourselves. How dare we now sit back and enjoy our “curb cuts” or bask in our lawful, if not fully implemented, access to opportunity without looking outside of ourselves, beyond our borders.
We need not look far to see that many in this modern era still live in the dark ages. Worldwide, not only are basic rights denied to people with disabilities but punishment is incurred simply for being born with or acquiring a disability.
In our 21st century world it is incredible that 90 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries cannot attend school. It is alarming that in many countries people with intellectual disabilities or emotional disorders are chained to beds or confined to cages. It is stunning that even in many industrialized nations people with disabilities are relegated to lives of isolation simply because the public sphere outside their door is not accessible in many basic ways.
It is tragic that throughout the world people with disabilities are the poorest of the poor because employment discrimination is epidemic. Even in our own country, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities who can work and are eager to ply their trade is twice as high as the national average.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which gives international affirmation to the rights of people with disabilities to equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency, was signed by President Barack Obama on July 30, 2009. The United States Senate is about to consider it for ratification – again – after rejecting it last year.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold hearings on the CRPD in July. Should the committee pass the treaty with a simple majority, the treaty will likely come to Senate floor for a vote on ratification. But it will pass only if there are at least 67 senators who vote yes, as it takes a two-thirds majority vote to ratify an international treaty.
We people with disabilities must define “what we are” by once again speaking loudly for our larger selves. We must organize, write letters, make calls or sit in the halls of the Senate. Now, we can use the elevators in the Capitol Building to actually visit our senators and tell them, “You must vote YES to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities!”
We have many Americans who are “for us” now – Americans with and without disabilities. Take their hands. Lead them to do what’s right. Urge the leaders of your synagogues and Jewish institutions to encourage their members to speak out and be counted in their senator’s vote.
We all watched the “Shanda Show” last year when a number of Republican senators reached out to greet former Senator Bob Dole sitting in his wheelchair as they proceeded to vote against the ratification of this UN Convention — the very issue he was there to support.
The irony is that the UN CRPD is based on U.S. law. The U.S. needs to continue to lead this effort on a global scale. We cannot take a place at the table if we do not ratify the Convention.
We people with disabilities and our allies must visit the U.S. Senate with our mobility devices, with our interpreters, with our canes, with our guide dogs, and with pictures of our children in special education classes to tell our elected officials that if it hadn’t been for our U.S. laws like the ADA we would never have been able to reach their offices in the first place. In fact, before our U.S. laws, we and those we love could not study, work, feed our families, live in our homes, travel, shop or even vote for our senators in accessible locations.
Those forces that oppose the convention are small but mighty. They not only use misrepresentation but lies to persuade.
The “home school” lobby leads the “Anti” effort, alleging that ratification of the convention will dilute their parental rights.
Yet, Angela Webster, a home school parent says the following:
“…The Home School Legal Defense Association and its affiliate Parental Rights made all kinds of outrageous claims: that the treaty would ban spanking, change home-schooling laws, and worst of all take American children with disabilities away from their parents. As a home-schooler, I am usually proud of the community’s attention to the facts and understanding of the law. I am outraged at how manipulated and misused the voice of the community was in this debate. Supporting the rights of home-schooling families and supporting the disability treaty are not mutually exclusive.” (The Tennessean, May 22, 2013)
Many home school their children for religious reasons. And so, we need to use our religious voices when we urge our senators to vote “Yes.” We must help our senators understand what we believe.
As Jews, we are taught that every human is created b’tselem elohim, in God’s image. All religions believe that every person is imbued with the divine spark, infinite in value and unique.
But last year, in the failed ratification vote, the Senate showed us they do not all believe that we are, all of us, created in the divine image. They sent a message to the world that the rights of some are greater than the rights of others.
We Jews should be additionally inspired to action by this season of Tisha B’Av. As we fast on Tisha B’Av, we remember the many catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people. I have learned from Edmon J. Rodman (July 23, 2009, Washington Jewish Week,) to “think of fasting as a tzedakah stimulus plan.” As we deprive ourselves, let us remember worldwide deprivation on so many levels.
In the words of the prophet, Isaiah, we fast in order “To unlock the fetters of wickedness and to untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke…Then shall your light burst through like the dawn.”
As we hunger on Tisha B’Av, please let us all work hard to make our senators hunger for justice.
Make your voice heard: click here to send your own letter automatically to your senators. Also available is a UN CRPD RAC action alert that includes background and a letter that you can customize as you wish.
“If not now, when?”
Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s senior adviser on disability issues, co-chair of the Jewish Disability Network and co-chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.