February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a worldwide initiative for Jewish organizations to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities and mental health conditions. This year marks the 10th anniversary of JDAIM, with programs and events taking place in synagogues, schools and across Jewish institutions.

In addition to raising awareness about disability inclusion, another focus of JDAIM is advocacy on issues related to disability rights. Last Tuesday, the ninth annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) took place in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Reform Action Center of Reform Judaism, JDAD brought together more than 200 advocates from across the country to learn about and lobby for several important issues: full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and opposing legislation that would cut Medicaid.

This year’s JDAD was also unique because it was the first time that a parallel JDAD took place, with Jewish advocates in Ottawa lobbying for disability rights legislation in Canada on the same day. Canadian activists focused on issues related to inclusion, accessibility, housing, employment and Canada’s medical inadmissibility policy, which prevents people with disabilities and their families from moving to Canada.

In Washington, the day began with panels of disability rights experts briefing participants about the importance of each issue. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was originally passed as The Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHCA) of 1975; it mandated that the federal government pay 40 percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities, while the states would pay 60 percent. This landmark legislation was the first time that Congress proclaimed that every student is entitled to an education, regardless of disability. Before the bill’s enactment, many students with disabilities were not permitted to enroll in school.

A panel of disability rights advocates in Washington, D.C., as part of Jewish Disabilities Advocacy Day.
Ronald M. Sachs

Jewish federation legislative associates noted four important points related to advocating for full funding of IDEA, including:

* Astoundingly, the most recent data from 2016, 41 years after passage of  the EHCA, shows that the federal government was only paying about 15 percent of the expense (as opposed to the 40 percent required by law).

* The significant underfunding has been a critical challenge for school systems as they seek to hire a sufficient number of special education teachers, instructional aides, as well as physical, occupational speech and behavioral therapists and other specialists.

* More students are in need of special education services than decades ago when the original law was enacted. The lack of federal funding is particularly problematic as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2014 found the rate of autism among children to be 1 in 68, compared to 1 in 150 in 2000.

* Students receive less support than they need and school districts are obligated to provide services to everyone deemed eligible for special education.

Making sure that Congress won’t transform Medicaid into a block grant or cap the program’s federal share of funding was equally important on the agenda. In 2017, cuts to Medicaid were proposed and defeated three different times. In the United States, Medicaid provides access to critical services for millions of vulnerable Americans with disabilities.

The federation associates shared consequences to Medicaid recipients with disabilities and their families if Medicaid would be cut:

* Under a block grant or per capita cap, states would have no choice but to sharply restrict enrollment, eligibility and benefits for populations they currently serve, including people with disabilities. As a result, people with disabilities would be turned away from vital services and individuals who now qualify for Medicaid could end up uninsured.

* A sharp decrease in federal Medicaid spending under a block grant or per capita cap could lead to cuts in crucial services for people with disabilities, such as home and community-based services that include assistance with daily living, employment supports like job coaching, housing, nursing and transportation, services that allow people with disabilities to live and work in their communities instead of being confined to institutions.

* Similarly, people with disabilities depend greatly on Medicaid coverage for habilitation services, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, personal care services, speech/language/hearing therapy, transportation and targeted case management. Habilitation services help people with disabilities lead healthier, more independent and more productive lives. Because these services are optional in Medicaid, they would likely be among the first benefits to be cut due to a block grant or per capita.

Following morning panels, a bipartisan congressional lunch included presentations by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and many others, and participants took part in over 50 lobby meetings, representing more than 20 states.

“As a Jewish community, we recognize that the work we do internally to make our spaces inclusive must be mirrored in our public advocacy to create a world of wholeness, justice and compassion. JDAD is an opportunity to build that world,” said Jonah Baskin, Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “Our obligation to advocate for disability rights is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Our texts recognize that people with disabilities are often especially vulnerable to discrimination and commands us not to “insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). These patterns of discrimination continue to the present day.”

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer writes for and edits The Jewish Week’s The New Normal: Blogging Disability. At Jewish Learning Venture, she works as director of whole community inclusion and leads disability awareness programs for the Philadelphia Jewish community. Her most recent book, “The Little Gate Crasher,” a memoir of her great uncle, who overcame society’s prejudices about dwarfism to lead a remarkable life, was one of the national book selections for 2017 Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.