In the second half of the 20th century, the Jewish community did the impossible; after decades of struggle, Soviet Jewry emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, empowered to emigrate as a result of intense international pressure. Amazingly, a tiny, historically marginalized people emerged victorious against the vast Soviet empire. Looking back, a few key factors made the impossible a reality: a community-wide organizing strategy, the strength and centrality of the voices of Soviet Jews themselves and a clear, unequivocal and uncompromising moral demand. Today, as the Jewish community begins to grapple with the question of how to fulfill its long forgotten responsibilities to its members with disabilities, we would do well to learn from our past.
Twenty-three years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), guaranteeing non-discrimination for people with disabilities in employment, public services and places of public accommodation, and fourteen years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision that required states to provide services in the community instead of institutions a growing recognition has emerged that many Jewish schools, camps, synagogues and other community resources either actively exclude or are practically inaccessible to people with disabilities. This conversation is long overdue. The Ruderman Family Foundation and other Jewish organizations that have worked to jumpstart this dialogue deserve much credit. Unfortunately, our current Jewish community conversation on disability lacks the vision and moral character that exemplified the struggle to free Soviet Jewry.
To change that, we must challenge the misconception that it is only lack of resources that prevents a truly inclusive Jewish world. To those who subscribe to this fallacy, the question of inclusion is as simple as convincing the right philanthropists to cut a big enough check. While new investment is always welcome, the scope of our challenge is far broader.
Title III of the ADA protects disabled Americans from discrimination in places of public accommodation, ranging from buildings to schools and swimming pools. The Jewish community’s communal institutions supported the ADA’s passage and have worked since to strengthen it. Surprisingly, Jewish communal institutions are themselves exempt from Title III of the ADA, covered under the law’s religious exemption. Though many synagogues have taken upon themselves to become physically accessible, the inapplicability of the Title III has broader implications. The ADA’s religious exemption does not just apply to religious settings, like places of worship and seminaries – it also covers any setting run by a religious institution, such as Jewish summer camps and private schools.
This has consequences. Non-religious summer camps and private schools hardly have perfect records on including youth with disabilities; yet, by virtue of being covered by a civil rights law, campers and students have rights and legal recourse against discrimination. While a Jewish camp or day school may decide to adopt a policy of non-discrimination and accommodation for disabled youth, they are under no obligation to do so. What is a matter of right for most summer camps and private schools is one of charity for Jewish settings. Instead of talking about respecting the rights of disabled people, Jewish communal institutions instead discuss disability in terms of “special needs” – extra rights, not equal ones. As a result, many Jews with disabilities are funneled into programming that segregates them from the broader scope of Jewish life rather than being meaningfully included. Why should we hold our programs to a lower standard than those of the vast majority of the country? Is this consistent with our values?
While it is unrealistic to expect the law to change anytime soon, we can take steps to put our own house in order. Places of public accommodation associated with the Jewish community should voluntarily adopt a policy of compliance with the ADA’s requirements, bringing ourselves under the same structure of rights and obligations we so capably urged the rest of the nation to adopt. As such efforts spread, local and regional Jewish bodies can work to set up enforcement mechanisms to ensure that Jews with disabilities possess these rights in more than name. If we wish to identify ourselves as a light unto nations, it behooves us to ensure that Jewish settings are held to at least the same standards as those of the general public.
There is more to be done, of course, and in the coming weeks and months I look forward to working to jumpstart that conversation at The New Normal. As a Jew active in the disability rights movement, I believe we can do better than we are doing today. Let’s make true inclusion our goal – and in doing so, we can recapture the spirit of liberation that has so successfully energized the Jewish people throughout history.
Ari Ne’eman is the President and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a national community advocacy organization run by and for Autistic adults. Since 2010, he has served as one of President Obama’s appointees to the National Council on Disability, where he currently chairs the Council’s Entitlements Committee and is both the youngest and the first openly Autistic presidential appointee in American history. He is a Schechter and Ramah dropout and was one of the New York Jewish Week’s 36 by 36 in 2010.