Here in the U.S., we are about to celebrate Independence Day. I’m from Philadelphia so July 4 is especially meaningful to me: After all, it was in the City of Brotherly Love that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.
July is another celebration of American freedom. July 26 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Americans With Disabilities Act, the ADA. The ADA has been widely recognized as the Civil Rights Act for people with disabilities. It's a recognition by our nation that people with disabilities are to be treated with respect and dignity.
I won’t recite the entire text of the ADA (you can find it here), but I will share some of the thoughts in the findings section that bear repeating:
(1) Physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society, yet many people with physical or mental disabilities have been precluded from doing so because of discrimination; others who have a record of a disability or are regarded as having a disability also have been subjected to discrimination;
(7) The Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals; and
(8) The continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous, and costs the United States billions of dollars in unnecessary expenses resulting from dependency and non-productivity.
All noble words, the lofty thoughts we sometimes find in federal legislation. But when you ask people with disabilities, their families and disability advocates, providers and scholars they will tell you that the promise of the ADA is just that: a promise. It will continue to motivate those who care deeply about people with disabilities and disability policy to reach for the brass ring, full inclusion and participation in American society.
There are concrete actions, familiar to readers of this blog, that all of us can take, focusing on our own communities. Are there people in your community who might want to participate in congregational life who, due to either attitudinal or physical barriers can’t participate? What actions can you do to help remove any barriers?
Can people with disabilities and, for children, their families participate in all the activities of the JCC in your community? Can you help the JCC reach out to families who don’t enjoy the benefits of the JCC and bring them in, removing attitudinal barriers as well as physical barriers?
Does your Federation support programs and activities that include Jews with disabilities to participate in all they support financially? If not, can you ask them to start?
The ADA is a magnificent piece of legislation that remains an agent for change in our culture. So when you celebrate on July 4, plan to participate in the celebrations around the U.S. on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ADA. You can find those local events here. The ADA is worthy of celebration by all of us.
Steven Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership at The University of Delaware and the faculty director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities. He has worked for the last 35 years to help people with disabilities lead full lives in the community.