Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Fall, 2014 issue of The Journal of Jewish Communal Service, and is disseminated with the permission of its publisher, JPRO Network. Subscriptions at JPRO.org.
We are sharing this primer in three parts; first the introduction, followed by the action steps.
After centuries of persecution, we Jews have become deeply committed to developing one asset over almost everything else—our minds. This asset is the one thing we can take with us to a new country, and it has contributed to our survival.
This devotion to education and achievement has been good for us and for the world as is evidenced by the many Nobel Prizes won by Jews for discovering lifesaving breakthroughs.
But what does that mean for those of us in the community who are not destined for acceptance at the top colleges or to win a Nobel Prize? What about the child who is born with an intellectual, learning, mental health, or physical disability or the individual who acquires a disability?
The Jewish community, which values achievement so highly, can be an exceptionally harsh and lonely place for someone with a disability and for those who love them. Time and time again, we in the Jewish community shut our doors to people with disabilities, or we serve them in segregated institutions when separate is never equal. Sometimes this is done intentionally, but far more often it is done because we simply do not know how to truly serve all.
Studies show that 9 out of 10 women overall who take the test to discover if they are carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome choose to abort. What message does this send to people with Down Syndrome and their families, and what are we doing as a community to welcome them in our community as equal? What are we doing to embrace a family with disability issues when members of the Jewish community say to the mother of a child with Down Syndrome, “why didn’t you consider abortion?”
The impact of exclusion of people with disabilities goes beyond hurt feelings. It leads to isolation, fewer affiliated Jews, family disruption, and, all too often, even divorce. If we are going to bring everyone under the tent, then we must include people with disabilities.
According to the U.S. Census, 18.6% of Americans (approximately 1 in 5) have a disability. Because Jews carry genetic risks and on average have children later in life than any other demographic group in America, it is likely that the percentage of Jews with disabilities is higher than the national average. That is all the more reason why Jewish communal agencies, their staff, and lay leaders must welcome, accept, and support individuals dealing with disability issues. When people are welcomed, accepted, and treated equally, disability can actually be an asset to the community. We come to learn the true meaning of humanity and understand that, though everyone is different, all people were created in the image of G-d, “b’tselem Elokim bara oto.”
A nationwide poll fielded by RespectAbility of more than 3,800 Americans in the disability community (half of whom were people with disabilities, and half were family members and providers to people with disabilities) shows that Jews with disabilities are far less engaged religiously than are Catholics, Protestants, or Evangelicals.
Less than half of Jews surveyed answered that religion was “fairly” or “very important in their lives,” and nearly 40% reported that they rarely or never attend synagogue. A higher percentage of Jews do not attend services than in any other religious group polled. We can learn a great deal from how other faith groups welcome and serve people with disabilities and their families. For example, the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) has mandated that every one of its 24,000 congregations or institutions have an inclusion director/coordinator to ensure that people with disabilities are welcomed.
Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, it has not ended discrimination in religious institutions, in part because they are exempt from its regulations if they do not accept federal money or services.
Therefore they have little legal obligation to serve or hire people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, this “pass” has hindered the implementation of simple accommodations such as accessible doors and ramps to enable people with physical disabilities to participate in religious services and programs. While these institutions are legally exempt, the same does not hold true for moral or religious obligations.
It is time for real participation in all aspects of Jewish life, including access to the bima, kiddushes, bar and bat mitzvahs, and all activities that say, “I am a welcome member of the community.”
In a study conducted by Mizrahi and Buren for the Foundation for Jewish Camp in early 2013, 46% of Jews with disabilities who attended overnight Jewish summer camp reported that they have been denied access to other Jewish institutions due to their disabilities. Given that most children with significant disabilities are not yet served by camp, it is likely that an even higher percentage of Jewish people with disabilities have been denied access to Jewish life.
A poll of 2,607 Jews conducted in September 2013 by RespectAbilityUSA.org and Jerusalem U shows that Jews, particularly young Jews, feel very strongly that Jews with disabilities need to be included in Jewish life. Fully 89% of the Jews polled strongly agreed that “Jewish events and organizations should be as welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities as everyone else.” An additional 9% somewhat agreed with the same statement. Indeed, they felt more strongly about inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life than about being connected to Israel, marrying someone Jewish, or having Jewish children. The gaps in intensity were more pronounced among young Jews.
The 2013 Pew study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, in many ways paints a dismal picture of the Jewish communal future; smart, dedicated leaders are spending a lot of time and treasure to find the best ways to connect with unaffi liated Jews while at the same time many passionate Jews are being turned away based solely on their disabilities. This article provides guidance on how to serve Jewish children with disabilities and their families.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She is dyslexic and as a proud parent knows what it means for her child to be denied access to Jewish institutions due solely to disabilities. Meagan Buren is the Vice President of RespectAbilityUSA.org and is also the President of Buren Research and Communications. She is an expert in public opinion research and strategic communications.
Free resources from RespectabilityUSA are available at http://respectabilityusa.com/resources/jewish-inclusion.