Marking 25 Years Of The Americans With Disabilities Act: Access to Religious Institutions Is The Last Frontier
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Marking 25 Years Of The Americans With Disabilities Act: Access to Religious Institutions Is The Last Frontier

Editor's Note: Over the next week, we will sharing a number of different voices reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the ADA. Be sure to follow and share!

Jubilation was in the air on July 26th 1990 when President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “And today, America welcomes into the mainstream of life all of our fellow citizens with disabilities. We embrace you for your abilities and for your disabilities, for our similarities and indeed for our differences, for your past courage and your future dreams,” President Bush asserted.

At last we were recognized as a part of the fabric of American society, history, and potential.

No more were we to be satisfied merely to watch others carry on their daily routines or look longingly at the door positioned at the summit of a stately flight of stairs. Now we were to be afforded access and reasonable accommodations to be able to scurry for and board buses, access the written word, grab that slice of pizza that beckons to us from the store window, compete for a job and access telephone technology. Yes, there is yet much to do to ensure ADA compliance in the workplace, store, or community event. That said, we should appreciate and celebrate the progress that has been made.

Religious institutions, however, are exempt from the ADA mandates. Representatives from the religious sector claimed that (1) the costs would be unduly prohibitive and (2) the state has no right to interfere with the employment practices of places of worship. The disability community and those in line with our cause reticently compromised and allowed the exemption to pass.

Whether it was correct to exempt religious institutions is a worthwhile debate; especially given differing interpretations as to the meaning of the separation of church and state. I invite you to engage in a respectful debate below.

However, American Jewish communities must not wait for any American law to impel us to expand physical access to our built environments and to offer reasonable accommodations in our community institutions, programs, and workplaces. We must increase access for and opportunities for participation of people with disabilities because, from the Torah perspective, each one of us is created betzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d and of infinite value; no one should be or feel separated from the lifeblood of the Jewish community; and each one of us is responsible to make sure that all of our brothers and sisters are able to participate in Jewish life, worship, and learning to the greatest extent possible. May we look into our own heritage for direction and do what is right for all of us; Jewish community members with varying abilities and characteristics.

Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, Founding Executive Director of Yad HaChazakah – The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Inc. envisions Jewish communities where people with obvious or hidden disabilities are sought and valued for the strengths they bring. In her vision, leaders and community members will want to improve physical, communication, and attitudinal access to shuls, yeshivas, batei midrash, workplaces, shops, and family life – not only for the benefit to specific individuals, but also for the enrichment of entire communities. Ms. Shapiro-Lacks has worked in the disability policy and human services arenas for over 25 years, spending most of her tenure in executive and management positions.

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