There was a time when an employer could legally discriminate against a disabled employee, when disabled individuals could legally be excluded from public facilities, when a business could withhold services from a disabled customer. And it wasn’t that long ago.
Can you believe it?
With an eye on the seventh consecutive year in which Jewish communities around the country have observed Jewish Disability Awareness Month — it began on Feb. 1 — the JT has focused this week’s cover story on the 25 years since President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. The legislation officially prohibited such discrimination outlined above, enshrining protections for disabled men, women and children as part of the country’s civil rights guarantees, and because of it, the United States is a more welcoming and accommodating nation than a quarter-century ago.
But has the ADA been the panacea that it was promised to be? As reporter Melissa Apter writes, the jury is still out, with advocates constantly working to fix areas where the law continues to fall short.
[pullquote]each and every person, disabled or not, has a unique combination of abilities and aptitudes from which all of us can benefit.[/pullquote]
How about closer to home: We all recognize the ramps now in front of our synagogues and schools, but how much work is left to do in the Jewish community? According to people like Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility and a frequent voice on opening access to Jewish communal institutions, schools, agencies and synagogues, while we are making progress, we must do more to embrace the disabled as full-fledged members of the community.
Just as in 1990, when the ADA was signed into law, the primary argument against instituting the special practices and services necessary to ensure that the physically and mentally disabled have the same opportunities as those without such conditions is cost. Let’s face it: Hiring extra teachers and case workers, installing extra equipment, changing personnel standards and policies — it’s all expensive. There are funds, both public and private, to help mitigate the cost, but change also takes time and effort.
Such concerns are legitimate. But so is the argument raised by Jay Ruderman, whose family foundation, among other projects, gives grants to Jewish federations to hire workers with special needs. The expense critique is “a cop-out,” he says. “There’s enough money in our community to do what we want. Our community is very focused on social justice, on being a light to the world that’s a very important value; unfortunately, we don’t look at ourselves.”
Ruderman’s point is that if we’re going to champion the rights of the individual and the unique contribution that every human being can and should make to society — both very Jewish concepts — we need to perfect our embrace of such values in our own communities as well. The fact is, for far too long people with disabilities have been viewed as inherently lacking, dependent on the good graces of society to lift them up. But equally true is that each and every person, disabled or not, has a unique combination of abilities and aptitudes from which all of us can benefit.
Recognizing that reality in practice will be the challenge of the next quarter century.