Washington, DC. RespectAbility, a non-profit organization working to empower Americans with disabilities to achieve the American Dream, is celebrating the first anniversary of its work to empower Jews with disabilities to be included in Jewish life.
Since its inception only one year ago, RespectAbility has worked to help Jewish groups become more inclusive communities. According to the U.S. Census, 18.6% of Americans have a disability. This includes 13% of public school children. Given that there are 5.3 million Jews in America, this means that there are at least 985,500 Jews with disabilities. However, as Jews carry genetic risks and on average have children later in life than any other demographic group it is likely that we have more disabilities per capita than others, including higher rates of Autism, mental health and other issues linked to parental age.
Donn Weinberg, Founding Chair of RespectAbilityUSA.org, and its President/CEO Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, introduced the nascent national, non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to: 1) Reshape the attitudes of American society so that people with disabilities can more fully participate in and contribute to society, and 2) Empower people with disabilities to achieve as much of the American dream as their abilities and efforts permit.
“Sadly, time and again in the Jewish community, we shut our doors to people with disabilities. The discrimination is frequently unintentional as Jews overall are deeply committed to social justice,” said Mizrahi. Indeed, fully 89% of Jews polled by RespectAbility with Jerusalem University strongly agree that, “Jewish events and organizations should be as welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities as everyone else.” The same poll indicated that people with disabilities are dramatically underepresented within the ranks of engaged Jews, with 20% of Jews indicating that they were unable to participate in Jewish life because of their disability.
2015 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Religious institutions are exempt from this law if they do not accept Federal money or services and still today have no legal obligation to serve or employ people with disabilities. “Unfortunately, this ‘pass’ has hindered the implementation of simple accommodations such as accessible doors and ramps and attitude changes to enable people with disabilities to participate in religious services and programs,” added Mizrahi. “We believe that this discrimination is denying the basic human and religious rights of thousands of American Jews with disabilities. It also deprives our community of the many gifts that Jews with disabilities offer. While there are laudable exceptions, overall our community’s practice is not reflective of its inclusive laws and values.”Another nationwide poll fielded by RespectAbility of more than 3,800 Americans in the disability community (half people with disabilities, half family members and providers to people with disabilities) shows that Jews with disabilities are far less engaged in Jewish life than are their counterparts from the Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical faiths. Indeed, more Jews with disabilities say they “do not attend services” than any other religious group polled. Another survey from the Foundation for Jewish Camp (undertaken together with RespectAbility) demonstrated that there are Jewish children who are being turned away and denied access to Jewish life based solely on their disabilities.
This past year, RespectAbility co-sponsored trainings for Jewish professionals, institutions, family members and self-advocates with the Jewish Federations of North America, Jewish Funders Network, Temple Beth Ami and many other organizations. Additionally, an online webinar can be found here.
RespectAbility co-founded and is co-sponsoring a summer service program with the Washington DCJCC which enables middle school and high school students with disabilities to do service projects, showing once again the ability and value of people with disabilities to the community as givers rather than receivers. It is also working with a group of leaders towards the goal of a national Shabbaton for Adults with disabilities and their families.
Also planned in the year ahead, contingent on funding, is a new program to research and develop a series of effective public service ads with specific messaging that can be used in flyers, newsletters and posters featuring Jews with disabilities fully included and contributing to the Jewish community. These materials will be distributed free of charge to Jewish schools, synagogues, and organizations across the country and will include royalty free photos of Jews with a variety of disabilities succeeding in inclusive Jewish settings.
In its first year RespectAbilityUSA also met 1-1 with 33 of America’s governors on the issue of jobs for people with disabilities. This week RespectAbility will again meet with numerous governors on site at the National Governors Association meeting. RespectAbility is working to inspire smart public-private partnerships that can save American taxpayers billions of dollars a year as citizens with disabilities get what they want — real jobs for real pay.
RespectAbilityUSA is under no illusions that positive change will be easy. At the launch a year ago, said Weinberg, “We will reach out to companies, non-profits, the faith community, philanthropists and media alike.” Said Mizrahi, “We are deeply grateful to the people who have helped us in our work this first year and look forward to a strong future for people with disabilities.”
Shelley Cohen is the group’s secretary, and Thomas “Doc” Sweitzer and Louis Zweig also serve on the board with Weinberg, Cohen and Mizrahi. Members of the Board of Advisors are disability experts Kelly Buckland, Donna Meltzer, Steve Tingus, Mark Johnson and Steve Eidelman.
Organized as a District of Columbia non-profit corporation, RespectAbilityUSA is waiting for final IRS approval. Until final approval, RespectAbilityUSA is operating as a project of the Autism-Society of America, which receives tax-deductible contributions on its behalf. RespectAbility recently received a $100,000 matching grant from the Milbank Foundation so all new donations will be matched one-to-one. Donations are needed and may be given online.
“Today, every family has, in some way, been touched by a disability” said Weinberg. “The growing ranks of children who have been diagnosed with Autism, the veterans returning from foreign wars without limbs or with PTSD, or people with Down Syndrome – these and all people have value and can contribute to the productivity of our great nation.”