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Survey of Greater Washington, D.C. Jews Marks Improvement on Jewish Disability Inclusion

Survey of 172 Jews in the D.C. community shows progress, while identifying areas in need of continued improvement

Washington, D.C., January 7 – In a recently released major survey of 2,321 Jewish individuals nationwide, RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so people with disabilities can participate fully in all aspects of community, in partnership with Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, surveyed 172 members of the D.C. Jewish community. This allowed a deep look into disability inclusion in D.C., as well as a strong and meaningful comparison to the national numbers. Of the 172 respondents, 143 either personally have a disability or have a close disability connection. The survey demonstrates that Jewish communal organizations are making strong progress toward building a more inclusive community for people with physical, sensory, mental health and other disabilities.

The data showed that 68 percent of D.C. area Jewish respondents felt the Jewish community was “better” at “including people with disabilities” compared to five years ago. Only one percent felt that the community was doing “somewhat worse.”

“More and more Jewish institutions now understand that we are a stronger community when we are welcoming, diverse, and respect one another,” said RespectAbility VP Matan Koch. “The numbers in the D.C. area show the results of strong leadership, values and practices in the Jewish community.”

Vivian Bass, RespectAbility’s Vice Chair overseeing its Jewish inclusion work, longtime Board Member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and CEO emeritus of JFGH, said “The survey findings were very encouraging, demonstrating the Jewish community is headed in the right direction. It’s important to celebrate this memorable improvement, and the hard work of so many people that made it possible, without losing sight of the much more work clearly to be done. It is especially important to note the data shows that even though Jews with disabilities are as highly educated as Jews without disabilities, they are considerably more likely to live in poverty.”

Increase in Inclusion in Synagogues, Jewish Organizations and Communal Activities

When Jews in the D.C community were asked “overall, how well is the Jewish community doing at including people with disabilities in synagogues, Jewish organizations, and communal activities,” encouragingly, 18 percent of respondents answered “extremely or very well”, five percentage points higher than when they were asked the same question in 2018. Additionally, 50 percent felt the Jewish community was doing “somewhat well.”

When asked, “in the faith-based institutions and groups that you are active in, do you feel that people with disabilities are included? (i.e. social activities, men’s clubs/sisterhoods, youth groups),” 28 percent answered “yes,” with an additional 51 percent responding “sometimes.”

“The survey findings were encouraging, showing that the Jewish community is headed in the right direction to be more inclusive of people with disabilities, but that inclusion may be sporadic or only available at certain institutions,” said pollster Meagan Buren, who fielded the survey. “More work must be done to ensure all members of our community feel consistently respected, included, and valued.”

When asked where the community found the “most access and inclusive environment” and where they found the “most challenges for access and inclusion” of people with disabilities, the largest response nationally was the same for both questions – synagogues. 21 percent said synagogues have the most access while 18 percent said synagogues have the most challenges. This follows multiple efforts to expand inclusion at synagogues and demonstrates the inconsistencies in disability inclusion among varied institutions.

In the D.C. community, there were similar results with 20 percent said synagogues have the most access while 27 percent said synagogues have the most challenges. And fully, 38 percent of the respondents chose “I don’t know” in response to where the most challenges are in the community. In a sample made up largely of people with a disability connection, it is of note that nearly 4 out of 10 did not know of a challenging place for access and inclusion of people with disabilities in the Greater Washington Jewish community.

A strong majority of D.C. area Jewish respondents (60 percent) are involved in faith organizations that have made commitments to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” and among those, fully 93 percent included disability in specifically named areas of diversity, a significant achievement.

At the same time, the surge in the use of virtual formats in response to the COVID-19 pandemic increased the ability of 64 percent of D.C. area Jewish respondents to access their faith community. This likely resulted from a combination of the relative ease with which more people could be included. For example, live captioning and remote ASL interpreters made it easier for those who are deaf or hard of hearing to participate. Furthermore, the lack of a need for transportation, which remains a major barrier for many with physical, visual, intellectual and/or psychiatric disabilities, enabled additional individuals to participate from home.

While the overall numbers are trending in a positive direction and are strong compared even to three years ago, there still is exclusion in the Jewish community. Nationally, one in five people with disabilities noted they or another disabled individual in their household have been “turned away from an activity at an organization in your faith community because of its inability or unwillingness to make a reasonable accommodation.” In D.C., that number is 18 percent, slightly below the national average of 22 percent.

Lack of Jewish Clergy or Staff with Disabilities

The professional picture is more varied. RespectAbility’s survey shows that disability representation in Jewish leadership continues to be an area of opportunity. D.C.’s Jewish respondents were slightly above the national average at 22 percent who knew “any clergy or staff with disabilities” at their own institutions. This is a meaningful gain of seven percent since 2018. However, only 15 percent feel that “people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on boards and committees,” with an additional 22 percent responding “sometimes.”

Emphasis on Ensuring Access to Education, Skills and Jobs

While almost 50 percent of D.C area Jewish respondents found that “increasing inclusion of people with disabilities in faith-based organizations and institutions,” was “extremely important,” 72 percent responded that “enabling people with disabilities to get the education, skills, and jobs they need to succeed” is “extremely important.”

The RespectAbility study showed that 29 percent of D.C. area Jewish respondents believe that “prejudice and unacknowledged stigma” remains the biggest barrier to full inclusion, just as it was in 2018. Additionally, 25 percent  choose “religious leaders and activists want to be inclusive, but they don’t know how” as the biggest barrier to inclusion, 6 percent higher than the national average, demonstrating room for additional training and resources.

Disability and Poverty

Using the larger nationwide sample, it is of particular note that while many respondents preferred not to answer income level, among those that did, there were measurable differences between those with and without a disability connection at the highest and lowest ranges of income. Fully 26 percent of disabled Jews nationally reported income under $49,999 compared to just eight percent of people without a disability connection. Only six percent of people with disabilities reported income of more than $200,000 compared to 17 percent of people without a disability connection. This gap in income level is of particular note as the education levels reported by the respondents do not show significant differences between disabled individuals and the wider community.

This data presents a mixed picture, but the leadership of the DC area community has publicly committed to build on the strengths and address the opportunities. “We remain deeply committed to fostering and furthering inclusion in our community. We are stronger when everyone has compelling options for leading rich and fulfilling Jewish lives,” noted Gil Preuss, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “While the survey results are encouraging in several ways, they also highlight the important work still ahead of us in creating a more inclusive society for people with disabilities. We are eager to continue learning from and working with talented partners like RespectAbility to expand and strengthen Jewish communal offerings for every community member.”

The survey was administered online from October 5 – October 19, 2021. The questions reached a total of 2,924 respondents.

Meet the Author

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the Founder of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She regularly works with disability organizations, national, state and local policy leaders, workforce development professionals, media, employers, philanthropists, celebrities and faith-based organizations in order to expand opportunities for people with disabilities.

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