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Survey of NYC Area Jews Marks Improvement on Jewish Disability Inclusion

Survey of 222 Jews in the NYC community shows progress, while identifying areas in need of continued improvement

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New York City skylineNew York, NY, April 1 – 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 UJA Federation of New York, surveyed 222 members of the New York City Jewish community. This allowed a deep look into disability inclusion in NYC, as well as a strong and meaningful comparison to the national numbers. Of the 222 respondents from New York City, 171 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 66 percent of NYC 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 Shelley Cohen, RespectAbility Board Member and Co-Chair of its Jewish Inclusion work. “The numbers in the NYC area show the results of strong leadership, values and practices in the Jewish community.”

Matan Koch, Vice President for Workforce and Faith Inclusion at RespectAbility, who uses a wheelchair, 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.” Koch, a graduate of Yale College and the Harvard Law School continued, “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 NYC community were asked “overall, how well is the Jewish community doing at including people with disabilities in synagogues, Jewish organizations, and communal activities,” encouragingly, 27 percent of respondents answered “extremely or very well”, fifteen percentage points higher than when they were asked the same question in 2018. Additionally, 46 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),” 43 percent answered “yes,” with an additional 42 percent responding “sometimes.”

Nationally, 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 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 NYC community, there were similar results with 22 percent said synagogues have the most access while 20 percent said synagogues have the most challenges. And fully, 50 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 encouraging that fully half of respondents did not know of a challenging place for access and inclusion of people with disabilities in the NYC Jewish community.

A strong majority of NYC area Jewish respondents (60 percent) are involved in faith organizations that have made commitments to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Among those, fully 84 percent included disability as a specifically named area 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 67 percent of NYC 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 who responded to the survey noted they or another disabled individual in their household have been “turned away from an activity at an organization in [their] faith community because of its inability or unwillingness to make a reasonable accommodation.” While NYC is 9 points below the national average for this response, with only 13 percent of respondents having experienced exclusion versus the 22 percent national average, the fact that 1 in 10 have experienced exclusion demonstrates that there is work still to be done.

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. NYC’s Jewish respondents were slightly above the national average at 23 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 12 percent feel that “people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on boards and committees,” with an additional 22 percent responding that they “sometimes” are encouraged.

Emphasis on Ensuring Access to Education, Skills and Jobs

While almost 43 percent of NYC area Jewish respondents found that “increasing inclusion of people with disabilities in faith-based organizations and institutions,” was “extremely important,” 71 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 30 percent of NYC area Jewish respondents believe that “prejudice and unacknowledged stigma” remains the biggest barrier to full inclusion, just as it was in 2018. Additionally, 19 percent choose “religious leaders and activists want to be inclusive, but they don’t know how” as the biggest barrier to inclusion, and an additional 19 percent chose “including people with disabilities can be complicated and we don’t have the expertise to serve every need,” demonstrating room for additional training and resources. Another 28 percent cited expense and limited resources as the top barrier.

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.

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

Meet the Author

Matan Koch

Matan A. Koch is Vice President for Workforce and Faith Programs at RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community. A longtime national leader in disability advocacy and a wheelchair user himself, he is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School.

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