More than 20 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) people with disabilities continue to struggle with obtaining an equal playing field. For example, the National Organization on Disabilities (NOD) has commissioned regular surveys about disabilities since 1986. The 2004 and the 2010 surveys of people with and without disabilities of all faiths included a question, “How important is your religious faith to you — very important, somewhat important, not very important, or not at all important?” People with and without disabilities answered this question identically: 57% reported that it was very important and 27% reported that it was somewhat important, for a total of 84% who reported that religion is important to them. However, people with disabilities are 12-20% less likely to attend synagogues, churches or mosques (Harris Interactive). This speaks powerfully of how we have still not opened the doors, put out the welcome mat and listened carefully to what people have been telling us, or even asked the questions to hear the response.
The lack of a welcome mat is not for the lack of information or assistance in the how-to’s. NOD’s Disabilities and Religion Program has produced a number of interfaith guides for helping congregations take the initial steps, and many other books followed, including Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Minneapolis has published an outstanding guide, Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities, by Shelly Christensen, with practical advice for congregations, religious schools and Jewish service organizations. Unfortunately, the speed and effectiveness with which it has percolated down to individual communities has been uneven at best.
One of the primary issues facing people with disabilities is employment. “In October 2010, the percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force was 21.4. By comparison, the percentage of persons with no disability in the labor force was 69.8” (Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2010). The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 14.8%, compared to 8.8% for people without disabilities. The Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC) of the American Association of People with Disabilities encourages congregations to look at their own hiring practices, from their clergy to their receptionists.
Another way people with disabilities face discrimination is at the voting booth: they are often literally disenfranchised. Poll workers are often not adequately trained in the accommodations mandated for people with disabilities. The Federal Election Commission reports that “more than 20,000 polling places across the nation are inaccessible, depriving people with disabilities of their fundamental right to vote.”
Many ways present themselves for Jewish organizations, especially religious communities, to come together to support people with disabilities and to honor and include them. The next chapter shares the views of key informants with personal and professional knowledge of the Jewish world and disabilities.
For Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation has taken several steps. We purchased a few large print prayer books, and brought our mezuzah (symbol of our faith and commitment to G!d) to wheelchair and child-friendly heights. On Friday, February 24 at 7 pm, we are hosting Shelly Christensen to speak about inclusion in a religious setting as part of our Final Friday Cultural Series. Over a potluck dinner starting at 5 pm, she will meet with teachers, parents and other interested people to discuss particulars of inclusion. Ms. Christensen is one of the leaders in disabilities awareness in the Jewish world and in the religious world. She will help us focus our awareness in assuring that all congregants are welcome, all visitors are welcome. Please join us.
There is an ancient Hebrew blessing for when we see someone who looks different from us: different hair color, different skin color, “odd looking” limbs, etc.
Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, M’shaneh habriot.
Blessed are You, our God, Sovereign of Time and Space, Who forms creation with diversity.
This blessing teaches us to value the divine spark in each human being, even if our first inclination is to recoil. It also teaches us good manners. Come learn with us on Friday.