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“At the moment, we [the Jewish community] hold ourselves to a lower standard than the broader public is held to,” said Ari Ne’eman, founder and president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, a nonprofit run by and for autistic people.
“There is unfortunately a perception that in some ways this is justified or that because the law does not require religious institutions to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, that all that’s necessary is a certain standard of good will,” Ne’eman said. “But the purpose of the ADA is that this is not a matter of charity but a matter of rights.
“It’s not a matter of doing this if it’s convenient or accepting people with disabilities if it represents a funder priority or any number of other things. It should be the bare minimum necessary to conduct a program. Doing something in an accessible way should be part of the cost of doing anything at all.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO and president of RespectAbility USA, a group that focuses on disability issues in the faith-based sector, says the inclusion of people with disabilities is not just a moral or civil rights issue but “important for Jewish survival.”
Laszlo Mizrahi, who was the founder and longtime director of The Israel Project, a group shaping public perceptions of Israel, says that certain genetic risks and the tendency of American Jews to have children later in life means Jews likely have more disabilities per capita than the American population at large.
By not doing more to include and welcome this segment of the Jewish population, the Jewish community risks driving away not only individuals with disabilities but also their families and friends, says Laszlo Mizrahi, herself the mother of two children with disabilities.
A RespectAbility USA poll of 3,800 Americans in the disability community last fall found that Jews with disabilities are “far less engaged in their faith” than their counterparts who are Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical. Fewer than half of the Jews surveyed answered that religion was “fairly” or “very important in their lives,” and nearly 40 percent “hardly ever or never” attend synagogue.
Jews with disabilities are not the only Jews to be less religiously engaged than Christians. The 2008 Pew Forum American Religious Landscape Survey found that only 31 percent of Jews say religion is very important to their lives, and only 16 percent attend religious services at least once a week.