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How We’re Failing Jews with Disabilities

For the past several years, February has been Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, prompting Jewish communal groups to issue statements, hold events and publish blog posts on the topic of more fully welcoming people with disabilities into our community. The month is often a celebration of intent rather than action. In many parts of our community (as in the general public), disability inclusion is welcomed in principle, but with little understanding of the practical steps involved.

Some progress has been made. Major D.C.-based organizations, like the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center, have put their lobbying muscle behind important disability rights legislation, like the now pending Transition to Independence Act. The Ruderman Family Foundation has funded meaningful disability inclusion programs in each of the major Jewish movements, as well as in important Jewish organizations like Hillel International. And yet, the Jewish communal life that we hold dear lags behind in many of its policies and practices.

There remain a number of glaring omissions in our policies that hinder the full inclusion of Jews with disabilities. When the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, lobbying from Christian conservatives secured a religious exemption, allowing schools, camps and buildings maintained by religious organizations to avoid the accessibility requirements imposed on secular ones. While many (though not all) synagogues have nonetheless worked to make their buildings accessible to wheelchair users and others with disabilities, programmatic access in Jewish schools and camps has lagged behind that of secular entities responsible under the law.

While this sometimes means that day schools and camps decline to serve youth with disabilities, it can also result in tracking into segregated programs that prevent people with disabilities from participating in the mainstream of Jewish communal youth programming. For example, the Ramah camps maintained by my own Conservative movement have long maintained a policy that tells families of prospective campers with disabilities, “Regardless of their geographic location, families are directed to the Ramah camp that best suits their child’s needs.” This means that while a non-disabled classmate of a camper with a disability will be welcomed in a local regional Ramah camp, a child with a disability may be sent across the country to a camp that “specializes” in serving children with their diagnosis.

Such a policy would be legally questionable if adopted by a secular institution — and enables the refusal of local camps to learn to serve the totality of their communities. The ADA recognizes that tracking people with disabilities by diagnosis is not an appropriate pathway; instead, each camper should be able to assert a right to an individualized determination of accommodations, including the option to receive them in the same camp attended by their non-disabled peers.

Policies on including children with disabilities vary dramatically from camp to camp, with some families having no recourse but to when their child is turned away. A 2013 survey conducted by the Foundation for Jewish Camp found that only 3% of campers in Jewish summer camps had disabilities, less than a quarter of the 13% of children who have disabilities in American public schools. Many of these campers are served in segregated programming, placing children with disabilities at arm’s length from the mainstream of camp life. These much-lauded programs look different if you’re in the target demographic; while camp officials are often praised for taking any action to serve disabled youth, those of us with disabilities often note that such separate programs further isolate us even as they serve as an excuse for exclusion from the mainstream.

Finally, the Jewish community is also a considerable social services provider, with many Jewish Federations funding or maintaining non-profit organizations that serve children and adults with developmental disabilities. Many of these programs are exemplary, and well in line with best practice in disability service-provision as articulated by the disability rights movement. However, this is not always the case. As of 2016, at least six Jewish organizations held or had applied for special certification from the U.S. Department of Labor to pay their disabled workers less than minimum wage. Department of Labor data on this suggests that of self-identified Jewish groups, Jewish Vocational Services of Metrowest in New Jersey is the most prominent, with 140 disabled employees receiving sub-minimum wage compensation.

The disability rights movement has long fought to eliminate the loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows for such working conditions, with advocacy organizations such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (my employer) and the American Association of People with Disabilities successfully persuading President Obama to prohibit sub-minimum wage in federal service contracts in 2014. It is hard to imagine a reasonable justification for a Jewish organization to avail itself of permission to discriminate against workers with disabilities. Like the ADA’s religious exemption, such things are a part of the law. But our community should hold itself to a higher standard.

There is much work to be done. Those in our community who manage service-provision organizations should look to learn from the disability rights movement, in order to move away from obsolete and restrictive service models, like group homes and sheltered workshops. Such learning is currently underway, with the advent of the recently launched Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, supported by the Ruderman Foundation and operated by the nationally renowned National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities at the University of Delaware.

Funders and Federation decision-makers should act to impose new standards on all grantees to ensure that they do not discriminate against people with disabilities and make all programming fully inclusive, consistent with the requirements of the ADA. Using a legal exemption to federal disability rights law to hold ourselves to a lower standard than comparable secular groups is a grievous chillul hashem. Jews with disabilities seeking full inclusion in Jewish camps, schools and synagogues should have a readily established mechanism to assert their right to full access. Funders should consider convening an independent body to adjudicate such claims and tie continued funding to compliance with its rulings.

It is not an accident that our religion asks us to stretch ourselves in pursuit of justice, even when it imposes on us a burden that will be difficult to meet. Like past struggles — for example, the struggle to save Soviet Jewry — fighting for full inclusion of people with disabilities will only bring us closer together as a people. Even though an inclusive Jewish community tarries, I believe with perfect faith that it can and will be achieved.

Ari Ne’eman is the President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and from 2010 to 2015 served as one of President Obama’s appointees to the National Council on Disability. He was the 2014 recipient of the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion from the Ruderman Family Foundation.

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