JAN Goes to the White House

Posted by Kim Cordingly on March 15, 2016 under Events, General Information, Organizations | Comments are off for this article

By: Sheryl Grossman, Consultant – Motor Team

February 18, 2016, will be forever etched into my brain. This was the day when approximately 130 Jewish disability rights advocates convened in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to discuss where we as a community have been, and where we need to go.

My work at JAN is greatly informed by my Jewish tradition, where we find the work of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7-14) who stated that “the highest level of tzedakah [righteous act, often mistranslated as charity] is helping one help themselves,” or “setting one up in business rather than providing for someone,” or more commonly, “teaching one to fish, rather than giving one a fish.”  It was important, and humbling as someone working in the field of work-related disability accommodations to see this be included in the wide array of topics seen as normal in Jewish Community.

As the day’s events unfolded, we received a great history lesson from featured speaker Judy Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights. This was enhanced by comments later in the day from Chai Feldblum, Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) who was present during the writing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and is familiar with how the “religious exemption” (where under Title III of the ADA, religious entities are exempt from having to make their public access facilities accessible) came to be.

The main event of the day centered around four panelists discussing the future of our movement:

Dr. John Winer of the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities talked about making the experience of disability normalized in the community.  “People with intellectual disabilities have the right to housing, to an occupation, and to feeling like productive members of society. We need to do the right thing by being beneficent,” he said. “No individual wants to feel like they are a chesed project [charity case].”

Sheila Katz, vice president for social entrepreneurship at Hillel International stressed the need for organizations to be open and transparent about not knowing what they do not know. She shared the vision for Hillel going forward to actively engage Jewish students with a disability in an effort to ensure greater inclusion in campus life, including religious activities.

Aaron Kaufman senior legislative associate at the Jewish Federations of North America made a great point about the fact that some pieces of the inclusion puzzle do cost money, but if we prioritize inclusion, we will find a way to pay for it. This really resonated with me: building a mikveh [ritual bath] costs money, but if the community wants it to happen, we find a way to pay for it.  So too with inclusion Aaron pointed out.

Ruti Regan, co-founder of Anachnu, an organization that teaches the Torah from a disability perspective hit the nail on the head by visually demonstrating how an action has a very different connotation in different contexts that are learned behaviors in society. An example she used was that a person with a developmental disability may display a behavior of rocking back and forth – this being perceived as a “problem” or deviation from a norm. In a different context, a person in prayer might be rocking back and forth and this is perceived as devout behavior. Her point was that we need to become aware of how we prescribe meaning (good or bad) to the same behaviors based on the context.

Comments from Shane Feldman, Lauren Tuchman, and Liz Weintraub, amongst others highlighted improvements that have been made and concerns for issues that still need much attention.

All in all, it was an energizing day that I feel sure will just be a springboard for more good inclusion work to come. Many thanks to the White House staff who made this event happen:  Matt Nosanchuk and Maria Town – both from the Office of Public Engagement.

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