I have always been sensitive to challenges faced by people with disabilities, but my daughter Alanna has led me to a heightened awareness. An occupational therapist by profession, she decided to “celebrate” a milestone birthday by organizing an event for friends, family, and the public designed to map various Philadelphia venues for their accessibility to wheelchair users. This experience inspired me to explore the status of Jewish efforts, generally and in New Jersey, to provide full inclusion for members of our community with disabilities.
I spoke with Jay Ruderman, whose family foundation — Ruderman Family Foundation — has carved out a leadership role in this arena. The foundation’s interest, he explained, started out as part of a larger campaign to improve the overall quality of Jewish schools in the Boston area, but it quickly became “personal,” as members of his own family have autism, ADHD, and other disabilities. He urged me to look at this issue in an historical context. “A generation ago and more, we were in the institutionalization phase when people were sent away and locked up,” he observed. “Then we transitioned to segregation, with separate education, housing, and employment venues. We have not fully emerged into the next phase when people with disabilities will be fully integrated into all aspects of community life.”
Still, Ruderman believes a generational culture shift will make this transition inevitable. “The older generation tends to see the disability first, then the person,” he stated. “But the young have had much more direct contact in their daily lives with people who have disabilities, so they tend to see the person before the disability.” I asked what his core message is to the Jewish community. His response: “A person with a disability has the right to be a full participant in the life of our community. This is not a matter of charity or chesed, but of justice, tzedek.”
Another national Jewish leader in this space is Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi who, in 2013, founded RespectAbility, a Rockville, Md.-based nonprofit organization. RespectAbility promotes employment, equality, and independent living for individuals with physical, mental health, sensory, and intellectual/developmental disabilities, and engages in advocacy on behalf of this population. Mizrahi’s “wake-up call” on these issues came when — despite being a prominent volunteer leader and donor in the community for years — her own child with a disability was denied access to a Jewish day school and Jewish camp. “I witnessed many other individuals and families being rejected from one Jewish institution after another, causing them to leave the community, so I decided to act,” she told me.
Like Ruderman, Mizrahi believes the Jewish community has made significant progress on inclusion. She noted that “advances are being made at JCCs, Hillels, Chabads, synagogues, and camps. But Jewish day schools, with some notable exceptions around the country, are way behind.” In addition, Mizrahi lamented that there is still too much stigma around these issues, especially regarding mental illness. “Mental health issues today are where cancer and LGBTQ issues were decades ago,” she said. “No one wants to talk about these matters publicly.”
I had multiple conversations with Rebecca Wanatick, manager of the Community Inclusion and Program Services at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, New Jersey. Wanatick, whom Mizrahi described as “a one-woman army for inclusion,” told me she knew that she wanted to be involved with this population from the age of 8, when kids with profound disabilities came into her elementary school under Public Law 94-142. Passed by Congress in 1975, the law required “handicapped” children and adults between 3 and 21 to be educated in the “least restrictive environment” to the extent possible. In other words, special classes, separate schools, or removal of children from their regular educational environments should occur only when the handicap is so severe that education in regular classes cannot be achieved.
Wanatick agreed that our community has come a long way, but still has further to go. When she started working at Greater MetroWest nine years ago, only one or two synagogues had inclusion committees. Today, she said, there are approximately 20 to 25 such committees out of approximately 75 synagogues in her federation’s jurisdiction. She hit on a common theme with regard to other areas of potential improvement. “We need greater mental health awareness,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is still a stigma.”
Another issue Wanatick emphasized is the need to help people with disabilities find gainful employment, a matter that Ari Ne’eman also stressed. Originally from East Brunswick, Ne’eman, who was diagnosed with autism, was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the National Council on Disability in 2009. Ne’eman has argued that some Jewish institutions, especially Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), have taken advantage of a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act and run what are known as sheltered workshops, which permit workers with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage.
Having recognized this problem, the JVS of MetroWest — voluntarily, without a state mandate — began to transform its longstanding sheltered workshop beginning in July 2015 through the Career Discovery Program. According to Hetal Narciso, director of vocational rehabilitation services at JVS of MetroWest, 22 participants have been successfully placed in jobs in the community and an additional 24 are gaining experience through paid internships. “Our objective is to help people with disabilities prepare for and obtain work that is consistent with their abilities, strengths, priorities, and capabilities,” she said.
I wanted a parent’s perspective and reached out to Mindy Listwa from East Brunswick, whose daughter Jackie has cerebral palsy. While she has seen positive developments overall in the community, Listwa expressed frustration that, “I have not felt very welcome at many different synagogues because Jackie is noisy and it seems to annoy some rabbis and congregants.” She suggested that there are some steps a synagogue can take to be more welcoming and to smooth the transition into the sanctuary, “including having an usher extend a personal greeting and then direct the person with a disability and his/her family to a special, reserved section.”
Said Wanatick, in response to Listwa’s frustration, “As a community, we have to find ways of providing maximum support to those individuals and families who want to participate in mainstream Jewish activities.”
There also is a robust advocacy agenda that supports policies and legislation benefiting the general disabilities community. From the Washington, DC, office of the Federations of North America, Aaron Kaufman coordinates disability and inclusion efforts directed at Congress and the administration. He also convenes regular conference calls to share information and best practices with nine full-time and many other part-time professionals who work at various federations on inclusion.
Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, coordinates advocacy in our state. Several years ago, he established a Jewish Community Disabilities Working Group “to give a unified voice to the Jewish community’s interest in programs and services impacting persons with disabilities and their caregivers.”
The Arc of New Jersey is the state’s largest organization advocating for citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Its director of governmental affairs and communications, Sharon Levine, told me a high priority now is “to encourage the legislature and governor to increase by $1.25/hour in Fiscal Year 2018 the wages for direct support professionals who work in group homes, private homes, day programs, workplaces, and anywhere else a person with intellectual or developmental disabilities may want or need to go.”
As a society and as a Jewish community, we are moving in the right direction. I believe that, eventually, the kind of full inclusion for people with disabilities envisioned by Ruderman and the other activists will be achieved. And each of us can contribute by urging our institutions and government representatives to adopt policies and practices that adequately address the needs of the disabled.