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Disability Rights Are Human Rights: Jewish Disability Advocacy Day 2019

Event Overview by Gabrielle Chishinsky

Many people do not comprehend the fundamental elements of Jewish tradition that dictate the full participation of all people regardless of their identities, beliefs, or disabilities. Jewish tradition advocates for the full inclusion and participation of all people irrespective of any of their disabilities, as in Leviticus 9:14 we are commanded, “you shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind”. In Genesis 1:27 we are taught that all of us are made b’tzelem Elohim: in God’s image.

This year, I had the privilege to celebrate Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on February 26 as an intern for the Jewish Federations of North America promoting the voices of people with disabilities and their loved ones. JFNA and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism held their 9th annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) and it was a tremendous success with more than 200 attendees lobbying their members of Congress for disability rights legislation.

Robin Schatz of the Philly Federation embracing Rep. Fitzpatrick (R-PA) . Copyright :Ron Sachs / Consolidated News Photos

JDAD featured speeches from congressmen including Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MD). These congressmen came to show their support for disability rights legislation and it was truly incredible to witness. For example, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer honored Congresswoman Debbie Dingell’s work as one of the key architects of the Money Follows the Person (MFP) Rebalancing Demonstration Grant. Rep. Dingell, along with Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), incidentally introduced two health bills the day before JDAD took place, including the EMPOWER Care Act and the Protecting Married Seniors from Impoverishment Act. The EMPOWER Care Act seeks to reauthorize and improve the MFP program for 5 more years.

It is important to remember that disability rights legislation is a bipartisan issue as it ought to be; Former Representative Tony Coelho (D-CA), the primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act professed that, “when we passed the ADA it was bipartisan”. Many Americans do not make the connection that people with disabilities have pre-existing conditions and it is essential that we lobby for healthcare legislation that ensures care and protection for people with pre-existing conditions. I was also surprised to learn that a poll in Los Angeles found that 50% of people with their disabilities and their loved ones make up that area. Thereby, Rep. Coelho encouraged the audience to make disability rights issues personal. We need to talk about specifics and we need to make this personal if we are to sway the minds and hearts of policymakers who possess the power to positively shape disability rights public policy.

JDAD featured numerous presentations from experts to discuss critical disability rights legislation and educated participants on the major pieces of legislation these organizations are lobbying for. Counsel of Health Policy at the Strategic Health Resource Center at JFNA, Elizabeth Cullen gave an overview of the Money Follows the Person (MFP) Rebalancing Demonstration Grant, which strengthens the ability of Medicaid programs to provide home & community-based services to individuals with disabilities who choose to transition out of institutional living. I was surprised to learn that Medicaid serves 15% of those with disabilities and MFP is recognized as one of the most successful demonstration projects that allows low-income older adults and people with disabilities to transition from institutional living to community living settings. Since 2005, MFP has significantly varied across the United States and MFP categorized populations. Cullen also spoke on the ramifications of the EMPOWER Care Act, which reduces the required days in a nursing home from 90 days to 60 days and enhances reporting and accountability for the MFP program.

The American Network of Community Options and Resources (ANCOR’s Director of Legislative Affairs Sarah Meek explained how the Able Age Adjustment Act would improve the lives of more people with disabilities, specifically those who obtained their disability at a later age in life. An ABLE account is a tax-advantaged savings account for individuals with disabilities and their families, with up to $15,000 in tax-exempt savings. The Able Age Adjustment Act would expand ABLE account eligibility to individuals with significant disabilities with an age of onset of disability before 46. This provision would provide critical change allowing the age to increase from 26 to 46, granting 6 million more individuals with disabilities and their families to open ABLE accounts.

I was honored to help plan and attend my first ever Jewish Disability Advocacy Day. It was more than just the opportunity to meet with and hear from congressmen, but it really was the experience to educate myself on an issue that is so far-reaching more than people assume it to be. There are not only people with disabilities who need help, but also their families who need the means to be able to assist their loved ones. Caregivers for people with disabilities ought to be able to provide their loved ones with the resources to transition from institutional living to community living settings.

Looking at disability rights policy in Israel compared to the United States, there is still a lot of work left to be done. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 initiated the advent of greater disability rights legislation across the world. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace and in employment practices and requires that an employer makes reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities if it does not impose an “undue hardship” on the employer (ADA issue brief)..

About 1 in 4 individuals living in the U.S. have some type of disability. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 56 million Americans, or 19% of the population, are living with some form of disability – whether physical, mental or communicative (Political Profile of Disabled Americans). Meanwhile, in Israel various surveys have concluded that between 800,000 and 1 million people of working age have a disability. The Equal Rights Law for People with disabilities was passed in 1998 granting individuals with disability greater accessibility rights. Furthermore, amendment number 2 of the law passed in 2005 declares that every public building, new or existing, shall be accessible, such that any disabled person shall be able to access any public place and benefit from any service provided there to the general public. This legislation also prohibits discrimination and makes the provision of the service conditional due to a disability (Equal rights law for people with disabilities brief).

The Laron Law passed in 2009 in Israel, enabling disability allowance recipients to earn wages up to a certain amount without forfeiting their disability allowance (Disabilities in Israel facts and figures). Yet, three years after the law was passed, only about 1% of disability allowance recipients had increased their income beyond the previous cut-off point. There are many organizations in Israel that provide services and support for children and adults with disabilities including Krembo Wings- a youth movement for children with special needs, Access Israel, and Alut: Israeli Society for Autistic Children. While individuals with disabilities and their loved ones have achieved significant legislation ensuring greater accessibility, there is much more left for policymakers and for us to advocate for. I urge you to exhort your religious institutions and other business institutions to be more attentive to providing easier disability rights accessibility. Start with a personal story, an encounter, an anecdote and see how far it can take you. You never know, maybe it can start a positive chain of compassion and change. Finally, I wanted to give my thanks and appreciation to Aaron Kaufman, the senior legislative associate at JFNA, who was indispensable to the success of JDAD and really afforded myself the opportunity to help in the planning of such an amazing event.


Gabrielle Chishinsky

Gabrielle is a senior completing a bachelor’s degree in international studies and a minor in economics. Her thematic study focuses on foreign policy and national security, and global and comparative governance in the Middle East. Presently, Gabrielle is an intern for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and additionally serves as a David Project outreach intern to establish relationships with non-Jewish communities on campus"

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