Today, when Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a vital speech in front of 14,000 people at AIPAC on the threat of Iran and the need for a successful lasting and secure peace, there was no sign language interpreter or live captioning offered. There were more than 40 massive screens around the room showing the speech – yet not one of them enabled someone with a hearing impairment to follow the program.
AIPAC is not a tiny organization with a limited budget or small staff. It is a powerful and well-respected organization. These exclusionary practices are a shame, because its conference is a chance to make real progress. It is the largest gathering of Jews in America.
What's more, it is a role model. The New York Times has called it “the most influential special interest group in Washington.” More than 14,000 pro-Israel Americans attended its Policy Conference in Washington, including much of Congress and 2,000 students from 449 campuses. What is said and done at AIPAC shapes opinion and policies for years to come.
I have been involved in AIPAC for many years. I first got involved as a college student, and have attended at least 25 of their annual AIPAC Policy Conferences. They are not a disability rights organization and are largely successful because of their laser-like focus on how thoughtful foreign policy can help America at home. It does an outstanding job celebrating, protecting and strengthening the relationship between the United States and Israel.
But AIPAC, like other groups, can still benefit from more inclusive practices and leadership, which will increase both participation and success.
In recent years, AIPAC branched out and now has strong representation from minority communities. Among attendees at the conference are not only Jews, but Christians, African- Americans and Latinos. A demographically appropriate number of Americans with disabilities who care about these Israel was missing.
People with disabilities also have abilities, and could strengthen AIPAC in its work. Everyone, regardless of their ability, can contribute to strengthening the U.S.- Israel relationship. Indeed, Harvey Hanerfeld, who had a disability, spoke from the podium and was featured in a video, and he was able to make a significant contribution in helping the U.S.-Israel relationship.
But more must be done. I draw attention to AIPAC’s growth potential on the issue of inclusion of people with disabilities because they are a large institution with talented lay and professional leaders. They have the resources to do much more to include people with disabilities, not only in their videos, but also and more importantly in their own leadership.
AIPAC is not alone in this; most other major Jewish and pro-Israel groups, could do a lot more to be inclusive. I myself can be faulted in that I did not become much better educated on these issues earlier. I have a disability; and am a parent who knows what it means to raise a child with a disability. So let’s focus on simple but powerful things that all of our organizations can and should be doing.
1.Conference and event registration forms must ask people with disabilities to express what they need in the way of accommodations to safely and comfortably participate.
2. In large national gatherings like this one, sign language or live captioning should be done automatically and advertised as available in the conference materials. AIPAC is held in a location that is accessible to people with mobility impairments, like those that are in a wheelchair, but that is not yet done by some other major conferences.
3. Use “people first” language. Respect human beings and their right to be appreciated for the strengths they have, and not be defined by their disabilities. We are “people with disabilities,” not “handicapped” or “the disabled.”
4. Leadership at the top must believe in and promote inclusion. The message that all people are of equal value, and must be respected and heard fairly, must be communicated from the CEO and the lay leadership.
5. Every group needs an inclusion policy and an experienced Inclusion Director/Coordinator or consultant to make sure that the goals of that policy are carried out. If there isn’t a budget, find a volunteer, but someone needs to understand the community, provide training, be the point person and coordinate accommodations.
6. Make sure that your board and staff includes qualified people with disabilities.
One in five Americans has a disability, and the majority of voters either have a disability or a close friend or family member with a disability. Both Americans and Israelis can do more to value and practice inclusion. Together we can work towards real action and change.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the President of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a non-profit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream.
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