Welcome To The New Normal: Disability Rights, Not 'Special Needs'
02/21/2013 - 13:36
Ari Ne'eman
Ari Ne'eman
Ari Ne'eman

In the second half of the 20th century, the Jewish community did the impossible; after decades of struggle, Soviet Jewry emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, empowered to emigrate as a result of intense international pressure. Amazingly, a tiny, historically marginalized people emerged victorious against the vast Soviet empire.  Looking back, a few key factors made the impossible a reality: a community-wide organizing strategy, the strength and centrality of the voices of Soviet Jews themselves and a clear, unequivocal and uncompromising moral demand. Today, as the Jewish community begins to grapple with the question of how to fulfill its long forgotten responsibilities to its members with disabilities, we would do well to learn from our past.

Twenty-three years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), guaranteeing non-discrimination for people with disabilities in employment, public services and places of public accommodation, and fourteen years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision that required states to provide services in the community instead of institutions a growing recognition has emerged that many Jewish schools, camps, synagogues and other community resources either actively exclude or are practically inaccessible to people with disabilities. This conversation is long overdue. The Ruderman Family Foundation and other Jewish organizations that have worked to jumpstart this dialogue deserve much credit. Unfortunately, our current Jewish community conversation on disability lacks the vision and moral character that exemplified the struggle to free Soviet Jewry.

To change that, we must challenge the misconception that it is only lack of resources that prevents a truly inclusive Jewish world. To those who subscribe to this fallacy, the question of inclusion is as simple as convincing the right philanthropists to cut a big enough check. While new investment is always welcome, the scope of our challenge is far broader.

Title III of the ADA protects disabled Americans from discrimination in places of public accommodation, ranging from buildings to schools and swimming pools. The Jewish community’s communal institutions supported the ADA’s passage and have worked since to strengthen it. Surprisingly, Jewish communal institutions are themselves exempt from Title III of the ADA, covered under the law’s religious exemption. Though many synagogues have taken upon themselves to become physically accessible, the inapplicability of the Title III has broader implications. The ADA’s religious exemption does not just apply to religious settings, like places of worship and seminaries – it also covers any setting run by a religious institution, such as Jewish summer camps and private schools.

This has consequences. Non-religious summer camps and private schools hardly have perfect records on including youth with disabilities; yet, by virtue of being covered by a civil rights law, campers and students have rights and legal recourse against discrimination. While a Jewish camp or day school may decide to adopt a policy of non-discrimination and accommodation for disabled youth, they are under no obligation to do so. What is a matter of right for most summer camps and private schools is one of charity for Jewish settings. Instead of talking about respecting the rights of disabled people, Jewish communal institutions instead discuss disability in terms of “special needs” – extra rights, not equal ones. As a result, many Jews with disabilities are funneled into programming that segregates them from the broader scope of Jewish life rather than being meaningfully included. Why should we hold our programs to a lower standard than those of the vast majority of the country? Is this consistent with our values?

While it is unrealistic to expect the law to change anytime soon, we can take steps to put our own house in order. Places of public accommodation associated with the Jewish community should voluntarily adopt a policy of compliance with the ADA’s requirements, bringing ourselves under the same structure of rights and obligations we so capably urged the rest of the nation to adopt. As such efforts spread, local and regional Jewish bodies can work to set up enforcement mechanisms to ensure that Jews with disabilities possess these rights in more than name. If we wish to identify ourselves as a light unto nations, it behooves us to ensure that Jewish settings are held to at least the same standards as those of the general public.

There is more to be done, of course, and in the coming weeks and months I look forward to working to jumpstart that conversation at The New Normal. As a Jew active in the disability rights movement, I believe we can do better than we are doing today. Let’s make true inclusion our goal – and in doing so, we can recapture the spirit of liberation that has so successfully energized the Jewish people throughout history.

Ari Ne'eman is the President and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a national community advocacy organization run by and for Autistic adults. Since 2010, he has served as one of President Obama's appointees to the National Council on Disability, where he currently chairs the Council's Entitlements Committee and is both the youngest and the first openly Autistic presidential appointee in American history. He is a Schechter and Ramah dropout and was one of the New York Jewish Week's 36 by 36 in 2010.

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I have been an admirer of Ari Ne'eman's work since I first heard of ASAN in 2004 from an adult friend with Asperger's. It is because of your work that I work to empower, not restrict, my child.

Ari, I am thrilled that you have written this blog post! The Jewish people, as a whole, have always made lovingkindness and t'zedakah as values which we revere and build into our daily lives. These values have stood us steadfast in promoting the inclusion of children and adults w special needs into our communities and shuls; now it is time to recognize, as you state quite eloquently "...Instead of talking about respecting the rights of disabled people, Jewish communal institutions instead discuss disability in terms of “special needs” – extra rights, not equal ones. As a result, many Jews with disabilities are funneled into programming that segregates them from the broader scope of Jewish life rather than being meaningfully included."
Inclusion, on the basis of equal rights, is the RIGHT thing to do, and NOW is the right time to do it!

Ari, I am very grateful that you wrote this article to give the Jewish community motivation to be more inclusive to all of its individuals. I would encourage anyone to help take part in a new effort I am forming with the Conservative movement on inclusion: http://www.facebook.com/groups/343380979101545/. I have known Ari personally for the past year and find him an exceptional mentor and ally. Inclusion in the Jewish community is a cause I feel particularly dedicated to. Collaboration, particularly from individuals with disabilities and anyone who has the chutzpah to promote inclusion is much needed.

I agree 100% with your comments.

Mazel tov to Ari and yasher koach to the Jewish Week! Although I agree that we certainly have a long way to go in terms of inclusion in Jewish life, look how far we have come. Ten years ago, I could never have imagined that a major Jewish newspaper would seek out advocates in the disabilities community to contribute to an ongoing blog. Now we have a voice – not just in circles of others who are passionate like we are, but within the larger Jewish community.

This last decade has seen an increase of awareness around the issue of inclusion. Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) has taken off and communities around the country are now committed to making February a month of programing and dialogue – and hopefully of introspection and change. The Ruderman Family Foundation sponsored ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Disabilities Funding Conference (in collaboration with the Jewish Funders Network) where funders from around the world gather who are passionate about the field of special needs and disabilities.

And now the Jewish Week has made the strategic decision to feature The New Normal on its website. I think that when we look back on this decade, this new blog – and Ari Ne’eman’s post in particular – will stand out as a seminal piece in the advancement of inclusion awareness and change in the Jewish community.

I look forward to further posts that will promote this vital dialogue.

Arlene Remz
Executive Director
Gateways: Access to Jewish Education

A wonderful article raising awareness of Jewish values to include all. I am particularly sensitive to those with hearing loss because I have been wearing hearing aids for over 20 years. Hearing loss is the "invisible disability," it is not noticeable and few pay attention to those with this disability. The issue of hearing loss is only recently being talked about. Helen Keller said hearing loss is more debilitating than blindness because with blindness you are cut off from things but with hearing loss you are cut off from people. Social isolation leads to depression, which for a society, creates a population of people who are not productive, and depressed people who can't contribute at a level of their capability hurt our economy. So, on any level, the 36 million Americans with hearing loss need to be heard. We need accommodations in many public places in addition to Jewish schools, synagogues and other religious institutions. We need induction loop technology to help us at lectures, classes and other meeting-type environments. We also need C.A.R.T. (computer assisted real time translation), a technology involving an operator who types very quickly on a special piece of equipment resulting in the spoken word appearing almost simultaneously on a screen. With captioning and looping available, we make the playing field for those with hearing loss equal to those with normal hearing. Let's pay more attention to those with hearing loss and accommodate them. The population of those with hearing loss is growing exponentially because of the use of MP3 players and other loud music in our ears, the increase in our lifespans, and the increase in the number of boomers now becoming seniors. Let's advocate for technologies that help us all be included.

Thanks Ari for the clarity of the challenge facing our community and for your voice.

How unfortunate that Israel has been building there very own Iron curtain.

It is time for museums dedicated to the prevention of discrimination start to include hearing access. It is simply disgusting for these very museums dedicated to eliminate discrimination to then foster discrimination against people with hearing loss and then claim lack of funds. There are Jewish museums around the world who are not providing this access. It is time to begin the change.

Janice Schacter Lintz, chair Hearing Access Program

Ari is exactly right and that is why this new forum is so important. It is time for religious/Jewish institutions to stop hiding behind "seperation of church and state" to duck ADA laws. Discrimination is discrimination. We would not tolerate it if Jews were kept out of prestigious private schools and camps because of their religioun. Why do we not only tolerate -- but also empower and encourage -- Jewish institutions to deny Jews with disabilities their rightful Jewish birthright?

We as a cummunity stood up when Jews in the FSU were denied their Jewish identities, cultures, religion. We helped 1 million Jews resettle. We can and must enable the Jews living amoungst us who have disabilities to be full members of our community. It is nothing short of their G-d given right to do so!