Jews and disabilities: What still must be done

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month.  In thinking about Judaism and disability, most might start with the teaching in Leviticus “Do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind.”  This is certainly sage advice, and in a sense offers a disability-specific version of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you.  This is a lesson that even children can and should relate to: mocking or denigrating someone with a disability, or intentionally making their lives difficult by putting objects (physical or otherwise) in their path, is mean and hurtful.  All of us – with or without visible disabilities – are made in G-d’s image, and we disrespect our common humanity by such actions.

But I believe that a true understanding of Leviticus’s teachings, and our responsibilities as Jews and Americans, requires us to think differently and do much more.  First, we must acknowledge that our country, like others, has an unfortunate history regarding disability.  In the 1920s, the Supreme Court of the United States condoned forced sterilization of people with mental disabilities, opining that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.”  Until the 1970s, people with disabilities were kept out of public view and warehoused in institutions.  The conditions were often deplorable; torture and death were all too common.  And through this period, children with disabilities were blatantly and expressly excluded from public schools.  Policies like these, and others, created and reinforced a sense of “otherness” regarding disability, and allowed prejudice and stigma to flourish.

As a country, we have come a long way in a relatively short period of time.  Starting in the 1970s, and continuing through today, the civil rights era for people with disabilities was born.  Part of the ideological foundation for this movement is the social model of disability.  Under this view, disability itself is a social construct, the product of the interaction of an individual’s impairment and how society responds to that impairment.  Someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility is “disabled” not only because of anything medically different about him or her, but because we have allowed a physical environment to be built where only steps and stairs are available.  If there were ramps, the “disability” would be greatly diminished.  Similarly, with adequate social supports and proper therapies, someone with autism can thrive, not being limited in their life prospects by a world which only recognizes their medical-based inabilities.  Thus, we must all pay careful attention to what “stumbling blocks” we place in the way of people with disabilities: our assumptions about what they can and cannot do are just as limiting as actual physical barriers.

And there is work for the Jewish community to do.  First, we need to take a broad view of who is a person with a “disability.”  It is the one minority group we can all joint at any time.  In recent years, through programs like Temple Sinai’s Beit Bracha religious school, awareness of autism has grown.  We need to build on those gains and embrace and advocate for all people with disabilities.  People with different disabilities have different life experiences, our disability civil rights laws have occurred because people with diverse disabilities – people who are blind, deaf, with mobility impairments, mental, and psychosocial disabilities – have all banded together and formed coalitions to get laws passed.  In the words of Dr. King, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

We can start by making sure our places of worship are as accommodating as possible to people with diverse disabilities.  Often, as religious institutions, we are exempted from certain laws requiring nondiscrimination.  But we must go beyond what the law requires to provide auxiliary aids when needed, have disability-appropriate religious programming, and have physical spaces that allow for the full participation of people with disabilities (which also, incidentally, works well for families with small children with strollers!).

In addition to a sense of social justice, the Jewish community is fortunate to have political power.   We must harness it to concentrate on the world beyond our temple and synagogue walls.  There are several state and local initiatives we should support.  We should continue advocacy for extended health care coverage.  Traditionally, our health insurance system has poorly served people with disabilities: if they attempt to work, they run the risk of losing their public health insurance, despite the fact that they could be and were discriminated against in the private insurance market.  Laws like the Affordable Care Act will help, but they are politically vulnerable, and as state budgets contract, we should ensure that people with disabilities have access to quality health care that supports their decisions to attempt to work.  We have a historic influx of veterans with disabilities who served our country bravely, but too often they return to an underfunded Veterans Administration and lack of job training options.

This advocacy can and should extend beyond our national borders.  The United Nations just passed the first ever human rights treaty on the rights of people with disabilities, but so far the United States has not ratified it (Israel has).  A handful of senators blocked ratification, based on meritless concerns that it would limit the rights of parents to home school their children.  The world expects more leadership from the United States on disability, and we should provide it.  As a community, we should pressure our elected officials to ratify this treaty and restore the United States position as a worldwide leader on disability human rights.  Finally, those of us who are employers and run businesses should make sure we comply with laws requiring nondiscrimination on the basis of disability and access, not begrudgingly but because it is the right and moral thing to do.  We should look for customers and qualified employees with disabilities; often, their life experiences make them ideally situated for the tough challenges the workplace brings.

For over a decade, I have had the privilege of teaching disability law and policy to law students.  Through their efforts, and the work of advocates before them, the hard work of building a more just world for people with disabilities is underway.  Just as our community stood with predecessor civil rights movement involving racial minorities and women, we should support the disability rights movement.  Disability is the one minority group we could all join at any time.  Jewish Disability Awareness Month, and all of the programming happening across Los Angeles and other cities this month, is important in getting us to think about these issues.  But we must use our collective resources and voices to continue to lobby for change at the local and federal levels.  Judaism’s tradition of respect for human difference and social justice requires no less.

Michael Waterstone is an Associate Dean and Professor of Law at Loyola Law School Los Angeles.  He is a member of Sinai Temple.