February 27, 2020

I Have Cerebral Palsy. Here’s Why I Went to Speak to the Candidates in Des Moines.

Ila Eckhoff seen here with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Des Moines, Iowa. (Courtesy of Respectability)

I have cerebral palsy. I also am a managing director at a large asset manager in New York and a Jewish mother. Part of my Jewish values of tikkun olam is to try to use the skills and success I have achieved to help the other 60 million Americans who live with a physical, sensory, cognitive, mental or other disability.

As someone with cerebral palsy, I walk with a cane for balance support. I try to avoid venturing out in the snow as I don’t want to make any “unscheduled landings.” But I went to Iowa in the snow because I wanted to speak with political candidates — and I did. Maybe it’s part of my own natural chutzpah.

I recently returned from Des Moines, where I went with a team from the nonprofit group RespectAbility — started by three Jews. I’m on its board, and we fight stigmas against and advance opportunities for people with disabilities. We do a lot on inclusion of Jews with disabilities in the Jewish community, but we also reach out to advance social justice. Our online publication, The RespectAbility Report, is at the intersection of politics and disability. Twenty percent of the U.S. population has a disability, and 22 million of those individuals are of working age (18-64). Seventy percent of those with a disability who are of working age are underemployed or unemployed. However, 70% want to work.

Over the course of four days, we attended events for presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Andrew Yang. Where possible, we asked questions and met with the candidates, staff and policy advisers.

Prior to our arrival in Iowa, we sent a nonpartisan questionnaire to all candidates to collect their views. We just released our disability voter guide. We went to each candidate’s field office to deliver the questionnaire in person, meet staff members and answer any questions. As of this writing, we have received complete written responses from Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren and Yang.

We focused our engagement on “employment first,” asking each candidate to recognize that disability impacts 6 million schoolchildren and 22 million working-age adults. Not only are we the largest minority in the United States, we are the group most people eventually will join if they live long enough. We need to elevate the discussion to show the value people with disabilities bring to the workforce and the community. We asked the candidates to be more vocal on the campaign trail discussing disability issues and ensuring that if elected, his or her administration will include those with disabilities, to actively create change and increase employment opportunities.

With Andrew Yang

True, the social safety net and health care are very important. However, most people with disabilities don’t just want to cash a government check. Millions want to work and be independent. Yet, the current system discourages employment. For example, for those who receive disability benefits to be able to attend school, those benefits end when they get a job. That sounds good in theory, but if someone is quadriplegic and needs someone to dress and feed them, they can’t afford to give up government benefits for school or a low-paying job. It is that same assistance — hand up, not handout — that would enable them to work and choose for themselves. It is better for the individual and society at large if those who are able to work pay taxes, raise families and have the choice to live independently and fulfill their dreams.

There is significant evidence that diverse teams, including those with disabled individuals, make better decisions and create better economic outcomes for the companies that employ them. This is true in synagogues, corporations, nonprofits and beyond. The discussion needs to be about what we can do. Everyone deserves the right to have a job, be independent and choose their purpose.

Four years ago, most candidates did not have accessible websites or events. That was also true at the start of this campaign. However, because of the advocacy of our group and others, people like me can go to an event and know there will be a place where we can sit and participate, just like anyone else.

Civic engagement is a core Jewish value, and it is a part of how we have survived for centuries as a people. It’s how we protect ourselves and everyone around us. It is vital for Jews — with and without disabilities — to engage in 2020 and beyond.

With Amy Klobuchar


Ila Eckhoff is a Jewish lay leader for RespectAbility.