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It is exciting to experience how Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) has taken root in the Jewish community during the last 10 years. Started as a grassroots initiative, JDAIM is now an international effort focused on making our Jewish community more understanding, welcoming, and supportive of people with disabilities and their families.
In Philadelphia, where I direct Whole Community Inclusion, we are thrilled to have 15 synagogues participating in JDAIM Shabbat Across Philadelphia, schools using our Jewish values-based disability inclusion lesson plans, inclusion leaders coming to share their experiences in a panel discussion, and more great awareness-raising events.
But I am most keenly aware, especially as the mother of a 15-year-old son with autism and intellectual disabilities, that while our communities have transformed in so many ways around inclusion, we are not yet, as a Jewish community, grasping that disability rights should be part of our social action and social justice focus. Disability inclusion is not something we should do because of chesed, being kind, but because we honor the Jewish value of pikuah nefesh—saving lives.
In the United States over the last year, Congress considered three major bills to fundamentally restructure Medicaid by limiting federal Medicaid funding through block grants or per capita caps. Medicaid is a complicated system and I understand that if disability isn’t an issue for you or a family member, you may not have paid close attention to these bills. But for those of us who need or have family members who will need ongoing support for housing, therapy, and care for the rest of their lives, imagining Medicaid being cut is equivalent to imagining a lifeline disappearing. Medicaid is a vital program for people with disabilities, paying for services and support to allow people with disabilities to live and work in the community. Without it, people who with support can be part of our community would be isolated—and likely neglected—in institutions.
The Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have done an incredible job of creating a resource that distills the complexity of this issue into understandable points. On February 6, I joined advocates and activists from across the country for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, during which we spoke to our representatives about the importance of preserving Medicaid.
But whether or not you can make it to the capital to advocate in person, each of us can take steps to make sure that disability rights become part of our community’s social justice work:
If you aren’t familiar with disability rights issues, there are lots of great sources you can read. The New York Times has an excellent disability section and often shares personal essays about how Medicaid and other policy issues impact people’s lives. At The New Normal: Blogging Disability, we frequently share perspectives from self-advocates and family members.
Secular organizations such as The Arc do amazing disability advocacy work. Your congregation could host a speaker from a disability rights organization to speak at a service or event or you may want to organize a group from your congregation to join a march, protest or other disability rights campaign.
I’ve noticed that in my synagogue, it’s generally those of us who are personally impacted by disability policy that post on our congregation listserv. We need allies and supporters! Share information about this issue on your community listserv, on social media, and in conversation with family and friends. I’d love to see others take up the mantle of protecting the rights of people with disabilities in our community and beyond.
I believe that we’re ready to make this shift – to become a powerful community of advocates who will make sure we are protecting the lifeline of people with disabilities.