As Jews, we know all too well what it's like to be a minority. These cumulative experiences as a small population, often lacking basic rights of citizenship and self-determination, along with our fundamental belief that every man and woman is created in the divine image, have motivated us to fight for the rights of other minority populations, including African Americans, Native Americans, and gay and lesbian individuals.
Yet, there is another minority in America and in our Jewish communities, one which remains largely invisible, a minority that still struggles to be seen and heard in addition to striving for equality: people with disabilities.
The latest statistics show that about 50 million Americans have a disability. The rate of disabilities among the elderly (ages 65 and older) is more than three times higher than that of the U.S. population as a whole, with the rate among the elderly nearing 50 percent in some states. The numbers are likely similar in religious communities across the country (perhaps higher in our Jewish communities, where the median age is several years higher than in the rest of the nation), which means disability issues should be a top priority for religious leaders trying to meet the needs of their communities.
Yet our society still tends to neglect people with disabilities. Although we recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, many of the goals laid out in this law -- an end to discrimination in employment, an end to inaccessible public buildings and transportation, an end to exclusion from public education -- have not been realized. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is nearly twice the alarmingly high unemployment rate for the general population. And even if a person with a disability is offered a job, he or she is more likely to have difficulty finding accessible housing, reliable transportation, adequate health care -- or all of the above -- potentially leading him or her to ultimately turn down the job that was so difficult to secure in the first place.
We clearly need to change the way our policies address disability issues. But in order to change policies, we must also change attitudes.
For the third year in a row, the Jewish community is challenging itself to do just that during the month of February, which has been declared "Jewish Disability Awareness Month." Throughout February, Jewish communities across all denominations and across the country will undertake a variety of initiatives to raise awareness of disability issues, whether it's by hosting a panel on disability issues, studying relevant Jewish texts and discussing their application to daily life, volunteering with organizations that aid people with disabilities, or embarking on a holistic re-examination of how the community -- our synagogues, schools and other communal institutions -- includes, or fails to include, people with disabilities.
At the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (and our parent groups, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis) we provide resources for Reform Jewish congregations and their members to observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month, learn about the Reform Jewish perspective on disability issues, and take action to encourage their members of Congress to support legislation aimed at realizing the goals expressed in the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as the Traumatic Brain Injury Treatment Act proposed in the last Congress and the landmark Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into law last March.
Most of all, look around. See the people at your Shabbat services with disabilities; look at your synagogue and school structures and think about how easily those with hearing, sight, and other physical or mental disabilities can participate in synagogue life. See the struggles of your fellow congregants and Jewish community members who still face too many barriers at too many turns.
Although the goals of Jewish Disability Awareness Month are noble and laudable, we must also recognize that awareness is not something that should begin or end with a calendar. Including people with disabilities is a process -- one that can start in February but is never truly complete. We can always be more welcoming, more aware, more sensitive, and we must make these conscious efforts so that we can ultimately see the people instead of just seeing their disabilities.
This is one of the key civil rights fights of our time. We have opened our hearts and minds to the plights of other minorities in our country; now it's time to do the same for people with disabilities -- and it starts with opening our eyes.
Follow Rabbi David Saperstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therac