Although I was saddened that I could not attend the CCAR Convention last month due to an injury, I was overjoyed to hear such great things about the Convention from the colleagues I’ve talked to over the past few weeks. I was especially delighted to learn that the CCAR passed a resolution affirming the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.
The Reform Movement has come a long way in welcoming and affirming LGBT individuals. I am proud that our Movement continues to serve as an example of inclusivity to other Jewish movements and other faiths.
While the Convention, rightfully, focused on the importance of LGBT inclusion in our Movement, I would be remiss if I did not highlight another minority whose struggle for equality is often overlooked: people with disabilities. An estimated 1 billion people — 15 percent of the world population – live with a disability, and nearly one in five Americans has a disability. Yet the voice of that significant majority is barely heard.
Despite progress in advancing disability rights, such as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and incremental additions to it, people with disabilities still lag behind the national average in education completed, employment rates (the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is almost double the national average), income, technology access, homeownership and voter participation. People with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities and are overrepresented among the poorest people worldwide.
The Religious Action Center has been a tireless advocate for disability rights for many years. At this time, the RAC and the larger disability rights advocacy community have been focusing their advocacy efforts on ensuring the solvency of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Trust Fund. SSDI provides monthly benefits to millions of people who have contributed to the SSDI trust fund through payroll taxes in the past but whose ability to work is currently limited because of a disability. SSDI beneficiaries are some of the most vulnerable Americans; around 70% of SSDI recipients are over 50 years old and it is estimated that half of those receiving SSDI benefits would live in poverty without the program. In 2016, the (SSDI) Trust Fund is set to become insolvent, resulting in 20% across-the-board cut in benefits to all SSDI beneficiaries.
Just as I am proud of the strides our community has taken to include LGBT individuals in Jewish life, I am equally proud of our Movement’s work to include people with disabilities. Yet, there is still more work we must do in order to fully include people with disabilities in both our Jewish communities and our larger society. If we want to make changes in our community in order to include people with disabilities, we must begin by opening the eyes of people without disabilities and help them understand that they have to change their attitudes. There is a saying in the disability community that goes, “Before ramping buildings, you’ve got to ramp attitudes.” We have got to encourage our communities to change their attitudes from “pity” to “possibilities.” This idea is rooted in our tradition; Psalm 82:3 3 reads, “Defend the poor and the orphan, do justice to the afflicted and needy.” The Midrash on that psalm (Midrash Tehillim) points out, “It does not say, ‘Have pity on them,’ but ‘Do justice to.’”
On the heels of the 2015 Convention, I hope we rabbis can recommit ourselves to creating and fostering inclusive environments for all people. To that end, we must challenge ourselves to seek out and empower Jewishly those with disabilities. As Americans and leaders of the Jewish community, we must continue to display our support for clear inclusion for people with disabilities, as well as the LGBT community. We do so most effectively by educating our communities, thereby ensuring accessibility and inclusive programming in our synagogues and larger community. We also must offer an articulate voice to advocate for the rights of Americans with disabilities and the larger LGBT community on the local, state and national levels.
Rabbi Lynne Landsberg
Co-chair, CCAR Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion Senior Advisor on Disability Rights Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism