It’s the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Jews played a major role in this landmark civil rights legislation for people with disabilities. However, their story remains largely untold. All of these Jews have been and continue to be heroes to the civil rights of people with disabilities in our nation. While they don’t have the title of “Rabbi,” each of them is a model of Jewish values in action. A new book, Enabling Acts, details the complete ADA history, which includes people from a variety of backgrounds.
From the independent living movement there was the focused, kind and persistent Judy Heumann. She’s been a wheelchair user most of her life. Denied early access to education because her wheelchair was a “fire hazard,” her mother fought to have her included. Judy went on not only to academic success but also to become a major leader on ADA issues and beyond. In the decades since the ADA she has taken the fight for dignity and equality for people with disabilities global. She played a major role at the World Bank, and is the top official at the U.S. Department of State working on disability issues around the world.
Arlene Meyerson has been called “the brains” of the ADA operation. A brilliant legal advocate, she has brought together literally hundreds of disability advocates and organizations over decades on a variety of disability issues. She wrote, “While some in the media portray this new era (ADA) as falling from the sky unannounced, the thousands of men and women in the disability rights movement know that these rights were hard fought for and are long overdue. The ADA is radical only in comparison to a shameful history of outright exclusion and segregation of people with disabilities. From a civil rights perspective the Americans with Disabilities Act is a codification of simple justice.”
Commissioner Chai Feldblum of the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOPC) was on the forefront of the ADA battle. Like so many, she has a mental health difference. She was also one of the drafters of the Employment Non-discrimination Act. She clerked for Judge Frank Coffin of the First Circuit Court of Appeals and for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun after receiving her J.D. from Harvard Law School.
Bobby Silverstein, one of the authors of the ADA, motivated by Jewish values, continues to be one of the most impactful leaders of the disability movement nationally, “I got involved because, as a Jew, you can summarize all the commandments into one phrase, ‘Do justice and pursue acts of loving kindness.’ And I heard that call to justice.”
Staffers on the Hill made a major difference in pushing for the passage of the ADA. Michael Iskowitz, a gay activist focused on AIDS issues, served as a key staffer for Senator Ted Kennedy. He merged civil rights goals from different streams, including disability, for a better future. Liz Savage was a key organizer and Melissa Shulman was critical working with Steny Hoyer on the House side.
But did these Jews and others solve all the problems for people with disabilities through ADA? No they did not. Nor did a historic march in Selma completely end injustice and inequality for people of color in our nation. Neither did the suffragette movement create perfect outcomes for women either nor did the “war on poverty” end income inequality. These were all major steps in the right direction, and we need to build on them as a society.
The ADA has done hugely good things for access to buildings and communications. Now there are onramps to buildings, and access to captions for people who are hearing impaired. There are legal remedies to discrimination and more. But the ADA has done less than expected to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities overall, and little for inclusion of Jews with disabilities in Jewish life.
While there are outstanding exceptions where things are going well, thousands of Jews with disabilities are still being denied access to Jewish participation, involvement and institutions. Progress is being made. But there is so much work left to do to create and sustain a more welcoming and respectful community in all areas, including synagogues, camps, schools, JCCs, service projects, job opportunities, Israel connections, online learning, and more.
There are tremendous people – the Ruderman family and their foundation and Arlene Rems in Boston; Judith Creed, JCHAI and others in Philadelphia; Joan Alexander, Linda Burger and others in Texas; Pat Goldman, the UJA Federation and Shelley Cohen in New York; Michelle Wolf, Elaine Hall and others in Los Angeles – and many tireless advocated including Shelly Christensen, Steve Eidelman, Judge Richard Bernstein, Donna Meltzer, Ari Ne’eman and more who are working on these issues nationally. We need more people like them and more people to value and support their work.
Bobby Silverstein points out, “My Temple (Rodef Shalom in Falls Church) is fully accessible. The ADA was the spiritual reason for the change, if not the legal reason.”
The 25th Anniversary is a great time to reflect. We have a long way to go in many physical spaces and in the hearts and minds of our friends and neighbors. The sayings of our fathers states “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).”
As we celebrate the achievements of ADA after 25 years, we look forward to making a difference in the next 25 – join us, join the movement for dignity, equality and opportunity for all!