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Jewish Journal

Jewish Disability Awareness Month and The Bottom Line

by Michelle K. Wolf

February 3, 2014 | 3:26 pm

All of the annoying flower and candy ads remind us that Valentine’s Day is “just around the corner”, but there’s another holiday of the heart this month. February is also Jewish Disability Awareness Month and there’s lots happening, locally in Los Angeles and across the nation. Now in its sixth year, this is a month, as the Reform Action Center says, “to break down physical, communication, and attitudinal barriers, educate our communities on what accessibility and inclusion really mean, and reach out to Jews with disabilities.”

As important as all these events are for promoting awareness and inclusion, we won’t see any major changes without more funding. Saying the right thing and lining up volunteers are really great, but the bottom line is the bottom line. The best way to truly measure the values of a synagogue, Jewish agency or Jewish school isn't in the mission statement—it’s in the budget. As I learned too many years ago as a HUC/USC student, a budget is a statement of priorities. How much money is allocated for expenses to include kids and adults with special needs and disabilities? Is your institution willing to pay for a 1:1 aide so that kids with more severe physical or behavioral disabilities can be part of the nursery school or religious school?

You can say that your agency has its doors open to everyone, but if there’s no budget for an elevator or ramps, you literally aren’t. Ditto for large-print/Braille prayer books, sign-language interpreters or closed captioning. Part of the problem is that some of these items can run into a lot of money, and quite often, only one or two participants at any one time may require those particular accommodations. However, the biggest hurdle, in my humble opinion, is that including congregants and participants with special needs just doesn’t rank high enough on the list to get a chunk of the always limited available funds.

The solution is clear—the collective “we” needs to raise a ruckus.  Joining forces across ages and diagnoses, every one with a disability and their loved ones can together be a formidable force that advocates loudly and frequently for a bigger slice of the proverbial pie. If you need any inspiration, look no further than the film, “The Dallas Buyer’s Club,” about how one AIDS patient advocate in the late 1980s bucked the system to keep himself and other patients alive when the only legal medical treatment allowed by the FDA (aligned with the pharmaceutical industry) was dangerously high levels of AZT that killed the patient even faster than the virus.

In Washington DC, The Jewish Disability Network co-chaired by The Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is hearing from two high-regarded experts in the field, Allison Wohl from the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination and David Morrissey, of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities, followed by individual meetings with congressional representatives. Yachad, the National Jewish Council on Disabilities affiliated with the Orthodox Union (OU), has created a zippy multi-media PowerPoint presentation of Megillat Esther to ensure that congregants with hearing loss, visually challenges or learning differences can participate fully in Purim this year. Discs can be ordered here.

Closer to home, check out the array of programs coordinated by the Los Angeles Jewish Federation for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. On Feb. 18, the community is invited to hear Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Senior Advisor on Disability Issues from Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in DC, at a breakfast, 9 am at Leo Baeck Congregation, with RSVPs by Feb. 13 mandatory for security purposes. Sign up here.

PS Enjoy all these wonderful educational and motivating programs during the month but don’t forget that the 2nd best line of the film Jerry Maguire is: “Show me the money!”

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