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Takeaways from an Inspiring Jewish Disability Advocacy Day 2018

Takeaways from an Inspiring Jewish Disability Advocacy Day 2018

Senator Tammy Duckworth greets smiling advocates in attendance at Jewish Disability Advocacy Day in Washington DC

At this year's Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD), more than 200 disability rights advocates and Jewish leaders came to Capitol Hill to push legislators to support crucial health care and education services for people with disabilities. The day's speakers highlighted the experiences and activism of the disability justice community across the country, particularly in light of recent attacks on Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

I found JDAD to be an incredibly humbling and empowering day.

Ari Ne'eman, advisor to the American Civil Liberties Union's work on disability policy and Medicaid, and founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, spoke about the uniquely Jewish calling to work for disability rights. On a panel with other advocates, he discussed the concept of "Tzedek tzedek Ttrdof," Hebrew for "Justice, justice you shall pursue," emphasizing that the community's work around disability rights "is specifically Jewish work that is part and parcel of our larger tradition."

Ne'eman challenged his fellow panelists and JDAD participants to center the activism of people with disabilities, citing the powerful protests that organizations like National ADAPT have organized in the past year. He underscored that the "disability rights movement saved the Medicaid program and was the lynchpin behind preserving the Affordable Care Act."

In a conversation about immediate issues impacting the disability community, Donna Meltzer, CEO of the National Association of Developmental Disabilities Councils, told attendees that the Trump administration is “taking offline a lot of important information" and guidance around the rights of disabled people in health care and educational settings. This sends the message to state and local agencies that these policies that outline the responsibilities of schools and other institutions to provide equitable access to special education and care are not important. Meltzer underscored that many people with disabilities and their families rely on the protections outlined in these guidance documents. She and other panelists urged JDAD 2018 participants to think about the impact of these decisions and push their legislators to not stay quiet.

Before heading to advocacy visits with our representatives, we got the chance to hear from a number of members of Congress who are long-standing champions of disability rights. During Senator Tammy Duckworth's (D-IL) speech, in particular, the room lit up with pride and excitement. It was clear that disabled and able-bodied activists who were present felt energized by her powerful national leadership as a disabled woman of color.

After the morning program ended, I tagged along with a group of advocates from New Jersey, slated to visit the offices of Representatives Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ). I was thrilled that we got the chance to meet in person with Representative Lance, who represents the area where I grew up.

We discussed the complexity of the current U.S. health care system, and the inadequate support disabled people get across many different settings and throughout their lives. Rather than pushing for legislation to provide specific services to the disability community, advocates in my group said, leaders must agitate for a reimagining of how our society provides equitable support for people across a spectrum of abilities throughout their entire lives.

As I told Representative Lance about my experience in high school working alongside disabled students to do service work in our community, one of my fellow group members highlighted the importance of working with people with disabilities, rather than for them. My interest in learning more about disability rights work was cemented by the passionate words of advocates like her who have devoted their careers to furthering these critical civil rights in and outside of Jewish communities in our country.

I am so grateful for the experience I had at JDAD 2018, and I am inspired by the unique approach the Jewish community takes to advocacy on these complex issues. We have a responsibility to serve and raise up the voices of people our society’s institutions tend to cast aside. In Leviticus 19:16, we are taught to not “stand idly by the blood of [our] neighbor.” This time of political upheaval and uncertainty has invigorated many in the Jewish community to do exactly this.

As a current senior at Georgetown University, I hope to use this inspiration in my on-campus advocacy work around student health and wellness. I want to capture the resilient energy of the activists I met at JDAD 2018 and use it to inform my discussions with fellow students about self-advocacy in health care and educational settings. As I plan to invite a D.C.-area disability justice advocate to Georgetown University to speak about their work and empower students to advocate for themselves, I am excited to encourage my peers to center the disability community and examine how they can stand up for themselves and their neighbors in intentional ways. 

This February marks the 10thJewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.

Sylvia Levy is a communications intern at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. She is a senior at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service, majoring in science, technology, and international affairs, with a global health concentration and a Mandarin Chinese language focus. On campus, she is active in Georgetown's student government and Jewish Student Association, and works at the campus Women's Center. 

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