This year marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the American Disabilities Act, a landmark law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination.
Significantly, discrimination is not limited to the acts of the Commission. it also includes omissions. According to ADA, a bus company or restaurant that does not allow wheelchair access is discriminating against them.
Why discriminate? Because the provision of accommodation is not something “nice” that we do for people with disabilities. Everyone has the right to the same dignity and rights as everyone else. These include the right to education, equal access to public goods and services, equal access to jobs and fair and equal treatment in the workplace.
The same is true if we frame it in terms of needs. A person in a wheelchair has no other need – a ramp – than one who is not. The need to have access to the building is the same from person to person. It’s the accommodations that can be different.
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In order to remedy this, it must be recognized that our society, in the way it is structured and the norms we have defined, regularly excludes people with disabilities and regularly violates their fundamental rights.
Rabbi Dov Linzer (with kind permission)
We are far from this worldview. While the ADA has successfully changed the legal realities of our society, much remains to be done. As long as people continue to view the provision of shelter as additional credit, while there will be no compliance with the law, there will be no profound and systemic changes.
It is therefore particularly painful for me that 30 years ago religious institutions campaigned for exclusion from the provisions of the ADA and won it because they would incur unreasonable costs. It is difficult to justify such an exception: the cost of religious institutions would not be higher than any other institution, and the law already provides for cases where the financial burden is too great.
The Jewish community and its social, communal, educational and religious institutions can and must intervene here. These institutions can play an important role in educating and raising awareness, as well as in shaping the culture, norms and ethos of our community. And they can do this with a Torah voice. You can articulate the principle that people are made in God’s image and that each individual is of equal and infinite worth. You can point to the establishment of the public school system in the Land of Israel two millennia ago, specifically designed to provide education for people without resources and without access. You can demonstrate, through teaching and acting, that the mandate of “not presenting a stumbling block to the blind” translates directly into removing all physical and other barriers to entry.
And they can teach that when the Torah says that the ger, the traveler, must be treated equally in all respects, the Torah tells us that we have an increased responsibility to those who are most likely to be marginalized and told in so many ways that they do not belong; that we must do everything in our power to ensure that everyone is treated as an equal member of the society he or she is.
One of the institutions that can do this is our synagogue. Synagogues and the rabbis who run them have a unique position in society. One of the gravitas and the representation of the Jewish tradition. You can and should be at the forefront of the fight for equality for people with disabilities.
And yet synagogues and other religious institutions that should be charged with inclusion are actually in the background because of the liberation and are well behind us.
It doesn’t have to be like that. With the exception of the law, religious organizations can choose to live up to their declared values and take leadership roles in this area. One organization particularly stands out within the Orthodox Jewish community. The Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewish schools, youth programs, and more, was outstanding in this regard, investing tremendous resources in advocacy, education and support, and training and resources for synagogues. Many synagogues and schools have strengthened, but there are still far too many who haven’t and I believe the situation is similar in other faith communities.
Living up to your values is difficult, especially when it comes to money and effort. But we have no other choice.
This problem struck me a few months ago. The rabbinical school I run offered a number of online zoom lectures to the general public, and I was scheduled to deliver one on Jewish law and the deaf. A week before the lecture, we received an email from someone who wanted to know if we would provide subtitles for the lecture. I am ashamed to admit what the answer was. At that moment, I announced to our staff that from that point on, every public program would be subtitled regardless of the cost. It was time to live up to our values.
Living up to your values is difficult, especially when it comes to money and effort. But we have no other choice. “It doesn’t matter what you say, but how you behave,” teaches Rabbi Shimon in the Talmud. We may profess certain values, but until we start living them, no one will believe us and nothing will change.
After our rabbinical school made subtitles available for a number of events, I received a call from a woman who was so moved by our subtitle efforts that she volunteered to insure everyone financially. The message from this experience was clear to me: if you lead, others will follow.
Rabbi Dov Linzer is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale, New York.