Nov 28, 2021

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One out of five Israelis has a physical or other disability, and over the years, their rights have been neglected. But the fact that there is now a cabinet minister, Minister of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources Karine Elharrar, who is confined to a wheelchair, and a deaf Knesset member, Shirley Pinto, has significantly raised awareness of the needs of the disabled.


And what about the Jewish community in the US? A new survey of 2,321 people there shows progress from 2018 to 2021, while identifying areas in need of continued improvement. The poll was conducted for  RespectAbility, a nonprofit American Jewish organization that fights stigmas and advances opportunities so people with disabilities can participate fully in all aspects of community. 

The survey results, it said, shows that Jewish communal organizations are making strong progress toward building a more inclusive community for people with physical, sensory, mental health and other disabilities. At the same time, the survey identified substantially higher poverty rates, as well as a strong desire to work, among this highly educated population.
The new study showed that 65% of Jewish respondents felt the Jewish community was “better at including people with disabilities” compared to five years ago. Only one percent felt the community’s performance was “worse.” 
“More and more Jewish institutions now understand that we are a stronger community when we are welcoming, diverse and respect one another,” said RespectAbility Founder Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who is dyslexic, has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities. “However, at the same time, there is a gap as non-disabled Jews feel more has been accomplished in comparison to how Jews with disabilities themselves feel. Indeed, hundreds of Jews with disabilities among those polled and their loved ones shared specific and sometimes truly painful examples of when they were unable to participate in Jewish communities due to lack of access and inclusion.”
“The survey findings were very encouraging, demonstrating the Jewish community is headed in the right direction,” said Mizrahi. “It’s important to celebrate this memorable improvement and the hard work of so many people that made it possible, without losing sight of the much more work clearly to be done. It is especially important to note the data shows that even though Jews with disabilities are as highly educated as Jews without disabilities, they are considerably more likely to live in poverty.”

While many respondents preferred not to disclose their income level, among those that did there were measurable differences between those with and without a disability connection at the highest and lowest ranges of income. Fully 26% of disabled Jews reported income under $49,999 compared to just eight percent of people without a disability connection. Only six percent of people with disabilities reported income of more than $200,000 compared to 17% of people without a disability connection. This gap in income level is important as the education levels reported by the respondents do not show significant differences between disabled individuals and the wider community.
When asked “overall, how well is the Jewish community doing at including people with disabilities in synagogues, Jewish organizations, and communal activities,” 31% said “extremely or very well.” This is up 13% from 2018 among the total community and 10% among people with disabilities. Additionally, 41% felt the Jewish community was doing “somewhat well.”
When asked, “in the faith-based institutions and groups that you are active in, do you feel that people with disabilities are included? (scuch as in social activities, men’s clubs/sisterhoods, youth groups),” 37% answered “yes” with an additional 42% responding “sometimes.” The total for inclusion is 79%, showing that disability overall in the Jewish community is strong but inconsistent.
“The survey findings were encouraging, showing that the Jewish community is headed in the right direction to be more inclusive of people with disabilities,” commented pollster Meagan Buren who conducted the survey. “Throughout the survey, inclusion numbers were up and ‘don’t know’ responses were down, indicating more communal awareness. However, more work must be done to ensure all members of our community feel respected, included, and valued.”
When asked where the community found the “most access and inclusive environment” and where they found the “most challenges for access and inclusion” of people with disabilities, the largest response was the same for both questions – synagogues. Twenty-one percent said synagogues have the most access while 18% said synagogues have the most challenges. This follows multiple efforts to expand inclusion at synagogues and demonstrates the inconsistencies in disability inclusion among varied institutions.
A strong majority of Jewish respondents (57%) are involved in faith organizations that have made commitments to “diversity, equity and inclusion,” and among those, fully 88% included disability in specifically named areas of diversity. At the same time, the surge in the use of virtual formats in response to the COVID-19 pandemic increased the ability of 73%  of disabled individuals to access their faith community. This likely resulted from a combination of the relative ease with which more people could be included. For example, live captioning and remote American Sign Language interpreters made it easier for those who are deaf or hard of hearing to participate. Furthermore, the lack of a need for transportation, which remains a major barrier for many with physical, visual, intellectual and/or psychiatric disabilities, enabled additional individuals to participate from home.
While the overall numbers are trending in a positive direction and are strong compared even to three years ago, there still is exclusion in the Jewish community. One in five people with disabilities said they or another disabled individual in their household have been “turned away from an activity at an organization in your faith community because of its inability or unwillingness to make a reasonable accommodation.”
The professional picture is more varied. RespectAbility’s survey shows that disability representation in Jewish leadership continues to be an area of opportunity. Even though the number of respondents who knew “any clergy or staff with disabilities” at their own institutions increased more than 50%, this remains only one in five of the respondents overall. Furthermore, only 15% feel that “people with disabilities are encouraged to serve on boards and committees,” with an additional 22% responding “sometimes.”
“Our tradition always has been pragmatic, emphasizing the importance of Jewish learning, but literally emphasizing that ‘if there is no sustenance, there is no Torah,’” said Matan Koch, a wheelchair user who leads RespectAbility’s Jewish work. “The startling economic numbers, despite the fact that Jews with disabilities are highly educated, demonstrate that work is needed to make sure that Jews with disabilities have the appropriate opportunities and supports in the workplace, bringing sustenance and security. This is clearly well known to our population.”
The RespectAbility study showed that 32% of respondents believe that “prejudice and unacknowledged stigma” remains the biggest barrier to full inclusion, just as it was in 2018, at 32%. “Don’t know how” came in at nearly 20 percent which shows a real need for training. While this finding was primarily in relation to synagogue inclusion, the more complicated question of employment would likely trend the same way. Indeed, the Leading Edge study showed gaps in levels of responsibility and income for employees with disabilities at Jewish organization, so continued training and focus is needed.