Separate Is Never Equal: 25 Years After The ADA

Author: Shelly Christensen
Originally posted on The Jewish Week, New York website.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Legacy bus has been touring across the United States for some months as part of the 25th anniversary celebration. The bus travels with important displays about the history of civil rights of people with disabilities in the U.S.

The Legacy Tour bus made one of its stops in Atlanta at the end of May while I was attending the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability (SITD). The SITD participants, people involved in diverse faith community disability inclusion initiatives, posed for a photo with the bus.

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As I stood before the bus waiting for everyone to gather, I reflected on the countless individuals who fought for the civil rights of people with disabilities in the U.S. Access to buildings, jobs, education, housing, transportation and the community is a civil right.

I also reflected on my own journey as a mom, an advocate and a leader in the movement that for me started 14 years ago when I began working on the Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, in Minneapolis.

Knowing that religious organizations are not covered by the ADA did not deter me or the outstanding people who supported meaningful participation in Jewish life: the rabbis, the lay leaders and volunteers, and, most importantly, the people who live with disabilities and those who love them. All have come together to work for the day when all Jews can choose where and how they participate in the richness of the community.

That thoughtful moment in Atlanta, standing before the bus that bore the words “Road to Freedom” on it’s side ended abruptly when I turned around to see other words written on side of the bus:

“Separate is Never Equal.”

My reverie broken, I reminded myself that all of the strides that have been made by our Jewish communities were mere footsteps to a distant goal. Whenever someone is segregated from society they become marginalized in the eyes of that society. They are not regarded for their humanity, for the gifts they bring, the talents they possess or the contributions that they make.

Under the label of inclusion, there are many Jewish communities that separate people with disabilities from the rest of the community.

I do not believe that separate services, classes, group homes and social programs are necessarily designed to keep people out of mainsteam Jewish life. But they do not recognize that people with disabilities must have the opportunity to make their own decisions about how they want to participate.

I don’t doubt the good intentions of these efforts. To some degree, they have brought Judaism to a group of people who have been historically marginalized because of a diagnosis. And Jewish organizations are more aware than ever before that there actually are people with disabilities in our communities.

The 25th anniversary of the ADA can serve as a catalyst to taking Jewish community recognition and provision of programs specifically for people with disabilities to a new level of freedom.

That freedom is to go beyond the boundaries created by Jewish organizations that determine how people who live with disabilities and mental health diagnoses engage in the Jewish community and create ways for people with disabilities should make their own decisions about how they wish to participate in Jewish life like anyone else.

If we are true to our Jewish values, is it really up to an organization to limit participation of any individual to separate programs? Wouldn’t the true measure of how we treat people be to support individuals to determine how they want to be a part of Jewish life?

“Separate is Never Equal.”

The ADA is landmark legislation, a game-changer for many people who couldn’t even cross the street in wheelchairs, use the restrooms in public buildings, or use public transportation. It is a model for us to follow, a moral mandate that demands freedom to be an equal and valued member of the Jewish community. In the spirit of the ADA, our Jewish community needs to create more opportunities for people of all abilities to worship, work, learn and play together–to recognize that inclusion of people with disabilities benefits us all. Separate is never equal.

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