by: William Daroff
Two weeks ago, I was privileged to participate as a speaker at ADVANCE: The Ruderman Jewish Disabilities Funding Conference, along with more than 100 Jewish leaders. The conference, which was co-sponsored by The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), focused on the proposition that our Jewish values propel us to welcome, embrace, and engage individuals with disabilities and their families into the mosaic that makes up the American Jewish community.
The agenda allowed attendees to focus on issues from birth to end of life, including education, employment, housing, and communal life. Each session featured experienced panelists who guided funders through conversations about developing opportunities to ensure individuals with disabilities can participate meaningfully in the Jewish community. With the help of Pascale Bercovitch, an Israeli paralympic athlete, who opened our minds to the potential of people with disabilities; Joseph Shapiro of NPR, who reminded us of the challenges the disability community faces defending its civil rights; and Rick Guidotti of Positive Exposure, who showed us the impact the visual arts can have on our perception of people with disabilities; the momentum achieved as the conference ended was palpable.
One focus of that momentum was in the realm of advocacy. I joined Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Founder and President of Laszlo Strategies; Allan Bergman, President and CEO of High Impact Mission-Based Consulting and Training; and Ari Ne’eman, President and Co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, in a dialogue with conference attendees on the importance of advocacy on issues impacting the disability community and the critical role public charities and private foundations can play in advocating on those issues. JFNA and our partners – including advocates representing a broad range of Jewish communities, religious streams, social service providers and public policy organizations – work day in and day out with policy makers on Capitol Hill and in the Administration to further the goal of ensuring individuals with disabilities can lead healthy, independent lives. Public charities and private foundations should be engaged in these efforts as well.
Our work comes at a critical time. The unemployment rates we associate with the slow recovery from the Great Recession pale in comparison to the persistent lack of employment opportunities for the disability community. The disincentive for individuals receiving disability benefits to work in order to maintain those benefits, and the inability for those relying on those benefits to build assets, makes upward mobility even more difficult. The growing challenge for non-profit agencies to provide home- and community-based care makes independent living for many individuals with disabilities an impossibility. The challenges are daunting, but for the Jewish community, it is an opportunity, both in the context of Jewish values and the continuity of our faith, to welcome those who have been marginalized back into our community.
As we continue to advocate for improved policies and initiatives that improve the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families, we encourage all to recognize and support these critical needs. We know that only through a happy marriage of public and private initiatives and program funding can we truly achieve success on behalf of those with disabilities and their families.
William Daroff is Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America. Follow him on twitter at @Daroff.