By Efrat Stern and Orly Fruchter
In February, Jewish communities across North America and Israel marked Jewish Disabilities Awareness & Inclusion Month. It was heartening that JDAIM gave voice to millions of Jews with disabilities and highlighted disabilities inclusion achievements, but it was not enough. Now that February has come and gone, we must continue to work urgently to ensure our communities are welcoming and empowering throughout the year.
Today there are around 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide. They’re part of our families and circles of loved ones, members of our day schools, summer camps, synagogues and social networks. Despite this, they often live on the margins and live even more precariously during times of crises.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people with disabilities, upending the support, services and efforts at accessibility and community integration that have been key to their progress. The significant gains made on disabilities issues over the years are in danger of being lost.
People with disabilities have once again been largely absent from public discourse on pandemic needs. This absence, and the media’s reliance on old stereotypes, made it that much harder for them to retain their hard-fought place in society.
People with disabilities have faced outsized pandemic-related challenges. They have higher rates of unemployment and loneliness and isolation. The suspension of in-person gatherings is further exacerbated by the lower rates of digital literacy in this population, cutting them off from vitally important activities and medical information.
For many years, we have worked with people with disabilities to strengthen and promote their broader participation in society. There are three important objectives that can help Jewish leaders and institutions mitigate losses and advance self-empowerment.
First, to be inclusive, people with disabilities need to lead, be seen and be heard. People with disabilities must be central to discussions about needs and creation of services. They must have lead roles in setting community agendas. Truly inclusive communities are shaped by people with disabilities.
Second, embrace independent living. It’s a cost effective, safe and rewarding path to inclusive societies. People with disabilities having homes of their own is an important step toward achieving full acceptance. As a society, we need to re-envision self-management skills, social connections, support networks, civic responsibility and create person-centered services that are financially sustainable.
Israel Unlimited, JDC’s strategic partnership with the Israeli government and the Ruderman Family Foundation, initiated a supported housing program with support from the Azrieli Foundation to empower people with disabilities to live in their own apartments, be involved in the community and receive support and guidance from a care coordinator and mentor. The program assisted 400 people with disabilities in 37 cities across Israel. Research shows that living in the community is 30% more cost effective than an institution.
Third, people with disabilities need increased resources for better living as they age. Although the pandemic shone a spotlight on the outsized risks faced by the elderly, there has been little focus on the growing demographic of people with disabilities who are living longer now. On average, people with disabilities start aging 10 to 15 years earlier than those without earlier diagnosed disabilities. With life expectancy rising, we must engage in research, policy and programs to address the needs of older adults with disabilities.
Jewish philanthropists and government bodies in Israel and North America can be leaders in this space and build on their successful history of creating and supporting services for seniors. JDC has launched a comprehensive study in Israel aiming to build a strategic map and practical options for support. We hope this will become a model.
The current crisis provides new opportunities to realize the dream of people with disabilities to be fully valued members of our communities. It’s not just a matter of basic human justice, but an essential condition for socioeconomic advancement and a strong and resilient social fabric. When Jewish communities and Israel partner with people with disabilities to fulfill this promise, we give new meaning to an old and much-cherished Jewish concept of self-actualization: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Efrat Stern is the director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Israel Unlimited and Orly Fruchter is the manager of Neurodiverse Initiatives for the Azrieli Foundation Canada. This piece was originally published by eJewishPhilanthropy.com.