WASHINGTON — About 130 Jewish activists descended on Capitol Hill on Feb. 10 to lobby for measures to help people who are disabled and their caregivers.
Sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America, the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism and other organizations, the day-long Jewish Disability Advocacy Day event began as an education session on disabilities. Breaking into small groups, participants then visited legislators to ask for support on three bills, The Transition to Independence Act, the RAISE Family Caregiver Act and the Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act.
The Transition to Independence Act, pending before the Senate Finance Committee, would fund 10 states that submit the best plans to create competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities. The states whose applications are selected receive funds for their programs. Those jobs must be in a fully integrated environment, with the abled and disabled working side by side.
The goal of the act is to determine the best ways to eliminate sheltered workshops, where only disabled people are disabled. Applications must show that the people leaving specialized disability programs are the same people who obtain the new positions. Also, the newly employed cannot be paid sub-minimum wages.
The proposals also must show that although the new programs pay better, people with disabilities may still be eligible for Medicaid. Otherwise, said Samantha Crane, director of public policy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, people with disabilities would have to choose between working and getting enough money.
Jobs are important, both to provide workers with money and also to give them self-worth, said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, executive director of the RAC, noting that 28 percent of Americans with disabilities live in poverty and that their unemployment rate is more than twice the national average.
The other legislation addresses caregivers. The Recognize, Assist, Include, Support and Engage (RAISE) Family Caregivers Act would require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a national caregiving strategy which would cover areas including workplace policies, training and support for caregivers, and information and referral services.
The third bill, Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act, would set aside money for caregivers to have a temporary break. Currently, the act allots $3.3 million a year. But this bill calls for $15 million per year from now until 2020.
“Family caregiving affects just about everyone,” said Rhonda Richards, senior legislative representative of the American Association of Retired Persons. About 40 million people across the country are caregivers, she said, adding that 6.5 million of them belong to the “sandwich generation” and are responsible for the care of both their children and their parents.
Almost one-third of family caregivers help their loved ones at least 62 hours a week, Richards said during the event, which was held at the Rayburn House Office Building.
One out of five Americans has a disability, Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said in his welcoming address.
Rakitt lost most of his hearing when he was 2 years old; he became a hearing aid wearer and lip reader.
The Federation, which hires people with disabilities, is working on updating its website so it will be accessible to people with disabilities. The Federation also is creating an assessment tool that will be available to area synagogues and organizations to see how are doing when it comes to accommodating people with disabilities.
“Imagine a world where all children are welcome into our synagogues and offered a chance to be spiritually uplifted, regardless of their abilities,” Rakitt said.
Pesner continued on that theme, saying that if places do not welcome all people, “God cannot enter.”
During the event, Maria Town, associate director for the White House Office of Public Engagement, said the Obama administration is working on inclusion and wants to see more people with disabilities in the general workforce and fewer in the prison system.
Between 70 and 80 percent of people with disabilities do not have a job, she said.
Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi, CEO of RespectAbility, agreed that employment is crucial. “Employment is empowerment. It is dignity,” she told the advocates.
“Every synagogue seems to have a food drive,” but she said she would prefer a day when synagogue members sign up to mentor and become job coaches for people with disabilities.
Joshua Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, called the event “really inspiring to see people in the Jewish community from all over the country come to Washington to advocate for such important issues.”
Five members of Congress addressed the advocates, including Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), John Larson (D-Conn.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R- Wash.) and James Langevin, (D-R.I.).
It’s important to focus on what someone has to offer rather than the disabilities, said McMorris Rodgers.
Added Deutch, “Our society can only benefit when we embrace all varieties.”
Suzanne Pollak writes for Mid-Atlantic Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.