Students and professionals representing Hillels from the Washington, D.C. area gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day.
The daylong program, organized by Jewish Federations of North America and sponsored by Hillel International, attracted 300 people, the largest delegation of participants in its 10-year history. Featured sessions included speeches from bipartisan lawmakers
and panel discussions with disability and inclusion experts, such as former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), whose signature legislative achievement is the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Every person with a disability has a right to be who he or she wants to be, and to have access to any other support in order to have a full, meaningful life,” Harkin said.
Participants learned about two pieces of legislation introduced by Congress in 2019. The Isaiah Baker and Margie Harris-Austin Act would allow Medicaid-covered individuals with disabilities to have their direct support professionals continue caring for
them if they’re hospitalized.
The ABLE Age Adjustment Act would adjust the age cap, from 26-years-old to 46-years-old, for the ABLE program, which eases financial stress for people with disabilities by allowing them to establish tax-advantaged savings and investment plans.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism, delivered a D’var Torah highlighting Moses, a powerful Jewish leader with a speech impediment.
“We advocate out of the recognition that people with disabilities deserve to live in societies where both the laws and culture reflect and advance their full humanity,” Rabbi Waxman said. “Being disabled is the one minority group that
any of us can join at anytime.”
Various speakers highlighted 2020 as a historic year for disability rights, noting the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 45th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Many also emphasized that each person is of infinite worth, citing the Jewish teaching of B’tzelem Elohim, meaning humans are created in the image of God. The message resonated with Sara Evangelista, program director at Johns Hopkins University Hillel.
“As a representative of our radically inclusive community, I can be doing much more to ensure that I see and recognize each of my students as being created in the divine image,” Evangelista said. “I know that each student is welcome
for exactly who they are, and after JDAD, I am inspired to live those values in a more impactful way.”
Awards were presented to leading disability activists, including Judy Heumann, the first special advisor for international disability rights at the State Department.
For Madelaine Reis, Heumann is a Jewish hero.
“Listening to her talk about her activism reminded me why I do this and to never stop fighting,” Reis said.
The American University graduate student said her own battle with chronic illness inspired her to become a leader in the realm of disability and inclusion on campus. She organized the first Hillel Inclusion Week while serving as a Ruderman Inclusion Ambassador at University of Central Florida Hillel.
Now, Reis is continuing her advocacy work at American University.
She said, “Going back to my campus, I now know that I have a network of Jews across the country who are in this fight with me and could possibly work with me in the future to do disability programming.”