Rights and Obligations: Commemorating ADA-30

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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Happy 30th Anniversary to the ADA!!!

Sunday, July 26, 2020, was the 30th anniversary of the signing by President George H.W. Bush of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The disability community and our subcommunities fought long and hard and keep fighting to be recognized, respected and accommodated. I want to share some personal reflections on life before and after disability rights legislation enactment and some considerations for the future for the broader disability community and then specifically for the Jewish community.

 My Life Before the ADA and Other Disability Legislation

My youngest years took place in the 1960′s. I was a young girl with a speech disability who traveled by wheelchair and walked on crutches. At that time, one rarely saw a wheelchair user on the streets; streets that lacked any sort of curb ramps. People with a variety of obvious or hidden disabilities were generally either confined to their homes or sent away to institutions.

My father, Yisroel Dovid ben Aharon (Irving Shapiro), may his soul be remembered for good on his upcoming Yahrzeit, 13 Av, would sometimes lament how rarely we saw other people with disabilities in public. Despite the physical barriers and limiting paternalistic attitudes all around us, my parents, Irving and Marcia Shapiro, z”l, were determined that I experience everything possible and good in life.

In elementary school, I was segregated in a class with other students with disabilities. We were not allowed even to eat lunch in the lunchroom with our able-bodied peers. I felt ostracized and stigmatized and I yearned to break out and join the other students. I excelled in every subject as did several of my classmates. Why were we denied the opportunity to learn and mingle with the other students? At 9 or 10 years old, I coordinated a successful advocacy campaign with my classmates to lower a public pay phone in school so that wheelchair users could access a pay phone. This success showed me the effectiveness of advocacy.

Though some of my fellow classmates and I enjoyed a close bond, I wanted out of my prejudicially imposed restrictive learning and social environment. I made this very clear to everyone. In 1973 my mother fought on my behalf for me to be chosen for a New York City pilot program to integrate a handful of middle-school aged students with disabilities into typical middle-school classes. Of course, I cherished that opportunity.

Much to my distress, though, I was bullied throughout much of the 7th grade. I’m sure that if I was integrated at a younger age, the same youngsters and I would have gotten familiar with each other during a less challenging phase of life. Still, I preferred to be with my hetrogeneous class, bullied, scarred and strengthened rather than segregated, shielded, and weakened. “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley became my favorite poem.

Beyond seventh grade and throughout high school, I was welcomed by my class mates and I developed good friendships; but the buses and trains were not wheelchair accessible. Without public transit access, I didn’t have the choice to stay after school and join my friends. Also, how could I date if I couldn’t travel on my own? I had no social life until I went away to Hofstra University, one of the very few wheelchair accessible colleges at the time. Thanks to the accessibility of Hofstra University, I was able to power-chair my way throughout the campus, take classes in different buildings, join the Hofstra Hillel and, in my Freshman year, meet my wonderful husband, Wayne (Yisroel).

We married in 1983. Life away from the Hofstra campus was very different. Accessible buses were few and far between back then in New York City. Only a handful of accessible subway stations were in place. None were near me and there was NO paratransit. Determined to attend Summer Torah shiurim (classes) in Manhattan four days a week in 1985 and 1986, I would patiently wait for working local wheelchair accessible buses and drivers with keys to the lifts. A trip to the Upper West Side from Riverdale in the Bronx would take me 2 hours one way on good days when the sporadic accessible buses were operational and the bus transfer timing worked. Needless to say, I often endured 2.5 or 3 hour one-way trips, 5 to 6 hours two ways, and I kept a bus lift key in my purse in case bus operators claimed that they didn’t have one.

Bus travel was magical for me as one who was locked away at home after school until 18 years old. But we needed better access to transportation, public accommodations, employment, communications, and state and local government. These areas were not addressed in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 focused solely on federally funded agencies. We needed a civil rights law that would mandate anti-prejudicial discrimination against and reasonable access and accommodations for people with disabilities and be applicable in the state, local, and private sectors. We could not rely on human good-will alone, as evidenced by centuries of prejudice, sometimes deadly prejudice, against people with physical, intellectual, mental health, hearing, vision, and other disabilities.

Life After the Passage of The Americans with Disabilities of 1990

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was drafted to fill in many of the gaps that were left by Sections 503 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The ADA “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.” (Quote from DOL.gov). 

Both the passage of the ADA and the implementation of Section 504 required the disability community to place our bodies on the line and physically demonstrate the urgency to pass and execute these laws. We received a lot of resistance to implementation of Section 504 and the passage of the ADA. Sadly, resistance to the ADA also came from religious leaders of all denominations. But at last we reached compromised agreements which led to the enactment of the ADA. 

Today, we have much more access and acceptance in the U.S. than we did 50 years ago. We see many more people with different disabilities in the streets, at stores, and on university campuses. Wheelchair users can ride on Amtrak to and from most major cities; we can access most public buildings; we can file lawsuits when harassed at work due to our obvious or hidden disabilities; many Hollywood movies are captioned and audio described; and we’ve begun to publicly talk about mental health care and stigma. But we have a long way to go before the playing field is even.

Still today too many disabled people, young and old, are placed in controlled and often sub-standard congregate care settings when, alternatively, they can create, control, and maintain their own lives in their own homes with support services and adaptive technology. Blind people still lack access to most digital, print and pictorial media and Deaf and Hard of Hearing people lack communication access to many live and virtual events. Autistic people and people with mental health conditions continue to face stigma and prejudice; and the unemployment rate for qualified job seekers with disabilities remains proportionally very high. We have much more work to do to actualize the vision that inspired the drafting of the ADA and we need to continue to thwart any legislative or administrative attempt to dilute the ADA’s application and execution.

Obligations of Jewish Communities and Individuals

G-d, through the Torah, speaks to us through the prism of commandments and obligations, not rights. We are mandated, for example, to learn Torah, keep and remember the Sabbath, and to leave behind sheaves of wheat that we accidentally drop and designate a portion of our fields for the poor. We are obligated to care for the orphan and widow and to demonstrate respect for our parents, elders, and Torah scholars. The primary focus is on the obligated individuals, not on the beneficiaries or objects of the deed.

For instance, when we are commanded to chase away a mother bird before taking her eggs, the emphasis is on our deed, not on the mother bird’s experience. Yes, as a result the mother will endure less distress in that moment; but the thrust of the intended effects of the mitzvah is on the one taking care to shew away the mother. The commanded action reminds us that we are taking away a precious potential life from a mother. We must be sensitive to that fact and take appropriate action to concretize that sensitivity.

So too, we have several passages from our written and oral teachings that point to how we should respond to people with disabilities. Here are just three examples:

Every human being is created in G-d’s Image (Gen. 1:27). Therefore people with disabilities must be treated with respect and dignity. No one should shun or hide away people with disabilities for any reason. We as people with disabilities should not have to feel bad about our disabilities. We should embrace who we are with our disabilities, and say the word disability. We should expect others to respect and value us for our full selves, including our disabilities, which help shape our characters and strengths.

“Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh” – “The entire Jewish people are responsible for another” (Shevuot 39a). Therefore, we are obliged to ensure that people with disabilities can do the mitzvot and fulfill their obligations. We must work towards ensuring that our children with disabilities can access yeshivot and day schools and their curricula; that wheelchair users can access mikvaot; that Blind people can access print and online source material; and that Deaf community members can benefit, via captioning and sign language, from Torah videos that feature our prized Rabbeim and teachers.

“Al tifrosh min hatzibor” “Do not separate from the community.” Community alongside Torah learning is the lifeblood of Jewish life. Like the arba minim, the four species lifted and waved during Sukkot, we compliment and supplement each other. That’s why prayers said in a minyan bear more potency than when they’re said privately. People with disabilities are part and parcel of our communities. It’s in all of our interests to ensure that all men and women are able to daaven b’tzibur, pray with the community, without physical, communication, or attitudinal barriers.

By fulfilling these precepts alongside others, we become aware of many of the physical, communication and attitudinal barriers that people with hidden or obvious disabilities face. In our efforts to accept and accommodate the users of wheelchairs, walkers, large print, video or real time captioning, sign language, quiet spaces, and regular psychotherapy appointments, we all change ourselves. We begin to increasingly emulate G-d’s conscientiousness, compassion, and righteousness while people with obvious or hidden disabilities attain the access, accommodations, and acceptance required to participate in Jewish life and learning.

Emulating G-d

So as we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the ADA and acknowledge the disability rights movement for its relentless advocacy for access and opportunity, let’s reflect upon the Torah concept of obligation and the ways obligations can shape the characters of people fulfilling them. When we make efforts to notice who is NOT with us at our shuls, in our yeshivas, in our live or virtual classrooms, at our mikvahs, or at our community events due to lack of access or acceptance and we feel and act upon the obligation to take doable steps to invite and accommodate them, then we emulate and grow closer to G-d. Concurrently, those of us with disabilities are enabled to attach ourselves to G-d through participating in and contributing to Jewish life and Torah learning.

“Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena” – “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21)

May our care and efforts go towards the day when Tisha B’Av turns into a day of joy!

Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, Executive Director


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