By Howard Blas
Dozens of articles online and in print publications proudly and enthusiastically note that February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). JDAIM, marked by agencies and organizations throughout the Jewish world, is described as “a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in Jewish communities worldwide.”
When JDAIM (formerly known as JDAM) was established in 2009 by the Jewish Special Education International Consortium, they picked February since it is generally a month without other Jewish holidays. They were mindful of that fact that inclusion is something that we must keep focused on all year long.
Jewish organizations, agencies, synagogues, schools, and summer camps continue to do better each year in welcoming and including people with disabilities. We continue to improve when it comes to physical, programmatic, and ritual accessibility for people with disabilities. And our language and policies better reflect accessibility. However, one area where the Jewish community needs to do much better is in the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. People with disabilities are still unemployed and underemployed in much greater numbers than the rest of the population.
People with disabilities (PWD) are often loyal, dedicated workers who are willing to stay at a job for a long time. “We Will Hear and We Will Profit: The Mitzvah of Inclusion,” my recent ELI Talk, produced in partnership with The Covenant Foundation, profiles some success stories of people with disabilities who have received vocational training through the Ramah camps’ Tikvah vocational educational (voc ed) programs. These vocational training programs, along with the training of Ramah’s voc ed staff members, receive generous support from The Ruderman Family Foundation. The ELI Talk also highlights some nationally known employers with a reputation for hiring people with disabilities. Hiring people with disabilities is not only the right thing, not only the Jewish thing – it makes good business sense.
While viewing the ELI Talk and hearing these stories, consider the somewhat concerning data on people with disabilities and employment. The 2014 Disability Statistics Annual Report, published by the Disability Statistics and Demographics Rehabilitation and Research Training Center, reported that:
- 56.7 million Individuals, about 18.7% of civilians living in the community, reported at least one disabling condition in 2010.
- In 2013, only 33.9% of U.S. civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 were employed, compared to 74.2% for people without disabilities. States vary in their rates of employment for persons with disabilities, from a high of 52.8% to a low of 25.3%.
- Employment rates vary by type of disability. Employment rates are highest for people with hearing disabilities (50.2%) and vision disabilities (39.6%) and lowest for people with self-care (15.2%) and independent living (15.3%) limitations.
- According to 2013 data, the median annual earnings of U.S. civilians with disabilities ages 16 and over was $20,785, about two-thirds of the median earnings of people without disabilities ($30,728).
- Almost thirty percent (28.7%) of U.S. civilians with disabilities of working-age in 2013 were living in poverty compared to 13.6% of U.S. civilians of working-age without disabilities.
There are an estimated 57 million PWD in the U.S., representing almost 20% of the population. This means that there are upwards of 57 million possibilities for enriching one’s company or Jewish organization.
People with disabilities have many talents and abilities. Many find satisfaction in jobs which tend to be predictable and follow a routine. People with disabilities have been successful in food service, hospitality, child care, office jobs, computer jobs and more. Some succeed with job coaching; others do well with the support of a job supervisor who understands how to give assignments and instructions based on the learning style of the worker.
I challenge synagogues, Jewish organizations, agencies, schools, and camps to do more when it comes to hiring people with disabilities. I challenge them to actively work to take advantage of this important resource. There are many organizations like Ramah’s Tikvah Program and Transitions to Work – made possible through the collaboration of the Ruderman Family Foundation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and Jewish Vocational Service – here to help. Start today.
Howard Blas is the director of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. He is a recipient of the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in recognition of his work with Ramah in the disabilities field.