By Matan Koch
On July 26, 1990, 30 years ago this week, I was just past 8 1/2 years old. I was a kid, at the Union for Reform Judaism Eisner Camp, one of the few places where, as a wheelchair user from birth, I felt fully included in a world where access barriers were the norm, where it was just assumed that the question of whether I could get in somewhere was a significant part of planning everyday life. (See here for more on the barrier breaking nature of Jewish summer camp.) In general, it was more common to find places closed to my wheelchair than not, and it never really occurred to me that that could be changed.
I had no notion that, on that day in the Rose Garden, (a place I had not heard of), my life was changing forever. I had no notion that a decades-long effort of people who would later become my role models, including Jewish community leaders like Judy Heumann and Neil Jacobson who still lead today, laying down their voices and their bodies had culminated in a protection of my civil rights.
And yet, 30 years ago this week, whether I knew it or not, the life that I currently enjoy became possible. 30 years ago this week, the US government, after a remarkable effort, not only by allies in Congress, but by staff like Bobby Silverstein, who remain pillars of the Jewish community, said that I could not be denied a job because of my disability, that I could not be denied access to places of public accommodation for my disability, and, though it would be some years before the Supreme Court confirmed this, that I had a right to live in the community in the least restrictive environment possible.
Except for the few people who met me at my synagogue, where I was carried in, at least in part because my father was the Rabbi, at my public school, where a previous law had mandated access, or at a few summer camps, most of the people whose lives I have touched might never have encountered me but for this law. Think about the people with disabilities who enrich your lives. Think about how you met them, everything from the building, to the program, to whatever transportation they took to get there. If not for this law, they might never have been there for you to meet, and every memory you have made together since would never have happened.
This is even more the case if you met one of us in our professional capacity. If you have ever been to one of my classes or workshops, or affiliated with one of the national Jewish organizations with which I have consulted; If you met me in the courtroom or across the negotiating table during my years as a lawyer; or if you were my coworker at any job, then it is likely that we never would have met for the simple fact that without the law that passed 30 years ago this week, it is unclear whether I could have held many of those jobs. The same could be said of any person with a disability, not because we did not work before the ADA, but because we had no right to accommodation, and could be denied a job or even terminated simply because we had a disability.
This changed 30 years ago today, when a strong coalition of disabled activists and allies, some in Congress, some outside, and one in the Oval Office, affirmed my human rights by creating my civil rights under US law. This not only enabled the life that I have led but has enabled all of society to embrace the gifts that we, the disability community, bring.
Now, the work is not yet done. Inaccessible programs and businesses abound, people with disabilities still languish in congregate care settings for lack of the funds, programs, and will necessary to integrate them into society, and the employment rate of people with disabilities is roughly the same as it was when the law was passed.
We know that laws are just a beginning. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, after which the ADA was patterned, is 56 years old, almost twice the age of the ADA, and yet we must still stand, whether in the streets or in the halls of power, against the structural racism in our society. Also, the fight for gender inequality is not done by far, and true civil rights protection for the LGBTQ+ community is in its infancy. Laws are always the beginning, rather than the end, and this is why I, along with so many colleagues, at RespectAbility and so many other places, continue to fight each day for our rights. Compelled by our Jewish values, or those of the many cultures from which we hail, we work each day at Tikkun Ha Olam, knowing that each fight is part of the unending work of repairing our broken world.
These fights by the way, are not distinct. Disability cuts across all races, genders, gender identities, sexual orientations, and ethnicities, and so there is simply no way for disability rights to be realized without each of these other fights being won as well.
These fights are unlikely to end in my lifetime. We continue the work in many different ways. One important step forward is the coalition of 47 Jewish organizations, including but not limited to the Jewish Federations of North America, The Union for Reform Judaism, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Reconstructing Judaism, Yeshivat Chovavei Torah, JWI, Keshet,, JQ International, who have come together to launch a hugely successful Disability Access and Inclusion Training Series for Jewish Organizations. This comprehensive series will be a quantum leap forward for know-how in the Jewish world, and with hundreds of attendees, either live or after the fact, we know the impact will be huge. The first 5 sessions have already occurred, and are available, along with transcripts and accessible PowerPoint presentations, at the link above. You can also register for the last 2, which will be offered live August 4 and August 11, one focusing on Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, and the final one on legal compliance.
I am excited for what we will accomplish as we continue the fight, but I recognize that tradition teaches us the importance of stopping to recognize milestones. Thus, on this occasion of the 30th anniversary of the ADA, I am tremendously grateful to the disabled legends who fought to get me where I am. Today I give thanks, to them and to God, for the miracle that made my life possible. Today, on behalf of 8 1/2-year-old Matan who knew not what was going on, I mark that moment and this one with the ancient Jewish prayer, “Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam Shecheyanu V’kiyamanu V’higiyanu Lazman Hazeh/”
Matan Koch is Director of RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership.