Speak Up

By Joanna Barker

“Speak up for those who cannot speak, for the rights for the unfortunate.
Speak up, judge righteously, and champion the poor and needy.”
Proverbs 31:8

As Proverbs 31:8 reminds us, we are to be advocates for those who may otherwise be marginalized by society. We must remember the lesson, “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh – All of Israel is responsible for one another.” This is something that all Jews should aim to achieve in every sphere of life. From our schools, to our family gatherings, to our synagogues and universities and beyond, this idea of responsibility for one another should be central in our lives.

Over the past few years, synagogues have recognized the need to be more inclusive and have taken important steps to better support their students and members who have a variety of disabilities. There are many congregations that have changed the way they think about inclusion, and are training their staff to better understand the needs of their members as well as creating new programming that might re-engage a family who felt that they were not welcome at or could not easily attend services. Staff and lay leaders have also recognized that, for some congregants, accessing the synagogue can be difficult physically, and improving physical accessibility has become a top priority.

While the Jewish community has made great advances in improving access for all in spiritual and educational spaces, a need also exists for advocacy for greater accessibility and inclusion in the workplace. In 2013, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 17.6 percent of persons with a disability were employed. Comparatively, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 64 percent.

The number of people who have a disability and have found meaningful employment has certainly increased over the years, thanks in part to a growing number of opportunities in our schools and communities for young adults who have disabilities to gain the skills needed, but there’s more work to be done. More and more employers have given our community members who have a disability a chance to let their talents shine. Your retail store clerk may need a few extra moments to bag your items, but she might be doing it with more care and attentiveness than all of her coworkers combined. You might be handed your sandwich or soup by a cafe employee who is working on strengthening eye contact with customers.

In a supportive and inclusive workplace, we can all be successful together, and everyone deserves a chance to be a part of such an environment. It is even more important for those who have a disability to be given the chance to advocate for themselves at work. In my own career working with adults who have disabilities, I have often found that finding one’s own voice and engaging in self-advocacy is empowering and can change the way a person experiences all aspects of his or her life.

The Jewish community is filled with businesspeople and entrepreneurs, and I am confident that many of these individuals can recall what it felt like to embark on a job search for the first time. It can be hard for many adults who have a disability to secure their first job simply because they don’t have much work experience, and some might have a visible disability that unfortunately makes them appear to be weaker candidates for certain positions. If those employers just could stand back for a moment, reflect on how they felt when turned down for jobs and say, “I want to give someone from my community a chance so that they don’t feel discouraged,” imagine what could be achieved.

Rabbi Tarfon says in the Mishnah that, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither may you desist from it.” It isn’t just one agency, one synagogue or rabbi, one employer, or one community member who is going to change the numbers and help those who have disabilities find meaningful employment. It takes everyone working together, each contributing in their own way. The right job for the right person can sometimes take time to find – that’s where the second half of Rabbi Tarfon’s message comes through – we shouldn’t give up. Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh. Next year, when we look at the statistics during Jewish Disability Awareness Month, I hope to see how much we have done together to help those who are looking for meaningful employment.

Joanna Barker works for Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) in Boston, Massachusetts as an Employment Specialist for the Transitions To Work Program. Transitions To Work is an employment program for young adults with disabilities, and is a collaboration of The Ruderman Family Foundation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and Jewish Vocational Service, with additional support from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation which explores the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community. This series coincides with Jewish Disability Awareness Month.