RE: MESSAGE FROM JOHN RUSKAY
Twenty years ago this week, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, ensuring the civil rights of citizens with disabilities. It’s remarkable to realize that as recently as 1990, there was no legislative protection for people with disabilities, no assurance that they have equal access to employment opportunities, transportation, and public services.
And while we’ve come a long way as a society, it remains a work in progress. In no small measure, the New York Jewish community has also experienced a parallel transformation when it comes to understanding and responding to the needs and aspirations of people with disabilities. In partnership with our network of beneficiary agencies, synagogues, and lay leadership, we’re continuing to make strides to open our doors wider, to make inclusion a priority, and to take the words b’tselem Elohim — the idea that each one of us is created “in the image of God” — as a sacred call to action.
We are blessed to have an extraordinary partnership with the J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation, who chose to work hand in hand with UJA-Federation and its network of agencies to help fulfill its mission “to provide support services for individuals with disabilities and their families so that they could become better integrated into their communities.” Working with UJA-Federation professionals, the foundation is at the table envisioning, planning, and implementing the transformation of our communal service system. Since 1991, it has invested more than $45 million in 250 programs in 55 UJA-Federation beneficiary agencies, from northern Westchester to Suffolk County, the vast majority of which have been for programs for people with disabilities. As but one example, the Consortia for Learning and Service to Special Populations (CLASSP) is an initiative that recruits and deploys teens to work with children with special needs. It began at nine agencies in Queens and Long Island and has been so successful it’s been extended to Westchester, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and this fall is coming to Manhattan and the Bronx.
Twenty years ago, few could have predicted that autism would emerge as such a pressing communal priority. With funding from the Butler Foundation, and the guidance of our Caring Commission and government relations, a study on autism in New York’s Jewish community was commissioned that informed our work in this area. As a result, for the last four years, the Caring Commission has invested $1 million annually in supporting programs at 15 agencies that provide programs for individuals on the autism spectrum and their families. UJA-Federation also supports an annual national conference on autism through the generous support of the Hilibrand Foundation. Over the last three years, our government relations efforts have helped secure approximately $4 million in state and city funding to support programs at UJA-Federation beneficiary agencies.
Not only are service systems being created, but at the same time we are opening the hearts and minds of members of the Jewish community. For the past two years, our Shabbat of Inclusion initiative has helped synagogues learn how to be more welcoming and accessible, with many synagogues creating inclusion committees to take this to the next level.
When we first started this work, some did not believe the need existed. But we built it, and they came. We estimate that today 13,000 people with special needs or disabilities are served by agencies throughout our network. And there is still so much to do — our work continues.
This week, let’s pause and appreciate how far we’ve come these last 20 years as a community and as a society to respond to the needs of people living with developmental, physical, learning, or emotional disabilities. And let us commit to continue to make our communities more open, more welcoming, and more inclusive to all.