Liberty, Justice, and Inclusion for All

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, intended to help the Jewish community intensify its ongoing efforts to include persons with disabilities fully in Jewish communal life. That means ensuring that our social agencies embrace persons with disability with suitable programs and assistance, that our schools accommodate children with disabilities, including learning disabilities, and that our places of worship are welcoming, inclusive, and accessible. On February 25, the fifth Jewish Disability Advocacy Day will be convened in Washington for just those purposes and more. Co-sponsored by nineteen Jewish organizations involved in disability issues, including NCJW, the day will focus on advocacy and issues training and visits with key policy makers and members of Congress. Highlighted issues include maintaining funding for needed social services and income support programs as well as efforts to address the special needs of both children and adults with disabilities.

To the National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Disability Awareness Month also means ensuring that our own advocacy includes issues of concern to persons with disabilities and their families. Today, one of the bedrock programs supporting those coping with disabilities, Social Security Disability Insurance, is in jeopardy. The Disability Insurance trust fund will be unable to pay full disability benefits as early as 2016, according to the fund's trustees. Almost 11 million individuals depend directly on disability benefits from social security, collecting $1,146 each month on average ($1,943 for a disabled worker with spouse and child). These recipients need the funding shortfall addressed or their benefits will be reduced. Some in Congress have proposed legislation that would modify how payroll taxes are allocated between Social Security (old-age benefits) and the Disability Insurance fund in order to maintain the solvency of both.

But Social Security Disability Insurance has been the target of a sneak attack in Congress before any remedial legislation is even considered. When the House of Representatives adopted its rules at the beginning of the 114th Congress, it included a provision that would make it more difficult to sustain the Social Security disability benefit provided to those with disabilities. The disability program is little known to the general public, but it is crucial to enabling its beneficiaries to maintain an adequate standard of living.

To help those with disabilities lead a dignified and productive life, we have to get into the weeds of federal legislation and policy and make sure our congressional representatives know that we also care about this issue. Come election time, nearly every one running for office will claim to be a stalwart supporter of Social Security. We need to know who has been part of the solution and who has been part of the problem. Contact your representatives and senators and find out where he or she stands on ways to maintain the Disability Insurance Trust Fund.

Support is also needed on another bill introduced last year and sure to be re-introduced this year as well. The Health Equity and Accountability Act (HEAA) is designed to provide a comprehensive approach to reduce disparities in health care access and outcomes. HEAA builds on the progress made by the Affordable Care Act by bringing to bear federal resources, policies, and infrastructure to reach underserved populations. While its primary focus is on racial and ethnic minorities, it also seeks to assist those facing additional barriers to access based on such factors as immigration status, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and English proficiency.

Ensuring the survival of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and passage of a new law on health equity are but two examples that demand our advocacy this month and throughout the 114th Congress. NCJW's work is inspired by Jewish values - values that incorporate the need for service, but also the need to speak out on behalf of justice and the powerless. As we work in our lives and in our communities to be open to those with disabilities and to ensure the inclusion of all, we are also commanded to raise our voices on behalf of justice. Our advocacy can improve the lives of millions in practical ways, just as we lift up each individual, one at a time, in our own daily life.