Justice, justice shall you pursue (devarim 16:20)and do not stand by the blood of your neighbor (vaikra 19:16)
The 2018 annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill welcomed the largest group of participants in its eight year history, including some 200 professionals and lay leaders, advocates, activists, and stakeholders from Jewish organizations and diverse communities from around the United States in order to advocate with, on behalf of, and for individuals with disabilities.
This full day of events included the opportunity for attendees to learn about relevant public policy issues and raise awareness about different programs for people with disabilities and their families. Amongst the many presenters were representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Disability Committee, the Ruderman Family, government administrators, disability policy and legislative affairs advisors, disability support CEO’s and religious action directors. Particularly enlightening discussions included the panel discussion, entitled Year 1 of the Trump Administration: Where Do We Go From Here?
Presentations on this year’s JDAD advocacy issues: Undermining Medicaid: Its Impact on People with Disabilities and Supporting Special Education Funding with the IDEA Full Funding Act helped to better inform all as we prepared to advocate with Congressional House Representatives later in the day. Being provided with a strong background and key points of each issue and demystifying the experience of lobbying went a long way to calm the stress that can sometimes accompany the opportunity to speak to government officials.
JFS will post more of this information on the website but to summarize, block grants or caps to the Medicaid system would jeopardize access to critical services for millions of vulnerable Americans with disabilities. Many people do not realize that Medicaid not only covers health costs, but is instrumental for providing other services that are vital to well-being such as community based services which allow people with disabilities to live in the community rather than being institutionalized. Not only is this a more fiscally responsible way to handle public funds, it is a moral imperative. Also, if Federal block grants/caps are implemented, States will be forced to cut services and this means that there will be significant job losses among health care, long-term care, and social service workers.
Regarding the Full Funding of IDEA Act (H.R, 2902), while Congress promised to provide 40% of special education costs to States when the IDEA was passed (1975), currently that support is at the 15% level. This underfunding is a critical challenge for school systems and means that students receive less support then they require to make progress. This is a problem that will only intensify with time as the numbers of children with special needs increases; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014 found that the rate of Autism among children to be 1 in 68 compared to 1 in 150 in 2000. Other advances in medical care have helped children survive that otherwise would not, and many may require special education in order to thrive.
Throughout the afternoon, visits were made by key Representatives and Senators who felt compelled to share their own stories and express their support for the rights of people with disabilities. These speakers included, among others, Chris Van Holland (D-MD), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (D-FL), Pete Sessions (R-TX). All of these speakers emphasized that they felt that disability-related issues remained one of the areas where bi-partisan work remained a real and robust possibility. As stated by Ms. McMorris Rodgers, the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome, “the disability community is the one community that celebrates what everyone has to offer” and as stated by Ms. Duckworth, herself a person living with disability, “these needs are not just about a wheelchair ramp, it’s about living your whole life.”
In the afternoon, we took to the halls of Congress armed with statistics, history, lived experience, and professional insight. Twenty-two groups of JDAD participates sat down in the offices of 18 state Representatives, introducing ourselves to legislative staff and making our cases, both individually and collectively. During these intense and meaningful visits, one could not ignore the frequent blinking and buzzing of the Congressional Capitol clock lights, suggesting that votes were taking place; we were, after all, two days away from another possible government shut-down as Congress wrestled with trying to agree on how to fund Federal government.