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National Disability Employment Awareness Month: Civil rights in the workplace

National Disability Employment Awareness Month: Civil rights in the workplace

The Department of Labor's 2017 National Disability Employment Awareness Month poster. A ribbon shows various people with disabilities at work under a title which reads "Inclusion Drives Innovation"

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and an important time to reflect on the barriers people with disabilities face when trying to find employment. We know the problem is severe: 27.7 percent of people with a disability between the ages of 16 and 64 were employed in 2016 in contrast with 72.8 percent of same age cohort without a disability. People with disabilities face discrimination from employers, and often are so discouraged by discrimination in the hiring process that they stop looking for work altogether. While discrimination can only be solved by changing our culture, strong advocacy from the disability rights community has helped win important legal protections.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are prohibited from discriminating against job candidates or employees on the basis of a disability. The ADA also mandates that employers make ‘reasonable accommodations’ to enable employees with disabilities to do their jobs. This includes simple and easy fixes like making sure the workplace is physically accessible to employees with a mobility disability, adding screen magnifiers and auditory cues for employees with a vision disability, allowing for a non-standard work schedule to accommodate medical treatments, or modifying training procedures so an employee with a learning disability can learn the training they need for their job.

Our Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of enabling success for everyone in the workplace by providing reasonable accommodations. One of the greatest leaders in the Jewish imagination, Moses, had a speaking impediment. God, upon hiring Moses to lead the Israelites, assigns Aaron to help Moses communicate, providing an accommodation so Moses’s incredible leadership skills could be properly utilized. As we work on the larger project of changing our culture to reject discrimination against people with disabilities, we rely on robust civil rights laws like the ADA to ensure people with disabilities can enter the workplace and otherwise be included in society.

While discrimination makes it difficult for many people with disabilities to find employment, we know that people with more education are more likely to be employed and are able to get better paying jobs, a trend that holds true regardless of if someone has a disability. That’s why we were disappointed with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s decision  on October 2, 2017 to abruptly rescind 72 guidance documents outlining how to serve students with disabilities in schools. These documents are important in helping schools educate students with disabilities and helping students with disabilities navigate exactly what services they are entitled to and how to access them. While no policy has changed because of this decision, the sudden removal of these documents without properly altering the greater disability rights community has sown harmful confusion. Making sure that people with disabilities get the quality education they deserve is important to increasing job prospects, and is also incumbent upon us because of our Jewish values regarding education for all people: Mishnah Pe’ah speaks to the importance of education by positing that study is equivalent to honoring one's father and mother, acts of kindness, and bringing peace between a person and their friend (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1).

To find out more about how jobs at your synagogue can be properly accessible and how your synagogue’s education programs can be more inclusive, I encourage you to explore our online URJ-Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center. You can also urge your elected representatives not to gut disability rights by opposing the ADA Education and Reform Act.  Lastly, I encourage you to register for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, a chance for Jews with disabilities and their allies to advocate for disability rights in Congress.

Jonah Baskin is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. A native of Denver, he recently graduated with honors from the University of Chicago with degrees in public policy and environmental studies. Jonah served as president of the university’s Jewish Students’ Association and as the social justice chair on the Hillel board.

Jonah Baskin