A Helping Hand

New legislation will fulfill the promise of the Americans With Disabilities Act

April 02, 2008|By Lynne Landsberg

I've been told that in my former life, I was an effortless multi-tasker, a fast talker and a quick thinker. I had speaking engagements across the country and composed my most powerful speeches in airplanes and taxis. In that former life, I was Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, then the Union of Reform Judaism's director for the mid-Atlantic region, including Maryland.

I am still Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, but the rest has changed.

In 1999, I suffered a traumatic brain injury when my Jeep Cherokee skidded on a patch of black ice and wrapped around a tree. When I slowly awoke from a six-week coma, I was unable to remember how to live. Through years of intensive rehabilitation, I relearned how to walk, talk, concentrate and more. Now, I walk with a cane, speak slowly and require assistance with minor tasks.

Before my brain injury, I belonged to one minority that was strong and articulate - the American Jewish community. Now, I belong to a second minority that is daily the victim of discrimination yet remains largely powerless and barely heard: people with disabilities.

I began to identify with this second minority when I spent a year in a wheelchair. In restaurants, waiters invariably asked my husband what I wanted to order, incorrectly assuming that I could not read the menu or make decisions for myself. Even now, when I walk into meetings, social situations and commercial establishments with a cane, people often ignore me.

I shudder to think what job interviews must be like for others with disabilities. Even with resumes that indicate they are qualified for the job, they must convince employers that the discomfort disability engenders will not impede their work ethic. Unfortunately, thousands of Americans face unconscionable acts of disability-related discrimination in the workplace every day.

Since the original Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990, courts' narrow interpretations of the bill have eroded these civil rights. Nineteen of the Supreme Court's rulings involving the ADA, for example, depart from the bill's core principles and objectives, resulting in unfair outcomes that sanction, rather than remedy, even the most egregious employment discrimination.

Our courts have created an inescapable Catch-22, ruling that many individuals are "too disabled" to work but "not disabled enough" to be protected by the ADA. As a result, people with conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis are often denied protection from employment discrimination.

For example, Nebraska pharmacist Stephen Orr testified at a recent congressional hearing that he was fired from his job in a Wal-Mart pharmacy as a result of his Type 1 diabetes. Mr. Orr needed a quiet area where he could give himself insulin shots during his lunch break at the same time every day to keep his blood sugar regular and balanced. But new management decided the arrangement was unacceptable. As a result, Mr. Orr became dangerously hypoglycemic on the job and was fired.

The ADA Restoration Act of 2007 would close loopholes in the existing ADA to protect people like Mr. Orr, ensuring comprehensive civil rights protections the 1990 bill was intended to provide. The restored ADA would clearly define "disability" to cover any individual with a real or perceived physical or mental impairment or a history of one.

Fortunately, the bill enjoys bipartisan support. It is crucial that it reach President Bush's desk before the end of this Congress. Victims of disability discrimination need our help now.

The Talmud teaches that synagogues should be built with windows in the sanctuary. This is to ensure that we can see who is outside and unable to join us. We must also install "mental windows" to help us understand that those whom we refer to as "shut-ins" are not shut in - they are cruelly shut out of the lives many of us take for granted.

My greatest wish is to take what I've learned from my own experience to summon a call to the entire religious community to break down the physical, communicative and attitudinal barriers that face people with disabilities. These people continue to need our political advocacy.

Together, we must encourage Congress to recognize that people with disabilities are human beings with full civil rights who want to work, support their families and live their lives to the fullest.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is a leading advocate for people with disabilities within the Jewish community at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Her e-mail is llandsberg@rac.org.

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