Itzhak Perlman, Rep. Jamie Raskin and a blind rabbi highlight the need for disability advocacy

Larry Luxner

When Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1963, he performed while seated — a consequence of the polio that left him unable to walk without leg braces or crutches since age 4.

“I got a standing ovation, but The New York Times reviewer wasn’t sure if that was because of the way I played or because of the fact I was sitting down while playing,” recalled Perlman, now 75. “That thing followed me for two or three years. Then people got used to me and they stopped talking about it.”

The renowned musician and conductor — the winner of 16 Grammy Awards, four Emmys and the Presidential Medal of Freedom — spoke of his experience at a recent online panel organized as part of Jewish Disability Advocacy Month.

Perlman was joined by a young synagogue pianist from New Jersey with autism, a Chicago elementary school teacher who has multiple sclerosis, a blind rabbi and three influential members of Congress, among others.

The event was organized by the Jewish Federations of North America as a kickoff for 50 planned online events this month to highlight disability awareness and advocacy ranging from “Israel’s Disability Trailblazers” to “Making the World More Accessible During COVID.”

“One in four adults in this country has a disability. That means inclusive communities aren’t just something that would be nice to have, they’re essential to ensuring the future of our Jewish community,” Mark Wilf, chair of the Jewish Federations’ board of trustees, said at the Feb. 3 event. “Given how few in number we are as a people, we need to make sure that we’re pursing every avenue available to engage as many Jews as possible.”

One of those Jews is Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, 35, who was ordained in 2018 by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary as the world’s first blind female rabbi. A resident of the Washington, D.C., area, she speaks often about disability inclusion.

“The Torah teaches us that we all stood outside Sinai collectively and received the Ten Commandments. This is one of the most important — if not the most important — foundational events in our collective experience as a Jewish people,” Tuchman said.

She began reading at age 2, used a Braille embosser in rabbinical school, and today employs a variety of software apps to help her read and study.

“Though we still live in a world with many barriers,” Tuchman said, “with a lot of discrimination and challenges — particularly in this past year of unparalleled challenge — ours is a tradition that commands us to always make sure we are including everyone, and that we’re doing all we can to break down those barriers that preclude us from creating a society in which all of us can thrive.”

Shayla Rosen, 35, is a first-grade teacher at Chicago’s Oriole Park School and a cabinet member of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. In 2009, doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis — a debilitating disease that’s not always apparent to outsiders.

“I’ve always said I have an invisible illness,” she said at the event. “There are times when things are a struggle, and I’ve learned to hide it well.”

Perlman explained how it’s often the person with disabilities who is treated as invisible.

“I used to go to the airport in a wheelchair. Right now, I’m in a scooter because I don’t walk quite as I used to,” Perlman said. “But people still look at you sitting in a chair, and for some reason they stop talking to you, and instead they talk to the person with you. For example, at the airport, the person behind the counter would ask, ‘Where is he going?’ It’s always the case.”

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, transportation and all places open to the general public.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House majority leader who sponsored passage of the ADA in 1990, described the landmark legislation during the event last week as “a grand instrument of tikkun olam,” repairing the world, because it changed the way Americans viewed their neighbors whose physical abilities differed from their own.

Thanks to the ADA, Hoyer said, crosswalks with audible guides and ramps are now taken for granted. New buildings are required to have elevators. Wheelchair-accessible ramps are standard at public buildings.

But full equality remains elusive. With a disability-friendly administration now in the White House, Hoyer said, “Now is exactly the time for the disability advocacy community to carry forth the fight full inclusion, access and equality.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., whose 25-year-old son, Tommy, committed suicide Dec. 31 after a lifelong battle with depression, said the issue of disabilities is particularly close to his heart.

“There are tens of millions of people who have different kinds of disabilities — whether they’re physical or mental — and we want a society that is open for everybody, and that promotes everybody’s success and best health,” said Raskin, thanking the Jewish Federations for its advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“Your work is more critical than ever,” he said. “There’s going to be lobbying around telehealth and making sure that’s part of the solution. Consider me a close partner.”

Fellow Jewish lawmaker Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., said she left her work as a pediatrician to go into politics in 2017 “because I wanted everybody to be able to afford health care.”

Among other things, Schrier said she’s pushing for the next stimulus package now being debated in Congress to include greater insurance coverage for telemedicine, as well as more funding for nutritional programs that benefit low-income Americans.

“Many of my patients have disabilities of one sort or another. But the reason I’m here is to go to bat for people who need a hand — whether that’s a mom with two kids trying to get by on one job or a child who needs special education,” Schrier told Darcy Hirsh, the Jewish Federations’ director of government affairs.

“This is a time of really unprecedented need in our country. Supporting advocacy work for people with disabilities just makes sense to somebody who’s a mother, a pediatrician, a member of Congress and frankly as a Jew who sees the humanity in everyone.”

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