On Wednesday, February 24, thirty representatives from the Yachad/NJCD, the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities, traveled to Washington DC to meet with legislators as part of NAIM – North American Inclusion Month – to promote the modification and passage of four pressing bills that directly affect the quality of life of our community’s special needs population and to facilitate their inclusion into the general Jewish community. Even prior to the trip, Congress had already passed a resolution commending NAIM.
“This is a beginning for a new effort for us,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, National Director of Yachad/NJCD. “The primary purpose of the mission is to connect with key movers and shakers to help them understand what the needs of the disability community are and why it is so vital to respond to them. We’re here to tell government that we will take care of our community, but we need its help with tax incentives for jobs for a population suffering from 80 percent unemployment, to make sure special education is funded, and that the right education is being provided.”
The Yachad/NJCD advocates travelled from the New York Tri-state area, as well as from Chicago and New Haven, CT, and included Yachad staff and chairman; Yachad members, parents, and high school volunteers. “When I was told about the mission, I knew I needed to go,” says Samantha Barth, 18, from Fairlawn, NJ, chairman of the Yachad Youth Council. “I wanted the congressmen to see that I’m taking time off from school because this is something I’m passionate about. I believe just being there and showing that you care makes a difference.”
“This mission was an appropriate follow-up to the successful passage of the Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY) Congressional resolution recognizing February as North American Inclusion month,” declared Maury Litwack, Deputy Director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) in Washington. “The IPA was pleased to introduce Yachad to long-time friends of the Orthodox community, including Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Representatives Joe Wilson (R-SC), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), and Scott Garrett (R-NJ). “
The NAIM mission members received immediate feedback from a number of the legislators. “Since our meeting my boss, Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ), has agreed to sign on to the ABLE Act,” writes Mandy Spears, Health Policy Advisor. “We are still reviewing the Community Choice Act. I have referred the IDEA legislation to our education staffer, Arthur Mandell, and the Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act passed the House of Representatives this week; my boss was proud to support it.”
“I appreciate your coming,” said Michaeleen Crowell, Legislative Director for Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). “Congressman Lewis will view this as a civil-rights issue and take it very seriously. I’m glad to have this brought to my attention and I’ll bring it to his.” Justin Harlem, legislative assistant to Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), asked Yachad to provide a model of a company that hires individuals with special needs for review. After assuring the group that he would read the bills carefully, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL) stressed, “There is no more noble cause.”
The IPA identified the pending legislation, which includes:
• (Asking for modification of) the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): “When this legislation began, the government made a commitment to fund special education,” says Dr. Lichtman. “They funded 40 percent and it has not been increased. Another problem with the legislation in its current form, the school districts responsible for special educational services are determined by where the school is located, rather than where the child resides. If I live in West Orange, NJ, and my child attends a school in Livingston, NJ, if he or she is not receiving the services needed, Livingston has no accountability to me; my voting power is in West Orange. It needs to be changed so that the whole school district bears responsibility for the education of every child.
• (Encouraging support for) the ABLE Act — Allows families that have a child with disabilities to create a trust account for their special needs child’s care, without worrying about a tax burden. This is especially vital as parents age and are unable to take care of them.
• (Encouraging support for) Community Choice Act– Thousands of individuals are waiting to get beds in group residences. Consequently, families have to hire home aides for children or adults who require constant care. This bill gives them more options to receive help in the way of home aides; the attendant can also be a family member qualified to provide the services.
• (Encouraging support for) Preventing Harmful Restraint and Seclusion in Schools Act –Prohibits elementary and secondary school personnel from using mechanical or chemical or physical restraint that compromises student health and safety. Schools would be required to establish procedures to notify parents in a timely manner if physical restraint or seclusion is called for.