Posted July 23, 2015 in Articles
Author: Ed Wittenberg
As the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act approaches, it’s difficult for Heidi Solomon to imagine what it would be like for participants in the Horvitz YouthAbility program of the Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland had the law not taken effect.
“It allows our group to be fully integrated within the community,” said Solomon, who has served as coordinator of the program since 2005. “We are so fortunate. I am so used to our group being treated with respect and included and people reaching out to include us. I’m so grateful for these opportunities.”
The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.
The act requires covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.
“Not only do we have the opportunity to participate in activities, but we also have the opportunity to help,” Solomon said. “We do a significant amount of volunteering. We are really service providers, which is so exciting.
“ADA laid the framework for that. I think it’s really a privilege that we get to help the community.”
The YouthAbility program empowers disabled and at-risk youth by engaging them in volunteerism. Participants are primarily from Greater Cleveland and range in age from about 14 to 26, Solomon said.
Rena Wertheim, program administrator for Friendship Circle of Cleveland, said the ADA has impacted Friendship Circle and the broader community by heightening the awareness of people with disabilities and their needs.
“Our entire facility is totally accessible, including the bathrooms and all of our programming areas,” she said. “Everything is on one floor, so all participants have ready access to all aspects of the program.”
Founded in 2003, Friendship Circle seeks to reach out to families of students with special needs to provide social opportunities and friendships through the use of teen volunteers. The organization, led by executive director Rabbi Yossi Marozov, has been in the former Congregation Bethaynu building in Pepper Pike since 2011.
“The place where the bimah was in the sanctuary has a ramp and is accessible, so it can be used as a stage or a play area or an area for music classes,” Wertheim said. “It’s totally accessible for any children who have a physical challenge.”
Wertheim, who previously worked as a special education supervisor for the Educational Service Center of Cuyahoga County in Independence, said another way the ADA has made a difference for teenagers and young adults is in the employment area.
“Employers are more receptive to hiring people who have disabilities and more accepting in the workplace,” she said. “They are willing to make accommodations because of the ADA law.”
A place for all children
Preston’s H.O.P.E. ¬– an acronym for Helping Others Play and Enjoy – opened in 2006 as an accessible playground for children of all abilities and disabilities on the grounds of the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood. It was named after Preston Fisher, a boy who battled spinal muscular atrophy until his death in 2008.
Before the ADA was passed, a place like Preston’s H.O.P.E. would likely not have been established, said Stacie Halpern, co-chair of Preston’s H.O.P.E. with Jackie Fisher.
“Preston’s mom, Jackie, believed there should be a place where all children with or without disabilities could play together, because sometimes they get segregated,” Halpern said. “Preston’s H.O.P.E. is really nice because even a grandparent or parent in a wheelchair can bring their kids to the park because they can access it.”
A nonprofit, Preston’s H.O.P.E. is free to the community, but its board accepts donations to pay for upkeep of the playground.
Amy Kaplan, director of government relations for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, said disability issues are an important part of the advocacy agendas of the Federation and its national partner, the Jewish Federations of North America.
“The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is an important milestone,” Kaplan said. “It is both an opportunity to recognize how much more accommodating and accepting the world is today than it was a quarter-century ago, but also a reminder that there is much left to accomplish.”
People with physical and developmental disabilities still have a more difficult time finding meaningful work and housing than able-bodied people, Kaplan said.
“Accessing available government benefits is still a complex process, and our government policies still make it difficult for families to save to meet their children’s needs long-term,” she said. “Hopefully, when we celebrate the next milestone anniversary of the ADA, we will have successfully addressed these issues.”
No issues with building
Renee Higer, executive director of Temple Emanu El in Orange, said when the temple built its new facility in 2008, a committee made a conscious effort to meet the needs of older congregants and those needing handicap accessibility.
“Our old building (in University Heights), built in 1954, was very difficult for the aging congregants, and we wanted to make sure this was never an issue in the new building,” she said. “Our new building in Orange Village has a one-story floor plan.
“The bimah is the only place in the building where we have steps, but there is also ramp leading up allowing anyone to easily access the bimah. Temple Emanu El is proud to offer an ADA-compliant facility to our congregants and guests.”
The building of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike was constructed in 1979, 11 years before the ADA was passed. But Jay Ross, B’nai Jeshurun’s executive director, said the synagogue has worked over the years to accommodate all members.
“This has included simple things like having wheelchairs available for members and guests, to the more complex issue of opening up services and bimah access to those with disabilities,” he said. “A number of restrooms have been renovated to meet ADA requirements, and building entrances have been modified to ensure access.”
The renovation of the David J. Moskowitz Sanctuary in 2008 created a Torah reading table that can be adjusted to the height of members and has enabled participation in services and reading Torah, Ross said.
“The Nickman family in 2014 provided a major lead gift to renovate the Nickman Chapel, allowing wheelchair access to the bimah for our daily minyan services held in this chapel,” he said. “As times and laws change, we will continue to work with our congregation to make the building accessible to all members and guests.”
Ilana Hoffer Skoff, executive director of Milestones Autism Resources in Beachwood, said results of the ADA have been seen in recent years via encouraging community organizers to be inclusive, rather than having separate activities for individuals with disabilities.
“I think this is a remarkable advance,” she said. “Large community events, such as the Cleveland One World Festival, Parade the Circle and the JCC Triathlon, have become welcoming and accessible to the entire community.
“Given the fact that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is astronomical, the next focus of the ADA should be to ensure that individuals with disabilities are given meaningful employment opportunities. Employment builds self-esteem and independence for individuals with disabilities, and they contribute their unique strengths and talents to the workplace.”