Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

A Stumbling Block

So, there’s a joke that’s funny to rabbis and cantors (and almost no one else!) that their favorite day is Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new month) Cheshvan, the first day of the second month of the Jewish calendar year. Why? Because Cheshvan has no holidays–finally, a break!

Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan is on Saturday. 🙂 Not that I haven’t been or won’t be busy. Just that, you know, it’s a little bit lighter of a schedule in theory.

More seriously: presently the US social and political system is in a state of ongoing chaos, and it’s definitely the case that there are so many serious issues to address in an urgent manner that you can experience decision fatigue just trying to figure out where to place your efforts, or you can spend your time jumping from issue to issue and gaining little traction. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I have another issue for you to be aware of.

Let’s talk about stumbling blocks.

Leviticus 19:14 conveys as a law for Israelites, “and before the blind (Heb. v’lifnei ivver) do not put a stumbling block.” Thus, in Jewish tradition, this principle is called lifnei ivver. The rabbinic tradition takes this principle and expands it beyond its literal meaning to include cases of deception based on bad information. Rashi explains lifnei ivver to mean that one should not put a stumbling block “before the person who is blind with respect to the [particular] matter: do not give him improper advice. Do not say, sell me your land and take for yourself an ass: for you are skirting around him and taking it [the field] from him.” In a sense, then, the rabbinic tradition regarded the plain sense of lifnei ivver as being completely obvious. Of course you don’t put a stumbling block before someone who is actually blind; the Torah doesn’t bother with the completely obvious stuff. It must, they thought, mean something deeper.

And now, let’s talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Enacted during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the law placed affirmative obligations upon (among others) places of public accommodation to ensure that their premises and services were accessible to individuals with various forms of disability. This was to be done by means of “reasonable accommodation.” Heaven and earth need not be moved, but reasonable steps must be taken to ensure access.

How does one make sure this happens, since the federal government wasn’t going to send out inspectors to measure ramps, assess sound levels, test gas pumps, etc.? One of the enforcement mechanisms in the ADA permits lawsuits by individuals affected by the failure to provide reasonable accommodation. The fact of inaccessibility, together with proof that there were no reasonable accommodations made, is enough to succeed in many of these cases. The ADA permits the payment of attorney fees for the plaintiff who succeeds in such cases, but otherwise no damages are assessed; instead, the business is required by the court to remedy the situation.

But that was 1990, and this is 2017.

This year, Representative Poe (TX), with several others, has introduced H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. (See bill details here.) I’ve read it so that you don’t have to. It would amend the ADA to bar a lawsuit unless notice has been provided and a fixed period of time (60 days after notice for a reply, plus another 60 days for implementation of an accommodation) has passed without compliance by the possible defendant.

Understand precisely what this does. This kills an enforcement mechanism of the 1990 law.

“Why?,” one might ask. “After all, it’s giving the business a chance to fix the problem.”

Here is what the notice must be: “written notice specific enough to allow such owner or operator to identify the barrier.” And from the date of the notice, the owner or operator can’t be sued unless they “fail to provide [within 60 days of the notice] … a written description outlining improvements that will be made to remove the barrier,” or “fail[] to remove the barrier or to make substantial progress in removing the barrier” within 120 days after the notice.

Questions to ask:

  • How specific is specific enough? What does “identify” mean? What does “barrier” mean? (In case you’re wondering, the law doesn’t actually define “barrier,” and ordinarily uses “barrier” in conjunction with physical or institutional features of premises.)
  • What kind of description outlines improvements? Is a written statement of, “Yeah, we’ll take care of that” enough? What does “outlining” mean?
  • What is “substantial progress”? And if you start, do you have to finish? Or can you point to your progress and stop there?

So, let’s sum up: your average person is not going to be able to meet a lot of these requirements. They need a lawyer to make that happen in many cases.

Lawyers usually want to get paid so they and their families can eat. Under the ADA, the lawyer gets paid in a successful suit or – only if the client has money – because the client pays out of pocket.

And now, here are hundreds, and maybe thousands of dollars of legal work that has to be done on spec, because lots of persons with disabilities don’t have money to pay a lawyer.

So, we have 1) delays, 2) inability to hire lawyers, and 3) a law drafted so poorly that maybe nothing ever really has to be fixed.

In any case, I think Sen. Tammy Duckworth has it right:

This offensive legislation would segregate the disability community, making it the only protected class under civil rights law that must rely on “education” — rather than strong enforcement — to guarantee access to public spaces.

Take the time to read her op-ed, as she explains how unnoticeable differences become stumbling blocks that she didn’t recognize and never would have – until she herself became a person with a disability.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and legislators who no doubt parade their adherence to “biblical principles” are sponsors of this bill. Rep. Poe, the principal sponsor, “is a student of the Bible, and loves the Old Testament.”

Leviticus 19:14 is in “the Old Testament.” Perhaps Rep. Poe forgot? Or perhaps Rep. Poe and others care more about business’s desires than individual persons’ needs.

What can you do? You can contact your representatives and the members of the House Judiciary Committee and, if you oppose this bill, let them know.

And there you go: no break for Cheshvan.

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Interior photo of the synagogue in Oni, Georia; facing wooden pews in multiple rows, ornate columns, and a raised dais.

Everyone Belongs Here

Though he published it a couple of years ago now, for some reason I only recently encountered Rabbi Menahem Creditor’s article at Huffington Post entitled “Children in the Sanctuary.” Rabbi Creditor’s article reflects on occasions when he observed a child crying or making noise in a synagogue service. On several occasions, Rabbi Creditor observed a congregant telling a child’s parent that the child should be removed and saying, “‘perhaps your child doesn’t belong in synagogue.'” He calls these “the least synagogue-ish” words he has ever heard.

He’s right. But it’s not only children.

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Photo of an ancient cobblestone road

Cane-Users Need Not Apply

Civilization, writ large, has a complicated history when it comes to dealing with neurodiversity, disability, poverty, and any number of other perceived differences.

Photo of an ancient cobblestone road

Ancient cobblestone road: stumbling blocks?

Indiana hasn’t always been at the forefront of advancement in these areas: it was the first U.S. state to enact a eugenics law calling for the forced sterilization of certain persons, on the notion that poverty, criminality, and other perceived defects were a result of genetics. On the other hand, in 1921 the Indiana Supreme Court struck the 1907 law, even as in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court would say such laws were permissible under the federal Constitution, in part on the conclusion that “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 207 (1927).

Jewish culture is no exception to such problems. This week’s Torah portion, parshat Emor, gives us a not-too-subtle reminder of that.

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Talking About Difference – Another One for #JDAM

Turns out, Jewish Disability Awareness Month is a whole month. You didn’t think I would let up, did you? (And since I’m apparently the loudest voice in Indianapolis about JDAM, I guess I’ve got to talk a bit more in any case.)

This past weekend, I spoke at Sunday Assembly Indianapolis about neurodiversity and ableism. (I spoke mostly about neurodiversity.) I’d post the Keynote presentation itself, but 1) I think it still needs work, 2) I want to make sure I’ve got appropriate photo credits in it before posting it, and 3) I’m not a “put everything you’re going to say into the presentation slides” person, because that’s straight-up bad presentation design–see #8 on this list–and that means the slides are actually not particularly useful.

So instead of the presentation slides, you get more of my jawing on at length on the blog! Let’s start at the beginning: how do we talk about difference?

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Jewish Disability Awareness Month in Y(our) Community

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM). I’ve blogged about it before here, here, and here. And now, right here.

(If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you’ve possibly already seen some of what’s about to follow. Sorry about that.)

I decided that I wanted to see if I could find any JDAM-related events happening in Indianapolis, so I did what any person these days would: I hit up Google for information. That led to an interesting result: the first five results in Google point to this blog.

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A Simple Kind of Man

This week is, as far as I’m concerned, momentous. The Torah portion under the traditional reading cycle brings us to Parshat Toledot, which marks the Torah’s transition in Genesis to narrating stories of Abraham and Isaac to the stories of Jacob.

That’s not what makes it momentous to me. Rather (and here I let slip my age), twenty-five years ago, I chanted part of this parashah at my bar mitzvah. At the time, I could chant the Hebrew from memory but didn’t understand it; now, I can understand the Hebrew but I don’t remember the tune.

You didn’t come here to stroll down Memory Lane with me, though. Instead, I’ve got a d’rash for you involving the story of Jacob and Esau.

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A Stumbling Block

I mentioned in an earlier post that I follow the Jewish Special Needs Education blog. That blog invokes the phrase, “removing the stumbling block,” a reference to the traditional commandment of lifnei iver from Leviticus 19:14, which warns not to place a stumbling block before the blind. This is interpreted, in traditional rabbinic law, to require something far beyond not causing blind persons to trip. (The rabbis viewed this as obvious without the biblical text commanding otherwise.) Rather, the text was interpreted to mean that one should not take an action that would cause someone else to sin, often by giving bad advice.

Friedman, in her blog’s title, means it somewhat more literally: removing from the paths of those with differing levels of need the obstacles to participation in Jewish life and education. While I appreciate the metaphor, I find it troubling. Continue reading

We’re MASS Communicatin’!

Well, the hiatus didn’t last as long as I thought.

One of the topics that we addressed during the philosophic counseling class was that of special needs children, a subject near and dear to my heart. (I know you’re not reading, but, “Hi, Secular Jew, Jr.”!) Since I spend a lot of time thinking about those issues, it was good to have someone else talk about them–being inside a conversation makes you forget what it looks like from the outside. Continue reading

Of Pills and Panic

It’s astonishing just how finely tuned our brains are–and how small changes in what goes into our brains can change so much about how and who we are.

Back in late April and much of May, Secular Jew, Jr. (“SJJ”) was hospitalized twice in pediatric “stress center” units. “Stress center” is the euphemism du jour for temporary place to put people with acute psychiatric symptoms that cannot be managed at home and that may be resolvable without permanent institutionalization, usually due to substance abuse or severe depression. SJJ is not yet even a preteen, and most of the kids in these units were teenagers, so these were really very extreme places for SJJ to be. But after two stays, in the course of less than a month, the issues SJJ was experiencing seem to have boiled down to medication issues; medications were removed, SJJ stabilized, and things seemed pretty okay.

Until yesterday. Continue reading

The Child Who Can’t Ask

Just to have a rhetorical pivot point, I’ll rely on the trope that comes up in so much Jewish literature about individuals with special needs: we have to address Judaism to those who don’t yet know how to ask.

I know, I know, it’s hackneyed by now to keep going back to the four children of the Passover Seder. I did it anyway. But I do so with a particular point I want to make–namely, that liberal Judaism is far too verbal. Continue reading