February 2022 Bulletin Ref1


February 2022 marks the 14th observance of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. It is a time to reflect on the important advocacy work that Jews with disabilities and their allies have done over the years to make Jewish communities more accessible. We can also consider our ethical obligations as Jews to support and advocate more broadly for people with disabilities as part of our commitment to Tikkun Olam.

For me, in my identity as a Jewish political scientist, I’m struck by the political power and leadership wielded by people with disabilities in our tradition. Jacob became physically disabled unexpectedly as an adult. He transformed from an ambitious, sly and mildly rebellious tribal leader into the patriarch Israel through his disability-inducing struggle with the Eternal. Moses, on the other hand, appears to have struggled with speech throughout his life. Yet, with the partnership and support of his brother, he was able to speak for and to the people of Israel effectively, enabling the Jews to escape from Egyptian might and survive the long sojourn in the desert, emerging as a nation. This makes a remarkable case study for my colleagues who study political communication!

These examples help us to understand the tremendous stakes involved if people with disabilities are systematically excluded from political participation and political leadership. Many members of B’nai Sholom have deeply engaged the struggle to expand voting rights and access and to push back against new efforts to make voting more difficult for certain communities. As recent research in political science shows, this agenda must include advocacy to protect and expand voting rights and political participation for people with disabilities as well.

The academic journal Policy Studies published a special issue focusing on inclusive voting practices in 2020. Scholars April Johnson and Sierra Powell contributed an article using large-scale data to analyze voting by people with disabilities, noting that previous research had demonstrated a persistent gap in voting participation. The gap has persisted despite legislative efforts to mandate accessibility across different dimensions of disability. Johnson and Powell found that, contrary to some stereotypical assumptions, people with disabilities that preclude participation in paid employment are interested in political engagement and seek ways to do so, often using web-based resources. They also found that complicated voting registration requirements have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities, and interestingly, that voting by mail can go a long way toward reducing the gap.

While much of the criticism leveled at voting restrictions in the United States targets states that systematically and legally disenfranchised Black voters in the 20th century, our home state of New York deserves serious scrutiny. In November, New York voters rejected ballot measures that would have reformed registration and absentee voting that could have improved access and participation. New York’s Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins announced in January that the Senate would take up a series of voting reforms. However, even if the proposed reforms succeed, significant work remains to address concerns about improving political incorporation and participation for people with disabilities.


Julie Novkov

B'nai Sholom Albany NY