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American disability advocates to speak at conference

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Ari Ne’eman, left, and Rabbi Ruti Regan.

When Rabbi Ruti Regan and Ari Ne’eman were married in Washington last July, they took great care to make sure that all their guests would be comfortable.

“Everybody had food they could eat … the DJ was not too loud … we made sure that the bimah and dance floor would be accessible,” Rabbi Regan recounted. “At our wedding, there was intense attention paid to accessibility, to extend a welcome to all our guests and to reflect our values.”

It’s no surprise that this couple created such a caring environment at their simcha: they are both well-known disability advocates and have disabilities themselves.

They will be the keynote speakers at Pushing the Boundaries: Disability and Inclusion and the Jewish Community, an upcoming conference that takes place from April 15 to 17 at the Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue in Toronto.

Rabbi Regan, 32, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in 2017, is the rabbinic disability scholar in residence at Matan, an American organization that educates Jewish leaders and educators on how to create learning environments that support children with disabilities.

Rabbi Regan provides ritual consulting and training for rabbis, cantors and communities in “disability-informed spiritual leadership.”

She stressed the importance increasing access for people with disabilities. “No amount of smiling replaces a ramp,” said Rabbi Regan. “Access speaks louder than words.”

But such change entails advocacy. For example, she pointed to Birthright Israel. “When the trip is not accessible, it sends a strong implicit message that when we are talking about (future) parents and spouses in the community, that we’re not thinking about people with disabilities,” she said.

Rabbi Regan said the ritual instruction, “Please rise,” may seem innocuous to many people, but it might be exclusionary to a physically disabled person. She recommends saying, “Please rise in body or spirit,” as an inclusive alternative.

“Sometimes it is necessary to interpret our tradition in ways that treat people with disabilities equally,” said Rabbi Regan.

She said there are a significant number of rabbis with disabilities who graduated from JTS and are leading these kinds of discussions. “We need people with disabilities with expertise in positions of leadership and authority,” she noted.

She said that her blog, realsocialskills.org, deals with practical, everyday issues and gives “advice on a range of social situations.”

Rabbi Regan also expressed concerns about budgetary proposals under the Trump administration that could cut Medicaid funding to people with disabilities. “We thought it would never happen here, that those things only happen in despotic Third World places,” she said.

Ne’eman, 30, is also worried about the funding proposals. He is the CEO of the online platform MySupport.com, designed to empower seniors and people with disabilities to self-direct their own services.

Most people with disabilities are supported by Medicaid, which pays for critical services, such as attendant care and supportive employment, he explained.

Ne’eman is the co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and was its president from 2006 to 2016. In 2009, he was nominated by former U.S. president Barack Obama to serve on the National Council on Disability, a federal advisory agency on disability policy.

Ne’eman graduated from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. He is currently writing a book on the history of disability in the United States, which is to be published by Simon & Schuster in 2020.

His talk at the Toronto conference will focus on disability policy.

“Over the last several decades, the increase in resources has led to a shift of people from segregated settings to integrated ones,” said Ne’eman. “We’ve seen tremendous progress, but that progress has to be defended and to grow over time.”