I whispered a prayer, the traditional blessing upon seeing a rainbow.
Which translates to “Blessed are You, Source of Life, who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in their covenant, and fulfills their word.” I was drawn to the image of a rainbow, because I imagined the relief that Noah felt upon seeing that sign, the reassurance that creation would not be wiped out.
I felt nothing less than awe as I encountered the vaccination operation underway at the convention center — deep respect for the creativity and tenacity of humanity to create cures and manage the mind boggling task of distribution!
I signed up for an appointment immediately upon learning that clergy were eligible. After all, we are called to be close to people, in particular in times of sickness and death. But as my car inched forward in line, my gratitude turned to concern. I had to ask myself: Was it fair? Should I have access to a vaccine before others?
When it comes to questions of access, I turn to my friends at Detroit Disability Power, a disability justice organization that works to build the political power of Detroit’s disability community. And indeed, they were coordinating a campaign demanding immediate vaccinations for people with disabilities.
Dessa Cosma, their Executive Director, explained:
We know that people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The World Health Organization warned us of this back in March and we know that disabled people face inequities that place us at a higher risk.”
She points to a study from Fair Health Inc. showing that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the rest of the population, and one from the Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrating that people with Down syndrome are 10 times more likely.
Often, it takes community pressure to force our elected officials to pay attention to the data. As a result of creative and persistent advocacy, activists celebrated a huge victory as Detroit announced an updated policy prioritizing vaccinations for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Jeffrey Nolish, policy director for Detroit Disability Power, said “this has the potential to protect tens of thousands of disabled lives. With Detroit leading, we hope more cities, counties and the State of Michigan follow suit.”
And the state of Michigan did. On March 12th, the state announced that they would be expanding eligibility to all Michiganders over the age of 19 with a disability starting March 22. This is yet another major victory and without a doubt the result of DDP’s persistent organizing. They are now turning their sights to making sure that this statewide rollout happens in an equitable and accessible way.
There are lots of open questions around how to get eligibility information out to people with disabilities, how to make the vaccine sites accessible, how to get vaccines to people who lack transportation and how to coordinate the vaccination of thousands of people with disabilities on such a short timeline. The state has demonstrated that they don’t have much in the way of a plan to address these questions, so Detroit Disability Power and their coalition members are taking it upon themselves to make recommendations and demand answers.
My theology requires that I ask the question: how can we, as the hands of God on this earth, embody the divinity that we imagine? Perhaps the blessing for seeing a rainbow provides a roadmap: we must remember our promise, be faithful to our promise, and fulfill our promise.
And what is that promise? Our continued striving towards a city, region and society where nobody is disposable — where people of all abilities are treated as sacred.
Thank you, Detroit Disability Power, for helping us keep that promise.
Rabbi Alana Alpert is the Founding Director of Detroit Jews for Justice.