Meet Marissa: Advocating for an Inclusive Jewish Community

Meet Marissa: Advocating for an Inclusive Jewish Community

Marissa Ditkowsky, a member of Federation’s Disability Inclusion Committee and 2022 Capital Chai honoree, is a disabled advocate and attorney currently serving as Disability Economic Justice Counsel at the National Partnership for Women & Families. Previously, Marissa led the Disabilities Community Project at Federation partner, Tzedek DC, and continues to volunteer and hold leadership positions for national organizations working on behalf of disabled legal professionals. She is also a member of the Disability Rights Bar Association.  

Marissa graduated magna cum laude from the American University Washington College of Law in 2019. Prior to joining Tzedek DC, Marissa served as a litigation fellow at the AARP Foundation, where she assisted with legal research on cases involving age discrimination, reverse mortgages, nursing facilities, elder abuse, and other issues facing Americans aged fifty and older. 

Read what Marissa had to share about her work, advocacy, the importance of centering the perspectives of disabled people, and the ways in which we can all be an ally to those with disabilities in Jewish spaces and beyond.

Tell us about you and the work you’re doing in the disability space.

I am a disabled activist and attorney. I currently serve as Disability Economic Justice Counsel at the National Partnership for Women & Families. I focus on advocating for more equitable policies that improve the financial and economic wellbeing of disabled women and families, particularly disabled women of color. It is a new role that I am incredibly excited to shape.  

For the last three years, I led the Disabilities Community Project at Tzedek DC, a nonprofit with the mission of safeguarding the legal rights and financial health of DC residents with low incomes dealing with the often-devastating consequences of abusive debt collection practices and other consumer-related issues.

When I graduated from law school, I received financial support to start the Disabilities Community Project at Tzedek DC as a fellow. I focused on the ways that disabled DC residents are disproportionately affected by debt and consumer problems, as well as unique consumer issues targeted toward disabled residents. I provided legal representation, conducted community outreach and education, and engaged in systemic advocacy to advance these goals.  

Tell us about your time as a leader of the National Disabled Legal Professionals Association and other leadership roles you’ve served in. 

In addition to my full-time work, I volunteer as a core organizer of the National Disabled Legal Professionals Association (NDLPA). NDLPA is a national association of disabled lawyers, judges, policy experts, legislators, academics, and other legal workers, professionals, and organizers founded to organize and unify disabled legal professionals into a force for change, and to advocate for and empower disabled legal professionals. Right now, there is no organization or bar association that exists as a space for disabled lawyers or legal professionals. Having this space allows us to empower one another, share resources, and advocate for policies and changes that help to make the legal profession more accessible and inclusive. We are in the process of working to incorporate our organization and seek 501(c)(3) status.  

Prior to my time volunteering for the NDLPA, I was a leader of the National Disabled Law Students Association (NDLSA). NDLSA is a 501(c)(3) with the mission of making legal academia and the legal profession more accessible and inclusive, with a focus on prospective and current law students as well as recent law school graduates.  

I joined NDLSA as the Associate Director for Job Accommodations. I was interested in that work because of my experience in labor and employment law. I created resources for law students, law schools, and employers, met with employers to discuss ways to make their workplace more inclusive and accessible, and hosted events for disabled law students and early career attorneys on navigating the workplace. In early 2022, I took over as Interim Executive Director. I helped to restructure the organization, assist with compliance, set organizational priorities, and continue organization-wide work. We then hosted elections and were able to train our new, incredible leaders to take over the organization.

Like NDLPA, NDLSA is a place where prospective, current, and recently graduated law students can discuss their experiences in a brave space, share resources, and advocate for change. NDLSA started when several fellow disabled law students connected on an email chain. We realized that we were all facing similar barriers despite being in different states and schools. We understood that we would be more powerful together as a collective. Our email chain grew into a Facebook group for disabled law students to find support and eventually expanded into a formal organization: NDLSA.  

L to R: Gil Preuss, Marissa Ditkowsky, Sam Kaplan

When NDLSA got its start, the COVID-19 pandemic had also just begun and we launched into advocacy related to the Bar exam. We had no choice. It felt like everything was on fire. Many law graduates were either 1) being forced to take examinations in person despite high risk or immunocompromised status, or 2) having to take a remote exam with extreme restrictions on bathroom usage, movement, and other activities that disproportionately affected disabled test takers, particularly BIPOC disabled test takers.  

We grew as an organization, and we eventually transitioned out of our roles. That gave us space to work on the NDLPA. 

What is the biggest misconception people have about people with disabilities? 

Many people believe it is expensive or difficult to provide access to disabled people. They believe that we are not as productive, or they underestimate what we are capable of. Often, being fully inclusive and accessible can cost little to no money. Some access needs are as simple as adjusting hours, prohibiting scents like perfumes, providing remote options, or even providing feedback in a certain way. These adjustments do not come at a cost. Making things accessible from the outset is also cheaper (for example, with constructing a building, creating a website, etc.). When our access needs are met and we are fully included, we can do our best work. We are creative and innovative from our personal experiences finding solutions for complex problems.  

What can community members do to advocate for and create awareness about issues affecting people with disabilities? Do they need to be in leadership positions?   

When you are advocating for disabled folk, make sure that you are advocating with them, and that they are the center of the conversations. Community members must listen to disabled folks about their experiences and their preferences for how to move forward with advocacy. Being a good ally requires listening and acknowledging that 1) we are not perfect and, 2) implicit bias exists. It is impossible to learn and grow otherwise.  

Make sure that disabled folks, particularly BIPOC (Black and Indigenous people of color) and/or queer disabled folks, are in leadership positions. The folks closest to the pain should always be closest to the power. That is how we transform the status quo.  

How can community members and organizations help increase participation and access?  

I think making sure that you listen to disabled folks applies here, too. We are the ones who know what we need. There is no one person who can speak on behalf of all disabled folks, though. Even folks with similar or the same disabilities may have different needs.  

Focus the best you can on universal access and remember that access is not just about physical access. Adding alt text, making your website accessible, using accessible software and programs, employing interpreters and captioners, having generous paid leave policies, and more are all critical.  

“When you are advocating for disabled folk, make sure that you are advocating with them, and that they are the center of the conversations. Community members must listen to disabled folks about their experiences and their preferences for how to move forward with advocacy.”

One thing that has been especially important over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic is ensuring that there are remote options and mask requirements in place. I have been excluded from so many opportunities, especially over the past year, because I am immunocompromised and high risk. I did not, and do not, feel comfortable attending in-person events, particularly indoor events that are not taking COVID-19 precautions.  

Finally, compensate disabled folks for their labor. We are constantly reliving our trauma to educate nondisabled folks. Our experiences of marginalization are valuable, not just as employees, but as assets that can help make organizations more accessible and inclusive. Workplaces and organizations consistently want our feedback and assistance, but they do not want to compensate us for our labor.   

What does an inclusive Jewish community look like to you? 

An inclusive Jewish community does not just provide literal access. An inclusive Jewish community requires us to change our outlooks about disabled people. Since I have become disabled, I have felt a sense of distance from the Jewish community at large because of the ways many talk about and view disabled people. We are often viewed as people for which you must do a mitzvah — a good deed — instead of human beings with rights, thoughts, and desires. There is also a culture of paternalism that infiltrates many religious spaces — not just the Jewish space. Once we change the culture in our synagogues and provide disabled congregants with real platforms, we can move forward.