This month, the Jewish community is marking Jewish Disability Awareness Month, as it has since February 2008. Throughout February, congregations and communal organizations of all stripes will be holding programs, special prayer services, text studies and the like, all with the overarching goal of raising awareness about issues and concerns that people with disabilities face in the Jewish community. Through increased education and exposure, it is hoped that people will become more attuned to the unique and intensely varied, I must add, needs of Jews with disabilities and will actively seek to integrate and include them into the rich fabric of Jewish communal and congregational life.
I am deeply grateful that Jewish Disability Awareness Month is increasing its reach and for the many opportunities afforded to Jews with disabilities and our allies to speak out on issues of particular concern. However, I must admit that I also approach this month every year with a bit of trepidation and fear that, all of the wonderful intentions notwithstanding, we are not being as transformative through this month as perhaps we ought or should be.
I write from an incredibly privileged position. As a Jew who happens to have a visual impairment, I enjoy access not only to Jewish religious life but to social life as well in ways which far too few folks with disabilities do. Most important for me, however, is the fact that my extensive organizational Jewish involvement does not center at all on my disability and I truly believe that this ought to be the ultimate end goal. In the many and varied Jewish communal spaces in which I find myself, I am treated and perceived as an equal in the community, who has unique talents and knowledge that can be used by the broader community for the enrichment of all. I frequently lead services and teach shiurim (classes). I am as passionate about the place of women in the Jewish community, for example, or the importance of ritual, as I am about disability concerns.
This is not at all to imply explicitly or implicitly that inclusion committees do not have their place—indeed, they are necessities for our congregations and communal spaces and allow our professional and lay leaders the ability to learn from congregants and communal members with disabilities, as well as allowing them to exchange best practices. I fear that, however, inclusion committees may have the unintended consequence of pigeon-holing someone into a role that does not enable them to bring their whole selves to our communities. People with disabilities have many gifts to contribute and many are seeking out ways to do so that do not explicitly focus on their impairment.
Inclusion has become a much talked about notion in many communities, faith-based and otherwise. I wish to challenge all of us to reexamine the notion of inclusion. When we speak or think about inclusion, are we thinking purely on the practical level (e.g. how can I get the physical things that will enable physical access: Braille and large print prayer books, ensuring that our facilities are ADA-compliant, ensuring that Sign Language interpretation is made available)? Or are we focusing our minds and hearts on those things that are less tangible but, at least for myself, are most important? It is an oft-repeated notion that it is the attitudinal and not the structural barriers that are the most difficult to overcome. It is my firmly held belief that in order to remove this latter barrier, people with disabilities and others must work together for the betterment of their community for all of its members. As an example, while a person with a disability may need a given accommodation, that individual also has the ability to assist someone else in the community who has a need and this reciprocal relationship should be encouraged, just as those without disabilities in the community assist one another in times of trial and in times of joy.
As a practical means of moving forward with the notion that I am proposing, I urge all of us, clergy and lay leaders alike, to be intentional about how we can bring all of our community members into the rich tapestry of our communities however they wish. Do we have someone who is blind who is a wonderful service leader and has always wanted to lead? Someone who uses a wheelchair or other mobility aid who we know to be a phenomenal public speaker and whom we’d like to invite to give the drash (sermon) one Shabbat morning? Do you have someone with a disability who is excellent at coordinating Google spreadsheets who can be the point person for meal sign-ups for new parents?
I must also be deeply mindful of the fact that the needs of the disability community are as diverse as the number of folks with disabilities. The nature of the disability has a profound impact upon the experiences that person will have and the accommodations necessary. Often, it has been my experience that the spectrum of disability is so vast and varied that it is nearly impossible to address all needs with a catch-all disability awareness Shabbat or through a single program. This is why it is critical, in my view, that we not look at folks with disabilities as comprising one large community but that we instead look at individuals and individual needs. The needs that I have, as someone with a visual impairment, are unique to me—someone else with a visual impairment may have different needs.
I believe that due to the fact that ‘disability’ is such a broad category and that there is frankly no way any of us—myself included—can be aware of issues that all of the varying constituent parts face, it is easier to focus our energies on one disability or another with which we are personally familiar. I think that this is a wonderful start, but I’d love to see a shift away from a singular focus to a broader and admittedly much more complex focus on the individual.
It is my personal recommendation and deep-seated belief that if you or someone you know is ever in a situation where you have a community member with a disability and aren’t sure how to approach them, go ahead and ask them directly how you can be most helpful or welcoming. Open and honest dialogue is critical. It is also so important that we not brush under the rug those difficult or embarrassing questions that we all have about how a disability or impairment will impact a given situation or activity. All of us, regardless of whether or not we are personally impacted by disability, have those questions. Too often, we fear that we might offend or say the wrong thing—and you know what? We just might. But we must feel comfortable enough to take that risk, that leap of faith, because most of the time, we haven’t caused offense and that one time where we may have done so inadvertently gives us and the other party a chance for dialogue and the ability to come to a mutual understanding.
On March 1, as we’re finishing up those remaining hamantaschen and begin to rid our homes of chametz, let us put the lofty goals of Jewish Disability Awareness Month into action. Let’s focus on integration as much as we focus on inclusion. Let’s walk that walk.