Upon reading two articulate, impassioned and well-reasoned earlier posts, In Memory of My Son, A Plea and a Plan to Make Synagogues Wheelchair Accessible and Jewish Schools: You Have a Moral Responsibility to Kids with Disabilities, by my friends and colleagues, Shelley Cohen and Meredith Englander Polsky, respectively, I became increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of their arguments in advancing our cause.
And I felt this way despite the fact that, driven by my own struggles accessing both Jewish education and sanctuaries, I’ve made similar arguments as Shelley and Meredith for 14 years. But I’m starting to feel like Don Quixote, tilting at a windmill that won’t budge.
The disability rights’ movement historically focused on getting people with disabilities into the conversation. Through our relentlessness, our battle cry “nothing about us without us” turned from words into action, and victories for the disability community followed. However, the focus on rights and the importance of the individual, while successful strategies elsewhere, have been ineffective within religious communities exempt from relevant laws.
Moral and religious obligations should ensure access for people with disabilities to religious communities, but those communities often have limited resources and growing needs. Financial concerns then trump even those moral and religious arguments. If communal inclusion is perceived to benefit only those within the disability community, its costs seem to outweigh its benefits. That’s why the current approach is making a lot of noise but little tangible progress. It just isn’t working. Therefore, I propose a paradigm shift in how we advocate for Jewish communal access for people with disabilities.
We must demonstrate that the benefits of inclusion are far greater than those realized solely within the disability community. We must stop telling a financially strapped community, “you need to do this for us” and start showing the community what we can do for it. It’s important for Jews with disabilities to actively participate in Jewish life, not only because being communally active strengthens us, but also because our participation strengthens the Jewish community. It’s insufficient to discuss how much a person using a wheelchair gains from participating in services. We need to spend more time discussing the benefits of accessibility for the nine people, who may not use wheelchairs, but can now say Kaddish in memory of a loved one because someone in a wheelchair made the Minyan.
Jewish tradition encourages learning with others because even the smartest sages can learn from alternative perspectives, as it says in Mishnah Pirkei Avot : “Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written (Psalm 119:99) ‘I have gained understanding from all my teachers.”’ (Avot 4:1)
Therefore, to demonstrate the full impact of accessible education and communal life, we must highlight those within our communities, congregations and summer camps who’ve increased their participation, learned or been inspired by someone with a disability.
For example: it is not enough to explain how my experience as Camp Ramah in the Berkshires first “inclusion camper” was personally transformative. We need to tell the story of how the experience was also transformative for others in camp, especially my bunk mates, many of whom wrote about our experiences that summer three years later in their college admissions essays.
There’s an economic concept called opportunity cost. It defines the cost of something as “the opportunities forgone in the choice of one expenditure over others.” We can change the perception of people with disabilities from that of communal burdens or obligations to communal assets. In the process, we’ll not only empower those with disabilities but transform the question of “can we afford to do this?” to “can we afford NOT to do this?”
Jason Lieberman, a disability advocate and sought after public speaker on Judaism and disability, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy spastic diplegia at the age of 11 months. A graduate of The Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at the New York University, with an Masters in Public Administration, Jason is a member of the Board of Directors of Matan: For Every Child. For Every Community. The Gift of Jewish Learning, and Bronx Independent Living Services. He lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife Emily, and son Ruby.