Most weekends, my thirteen-year-old son George and I go food shopping together. He likes to push the cart, pick out his favorite treats and help me count out pieces of fruit and drop them into bags. He’s also very fast and organized at unpacking our grocery cart.
Often when we are out in public, shopping or otherwise, people stare at him (us). George rocks back and forth when he’s excited and/or shakes his hands repetitively when he’s anxious, part of the brain/body disconnect that occurs for many people who have autism.
The stares are sometimes pity; sometimes discomfort; sometimes just unconscious processing of difference. I’m mostly desensitized to them; I don’t know how much George takes in about people seeing him as different and how that makes him feel.
Last weekend, we were shopping at our local Whole Foods. I was busy looking at clearance hair products, George bopping up and down on my arm, eager to get to the snack aisle, when a small, older African-American woman approached me. “Excuse me,“ she said. “Your son is so tall. Could he help me reach something on the top shelf?”
George went over to where she was pointing and got her the ground flax seed she needed. He is non-verbal but understands receptive language very well. He handed it to her with a smile. It feels so good to help people.
I can’t begin to explain the elation that I felt, tears filling my eyes as she moved along to find her supplements. That woman looked at my son and recognized a way that he could help her—a simple moment of human interconnectedness.
There is so much repair that we need to do to make this world as it should be for people with disabilities. Millions of adults with disabilities in the United States are on waiting lists for adequate housing and therapeutic supports; millions of children with disabilities do not receive the education that the law is required to give them and many families go into massive debt suing to get their children the services that they desparately need.
Sometimes the weight of the awareness of those needs shuts me down. But then moments like when this lovely woman saw my son, honored his humanity in such a simple yet profound way by asking him to help her, remind me that tikkun olam operates at the macro and micro level, the political and the personal.
I wiped off my tears and we headed to the frozen section. What would our life be like, I wondered, if everyone who saw my son really looked at him as being b'tzelem elohim—created in the Divine image?
How could such recognition shift the way we allow people with disabilities to be treated?
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture's Whole Community Inclusion and loves writing/editing for "The New Normal" and for WHYY’s newsworks. Her latest book The Little Gate Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall.