This is part of a series of essays in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.
People often ask how I got involved in accessibility and disability justice work. They assume that I have a direct connection to disability because many people in my position have a clear and often obvious reason- perhaps they are disabled themselves, or their child is. At least something along those lines. But my connection to this work doesn’t have a singular reason or path. There are a few moments and experiences throughout my life that I look back on as having some impact on my passion for this subject, but none of them stand out as a singular turning point. Which doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling story, I know, but I actually think it’s important that this isn’t the case. Because you don’t need to have some magical turning point in your life to start noticing or caring about access and inclusion. You can start right now.
You may know the story about Moses putting a burning coal in his mouth as a child and later experiencing difficulty with speech as an adult. When G-d told Moses he would lead the Jewish people out of slavery, Moses initially objected, explaining that he was k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue”. But G-d reassured him, reaffirming Moses’s strengths and suggesting that his brother Aaron could support him. There are countless stories like this one in the Torah about inclusion and allyship. Yet our Jewish community still has a long way to go to fully live out these lessons. JDAIM (Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month) is a wonderful first of many, many steps on our journey to becoming truly inclusive.
So how can we be more like Aaron, who facilitated his brother’s message to the Jewish people? Or even more so, like G-d, who saw a leader in Moses because of his strengths. Perhaps you have a disability yourself or know someone who has one, or maybe you have never met a disabled person in your life (though based on the statistics that would be very nearly impossible). Either way, you can be an advocate and an ally starting at this very moment.
I could talk about this topic for an eternity, but I want to leave you with a few strategies to make inclusion at your synagogue and in your world more of a reality right now.
- Presume competence. Assume that everyone is capable and trying their best. If you see someone you think might need help, you can ask them (“Hi, I’m Alanna. Do you need any help with that door?”)
- As a friend and advocate Rebecca Levenberg says, “use your wheelchair eyes.” Take a little extra time to see the world around you differently. (Are there steps to get in the front door? Is the room bright or noisy? Does the video have captions?)
- Say something. If you notice something isn’t accessible, don’t wait for someone else to speak up or take action. You should be the one to remind a presenter to turn on the captions. You should be the person who suggests meeting at a restaurant that has an elevator instead of stairs.
It is up to each one of us to build an inclusive Jewish community and world. It is my responsibility and it is your responsibility. I am beyond thrilled to see the progress we have made so far and I have incredibly high hopes for what is to come.
Alanna Raffel is an occupational therapist and accessibility consultant. She graduated from the University of Maryland with dual degrees in Psychology and Dance and from Thomas Jefferson University with a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. Alanna has worked as an occupational therapist in acute rehab, early intervention ages 3 to 5, outpatient, and school-based settings. Alanna has facilitated accessibility in a variety of ways including autism-friendly Broadway performances in New York City, open captioning at People’s Light in Malvern, and organizing mapping events to collect data on physical accessibility. Her company, Access Point, strives to increase inclusion in Philadelphia and beyond by advocating for access, creating solutions, and promoting awareness of accessible opportunities for people with disabilities and their friends and family.