What comes to mind when you think of the word “disability?” Maybe you think of a person in a wheelchair, or perhaps a blind person with a seeing-eye dog. Maybe you think of a cousin with autism, a neighbor with cerebral palsy, or a friend with dyslexia. Or maybe, you think of yourself. Almost 50 million people in the United States have a disability, so virtually all of us will encounter a disabled person at some point in our lives–whether we know it or not. This is why we must be aware of disabled people, respect their existence, and do our best to address their needs when necessary. February specifically is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. Throughout the month of February, the international Jewish community comes together to support our fellow Jews of all abilities. Many synagogues and Jewish organizations do exactly what the month calls for; they raise awareness, promote acceptance, and include people with disabilities. This is a commendable initiative, as people with disabilities are often overlooked and forgotten.
Leviticus, chapter 19, verses 14 teaches us, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” This, of course, does not just apply to people who are literally deaf or literally blind. Stumbling blocks come in all different forms; some are easier to address and remove than others. While it is usually not that difficult to build a wheelchair ramp, or offer prayer books in braille, it is often more challenging to support an autistic person having a meltdown, especially when you do not know him or her personally. However, it is our responsibility as both Jews and as human beings to not place ‘stumbling blocks’ before the blind, but to remove the different kinds of stumbling blocks that are currently in place. The question is, how can we do this? How can we respect the autonomy and agency of the disabled while supporting them in their times of need? And in the cases of the severely disabled who cannot advocate for themselves, how can we support them and their families who are struggling, too?
My older brother Noah is autistic, and is almost completely dependent on my family for support. I recall on Rosh Hashanah in what must have been 2005 or 2006 him having a complete and total meltdown while in synagogue. He was either nine or ten- old enough for him to know how to behave properly, I am sure others thought. I do not remember what caused my brother’s unraveling, but I do recall my parents’ desperation in that moment. I know they would have done anything- anything to calm him down. But nothing worked. My dad carried a hysterical Noah out of the sanctuary, and mom followed, as the rabbi continued his sermon. Even I, at age five or six, was embarrassed. What I do remember, more so than my brother’s meltdown, was the staring; it was not sympathetic or understanding. It was full of annoyance, and of judgement. It was the last thing our family needed in that moment. Noah was not a disabled child worthy of their empathy; he was a disruption to their prayers.
Once Noah had finally calmed down, and the sanctuary had emptied, people avoided us. Not a single congregant came up to my parents to ask “How are you doing?” Or “How’s Noah?” If just one person had offered words of encouragement, it would have made us feel immeasurably more welcome in our own synagogue. All my parents wanted was for Noah to be a part of the Rosh Hashanah celebration that is so important to Jewish tradition and culture. Noah had just a right to be there as everyone else, yet he was treated like a problem, not a person, and my parents were seemingly exiled. This is unacceptable. We must never make any Jew, disabled or not, feel like they do not belong in our spaces. It is our responsibility to offer resources for those who need them. As an aspiring special education teacher, and someone who’s worked extensively with the autistic community in particular, I understand that people with “special needs” don’t have needs that are excessive, unreasonable, or unnecessary; their needs are just different. And that’s okay.
In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, please remember that my brother Noah, like all of us, including all people with disabilities, are made in the image of God. We must do our very best to support them and when necessary, their families, too. Disabled Jews should be just as welcome in our homes, in our community centers, and in our synagogues as any other Jews. This month and every month, show compassion for those who are not just visibly disabled, but for those who might just appear to be a little different. That is how we better ourselves not just as Jews, but as human beings. Together, we can remove the stumbling blocks that prevent disabled Jews from fully participating in our otherwise supportive community.
Ariel Gold is a college student living in New York City. In her spare time, Ariel likes to volunteer with young adults on the autism spectrum and she hopes to eventually become a special education teacher.