This February marks the fourth annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a time when special attention and emphasis is brought to the needs and experiences of people with disabilities in our communities. As someone who has a visual impairment, Jewish Disability Awareness Month holds personal significance for me and is very much welcome. At the same time, however, I challenge us all, regardless of our faith background, to truly integrate disability awareness all year long, in every facet of our religious and personal lives.
Jewish Disability Awareness Month was founded in 2008 by the Jewish Special Education Consordium. It is a time for individuals, congregations and communities to foster a true sense of inclusion in all aspects of Jewish religious and communal life for individuals with disabilities, their families and friends. Jewish Disability Awareness Month is marked throughout the entirety of the Jewish denominational and observance spectrum. Throughout the month of February, numerous events are being held around the United States and abroad in support of the goals and mission of this month, everything from Shabbat services that feature a guest speaker who will address issues of disability access and inclusion to text study sessions when classical and contemporary Jewish texts that grapple with issues of disability are critically studied to advocacy days.
Jewish Disability Awareness Month is an apt time to look inside ourselves as individuals and as communities and examine our own assumptions, attitudes, beliefs and prejudices about the abilities of individuals with disabilities of all kinds. How do we individually and collectively see people with disabilities? In what ways do text and tradition shape our attitudes? What inspires us, what challenges us? In what ways can we invision someone with a disability serving as a tremendous, often untapped communal asset? If there is someone with a disability who wants to get more involved in your community but is feeling unsure, reach out, invite them in.
I am incredibly fortunate to be part of Jewish communities in which I am able to take full part in the religious and social life of the community, including leading services and giving divrei Torah. Not infrequently I will give someone an explanation of Hebrew Braille, explain how I gain access to text and so forth. I am immensely privileged that such is my situation and that I have access to people and resources that far too many do not. There are still large gaps in my ability to access the immense plethera of Jewish resources and text available, but nonetheless I take it as a personal responsibility to do all that I can to help others who do not have the access I enjoy.
It is easy to organize a month of events promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities, it is much harder to take those lofty goals and pronouncements and implement them. A further challenge that we face when grappling with the issue of disability access and inclusion is that the spectrum of disability is so diverse that it is rare that the needs of two people with disabilities will be one and the same. Let us all take it as a challenge to be mindful of the needs of all of our congregants and community members and make it known when we have a need of our own.
It is easy to have inclusion awareness Shabbat services, panel discussions, social events and the like, but when someone with a disability comes up to us and asks to lead services, serve on a committee or take another important role in the congregation, how will we respond?
The inclusion imparative is not only about whether or not we have the physical or material means to accommodate someone with a disability--having an accessible entrance to a building or an accessible way to get to the bimah for someone who uses a wheelchair, having prayer books in Braille and large print for those who are blind or visually impaired or offer sign language interpretation for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, it is also about breaking down the attitudinal barriers that are often the hardest to break down. It is about asking ourselves as individuals and as communities whether or not we are utilizing to the fullest extent possible the talents and resources of all of our community members, whether or not they have a disability.
Many people may be unsure of how to approach someone with a disability for fear of being insensitive or doing or saying the wrong thing. During this Jewish Disability Awareness Month, I urge all of us to take that uncertainty by the horns and engage someone in our community who has a disability and simply reach out, one person to another. As important as physical access and accommodations are for people with disabilities, genuine friendships are almost more important. We all gain so much from our relationships and interactions with those who are different from us--our eyes are opened and our understanding expanded.
A core Jewish value is that we are created b'tzelem Elokim--in the image of G-d. Each of us is special, each of us is unique and an integral part of the world around us. We all have something to contribute to our communities, regardless of what our abilities may or may not be.
A version of this article also appears at http://judaism.bellaonline.com