When close to three hundred thousand people came to Washington to support Israel, fight anti-Semitism, and bring home the hostages, one of the activists was Brandon Farbstein, a dynamic disability activist and public speaker. Born with an extremely rare form of dwarfism (metatropic dysplasia), Brandon has turned his life experience of suffering, isolation, and victimhood into empowerment, impact and influence. After a severe battle with cyberbullying in high school, he decided to share his story – to both offer hope and to enact change. Brandon was the driving force behind two new pieces of legislation that were signed into law in Virginia, one on bullying prevention and the other requiring empathy and emotional intelligence to be taught in all K-12 classrooms across the state.
But Brandon wasn’t at the rally in the role of a disability leader — he was there as a Jewish citizen who cares, just like the hundreds of thousands of other people who attended the rally.
Brandon went to preschool with Hersh Goldberg-Polin who is one of the hostages in Gaza. He told me that he came to the rally to support Israel, his former classmate, and all the other the hostages.
Farbstein himself was in Israel recently as a part of a Birthright Israel trip where toured the Old City of Jerusalem on a Segway. A story on his visit was published in Times of Israel.
The sheer “normalness” of someone who uses a segway to get around to be able to attend a major rally didn’t happen overnight. It took epic battles and generations of disability activists before Brandon. Leadership in the disability community, like the Jewish and all other communities, is built l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation).
This past year some major disability leaders died — Judith Heumann, Neil Jacobson and Bobby Silverstein. All were Jewish and giants in the area of civil rights. And each of them played key roles in creating disability laws that meant that getting on public transit, or onto the National Mall, as someone who uses wheels for mobility is now possible. Because of greats such as Judy, Neil and Bobby, it’s now “normal” for people with all kinds of disabilities to be able to take stands (or roll) on issues of great importance, just like anyone else.
Over years, people with disabilities, their parents and allies alike have fought hard for access and opportunities. And when those opportunities are available to people with all kinds of disabilities — everyone, regardless of if they have a disability or not — is better off. That is because the richness of inclusion brings true unity and community to a higher level.
Success on disability inclusion in the Jewish community is not only because of individuals. It is also because of great institutions. The Israel rally was spearheaded by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations and the Jewish Federation of North America. Each of these institutions is committed to access and inclusion. Over the years the Ruderman Family Foundation, H.J. Weinberg Foundation and others offered major support on disability inclusion. Numerous Jewish disability nonprofits including Matan, Sulam, Gateways, and several Jewish Family Service organizations serve people with disabilities. Jewish camping, Hillels and Birthright are also now open to people with disabilities. This gives us a new generation of fantastic Jewish leaders of all abilities.
Access takes a lot more than lip service. It takes planning and implementation. Accessibility was designed into the Israel rally from the start. All of its disability access was advertised clearly in advance. There was a designated accessible entry with flat flooring, ramps, and its own self-contained area.
At the rally there were massive screens so that people far from the stage could see and hear what what happening on stage. But for those who cannot hear, there was American Sign Language on every screen. I didn’t see the captions on the screens, but understand it was on streaming. It was well planned and people requiring extra accommodations had a point of contact for making requests.
The ground, which thankfully was dry due to good weather, had been covered by hard platforms in a large area in case the ground got soggy. However, due to sunny weather people with scooters, wheelchairs, segways and strollers were able to go everywhere on the mall.
And very importantly, there were ADA accessible port-a-potties and even sinks.
October 7th was a horrific day in Jewish and Israeli history. More than 1200 people — including people with Autism and Cerebral Palsy — were killed by Hamas terrorists. Approximately 240 people — again including people with disabilities — were taken hostage.
Rockets are still being shot at Israel daily. As a result, more than 55,000 Israelis with disabilities, along with others, have been evacuated from border communities. During all of this Israel and Jews have faced massive increases in anti-Semitism.
People with disabilities have not been exempted from the horrors of Hamas. Thus, it is vital for disabled individuals to be able to participate in finding solutions and being fully welcomed in our “amcha” (community/peoplehood).
The rally was amazing. Being together as a community of love — and group willing to speak up on key issues — was very powerful.
Also powerful was the fact that people all abilities were able lock arms with everyone else in the community to create a better future.