Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide an opportunity for all of us to indulge in reflection about our lives and experiences of the world. This is a time to take stock individually and as a community. So now is a good time to think about and to act differently towards people with disabilities.
People with disabilities come in many shapes and sizes. What they have in common is that they are disadvantaged by their bodies or their minds. There are things that they are unable to do that the rest of us take for granted. Many ordinary parts of the lives of people with disabilities are a struggle well beyond the imagination of those without disabilities. Issues like how do I get to the bathroom, how can I go to school, how can listen and learn, or how can I have my voice heard – even when it comes to choices of flavours of ice-cream? Or issues like will people stare at me and comment rudely about me if I go out in public; or will people want me to leave the room almost as soon as I arrive because I can’t sit quietly for long periods of time; or will I be allowed to participate like everyone else?
If we reflect on four problem areas for people with disabilities, we can see what is at stake and what we can do about it. And if not now, when?
PROBLEM 1: INVISIBILITY
People who, for one reason or another, are limited by their bodies or minds constitute about 20% of the community. Look around you this Rosh Hashana. If 20% of those in your Shule community are not people with disabilities you’ve failed. And you have added to the disadvantage experienced by people with disabilities by rendering them invisible.
You need to consider doing a disability audit and looking at what you can do to solve the problem. Finding out who could be part of your community who isn’t and putting in place strategies for their inclusion would have the potential to make dramatic changes to the quality of life of people with disabilities.
PROBLEM 2: POVERTY
People with disabilities are more likely to live below the poverty line than any other cohort of people. The cost of living with a disability is often expensive. This may be caused by the significant increase in medical appointments, hospital visits or medication that are involved for many people with disabilities. It may be caused by the expense of equipment or home modifications. When we add to this the unemployment rate of even those people with disabilities who have skills to contribute to the economy, social security is generally insensitive to individual needs. So while almost everyone dependent on state income support is likely to need additional support from the Jewish community, those with disabilities will generally be the poorest of the poor.
You can do a number of things to respond to poverty. You could, individually or as a community, mitigate the effects of poverty by helping with the cost of membership of your community. You could actively welcome people into your Shule whether or not they can afford to buy a seat. You could provide siddurim or machzorim (including in large print) and provide tallit and kippot.
But better than that, you can resolve that every Jewish organisation will employ at least one person with a disability and that you will pay them properly for the work they do. This is justice, not charity. Research shows that the average cost of employing a person with a disability is $100. The main barrier is attitude and unwillingness to give people with disabilities a fair go. There are many positions people with disabilities can comfortably fill – and empowering a person to be self-sufficient is, according to the Rambam, the highest level of tzedakkah.
PROBLEM 3: EVERYDAY DISCRIMINATION
Many people with disabilities can just about manage living with their impairments. The bigger problem is having to manage everything else in a world set up without them in mind. Here there may be ways around their limitations, which can dramatically limit the impact of disability on their lives. And sometimes the solutions are relatively simple.
The first question is what can be done to improve or increase the individual’s ability to function to the best of their ability. The second question is what is it that your community can do facilitate inclusion. The first question is about supporting an individual; the second is about changing the environment.
Take the case of the person who is unable to walk. It doesn’t matter why they are unable to use their legs in the same way that those with ‘normal’ mobility can. As a community you may be able to help with medical costs – a very basic first step. But mobility equipment may be required. This could take the form of a prosthetic leg or a mobility scooter or a wheelchair. If we do not ensure, as a community, that Jews with mobility issues can access mobility equipment that they need to function in society, then we are failing as a community.
Beyond that, we need to ensure that we do not impose barriers to the entry of people into the community. Again, mobility issues are relatively straight forward. Do you have a ramp into your building? Do you still have steps into some rooms – or a women’s section that can only be accessed by stairs? Do you have a lift where it is needed. If the environment constitutes a place of struggle, it is unreasonable to imagine that yours is a place people with disabilities will feel welcome.
When you do a disability audit you need to considerer people with all sorts of disabilities: people with a hearing loss, those with visual limitations, people with intellectual disability, people with chronic illness, people on the autism spectrum, people with psychosocial disabilities and mental illness. You could start by responding to the needs of people you know in your community and are currently excluded and work outwards to embrace others.
PROBLEM 4: BEING JEWISH
We all know that being Jewish has been a disadvantage historically and that in many parts of the world being Jewish poses a threat to an individual’s well-being. You may not be aware that during the Holocaust, even before Jews were murdered, people with disabilities were tortured and murdered. If you were both Jewish and disabled your chances of survival were grim. Ironically, most survivors of the Shoah were disabled one way or another. This could have been as a result of lost facility or due to long-term physical health issues. Equally it could be a result of survivor guilt, the unbearable weight of death of loved ones leading to a life of depression or anxiety. Or it could be living daily with post-traumatic stress disorder. For Holocaust survivors and for elderly members of the community, there has, generally, been heart and support by diaspora communities. Not so of people with disabilities.
On the other hand, being Jewish can offer real benefits. Being a member of a community, particularly a community that takes Torah values seriously, could offer a person more than they might experience in the wider community. We know that the Jewish family can be nurturing, the Jewish community can be inclusive and the agency of people with disabilities can be respected. We know Jewish communities raise their own funds to support those in need. This means that a Jewish community which is inclusive could change the world of people with disabilities in many ways.
A particular issue that affects Jews with disabilities is the very business of being Jewish. The Haggadah tells us how important it is to involve all sorts of Jewish learners in the conversation. We know it is really not difficult to find roles that can be filled by the vast majority of people with disabilities. But beyond this, and despite all our apples and honey and honey cake, the ability to participate fully in Jewish communities depends on education. Yet Jewish schools routinely exclude children with disabilities. We know that the future of the Jewish community depends on imbuing a sense of pride in being Jewish and a level of learning about Jewish culture and law. This is also the heritage and right of those among us with disabilities.
You can change the face of discrimination and the landscape for including people with disabilities right now. Look for the ways in which you exclude. Look deep within yourself. Probe your community. We know people with disabilities face barriers to inclusion everywhere they turn. When a person is disadvantaged both by the general community AND the Jewish community they are doubly disadvantaged.
Make it your mission as well as your responsibility to bring about the changes needed to really make a difference. Share the joy of the upcoming year with your family, friends and neighbours – including previously excluded from the benefits of being Jewish.