July is Disability Pride Month, and we as Jews should not only be sensitive to people’s disability needs, but also be ready to jump in and help people who need us.
The Jewish people, a small minority in a big world, has known slavery, exile, isolation, persecution, and genocide, as such the Torah tells us to be sensitive to and care for others who are strangers (Exodus 23:9):
You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the soul of the stranger as you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Certainly, people with disabilities struggle with various day-to-day skills and functioning, and they can often feel excluded from “normal” life and alien in a world that they find not welcoming or accessible to them. Therefore, we are reminded that we too have been and are “strangers” and disabled, each in our own ways, and it is for us to find in our hearts and souls to be compassionate and helpful to others who are in need.
Disability often comes and is associated with illness, accidents, and other life misfortunes that leave us functionally challenged or in some way needing help. But in my opinion, we are all actually “disabled.” Disability just means “not being able,” and each of us has things where we are not fully able or capable of.
Disability is not a bad word, nor does it have to be a limiting factor in our lives. If we recognize that truly everyone has been hurt in the course of life and has scars and challenges across the dimensions of capability — physical, intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual — then these become a normal part of coping and surviving in life itself. Indeed, it is perfectly natural and human to be to have to struggle, as G-d says to us after Adam and Eve sinned with the apple (Genesis 3:17):
In suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life.
Moreover, as we suffer and struggle with everything that life throws at us, we realize that we all need accommodations, accessibility, or help in the various aspects of our lives, because we are not created in a state of perfection, but rather in the “image” of G-d and from there, we must work hard on perfecting ourselves as it says (Genesis 1:27):
G-d created man in His own image; in the image of G-d He created him.
And what happens to us after creation? Life happens, and people suffer from the happenstance and the often harsh “nurture” of this world. Whether from disease, accidents, or hurt inflicted on us from others — intentional or not — we all have “disabilities” and as difficult as it is to live with it, there is no shame in it!
Disabilities are an opportunity, however painful and humiliating for us to learn and grow and for others to be able to demonstrate love, compassion, and kindness to us, as it says as a positive commandment (Deuteronomy 15:7):
If there be a person among you with needs…you shall not harden your heart, and shall not close your hand…”
Similarly, the prohibition against hurting or neglecting the disabled (Leviticus 19:14):
You shall not curse a deaf person; you shall not place an obstacle before the blind. You shall fear your G-d, I am the L-rd.
G-d tells us that all the challenges and disabilities we experience come from His will (Exodus 4:11):
Who gives a mouth to a person? Or who renders one mute or deaf, or sighted or blind? Is it not I, the L-rd.
So even though the challenges and our disabilities may seem arbitrary, meaningless, and even cruel, we are clearly told that they are directed by G-d Almighty Himself. It is all part of His plan for us and this world. In pain and suffering, we learn humility, determination, and to fight to survive even when life is hitting us down. And yes, at times, it may even seem like a knockout blow, but we have to get back up and keep on fighting. And even as we fight, others too are given the opportunity to step up and perform Chesed (loving-kindness) to help us in our time of need because as we learn from the Torah’s “golden rule”(Leviticus 19:18):
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no running or hiding from disability, it is part of our mortal world. But from the scars and suffering of life, we must create healing. From disability, it is our job to turn it into ability, capability, and mobility!
Thankfully, these days with advances in science and technology, we can help people in all sorts of new ways from curing illness or slowing down the progression of its degenerative effects through new medicines, modalities, and even genetic modification. From hearing aids to audio captioning and readers, from prosthetics and implants to robotic exoskeletons and artificial intelligence, from wheelchairs, scooters and lifts to the potential of self-driving cars, we can help people in ever new ways to live better and fuller lives. And of course, helping people includes understanding, acceptance, respect, and inclusion! Life is full of diversity and each of us has our own idiosyncrasies and imperfections, and this is our challenge and our opportunity, because “no man is an island,” and everyone needs to help themselves and each other.