When Arielle Silverman started kindergarten at Cherokee Elementary School in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1990, she didn’t know that she was different from her parents, her sister, the other students, or the teachers. She gradually discovered that there were things her classmates could do that she could not, however, and over a period of years, she came to understand that others could see and she could not.
Dr. Silverman now lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She was born blind, but “being blind never felt like a deficit for me, because it’s just who I am,” she said. “It’s kind of like X-ray vision — no one really feels sad that they don’t have X-ray vision because nobody else has X-ray vision. We don’t have that comparison. So it’s the same thing for me with blindness.
“It took me a while to figure out that other people had a whole different dimension of experience that I couldn’t even conceptualize.”
What was upsetting to her was figuring out that sometimes people treated her differently because she was blind. There were times that she came across the attitude that “people who did have that extra dimension were superior to me because I didn’t have it,” she said. “That sighted people were better off than I was, or that they were more capable than I was.”
Dr. Silverman’s 2021 book, “Just Human: The Quest for Disability Wisdom, Respect and Inclusion,” “is essentially a memoir about my life as a person growing up totally blind,” she said. The book also includes a focus on understanding prejudice against people with disabilities. “I describe how I came to understand that prejudice, and how I work in my career to reduce it, to improve public attitudes toward people with disabilities, and to promote inclusion.”
Dr. Silverman will talk about the book, about the experience of blindness from both a personal and professional perspective, and about the intersecting identities of Jewishness and blindness for Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on February 26. (See box.) The talk will be moderated by Beth Sholom member Sandee Brawarsky and marks Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.
In her book, Dr. Silverman writes that at some point, she began to realize that there were teachers who held her to a lower standard, sometimes praising her for accomplishing something minor that would not be viewed as much of an accomplishment for a sighted person her age. And while she did need certain support or accommodations to succeed — for example, her assignments were transcribed in braille — the accommodations were necessary to remove barriers, not because her blindness made her capable of succeeding only with lower standards. “In fact, if we are accommodated properly, our success should be expected,” she noted.
Dr. Silverman stressed that inclusion is important. “By some estimates, up to one in four people in the world has a disability, so if you don’t have an inclusive world, you’re missing out on the contributions of up to one-quarter of the population,” she said. “And it’s also true that people who have different minds or different bodies bring different skills and different talents to communities. So if you only include people who do things one way, you’re going to miss out on a lot of innovation and creativity and complementary skills.
“So inclusion benefits everyone. Obviously it benefits the people being included — but it also benefits the people they’re working with, playing with, interacting with.”
Dr. Silverman also explained that like most people, she has multiple identities, and that ability or disability is just one of those identities. One of those identities is as the holder of a Ph.D. in social psychology, which she earned at the University of Colorado Boulder; she also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“I do share a common identity with people who have a disability but I also have other identities,” Dr. Silverman said. “I’m Jewish, so I have something in common with other Jews that’s different from what I have in common with other blind people.
“We all have points of overlap and points of divergence with everyone whom we interact with, and there are times and situations where one of those identities might become more salient,” she said. “So if I’m at work, the fact that I’m Jewish doesn’t come up very much, but if it’s Chanukah and someone wishes me a happy Chanukah, then that identity comes into play.
“It’s the same with disability. There might be times when I’m talking to friends who are also blind and we’re talking about something unrelated to our disability, but if there’s an instance when I feel I wasn’t treated well or I was disrespected because I’m blind, it’s really nice to be able to talk to someone about what I went through and have them actually be able to relate because they’ve been through it or they’ve heard similar stories.”
Dr. Lisa Shulman, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, is a member of Congregation Beth Sholom and co-chairs its inclusion committee. For the past couple of years, the committee has brought in speakers during Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, and it organized Dr. Silverman’s talk. The programs are intended to “shine a light on disability,” Dr. Shulman said. “We use this month to keep this topic alive and make it more alive. Hand in hand with disability comes inclusion efforts.”
The synagogue’s inclusion committee was initially created about five years ago, with the goal of making it more inclusive for children with developmental disabilities, Dr. Shulman said. “Then it became clear that there was also a desire and a need to think thoughtfully about how to be more inclusive and meet the needs of grown children with challenges. It eventually became clear that there was another population in the shul the committee needed to be thinking about — adults, often older adults, some of whom developed physical disabilities, some of whom developed hearing or vision problems or dementia. So that really enlarged the definition of the population the committee was to focus on.”
The community’s definition of inclusion continues to evolve, and the committee’s focus continues to widen, Dr. Shulman said. The target population now includes not only people with physical or developmental challenges but also people with medical or mental health needs. The committee’s goal is to “think thoughtfully about how to create an environment where everyone can feel included,” she said.
As the committee’s focus becomes broader, Dr. Shulman said, “every family would be touched by that idea that we want every member of our family to be included and that we’re very motivated to have an inclusive community.
“The committee started with the easy things,” she continued. “We made sure we had siddurim with large print, we have a ramp going up to the bimah, and we provide hearing devices that enable some people with hearing difficulties to hear the service.”
Dr. Shulman stressed that it’s important for an inclusion committee to have representation from all the populations the committee is working to include. “To have an effective committee, you have to have the voices and the lived experiences of all sorts of people and to take those voices and experiences into account to create an inclusive community,” she said. That is one of the reasons the committee invited Dr. Silverman. “We want to hear Dr. Silverman’s voice about her experience and about what it takes to foster inclusion and how we can become a more inclusive community,” Dr. Shulman said.
“Dr. Silverman uses the term ‘disability wisdom.’ She quotes the sociologist Irving Goffman, who described ‘wise’ people as those who treat people with differences the same way they would treat ‘ordinary’ people without differences, and explains that people with disabilities want to be treated ‘wisely,’ to be respected as full humans.
“It’s very special to hear from a self-advocate, and it makes the topic personal and meaningful for the whole community”
Dr. Shulman described Beth Sholom as a warm community and a very child-friendly place. “These are components that build an inclusive community,” she said. “And they are very much in place in the synagogue.
“I love when I hear a baby cry during the service,” she continued. “That’s part of life. It’s welcome. That’s the backbone of an inclusive community. Come as you are, bring your joy and your momentary upset. This is a full life for individuals and for a community.”
Who: Dr. Arielle Silverman
What: Will discuss her book, “Just Human: The Quest for Disability Wisdom, Respect and Inclusion,” and will speak personally and professionally about the experience of blindness and about the intersecting identities of Jewishness and blindness for Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom. The talk will be moderated by Beth Sholom member Sandee Brawarsky, and marks Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.
When: Sunday, February 26, 8:15 p.m.
Where: On Zoom. The program is free and open to the public. Captioning and sign language interpretation will be provided.
For more information or to register: Go to www.cbsteaneck.org, click on “Register at all events,” and then scroll down to “Disability
wisdom”; call the shul at (201) v833-2620, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.