Did you know that February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion month? JDAIM, as the month is called, is “A unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities and mental health conditions and those who love them,” according to the organizations that mark it. “It is a call for action, for all of us as we act in accordance with our Jewish values, honoring the strengths that we each possess. The goal is to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be accepted, included, and welcomed in all aspects of Jewish life, like anyone else.”
I am a developmental pediatrician in practice for more than 30 years at the Rose F. Kennedy Children’s Evaluation & Rehabilitation Center at Montefiore in the Bronx, and not a day goes by that I don’t hear from a parent, or directly from a child or teen, about a sense of isolation and a yearning to be included and welcomed in the everyday settings and experiences that come together to make up a rich life: birthday parties, sports leagues, dance classes, the shul, the barber shop, the movie theater, a family reunion, or a restaurant.
So in honor of JDAIM, I want to shine a light on disability awareness, acceptance, and inclusion. Light is a theme throughout the Torah. Indeed, “Let there be light” was God’s first act of creation, before there were sun, moon, or stars. Light brings clarity; it brings things into focus. We see things we didn’t know were there, and we understand things in a new way. The effects of light serve as a perfect metaphor for inclusion.
While creation begins with “let there be light,” it ends with man being created in God’s image. If everyone is created in the image of God, then we have the responsibility to make sure that everyone, even those who are differently abled, has equal opportunity to participate and be accepted.
In Exodus, we meet Moshe, our greatest leader, a man with many abilities and, well, challenges. He has a speech problem, “a heavy tongue.” When Moses encounters the burning bush and he is asked to lead the Israelites, he initially objects. You’ve got the wrong guy!, he says. In response, God affirms Moses’ many capabilities, and assures him that his brother, Aaron, can offer support (aka accommodations) to help him fulfill his responsibilities.
Every one of us has so much to give, if society can learn to move past our limitations/constraints and facilitate our abilities. I’ve always thought that the prohibitions in Leviticus 19:14 set a really low bar: “You must not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God. I am the Lord God.” We don’t want just not to trip the blind person. We want to give that person a supportive hand.
The World Health Organization defines the following terms:
• Disability — any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.
• Handicap — the result when an individual with a disability cannot fulfill a normal life role.
Based on these definitions, a handicap is not a characteristic of a person, but a description of the relationship between the person and the environment. For example, a person who is born blind is unable to read printed material, which is how most information is shared (the disability). However, blindness may not be a handicap for that person if he or she is provided with Braille books, assistive technology, and so on. By attributing the handicap to the environment as opposed to the person, the solution is clear: create environments that support functioning. For example:
Create a ramp to the bima and a person in a wheelchair can come to the bima for an aliyah like everyone else
• Have large print siddurim available
• Have headphones to augment the songs and words from the bima for the hard of hearing, use subtitles on Zoom events, and provide sign language interpreters for the deaf
• Create a quiet space for sensory breaks, and a shadow for the child with autism
When we eliminate the obstacles and give a hand, we facilitate participation and contribution.
Inclusion makes us all better. According to Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, the first blind woman rabbi: “Our tradition understands that we are stronger when our differences are lifted up and celebrated as ways of being human that are and have always been with us. We are stronger when the richness of the tapestry of our lives and experiences are able to find their home in our communities.”
No one is perfect. Leonard Cohen (as quoted by Rabbi Bradley Artson, father of a son with autism) sang in his poem “Anthem”: “There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.” It is in the lack of perfection that we can see the light. We can choose to be a source of light, a beacon spreading light through our words and actions not just to some, but to everyone.
On a personal note, I offer these reflections in memory of my father, whose birthday was in the month of February and who died 42 years ago. He was an amputee who walked with crutches. He was the smartest, funniest, and kindest man in any room he could get into — but in those days, when there were few supports for people with disabilities, he couldn’t always get into the room .
Lisa Shulman, M.D., of Teaneck is a leading developmental pediatrician who specializes in diagnosing and treating children with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental and learning disabilities. She is the director of Infant Toddler Services at Montefiore’s Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center, which provides family-based diagnostic assessment and treatment services for young children who have or are suspected of having developmental delays, and she directs CERC’s RELATE program, which offers evaluation and treatment for young children with autism and ASD. Her research interests include early identification of autism, healthcare disparity in autism diagnosis and management, and the use of complementary and alternative medicine in treating autism.