Vigorous Voices And Challenging Choices


Editor’s Note: The writer’s opinion is not necessarily the opinion of organizations with which he is affiliated.

A wish has no budgetary limitations. Because it is a genuine longing coming straight from the heart, it is valid even if it never comes true. That’s why making a wish is so uplifting.

My wish, as Jewish Disability Awareness month concludes, is that individuals with disabilities, their families, the professionals who work with them, the media, social and religious organizations and foundations, would all welcome and encourage vigorous voices and challenging choices.

Imagine a “Disability Forum” Where All Voices Could Be Heard

At “A College Night,” high school seniors learn about educational institutions, and then consider which college fits their needs and aspirations. At a job fair, perspective employees visit company representatives and decide where they might want to work.

In a “disability forum,” organizations could present their approach to disability. Participants could explore inclusion, empowerment, medical-centered models and person-centered strategies. They could consider the long-term outcomes of different approaches to disability. Reporters attending these forums would begin to realize that there is more than one way to present Jews with disabilities in their articles.

Such forums would counter the tendency of organizations to (unintentionally or otherwise) position themselves as “the authority” when it comes to Jews with disabilities.

Challenging Choices

Armed with the knowledge gained from vigorous voices, more individuals with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities and the media who feature the “Jewish disabled” might confront some difficult questions:

Does disability awareness unwittingly send the message that a disability is a person’s central and defining characteristic?

What happens when a child with a disability is always in the position of a taker, with no opportunity to be a giver?

Why are Jews with physical disabilities sometimes lumped together with Jews who have intellectual disabilities?

Should funders direct their resources to supporting “special” schools and camps or to accommodating the needs of students and campers with disabilities in typical environments?

What qualifies a person or an organization to be an “expert” about disability?

Do “sensitivity sessions” realistically convey what it is like to have a disability?

If non-disabled policy-makers have never interacted on an “equal power” basis with a person with a disability, how does this affect their view of the disabled?

As we evaluate disability initiatives, how much should we rely on evidence-based outcomes?

How legitimate is a “disability organization” if there is no ongoing meaningful input from those it serves?

Should we promote ambassadors of inclusion and/or or Jews with disabilities serving as role models?

Will My Wish Come True?

My wish for vigorous voices and challenging choices can be realized without massive funding. It does require a resource which is, unfortunately, still scarce–the willingness of the hearts of organizations and individuals to be open to both a variety of perspectives and an ongoing evaluation of existing initiatives.

May “the One who fashions all hearts” (Psalms 33, 15) help us make wise wishes and bring them to fruition.

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.