In my own words: Jewish Disability Month

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I first moved back to this area and was dealing with my most recent hearing loss, I went to VESID, a New York state agency, which helped me get my hearing aids and my first operator-connected telephone. My counselor suggested that I apply for disability benefits so I could have some income until I was able to work. When I mentioned this to friends, several of them gave me the names of lawyers I could use when I was denied disability since they suggested it was difficult to receive those benefits. To my surprise, I was accepted immediately. I think that was the first time I actually admitted to myself that I was disabled. 
For me growing up, disability meant something different since my younger brother Larry had Down Syndrome. In those days (and up to until at least the beginning of this century), the New York state office that helped those folks was called the Office for Mental Retardation. At that time, the term retarded was not pejorative. It meant the people had delayed development of their intellectual abilities. This definition from Wikipedia shows how that usage has changed, at least in the noun form: “Retard, when used as a verb, is to refer to delay or hold back in terms of progress or development, or to be delayed. As a noun, it is considered a dated, offensive and pejorative term when used to refer to a person who has a mental disability.” Larry would hear the word “retarded” and point to himself. He also did the same when someone said “Jewish.” Neither had any real meaning for him, which, to me, shows that he had more wisdom than many of us. It’s the feeling behind the word that matters, not the word itself. 
February is Jewish Disability Month. During this time, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Federations and other Jewish organizations are encouraged to not only make accommodations for those with disabilities, but to offer full acceptance. I remember when people had no idea whether or not their bathrooms were fully accessible to those in wheelchairs. One person who attended the synagogue I belonged to in Philadelphia had almost given up on Judaism because the sanctuary could not accommodate her wheelchair and her interactions with the staff made her feel her needs were being dismissed. Fortunately, the first thing that congregation did when it purchased a building was to tear out the pews and replace them with moveable chairs. I’ve also seen people insist that they don’t need to use a microphone when speaking in front of a group, some of whom can’t hear them unless voices are amplified. Rabbinical schools now pat themselves on the back when they graduate students who are deaf. In the past, accommodations were not always made for those with hearing problems.
As for those with developmental disabilities like my brother Larry’s, the Jewish community has not always been welcoming. I am grateful to a local youth group that used to hold programs at Beth David Synagogue for my brother and other Jews with developmental disabilities. However, in general, Judaism prizes education and learning, and tends to discount those who can’t perform at a high intellectual level. This dismisses not only people like Larry, but those who have different modes of learning. It also discards those who, while they may not be able to study Talmud, can write Jewish music that lifts our spirits or create artwork that inspires our spirituality. Writing, music making, dance and so many other arts should be also celebrated as ways to connect to the Divine.
When my hearing impairment first became a severe-to-profound loss (even with hearing aids), someone from my synagogue in Philly came to me with a warning. Her husband was hard-of-hearing and did little outside of his job. She didn’t want me to isolate myself like her husband had. I took her warning to heart and continued to attend synagogue events – in Philly and then in Binghamton when I returned to this area – even though at times I felt lost and uncomfortable. I still avoid most lectures, especially those taking place in the evening after work, because my brain just can’t work that hard at understanding speech when I’m tired. I also realize there are people who stay home because they find attending events too difficult or don’t feel welcome. It can be hard to motivate oneself under those conditions.
My wish is that there could be accommodations for all. People with physical, developmental and any other type of disability have the same spiritual needs as the rest of us. Just because someone looks different, or thinks differently, or acts differently, or needs help, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t welcome them into our community. But it takes effort, and sometimes money, to make our Jewish community accessible. However, everyone is created b’tselem Elohim – in the image of God – so by welcoming those with disabilities into our community, we are also opening our doors to the Divine.