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By: Rabbi Michael Levy
2015 is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. We will be posting 25 posts over the course of 2015 which will focus on the ADA- how it has changed society and what still needs to be done. Our goal is to cover for you, dear reader, as many different angles and issues as possible. Below is the fifth post in our #ADA25For25 series. The most recent post was Defining inclusion.
In Ferguson Missouri, Staten Island New York, and Baltimore Maryland, violent incidents involving African-Americans and the police escalated into nationwide protests. Enraged African-Americans felt that law enforcement officials neither respected them nor sought their input.
An Ancient Tragedy Attributed to Lack of Respect
Nearly 2,000 years ago, during the season immediately following Passover, 12,000 pairs of Rabbi Akiba’s students, studying in partnership, perished from a dreadful suffocating disease. Tradition ascribes their deaths to the fact that they did not accord each other sufficient “kavod”—honor and respect. Rather than helping each other grow in scholarship, each student strove to justify his own opinions.
To this day, some Jews, commemorating the tragedy through mourning practices, do not celebrate weddings during the first 25 days following Passover.
Lack of respect and Kavod for the Jewish disabled
Too many individuals and organizations, even those who strive to improve our lives, nevertheless do not respect those of us with disabilities enough to acknowledge and respond to our unique voices. They don’t always perceive organizations led by the disabled as equal partners in integration initiatives. I personally have attempted to bring disability-related issues to the attention of major Jewish organizations and received either no response or the generalized reply that no funding was available.
The media, schools, congregations and camps have perhaps unintentionally diminished our kavod by labeling us as “special needs” individuals, even though some of us prefer simply “people with disabilities.”
Some organizations dishonor us by playing the pity card to maximize donations. They fail to realize that potential spouses and employers shy away from meaningful relationships with people whom they have been encouraged to pity.
Blacks and women can turn to successful role models, many educators and some of the conventional and social media to learn about respect and empowerment. They have the practical and spiritual tools to fight bigots.
If you are born with, or acquire a disability, you face many “people on the street” and organizations who treat you as a damaged patient rather than a minority member. You generally have less access to empowerment tools than do blacks and women, and can easily internalize many existing negative stereotypes. It takes only one unenlightened family member, clergyman, health professional or educator to perhaps unintentionally steer you towards an unfulfilling and segregated life.
Drawing from Tradition to Strengthen Kavod
Genesis 1, 27 portrays all humans, disabled and non-disabled alike, as created in the image of God. Dishonoring a person dishonors God.
Leviticus’s message (19, 18) “Love your fellow human being as yourself” guides us to treat others as we would like to be treated.
There are non-disabled individuals who claim to accurately convey to the public what it’s like to have a disability, without substantive input from actual people with disabilities. This diminishes our Kavod, like a man who lectures other men about what it’s like to be a woman without substantive input from women. Let us rather keep in mind the advice of Ethics of the Fathers 2, 4: “Do not judge your fellow human being until you have arrived in his place (i.e. stood in his shoes.)”
“Systemic Kavod”—Learning from the ADA
While we cannot emulate the Americans with Disabilities Act by forcing synagogues, schools and camps to eliminate architectural, communications and transportation barriers, we can work with high-ranking policy-makers towards ADA-like systemic change that promotes fuller integration of Jews with disabilities. A call for systemic change is evident in the disability resolution adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America in August 2014, with meaningful input from Yad Hachazakah—the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center.
To underscore the importance of kavod in the disability community, funders might consider requiring grant applicants to submit their policies regarding disability-related barrier removal, as well as service to, employment of and input from people with disabilities.
Respecting all Stakeholders
Respecting others means listening to their opinions even if you don’t agree with them. During a meeting that preceded the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a congressional staffer burst out that he didn’t want his children watching people with no arms eating with their feet. As James Weisman, a United Spinal advocate tells it, a shocked silence followed. A joke was made to diffuse the tension and the hearing proceeded. A non-judgmental atmosphere during the ADA’s development contributed to its strength and its sensitivity to all affected sectors of the community.
If ongoing non-judgmental dialogue was crucial in the development and implementation of the ADA, how much more crucial is it when we Jews must work together in the absence of an enforceable disability mandate? Only through mutual respect are all stakeholders effectively able to interact to “hammer out” what maximum integration entails in specific communities, each with a unique institutional structure and a finite amount of available resources.
In the short run, “splashy” events and accomplishments featured in the media focus attention on disability. In the long run, “unglamorous” kavod among stakeholders– people with disabilities, funders, health professionals, clergy, service providers, family members, educators and media is more meaningful and effective. May God bring mutual respect to Ferguson, Staten Island and Baltimore, and may He imbue the disability community with a sense of kavod on the journey towards maximum and meaningful integration.