After completing a set of weights at the gym (when I used to have time to work out) I mustered up the courage to approach the military veteran who so impressed me with his diligence at the gym, all while using a prosthetic leg. I thanked him for his service and politely asked him if he would be interested in having us publish his “story” in our next issue, especially as the theme involved Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion. He looked at me point blank and said “I don’t have a disability; I’m not the guy for your paper.”
After I got over the awkward state I just put myself in, I took home a valuable lesson. Everyone has struggles, differences, and obstacles that they need to overcome. Some may be more apparent than others, but we all have our challenges and it can be hurtful, denigrating, or just plain wrong to label others by those challenges. To paraphrase Justice Richard Bernstein, the first blind Judge to be elected to the Michigan Supreme Court, who spoke eloquently at an Inclusion Employment event run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in conjunction with Congregation Beth El, don’t feel weaker or entitled because you have a specific challenge that others don’t have. “I worked 15 hour days to make sure I didn’t slow the others down," he said. Work hard, achieve what you set your sights on, and don’t make excuses.
When our amazing and too hard working editorial staff mentioned the idea of a Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion theme for our second issue, I thought it was a nice idea. It’s always a good idea to have themes for the issues of ad a community newspaper and I already knew of a few organizations that were involved in this area. Little did I know how much is actually going on in this community on this topic. After mentioning the idea to a few organizations, we found ourselves swamped with requests for submissions to the issue. Organizations, businesses, individuals – each one had stories to share and unique experiences, programs, events and services that they would like to broadcast to the broader Jewish community. Kol HaBirah’s staff’s calendars were soon filled to capacity and we had no choice but to turn down invitations to events and requests for submissions due to our limited bandwidth (I’ve been called out for using “limited bandwidth” too many times this week).
When it is all said and done, these past two weeks have been a phenomenal learning experience for all of us. We learned about the comprehensive programming and strong dedication and energy that the Greater Washington community has towards inclusivity. We learned about the collaboration between the various organizations and the cutting edge ways in which community members are furthering their efforts on behalf of inclusiveness in all areas, including advocacy, early education, athletics, employment, hard skills, soft skills, self-esteem, fun activities, and religion. It was particularly compelling to pick up on a theme across various organizations and community members – folks with disabilities can contribute much to the community and it's time to demonstrate that. They can build sukkahs, liven up a party, improve morale amongst employees at work, provide focused dedication to important tasks, provide students with an inclusive perspective, carry a sports team, and lend a listening ear. The model of asking the community to help them out of the goodness of their heart is becoming one of the past. As a business, organization or community member: Ask not how you can benefit them; ask how they can benefit you. Because they can and they will.
To the war veteran who served our country and sacrificed your leg on our behalf, I sincerely apologize. I apologize for labeling you according to your challenge. You don’t in fact have a “story” that we should publish. You are just like the rest of us who have our various challenges and are finding ways every day to overcome them and contribute to your family, your friends, and your community. You are just like Justice Bernstein, who accomplishes what he wishes to and works hard to do so. Your challenge doesn’t dictate who you are - you consciously decided who you are and easily correct others, like me, who aren’t yet aware of that decision. To paraphrase a line from Sulam students in their recent video - Please don’t limit us… because we are limitless.