February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. This year it falls out as we are learning about Moses, who had the disability of a speech impediment yet was one of our most important leaders. We are also learning this month that Jews of every ability were at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.
Judaism has a long tradition of disability rights and inclusion. The Torah teaches us that G-d made each of us in His image; not just those who may someday gain entrance to an Ivy League college, become doctors and lawyers, win Nobel prizes, star in sports or music, or become elected officials. Not just those who are rich or famous. People with autism, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, mental health disorders, and every other kind of disability are all in G-d’s image. Some of these people are the most talented among us. After all, Itzhak Perlman makes the most wonderful music while using a wheelchair. Einstein invented the theory of relativity, but was said to have deficits in social skills.
There is a spark of G-d in each of us, whether we have a disability or not.
And, if your family mirrors the U.S. population, 20 percent of your family members have a physical, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual disability. Indeed, the majority of people either have a disability themselves, or a loved one with a disability.
I am a part of the 20 percent that has a disability. When you look at me, you can’t see it, but it’s there. I have dyslexia. I could not read or write proficiently until I was 12. That was also the same year I stopped growing. There I was: 5 foot 10 inches tall and illiterate. A lot of people made fun of me, calling me stupid, lazy, or both. I got beat up, and had few friends. Sadly, that is quite common for people with disabilities.
Some kids and adults with disabilities need a little more time, attention, or even a one-on-one support person. Jewish individuals and institutions can make a big difference for such people. Luckily, in the Greater Washington area, there are many great programs and people who champion success for those of us who have disabilities. Thanks to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, you can find free resources online at https://www.shalomdc.org/disabilitiesandinclusion. We also have outstanding institutions, such as Sulam at the Berman Hebrew Academy, Friendship Circle, Sunflower Café, MATAN, and my own organization, RespectAbility.
It’s up to us to welcome and include people with disabilities, just like anyone else. As Theodor Herzl said about Israel, so too is it true about including people with disabilities: Im tirtzu, ain zo agada. If you will it, it is no dream.
One dream that I have is for more people with disabilities to be able to get the education, skills, and jobs they need to succeed. And, given that people with disabilities have tremendous challenges finding and keeping jobs, one thing people can do it to find ways to help enable teens with disabilities to get summer internships where they can build their experience and resumes. Those of us with time and talent can also volunteer to tutor kids in our congregations or serve as job coaches for community members with disabilities to help them succeed in the work place. Ending discrimination against people with disabilities in the Jewish community and beyond is not only good for the people with disabilities — it’s good for those who don’t have disabilities as well.
By Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is president of www.RespectAbility.org, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and expanding opportunities for people with disabilities. She is dyslexic and also knows what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities.