Eliana S. with her service dog.
Eliana S. with her service dog.

How do we help disabled Jews feel more at home in our communities?

Growing up, even when I was surrounded by people who genuinely loved me and wanted me to be my full, authentic self, I often still didn’t feel like I belonged. I always knew instinctively that I was different. I didn’t have a language for my inner experience — all I knew was I experienced the world differently, talked differently and processed things differently than pretty much everyone else around me.

And, similar to the experience of Jewish people growing up in an antisemitic community, I did everything I could to try to hide it. “Just be yourself” was a foreign concept for me. Instead, I anxiously tried to mold myself to society’s neurotypical norms.

When I found myself in the middle of an epic personal burnout halfway through college, I did a lot of intense research (which is a common trait of autism, the diagnosis I would finally receive at age 22). This led me to an incredible community of online disability activists and the discovery of people who experience the world the same way I do.

They told me that my disabilities were not something to be ashamed of, but were actually identities that I could be proud of. It’s why I use identity-first language (“Autistic person” rather than “person with Autism,” for example) and do not shy away from the word disability. It’s been a deeply empowering journey — but it left me without a roadmap for navigating the rest of the world. Was pretending to be somebody I wasn’t the only way to connect with non-disabled and neurotypical people? Was I doomed to never feel like I truly belonged?

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt,” the Torah says in Exodus 23:9. What, exactly, is a stranger? American culture teaches us to fear the stranger, other them and exclude them, in favor of our own belonging. If we can exclude an “other,” this means we are not seen as the “other.”

It starts in elementary school as bullying and extends even to the highest reaches of our government. However, as Jews, we are taught the opposite. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the late chief rabbi of the U.K., interprets the above passage as G-d saying to the Jewish people: “I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers… because though they are not in your image — says G-d, they are nonetheless in Mine.”

We have been given the duty, as Jews, to fight for the rights of strangers. We have experienced being strangers as Jews in a mostly non-Jewish world. This experience dictates how we treat others. We know first hand how uncomfortable and frightening that can be, and this makes it an easy choice not to do it to anyone else.

So are ramps and parking spaces the way to help disabled people feel like we belong? For me, no. I can usually physically attend a space, but the feeling of belonging is missing. That’s the key difference between accessibility and belonging. Similar to a queer person being in a heteronormative space, or a Jewish person being punished for missing school due to observance of non-Christian holidays, disabled people may be capable of physically accessing a space, but still may be othered. We are invited to join, and then are stared at, feared, infantilized or judged for trying to get our needs met. I could draw the same analogy to race, nationality and even age.

Accessibility is about access, but not necessarily inclusion. We technically have access to the space, but that’s not enough for us to feel like we belong.

True inclusion for the disabled does have to start with accessibility. Our feelings don’t matter if we can’t navigate the building or understand what anybody is saying. But it extends beyond that — to things like actual conversations about disability with disabled people, having respect and kindness for people with different needs and being willing to find compromises that work for everyone present.

Sometimes I do cancel things last minute, miss jokes, or say the wrong thing. That doesn’t define who I am or my worth — and it certainly doesn’t include the unique assets I bring.

Inclusion of disabled people can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Most of us have already figured out how to live fairly normal lives. We just need you to listen.

The CDC defines disability as “any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them”. A disability can be a chronic illness, changes in the body due to a specific events, something somebody is born with or acquired later in life. It can be physiological or psychological, and you usually (yes, usually) can’t tell someone is disabled by looking at them.

Everyone will experience disability at some point in their lives, even if it’s through the normal process of aging. Disability doesn’t discriminate by age, race, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality or anything else. It’s not an issue just for strangers.

As much as we try to convince ourselves otherwise, none of us have control over our needs. None of us. What we do have control over is how we treat others with different needs than our own. Every single one of our actions has an impact on whether somebody can access a space, and how they feel when they are in the space. When you see a stranger in the community, what will you do to make them feel like they truly belong?

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. A version of this was first delivered as a drash at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.

Eliana S.
Eliana S.

Eliana S. is a Bay Area native who recently graduated from Scripps College with a degree in biophysics. She is a disability and neurodiversity advocate and can often be seen cuddling with her service dog, Max.