For People with Disabilities, a New Promised Land Beckons
Our world is going through a major change. We’re exiting the Industrial Age moving into the new era of the Information Age. We’re moving from an age where many people worked in factories and well-defined 9-to-5 jobs to an age where robots are better able to do many jobs people do and where more and more people work independently. We’re moving into a global economy, a world where communicating with people half way around the world is often easier than communicating with one’s next door neighbor.
This week's Torah portion, parashat B’shalach, continues the Exodus story, describing the Israelites’ long journey through the desert, from slavery in the land of Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Interestingly, it describes that many of the people yearned to go back, pleading their desire to return to a place they knew rather than into the unknown.
As I see it, there are many similarities with today's environment. February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, and today, people with disabilities are also wandering the proverbial desert, exiting one era but not quite ready to enter a new one.
The old era saw great progress: Laws such as the Americans with Disability Act helped make physical environments much more accessible; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act helped guarantee that children with disabilities receive an appropriate education; the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which now has more than 160 global signatories, helps people with disabilities throughout the world engage with their communities.
Yet in many ways, people with disabilities are still slaves to their disabilities and to antiquated laws designed to take care of them. In the U.S., 70% of working-age people with disabilities are outside the workforce – nearly the same rate as when I grew up in the 1950s, before any of the aforementioned laws were enacted. Federal law still requires people with disabilities to prove they cannot work in order to receive services needed for survival.
Today, programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are viewed primarily as safety nets, protecting people who are unable to work. In the new era that I envision, these programs will be changed to provide services that enable people with disabilities to optimize their abilities.
Today, we may encourage people with disabilities to do their best; in the new era, everyone will be expected to fully live their lives. The tools and services required to function optimally will be available to everyone.
Today, medical equipment, personal assistant services, and other human support services are viewed as services that help for people with disabilities. In the new era, they will be viewed as enablers available to all people.
In the new era, disability will be viewed as a diversity asset rather than a health issue. Being a personal assistant will be viewed as a good job in a large job market. Special education will be the norm, available to all children and enabling them to reach their full potential.
Neither personal nor societal transitions are ever easy. Five years ago, I went through a personal transition: I went from being a very independent person with a disability to a person who needs personal assistant services for nearly all activities of daily living. I used to be able to get out of bed whenever I wanted, eat when I wanted, drive a car when I wanted, and do almost everything without assistance; now, I rely on attendants.
I prided myself on knowing how to be a person with a disability, so I was shocked at how difficult the transition was – and continues to be. I was amazed at how difficult it was to rely on other people for my everyday needs. I, too, yearned to go back to the past – but there is no turning back. Yes, transitions are difficult, but they cannot be avoided.
In parashat B’shalach, we read that Egyptian soldiers tried to pull the Jews back into Egypt – and that many of the Jews wanted to go back. We see that today, too. Many people want to go back to the past, and many people are trying to pull us back there. What I find most exciting about B’shalach, though, is that ultimately, the Jews did not turn back, and the Egyptian soldiers weren't able to compel them.
Similarly, there can be no going back today. Wandering the desert is and will continue to be difficult – but we will reach our destination! It took the Jews 40 years to cross the desert, but no one knows how long it will take us to cross our desert. There’s one thing, however, that we do know: The new era beckons. We can only go forward, and forward we must go, go, go!
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.