Reflections of Disability: Making Visible the Invisible and Raising Up Difference

March 1, 2023Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler

"Where's your cane?!" my rabbinical school classmate, Deborah Graetz (now Rabbi Deborah Goldmann), called out to me as we crossed paths in the hallway between classes. She looked concerned. It was 2004 and I had recently returned to school after suffering a ruptured aneurysm in my cerebellum - a brain bleed followed by drastic surgical and therapeutic interventions to save my life. In the months since the brain surgery, I relied on a wheelchair. When I was a bit steadier, I graduated to using a walker, then a cane. Despite my obvious physical disabilities, it was tempting to pretend I was fine and could slide back into the life I had known before, leaving my cane in the classroom or my car rather than navigating a heavy backpack along with any other supplies I would need for my day of learning. Many days, the cane seemed more of a nuisance - and a physical reminder of the independence and freedom I'd lost.

Many of my classmates were congratulatory when they encountered me in the halls without my cane, assuming that the change signaled a new development in my healing and that I would soon be able to discard it permanently and "go back to normal." But Deborah understood that disabilities like mine (and her own) are not remedied quickly or completely.

At the time, Deborah used hearing aids and other assistive devices to help accommodate the deficits in her hearing. When she spoke, Deborah's voice was loud; she took pains to articulate each syllable, sometimes aware of how her speech was distinct and sometimes oblivious. Deborah knew firsthand how assistive devices can help accommodate a disability. In 2004, we did not yet know that we would share a professional trajectory throughout our lives and careers. In subsequent years, we would each work with internships, jobs, and congregations in underserved communities, often encountering Jews who had felt invisible in Jewish spaces. Jews who, like us, were in some way outside the mainstream. After ordination, we each found ourselves ministering to those on the margins.

Throughout the Torah, we are instructed to move through the world with an extraordinary degree of mindfulness to the experience of others; we, too, were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. We, as Jews, are implored by the divine to notice that which others might not observe and to advocate for one another because we know what it is to be somehow exceptional.

Throughout our training, Deborah and I shared an understanding about the nature of disability, what it means to be an advocate, and how the experience of being disabled could shape our learning experiences as we prepared to become rabbis and leaders in our communities. The lens of disability informed the Torah we learned; it offered a unique perspective on Jewish texts and traditions that was invisible to others.

Over time, I have learned that this lens is what sets us apart, makes us visibly (or invisibly) different, and guides us in ways we could not have predicted. Back in 2004, all I knew was that I felt suddenly and irrevocably outside the community of young, seemingly able-bodied classmates.

Often, our society distinguishes between people with disabilities that are physical in nature from those with emotional or intellectual disabilities; many of us feel isolated and disenfranchised because no one else looks or sounds like us; no one else seems to struggle the way we do. When we say that our community is sensitive to the needs of those with disabilities, I wonder which disabilities are highlighted and which are left in the shadows.

Deborah and I - each facing our own impediments during our time in rabbinical school - opened our eyes, ears, and hearts to one another. In doing so, we created a bridge to shorten the distance that might have otherwise seemed impassable. When she saw me in the hallway without my cane, she lovingly but firmly reminded me not to ignore my need for support even when it felt uncomfortable or inconvenient to stand out. When class discussions took place in a large room, necessitating that students and faculty sit around long tables at distances inaudible to Deborah, I was careful to pass the amplifying device linked to Deborah's hearing aids around to each person as they began to speak so that she wouldn't miss a word.

The interdisciplinary approach to accommodation and support that Deborah and I utilized in rabbinical school can and should transform how the broader Jewish community looks at disability access. Part of learning to see that which might be invisible to others offers an opportunity to advocate for and with one another, to be certain each of us gets the accommodations we need. We need not divide disability into subgroups or hierarchies of need.

Accessibility must be re-envisioned as part of our sacred obligation to see one another b'tzelem Elohimb'tzelem Elohimבְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִיםLiterally "in the image of God;" the concept—from Genesis 1:27: “God created humankind in God’s image”—that because all humanity is created in the image of God, each person is equally valued.  , as divine creations, each reflecting the glory of the One. Our congregations, communities, and organizations grow stronger when we raise each other up and empower each other to learn our vulnerabilities and advocate for accommodations to facilitate accessibility for all.

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