Disability, Judaism

Saving the World, Over and Over, One Life at a Time.

“Whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.”

I have known this quote from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 since literally before I can remember, which is to say that I literally do not remember a time before I knew it.  I even sang it as a child in a catchy tune at summer camp.  And, while the intellectual idea of the limitless value of one human life is a concept with which I have been comfortable since I was a teenager, I think that I sometimes lose it in my work.

As a consultant to corporations and nonprofits, and a former federal official, having the greatest impact for the most people is a watchword, and it should be.  And yet for all the talk of maximizing numbers, it’s nice to have a wake-up call about the power of helping an individual.

I have been privileged, since I moved to Boston, to have multiple interactions with the work of the Ruderman Family Foundation.  I have been honored to write, honored to consult, and honored to share whatever knowledge I have to contribute to important work.  Because I am something of a policy wonk and a technocrat, much of this discussion has been big picture.

Last week, however, I had the opportunity to experience the work of the Foundation through a different lens.  I had the dual experiences of my first meeting as a member of the Jewish Services Committee of Jewish Vocational Services in Boston, under whose auspices is found the RFF sponsored Transitions to Work Program, and of attending Sweet Sounds, the annual Gala of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, another program made possible by the Foundation.

In both situations, I heard deeply moving personal narratives from parents whose children’s lives had been completely transformed by these programs, from parents on the Jewish Services Committee whose son had transitioned from dependence to employment, to the moving story of Gateways parents who had relocated from New York so that their daughter with significant disabilities could have the Jewish education that was such a deeply cherished value for them.

Two lives in their own way saved.  Twice the entire world saved.  To hear these stories, to feel these stories, one cannot think that they were anything less.

We continue to strive for systemic change.  I would like to see comprehensive employment programs like Transitions replicated throughout the country.  Even more, I feel that the work of making Jewish education and Jewish heritage accessible and available to all Jews is a sacred mission, and that the Jewish world should be committed to expansion of Gateways style programs and services to its every level and facet as a moral imperative.  But these are big picture goals, and focus exclusively on them risks of securing the tremendous power of each individual experience.

So I honor the work of the RFF, as do so many, because of the cumulative transformative effect on the lives of Jews with disabilities.  But, I also honor it, and others like it, for the incalculable value of each life so transformed.  There is more to be done, and I have great confidence that the work will continue, but at this moment, I honor all of the worlds already saved.  Kol hakavod.


Will You Love My Son?

Thank you, Rabbi Ilana C. Garber, for reminding us to love our neighbors as ourselves, for we really are all the same, weird and beautiful, b’tzelem elohim.

Zeh Lezeh (For One Another)

Rabbi Ilana GarberBy: Rabbi Ilana C. Garber

I suppose it’s every mother’s dream and nightmare all tied together in one shiny package: that one day someone might love her son (insert “daughter” here if it applies!) enough to capture his heart. We worry that our son might return this person’s affections, loving us a bit less, or a bit differently. We worry that one day our son might leave us for this other person (though we try to remind ourselves that God intended it to be so….the Torah says a man should leave his father and his mother and cleave to his partner). And of course we worry that our son might fall in love only to have his heart broken, and we pray that we might be there one day to pick up the pieces.

But for our children with disabilities the story will probably not be the same. I doubt…

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Disability Rights

A New Day for Disability: Bipartisan Opportunities and the Road Ahead

Yesterday was not a happy day for me.  A registered Democrat since my 18th birthday, I make no pretense of nonpartisanship, and my party, and many causes that I personally champion, from climate change to consumer protection and a woman’s right to choose, took a hit.  Such is the life of one who lives in a democracy.

I want to challenge everyone, however, not to accept that disability rights is among those causes.  Starting with the mantra that I learned on my first day as a disability activist, from my boss who had worked in George H.W. Bush’s White House, disability is not a partisan issue, or at least it shouldn’t be.

The ADA was a collaboration between Reagan appointees, Democratic and Republican Senators and members of Congress, and activists of all stripes and parties.  It was enthusiastically signed by the first President Bush.

Disability, tied up as it is in questions of human dignity, ennoblement and opportunity, is an issue where individuals of every political philosophy can find resonance.

Disability issues run the spectrum, from libertarians empathizing with Olmstead’s embrace of individual freedom and dignity, to pro-business and market activists who understand that the greatest uplift of the disability community will come from helping us to find jobs and become economically self-sufficient, to traditional progressives and traditional conservatives, both of whom should be advocating improvements to our safety net, since both philosophies emphasize that a truly great society does not allow its least fortunate members to slip through the cracks.

Most importantly, with one in five Americans being a person with a disability, disability is personal for nearly everyone, and could quickly become a life reality for anyone.  As I wrote in an earlier piece, in many ways disability is ideal for reaching across the aisle.

This is not to say that the Republican Party platform has been particularly friendly to disability issues of late.  A true repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be disastrous for people with disabilities and the fear mongering and isolationism that continues to keep the Senate from ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is nothing short of shameful.

Rather, it is to say that there is nothing central to being a Republican that requires one to oppose these or other disability issues.  The Affordable Care Act was patterned after a Republican idea from Massachusetts, and is predicated on the idea of solving the nation’s healthcare problem using market forces, something that seems to me to be a core conservative idea.  Republican icon, former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole has been a tireless champion of the CRPD.

The purpose of this post is not to analyze the toxic Washington partisan forces that have pushed political stances coming into this election.  Both Democrats and Republicans sacrificed practicality in wars of ideology.  But that’s a topic for a political blogger, not me.

As a disability blogger, I would rather focus on the fact that the disability agenda is, for the most part, an agenda that has as much room for deeply held Republican values as it does for deeply held Democratic ones.  This is the activists’ challenge, specifically those that identify as liberal or Democrat.

Put partisanship aside.  Understand the values that drive the individual legislators with which you are dealing.  There are 535 of them, and while a few of them may be corrupt, the vast majority have foregone lucrative life opportunities because of a strong desire to serve.  If they vote differently than you would like, it’s because they believe that a different path is in the best interest of this country, not because they are craven comic book villains acting in depraved self-interest.

Sometimes, then, the goal is to persuade.  I like to think that people of conscience who are mistaken are open to thoughtful persuasion, but even this is a red herring to disability activists, I think.

Much more important is to figure out how those differing opinions and beliefs still support righteous outcomes.  I engaged in a very brief exercise above, a cursory paragraph explaining how traditionally Republican values support important disability causes.  Cursory, but not frivolous.

I really do believe that large parts of the disability agenda are perfectly consistent with conservative of ideology, and the goal of any thoughtful activist should be to realize that, flesh it out, and convey it to our legislators.  The biggest strength of the disability agenda is its universal nature.

So I challenge you to work with that.  In January, 535 men and women who want the very best for the United States of America and its citizens are going to be sworn into office.  I implore everyone to be ready to work with them, to show them that what is best for us is consistent with their deeply held values and is indeed what is best for all Americans.  This is our challenge, and I know that we can do it.

In the words of Justin Dart, himself a lifelong Republican, who broke ranks with the party only when its platform abandoned the values which I believe many of its members still hold, “Lead on!”


Votes, Violence, and Value: A Plea to Recognize the Basic Worth of the Lives of People with Disabilities

I voted today.

It was no big thing, really.  I went out my back door to my polling place, located about 1000 feet away.  I was looking around for the entrance and saw another gentleman in a wheelchair approaching the building, and asked him if he knew where it was.  He said I was in the right place, and that I could follow him in.

As we rolled in together, chatting amiably, he said “and it’s fully accessible.  We don’t ask for much, just to be able to get in.”  Once I did get in, the experience was very smooth.

My polling place has this handy touch screen machine that filled out my ballot for me, far more convenient and less intrusive than the cumbersome process from my polling place in New York where two poll workers, one Democrat and one Republican, would have to sit with me while one marked my ballot.

I used the machine, handed over my ballot, and came home planning to write a blog post about progress, contrasting the New York process and the Massachusetts one.

Then, I remembered a Facebook post from my wall this morning, and autistic activist friend who wrote, in in response to the horrific murder of the six-year-old autistic boy thrown off of a bridge by his mother “You want to know the most basic thing you can do for autism acceptance?


Accessible polling places are important.  The franchise is fundamental to our acceptance as citizens.

A basic right not to be murdered, though, is fundamental to our acceptance as human beings.

Now, you will argue with me that the murder of people with disabilities is already illegal, that the seemingly endless stream of grisly murders, especially of people with autism and intellectual disabilities by parents or guardians, is already illegal.  You will say the same about the fairly frequent stories of law enforcement officers using excessive and sometimes deadly force on people with sensory or psychiatric disabilities who react to approach or arrest in ways that surprise the officer.

There is that.

But every time one of these stories is reported, some subset of voices, hopefully a minority, talk about how it is justified.  They tell us that we can’t understand how hard the perpetrators of these crimes had it, what they were going through.  Some will even label this a tragedy, but not a crime.

Homicide doesn’t occur in a vacuum.  Almost every homicide has precipitating factors, which can range from horrific abuse, to unspeakable provocation, to a systematic socialization in an unacceptable moral paradigm.  There are very few killers who have no answer to why they kill.

Sometimes our justice system allows these factors to mitigate sentences.  Sometimes we recognize that circumstances might temper punishment.  As far as I know though, nobody ever tries to argue that these factors obviate the criminal nature of the homicide.

Yet, certain disabilities, like autism, seem to be fair game for this argument.

How can that be?  To me, it can only be with a subconscious degradation (I’m deeming it subconscious to give all who hold this perception the benefit of the doubt) of the humanity of the victim.

Many would agree with the statement that self-defense or the immediate defense of another are the only justifications for the murder of another human being.  If the same person can entertain a gray area around people with certain disabilities, they are applying a different standard.  Certainly, the media discourse seems to imply such a standard.

I voted today, and that’s important.  I’m glad to be enfranchised, and I salute the work of all of those that push to expand the franchise to the many Americans, with disabilities and other minority statuses, functionally or actually denied the right to vote.

But, it’s easy for a privileged professional with a physical disability, a definition that fits me and which I believe would have fit the individual who showed me to the polling place, to lose sight of how low the bar is set for many of our less privileged brothers and sisters.

The gentleman who showed me to the polls said that all we are asking for was to get in the door.  For many of us, the goal is so much simpler, “stop F****** killing us.”

Stop killing us.  No matter how many times I repeat it to myself, it doesn’t lose its powerful simplicity.

Most of my readers can’t directly stop any killers.  But you talk, and you write, and you vote.  You, too, can influence the changing perceptions of society.  So, the next time a tragedy like this comes to light, and, sadly, there will be a next time, change the dialogue.  Let us not let compassion for the difficulty of others eclipse the fundamental value of a human life brutally taken, which is never okay.

Call people on the attitude.  Get them thinking.  When there is the opportunity to influence change agents, get candidates to commit, and exercise your votes for those who recognize the value of the lives of people with disabilities.

From my electronic voting machine, it can feel like we have come very far.  From these news stories, it can feel like we are nowhere at all.  So let’s take the first step.  Recognize that humanity is a basic attribute regardless of disability, and demand that people, “stop F****** killing us.”


The Many Ways and Many Whys of Speaking Up: How We Can All Take a Lesson from Tim Cook

Last week, Apple’s Tim Cook publicly acknowledged that he was gay.  As Mr. Cook’s words clearly demonstrate, he didn’t come out, because he hadn’t been in a closet.

Said Mr. Cook, in an article that he wrote entitled “Tim Cook Speaks up”, Mr. Cook points out that, for years, he has been “open with many people about my sexual orientation. Plenty of colleagues at Apple know I’m gay,” But, as Mr. Cook said, he didn’t publicly acknowledge it.  He didn’t, in his words, speak up.

His reasons strike me as easy to understand.  He says

“Privacy remains important to me, and I’d like to hold on to a small amount of it. I’ve made Apple my life’s work, and I will continue to spend virtually all of my waking time focused on being the best CEO I can be. . .  I’m an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things. I hope that people will respect my desire to focus on the things I’m best suited for and the work that brings me joy.”

In a way, this parallels my own journey around disability.

Obviously, my disability was never a secret.  I travel through the world in a power wheelchair, among other things.

And yet, there was a time in my life when it was critical to me that I be identified with my varsity academic team skills and my Hillel leadership, and pulled sharply away from identifying with the disability movement.  It wasn’t until directly confronted with a specific need that I was the only one able to fill that I first took on a disability related role.

Like Mr. Cook, I realized that I had to speak up.

15 years after my first public disability leadership role and having recently completed a term in one of the highest profile disability offices in the federal government, I still wrestle with this issue.  I still tend to apply to jobs were my primary value is my legal prowess or my business acumen, even if I apply it in a disability context, and I ask people to recognize that I am more wonk than activist.

Equally important, I try to make clear that, though I am a straight white person with a disability, I am extraordinarily passionate on questions of justice and equality for people of color and the LGBTQ community.

Very few people are one-dimensional, and I think it is very natural to want to be identified by your talents rather than your minority status.  And yet, says Mr. Cook, that desire for privacy, which reads like a desire not to be labeled was holding him back from making a difference.  He says,

“I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.”

Even as it was important for Mr. Cook to continue to be identified with the incredible talents that he brings to Apple, he recognized that, by the very fact that he was the CEO of Apple, he had a certain role to play in the quest for equality, if he embraced it.  I like to think that my own embrace of disability as a cause was motivated by something similar.

Unlike Mr. Cook, I am now an intentional activist, but, even when I’m wearing my corporate lawyer hat, I tried to live in a way that publicly embraces that I’m a corporate lawyer with a disability.  I speak to bar associations and groups of children.  I serve on diversity committees, and try to help my legal employers when they seek the disability perspective.  I embrace both roles because I know that to do so is a way to make a difference.

And I do believe that it needs to be an intentional choice.  We have become a polite society.  For better or worse, despite my very visible disability, very few people are going to approach men disability issues unless I open the door.  I think that’s a good thing, I think it should be a choice.

It should be a choice because everyone has their own circumstances to deal with, but I encourage those who can to speak up.

If you are a person with a disability who does not feel the need to hide that disability because of a high risk of discrimination, even if you don’t think of yourself as an activist, think about publicly embracing the label.  Embrace it to become an example to the searching for role models, a living example to your coworkers that people with disabilities are just like them.  Don’t drop your life and become an activist unless you really want to, but think about how you might do as Mr. Cook is done and turn the life that you are leading into your own form of activism by speaking up.