It’s fair to say that Judaism, like most world religions, was ambivalent about individuals with disabilities. The Torah always commanded compassion for those faced with physical and developmental challenges, and yet the Halacha — Jewish law — often proved an obstacle to full inclusion. For centuries, rabbis debated whether deaf people could be counted in the 10-person minyan, or whether a blind person was exempt from certain mitzvot.
More recently, Jewish institutions have grappled not with the fine points of Jewish law, but with general challenges in accommodating people with special needs. Ramps were added to inaccessible bimas, hearing devices were installed, special training was developed for b’nei mitzva with various challenges.
But the task is far from complete. Many institutions, citing costs or convenience, often fail to make the kinds of accommodations that allow individuals to be fully included in Jewish life. Others do not have progressive hiring policies or do not think beyond a narrow spectrum when planning programming or services.
Addressing these gaps is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a unified effort to raise understanding and support inclusion in communities worldwide. All throughout February, organizations are promoting programs meant to encourage the highest standards of inclusion. On Feb. 12, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism will host the third annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill. Participants will meet with members of Congress to advocate for public policy that, according to JFNA, “improves the lives of individuals with disabilities and their families.”
Locally, MetroWest ABLE — the community’s network for advocacy and inclusion — is holding a number of programs meant to make the Greater MetroWest community “a place made ‘whole and complete’ by all of its members.” For more information about specific programs, see tinyurl.com/afnssgj.
“Our attitude toward the disabled is not decreed from heaven,” wrote Rabbi Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau in 2010. “It rests upon the attention and responsibility of the entire community.”