Inclusion is an open ear, but belonging is having a real voice. According to Shelly Christensen, author of From Longing to Belonging: A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community, “Belonging is based on relationships within the community that encourage and empower people with disabilities and mental health conditions to participate like anyone else.”
Self-advocacy—the process of using one’s own voice—is exhausting. It is impossible to both fight to be heard and to make space for oneself and one’s community. Being a disabled woman myself, self-advocacy is one of the things I do a lot in my own life. But so many of us are not able to have a voice—nonverbal autistic people, deaf and hard of hearing people, people with a variety of mental illnesses (and the list could go on). We need people in our communities to help. Even our sage, Moses, needed a voice to speak to Pharaoh, and God sent Aaron. But one cannot be a voice for others if one does not understand the other.
This is a challenge in our synagogues. Even when disabled people are able to show up, they aren’t included in the life of the community. How can we create more voices that can stand up for disabled people? We want to create spaces in which everyone has a voice, but so many of us don’t know how, even if we mean well.
This past fall, I got the opportunity to teach as the Fellow at Kulanu, a high school program that draws from all four of the Reform synagogues in the Cincinnati area. For the first time in my life, I shaped a course entirely around what I was passionate about, and I structured a course on Judaism and disability around this very question. We started by looking at biblical texts that refer to some sort of disability. Then we moved forward in time, class by class, until we were all the way up to the present day. We explored texts from Jacob’s limp to Rabbi Lauren Tuchman’s EliTalk about her experience as a blind rabbi. But I wasn’t working with temple administrators or leadership. The challenge for me in creating this class was how to teach this to a group of high schoolers on Zoom.
Some of my friends and mentors questioned whether this subject matter is really “appropriate” for high schoolers, but I reminded myself that they are more mature than many of us think. I was told that they couldn’t handle hearing about my own experience with disability, but this was in fact one of the best tools I developed as my teaching evolved over the semester. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why talking about disability is rated R in the first place and what we are saying to disabled kids who already feel left out.
While there were certainly challenges, teaching this class also brought me some amazing opportunities. In particular, it allowed me to connect with some incredible people in the disability space. I had the chance to bring in Pamela Schuller, a comic and Jewish disability advocate, to speak to my students about living with Tourette’s and the journey that she has taken through her life. I also got the chance to speak a number of times with Shelly Christensen who literally wrote the book on Jewish disability advocacy and how we can make our synagogues more accessible.
As my students grow up, and as many of them head off to college next year, I hope they will be a voice for people with disabilities. Perhaps one of them will be the next person to speak up when a school decides to build a building with no ramp or say that they can’t accommodate their disabled students. Perhaps they will be the next people writing blog posts about the issues with attendance policies. Or perhaps they may teach accessibility information to their Hillel professionals when they are told that everyone belongs. I know that they gained practical knowledge about what kinds of things make a community accessible and the textual skills to back up those ideas. They may be the next voice for those who would otherwise be drowned out.
Emily Dana is a second-year rabbinical student, disability advocate, and writer living in Cincinnati Ohio. She taught at Kulanu: Reform Jewish High School for her TJF Fellowship this year.