I have been a member of Temple Ohabei Shalom since 1976 when my son needed a Hebrew School with reasonable accommodations for his writing disability. I have a few disabilities: Amniotic band syndrome [of my left hand], Cerebral Palsy, and nonverbal learning disorder, with which I was diagnosed at age 60. My nonverbal learning disorder causes problems with reading and understanding, planning and decision making, among others. But I have persevered and aimed to make a difference. Despite my disabilities, I managed to go to graduate school to become an Employment Specialist. This allowed me to work with people with disabilities, helping them get ready for employment. However, when this proved to be difficult due to the above problems with my nonverbal learning disorder, I had to resign.
Though I resigned from my job, it isn’t in my nature to slow down, so I became an advocate for disability rights, services, and benefits such as the MBTA, housing, and employment as I struggled with these areas in my own life. It wasn’t in my nature to work alone, so beginning in the 1980s I came together with others who were committed to advocating for ourselves and other people with disabilities.
This past July was the 30th anniversary of the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990. The ADA gave civil rights for people with different abilities. I am proud to have been an advocate and activist for the passage and implementation of the ADA.
(Original version given as a dvar torah for Parashat Va’etchanan on July 26, 2020)
In 1991, a group of us – leaders in the disability community – took over the Massachusetts State House for eight nights and nine days during the conference committee process while they were negotiating over budget issues. As a result of our civil disobedience, Governor Weld agreed to meet with us on key issues, and we were able to protect accessibility of certain medications, and to keep most of the personal care assistant program intact. For many years, before and after this event I’ve testified at the State House to fight for preserving programs and services, as well as work on budget issues for people with disabilities for over a decade.
John Hockenberry, a renowned journalist who covered the Gulf War and also produced a special on discrimination against people with disabilities in the housing, employment, and transportation sectors, noted the difference in attitude toward people with disabilities in the US and in the Middle East. In his 1996 book, Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence, he observed that “America has the laws but not the attitudes, the Middle East has the attitudes but not the laws.” Hockenberry was treated in the Middle east as if he was an equal member of society regardless of his wheelchair. In American society, people see the disability first and not the person. Another problem is that many disabilities are not visible. When disabilities are hidden, they are not taken seriously. Though so much progress has been made, the work of raising awareness of and fighting for inclusivity for those with disabilities both hidden and visible, continues.
How does my journey as an activist and advocate for those with disabilities intersect with my Jewish journey? When I began attending synagogue in the 1970s, I learned that the advocacy and activism I had been doing for so long was actually a way of doing mitzvot (the sacred obligations of Jewish tradition). In studying Torah, I was deeply moved to learn that every human being is created in the image of God, and when we fight for the rights of all people, and when we work for a more inclusive society, we are upholding this core Jewish value. We are each ordained with a soul, a heart, and expected to live to our full potential, and we have the potential for good or evil. How we choose to live is up to us. Later in the Book of Genesis we read the story of the Tower of Babel, when God dispersed humankind from the Tower of Babel to the entire world. We not only were given different languages, but also diversity of race, cultures, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and different backgrounds.
We are all designed in the image of God. It does not matter who we are or where we came from, we are all the same. People with disabilities cross all categories from birth to death.
With the prevailing attitudes towards people with disabilities, I sometimes don’t know how I survived. I have been harassed, which has been hard on me physically, emotionally, and spiritually, but I just kept on pushing. At the Temple, due to an issue with our ramp, there were some years I could not get into the building to attend High Holy Day services. I ended up being mad at God, the staff and the congregation and refused to come to services since they lost the portable ramp, but I believed in a Higher Being and kept on pushing. A minister advised me to write to my rabbi one year when I couldn’t get in for High Holy Day services, and to tell her what had happened. This changed my journey and my life goals.
Prayer has been a source of strength for me for a long time. When I was in my fifties, I came up with a prayer: “Give me courage, wisdom, strength, insight, hope and a positive attitude, and humor.” Along my Jewish journey, I’ve connected deeply to the Shema , especially in times of crisis.
This Shabbat, we read the Torah portion of Va’etchanan, in which we read the first line of the Shema, and the Veahavta. For me, Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One – means that Adonai is everything wrapped up in who I am and what I believe. I wish I could explain more about how I feel, but it is hard to describe as it is so embedded in me like a warm glow.
We have come so far in this work, and yet there is so much more work to be done. In the very distant far past, mothers were forced to drown or hide their children with disabilities, because they were considered useless and a burden. Then came institutions, foster care, closeting in their own homes. Now, there’s a whole variety of independent living situations strengthened by ADA with services and/or other assistance, all individualized to meet the person’s needs. I was disappointed that the media did not seem even to mention the 30th anniversary of the ADA last year, and the MBTA now has become less accessible under Governor Baker. We need to keep working, to make “good trouble,” to use the words of John Lewis, so that every American is treated equally not only under the law, but through people’s attitudes.
Created in the image of the divine, I will continue to dedicate my life to the mitzvot our tradition commands us to do – to speaking up and speaking out on behalf of people who are marginalised, and I am grateful for the spiritual strength I get from our tradition and our community including the powerful words of this week’s Torah portion: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.