How We Can Do Better: Disability Visibility, Inclusion, and Acceptance

By: Avigail Winokur  |  March 22, 2020

By Avigail Winokur, Staff Writer

For much of history, people with disabilities have been mistreated by society. Perhaps on an individual level there was inclusion, love, and warmth within families, but it certainly didn’t extend to a communal level. It was commonplace for people with disabilities to be sent away by their families to live in institutions, which were often places of dehumanizing mistreatment. I am by no means passing judgment on the families that chose this path for their children. Most likely, they were unaware of what went on in these facilities. The internal reality of abuse, starvation, and torture within these institutions, such as the Willowbrook State School, was only revealed after determined investigative journalists and concerned citizens took the lead and successfully and legally shut them down. Willowbrook is one of the most, if not the most, infamous institutions that was shuttered. Following a court ruling in 1987, many provisions were set in place to protect the rights of people with disabilities. This began a revolution that is still in place today, advocating for the visibility and inclusion of people with disabilities. 

February was North American Inclusion Month (NAIM), an annual inclusion and sensitivity campaign run by Yachad. Yachad, founded by the Orthodox Union in 1983, is just one example of the many organizations within the Jewish community that advocates for the inclusion and success of people with disabilities. However, the Jewish community hasn’t always done a great job of making spaces for all Jewish people. Though it was more commonplace in generations past, even nowadays, many people have heard of someone who was kept in the background of their family due to their disability. I would argue that due to the opportunities and resources provided by organizations such as Yachad, HASC, and Friendship Circle, there has been a defined cultural shift in the way our communities receive people with disabilities. Disability is something on a vast spectrum over many different areas. For this article, I will mostly be discussing intellectual disabilities (which can sometimes result in physical and behavioral disabilities). 

I work at a group home for women with disabilities and recently attended an aufruf (premarital celebration held at synagogue the Shabbat before the wedding) with a few of the women who live in this home. The women were invited by their dance teacher and were strongly encouraged to attend by their home supervisor. Upon arriving at the kiddush, which took place at a relatively right-wing shul in Brooklyn, I was blown away by the warmth and kindness with which these ladies were received. Perhaps, based on my own biases and pessimistic expectations, I was expecting our group to be passively greeted, thanked for coming, and left aside. However, from the moment we stepped inside, the women were received as if they were a part of the family. The level of inclusion at the kiddush was profound and should be an example of how people with disabilities should be treated in all of our communities — as equals. 

Organizations such as Yachad and HASC implement many programs to ensure that people with disabilities have adequate resources and opportunities to live happy and fulfilled lives. Because of this, many people with disabilities can take on jobs that they wouldn’t necessarily have had access to before and can live more independently. When we provide people with the tools necessary for success, we see that they thrive. There have been many individuals with disabilities that have accomplished things never thought possible thirty years ago. People with disabilities have gone on to have successful careers, live independently, get married, and most importantly, find fulfillment. 

We must continue to progress in how we treat our community members with disabilities. It is not enough to passively acknowledge someone. We are now beyond that stage of history. People with disabilities are visible, they are proud, and they matter. We must not only say we make space for them, but we must also show that there is room for every single Jew in our communities. Yachad and HASC have already laid the groundwork for inclusion, but now it is up to us to implement inclusion on a communal scale. 

We have progressed in our communities to allow for the visibility and acceptance of all kinds of Jewish people, regardless of disability. In the spirit of North American Inclusion Month and the Jewish value of “וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ” — love your fellow as yourself, we have to do more. We are past the dark days of institutions, of Willowbrook, and of exclusion. So within your communities, I ask each of you to commit to including those around you, whether that be as small as opening up your conversation to bystanders or inviting someone over for Shabbat lunch. We have an opportunity to follow the example started by organizations like Yachad and HASC and continue to perpetuate positive change. 


Photo: Project IncludED Hosts Yachad Members at Yeshiva University

Photo Source: YU News