Since joining the Baltimore Jewish Times almost two years ago, I’ve developed a reputation for being the “go-to” person for stories about people with medical and neurological disorders and differences. As a clinical social worker, my background has given me a familiarity with these kinds of topics. I enjoy combining my love for writing with my interest in helping people with illness and disability. I like feeling that I am providing a service by raising awareness about the challenges experienced by people with disabilities and their families.
Yet I know my almost obsessive preoccupation with stories such as these predates my social work training by many, many years. In reality, my choice to become a social worker was most likely a reflection of my fascination with the experiences of people who live with physical and psychological challenges.
As a child I was simultaneously frightened and amazed by people who had overcome the obstacles presented by their illnesses or disabilities. I read everything I could get my hands on about Helen Keller. I worried that I would have an accident and become disabled or catch a rare disease like the ones I watched on “Medical Center” or “Marcus Welby, M.D.” I watched those television shows religiously, although they gave me nightmares.
People with disabilities, I’ve learned, often see themselves as outsiders; I have always identified with outsiders. In some sense, that identification cannot be separated from my Jewish identity.
It’s not a new idea: Jews, like members of most minority groups, have always been outsiders. As a child of a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States as an 11-year-old, I have always identified with my mother and her sense of being different, not fitting in. My mother recalls feeling “odd” when she arrived in New York City from Brussels, Belgium. Her clothes weren’t right, she didn’t speak the language, and even after she had been here for several years, she had little knowledge of popular American culture and the world her peers inhabited. She became valedictorian of her junior high school, made friends, went to Brandeis University and even lost her European accent. Still, she felt like she didn’t belong.
As Jews, we should have the capacity to understand the plight of the outsider, and we should make it our business to help others in our community to become insiders.
Fortunately, in recent years, the Jewish community has embraced efforts to make our synagogues, agencies and schools more inclusive for those with disabilities. That movement has gained momentum since the creation of the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance in October 2012 and the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly’s seminars on disability inclusion in November 2012.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. In commemoration, the Baltimore Jewish Times will present a series of articles pertaining to resources for those in the community who live with disabilities. But disabilities won’t disappear when February turns over to March. We must dedicate ourselves to providing the support, respect and acceptance that people with disabilities and their families deserve … every day of the year.
(See related commentary, “Calibrating Tragedy”)