The joke goes that a fellow walks into a bar and sees one of the patrons talking to an interested crowd about the weather. He walks over to the group and listens intently as the speaker explains about variable wind speeds, weather patterns and the possibility of human flight. Then he empties his glass and, to everyone’s amazement, he pulls open the second story window, steps outside... and floats there – on thin air!
Flabbergasted (and into his fourth drink), this onlooker decides he, too, has to try it. So after the first man safely comes back into the bar, he walks over to the open window, waits until he believes the wind conditions are just right and steps out of the window... and falls straight onto the sidewalk below. The bartender turns to the first guy and says: “Ya know Superman, you’re really mean when you’re drunk.”
We don’t like telling people what they can’t do – we feel it is somehow inappropriate and condescending and above all: hurtful – and so we too often hide the truth from people for the sake of “protecting them” from themselves. Of course, like all untruths, this charade can’t last on its own and has to be constantly fed. And like all untruths, eventually the truth catches up and the results can be positively disastrous. If you can’t fly, you shouldn’t be told that you can. To the contrary: You should be told that you cannot fly and, at the same time, be reminded about what you can do.
IN THIS week’s Torah portion, we learn of the birth of Yaakov’s 12 sons, whose unique spiritual DNA is the basis for what we refer to as “Klal Yisrael” – the combined nation of Israel. Each one unique, we follow the individual paths of their lives and watch as distinct personalities develop.
All of them are leaders – even though many of them are described as possessing weaknesses in one way or another. Possessing a challenge, a weakness, or a disability does not disqualify someone or make them “less-than,” nor does it define anyone. It does, however, contribute to their own reality – and not having a name for it is an almost guaranteed way to not harness or grapple with this challenge.
As Yaakov lies on his deathbed later in the Torah portion of Vayechi, he speaks to each one of them, describing their personalities to them. His parting gift, as it were, was the gift of themselves. “This is who you are: Own it. Struggle with it. Harness it. Use it. Be the best ‘you’ that you can be – and that person will include weaknesses as well as strengths.”
So why is it, then, that we are so afraid to share the truth about differences that limit us?
Fitting in has always played a very important role in the human experience: without the ability to contribute to and be a part of a larger group, hunting, bartering, building and more would be largely impossible. Fast forward to modern times, and this desire to fit in is what drives the consumer market: The trend is consistently a more powerful force than the need. As British psychiatrist Dr. Joanna Cannon put it, there is a sense that “If we’re doing the same as everyone else, we must be doing it right, and finding a reflection of ourselves in those around us is a form of validation.”
SO WE want to fit in – we need to fit in. But we also can’t deny reality: That won’t work. Which means that it is up to us as a society to make sure that the disabled population isn’t just included, but that they actually fit. Stigmas associated with anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, or the overarching and incredibly ambiguous “special needs,” can be much harder to accept than tangible challenges like physical illness, genetic abnormalities, and other, more noticeable handicaps.
But this can change with proper attitude and radical acceptance. A change in focus from “how are you different” to “what works for you” can go a long way. “This is what works for me, you, him, her, or us” is constructive and safe instead of too much focus on what doesn’t work.
Recently visiting our school district’s communal farming project, a teenaged boy introduced himself to me. He explained: “I am part of this group. We’re all in a special class because we can’t communicate with people. We’re not all the same – like, I’m a geek and that guy has something else wrong with him, but we’re all in a class for people who can’t communicate.”
“Clearly, you can communicate”, I said, “You just don’t always find it easy to communicate with people in the way they prefer to be communicated with.”
He thought about it, shrugged, and started to walk away but quickly turned around and proceeded to tell me about his “geek” interests: computers, engineering, video games, and so on. He seems to be an excellent communicator even if his interests aren’t aligned with most of the others in his peer group.
SO WHY are we still so uncomfortable with disability? Why is it that no fewer than three times in this week alone did someone tell me that they don’t want someone to feel bad that they are associated with the disability community so they have had to avoid certain interactions?
Because we still don’t like “different.” Even as we’ve become more advanced in our exclusion – sometimes even calling it “inclusion,” we are still stuck with the notion of otherness as opposed to uniqueness. Instead of seeing differences as the norm, we treat them as the exception and that needs to change – just as no one expects the tires of the car to be the same as the engine and just as we don’t expect the nose to do the job of the eyes or the toes. Differences are essential. The same exact DNA is present in all of our cells and yet each cell group is responsible for an entirely unique function.
As we acknowledge the International Day of Persons with Disabilities this year, let’s acknowledge that disability is the largest minority group on this planet and that people with disabilities, like all minorities, are just people. No less than the majority but also no more than the majority. As we learn to expect differences, we can better accept differences.
The writer is the program director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Yeshivat Darkaynu, a one year Israel program for young adults with special needs. He lives with his wife and five children in Gush Etzion.