‘I Don’t See People With Disabilities’

I’ve had a busy week. In six days, I’ve visited  four cities, with speaking engagements in Oakland, Los Gatos (Calif.), New York, and New Orleans. Travel can be both exhausting and exhilarating: Things happen that just don’t happen at home. On the New York subway, I ran into an old friend who lives in Vermont. That same day, I heard from a friend from home in Los Angeles who had spotted me on the Upper West Side.

Traveling also makes you notice things. Themes emerge. From my busy week crisscrossing the country, two conversations keep resonating in my thoughts.

One was a discussion I took part in on Tuesday at the Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference, a remarkable gathering of people who are passionate about the fields of special special needs and people with disabilities. That’s where I heard  Jason Lieberman, who is 33 and has has cerebral palsy. Jason walks with the help of crutches and his speech can sometimes be strained, but that doesn’t dampen his terrific wit — or weaken his very strong opinions.

Jason is an advocate for people with disabilities, and told a story about visiting a rabbi years ago to discuss the issue.

“Look, I’d like to help,” the rabbi said, “but the truth is, I don’t ever see any people with disabilities in my synagogue.”

Jason asked the rabbi to get up and follow him. Ambling on his crutches, he led him to the front entrance of the synagogue. He asked the rabbi to open the door .  Looking down, Jason pointed at the 25 steps leading from the street to the synagogue.

“Rabbi,” he said, “it took me 45 minutes to get up those stairs. You want to know why you don’t see people here with disabilities? How would they get in?”

It was both literally true and a powerful metaphor. Institutions—and individuals—create all kinds of obstacles to people with disabilities (physical, developmental, neurological) without even realizing it. It’s not just staircases and curbs. It’s attitudes and judgments.

I was reminded of that last night in New Orleans, where I gave a talk about Following Ezra at the Jewish Community Center in the city’s Uptown district. Before the talk, I had a nice chat with a young woman named Dana Wallen. Dana is a delightful conversationalist who made me feel right at home. She told me she had gone to Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass., a sister camp of the one Ezra and his two brothers attend (and love) in Ojai, California. She also told me she had learning disabilities.

After my talk, Dana approached me again with a question. She told me she’d had a variety of experiences working with children and in other kinds of jobs. But often, she said, when she was in discussions about potential employment, she felt that interviewers dismissed her without giving her a chance. Because of her disability she said, “they think I can’t do the job, even when they don’t know anything about me.”

She asked what she could do about that.

I didn’t have great advice, except that if you keep asking and keep looking, you will always be able to find people who are open, compassionate and can see the value of a human being.

And I told her to tell people how she felt, just as she was telling me. The more people like Jason and Dana keep sharing their stories, the more people will understand the great potential so many of us overlook.

In the meantime, we can all think about dismantling some staircases.

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  1. dana
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Thank you tom I am very touched by the blog and I think it is great and I would love to be of any help that you need
    So keep in touch
    Dana wallen

    • Tom Fields-Meyer
      Posted December 10, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Dana. It was great meeting you and I will keep in touch.

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