Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
February is Black History Month, an important time to raise awareness – and February is also the month dedicated to raising awareness about something else close to me: it’s Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).
Inclusion has always been a big part of who I am. I grew up in a family that knows well how a disability can impact everyday life. My father has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disorder where you gradually lose your eyesight. Through his own experience with the disease, we learned that you can still live a full life and accomplish anything you want after getting a chronic diagnosis… just maybe with some accommodations.
And then, a doctor officially diagnosed me with RP in the spring of 2008.
As I got older, I became an advocate for accessibility and inclusion. In high school, I worked with students with special needs in Adaptive PE, and at synagogue I was a shadow for students with special needs in the classroom. I believe that no matter the disability, all students deserve the same access to resources and information. They just may require a slightly different format.
In addition to JDAIM, February is specifically RP Awareness Month. Typically, I do not talk about my disorder, but this February also marked the next step in acceptance of my vision loss. I began orientation and mobility training for using a white cane while walking—which takes my invisible disability and makes visible.
Before I started training, I had no clue how anyone–coworkers, friends, or even strangers–would respond to the girl who can see to read a menu, yet pulls out a cane in poorly lit or new spaces. What I can see is constantly changing. I was positive that I wanted to keep everything quiet and not use my cane around people. I was scared.
Despite my fears, I had to keep reminding myself of a teaching in Pirkei Avot 4:3: “[Ben Azai] would say, do not disparage anyone and do not shun any thing. For you have no man who does not have his hour, and you have no thing that does not have its place.” This is my time, my place, and before I knew it, it was time to start training.
The training center was filled with Southern hospitality, and I received my very own folding cane at the end of my first session. When I returned to the office, cane in hand, some of my ISJL Education Fellow colleagues wanted to know how it went. They were excited about my new “toy” and to learn about how I use it. Rather than hide what I had learned, I used it as a teaching opportunity, allowing them to try it out down the hall of the office.
Less than a week into training, a group of fellows were going to attend an event at a nearby college campus. The event was at night, in a place I’d never been, with a large crowd. The perfect opportunity to practice some of the skills and techniques I just learned that morning. I brought the cane with me, hidden in my jacket, unsure of whether or not it would actually come out. As soon as I got in the car, there was buzz about the fact that they were going to get to see me use the cane. They thought it was cool and exciting—the exact opposite of how I felt. Yet somehow, with their strength, I used the cane for the night. In that very moment, I took my invisible disability and broadcast it to a space filled with strangers and friends.
Because of my coworkers’ attitudes, I was able to turn an anxiety-provoking situation into a successful accomplishment: my first night out with a cane. While the anxiety does not just disappear, the inclusion and love that I felt made it that much easier. Sometimes inclusion is not about extreme adjustments to an already existing system, sometimes it is just about opening your arms and your heart to someone for who they are.
During JDAIM, I encourage you to find a way to open yourself to hear someone’s story. You never know how much it can help.