What the Disability Community Can Teach Us All About Getting Older

Declining health need not mean physical or social isolation, a rabbi and disability activist explains.

Everyone who lives out the fullness of their days will become disabled sooner or later. Every part of our culture and infrastructure ought to be built with that in mind, but all too often, it isn’t. Those who are disabled earlier in life know this all too well. Here’s what others can learn from the disabled community, what Jewish texts tell us about building an inclusive community, and what our synagogues, schools, and social halls can do to ensure accessibility for all.

Age-related disabilities are similar to those experienced earlier in life. They are also different.

In a purely physical sense, age-related disabilities are very similar to earlier-onset disabilities. Eyesight is eyesight. Hearing is hearing. Mobility is mobility. Memory is memory. Every impairment that an elder can age into is an impairment that a younger person already lives with.

There is also a social similarity: Disability is stigmatized, and people with disabilities face pervasive discrimination. You might at any age be treated like a child or denied the rights that other adults have. When you need help in your day-to-day-life, people might refuse to let you get support in your own home and force you to live in a nursing home with little-to-no privacy or autonomy. You might be excluded from a wedding that you wanted to attend because a couple who could have chosen a wheelchair accessible venue opted to prioritize getting married in front of pretty stained glass windows, or simply forgot about accessibility altogether. You may be unable to understand speakers at a conference in your field because the conference organizers are unable or unwilling to provide CART captioning. You may be treated as having nothing to say worth listening to because you think more slowly than others, forget things that others remember, or have trouble finding words. In any number of ways, people will take your disability as permission to treat you as outside the norms of civility and consideration.

There is also a major social difference: People who become disabled earlier in life have more disability-related skills, more disabled life experience, and more connection to the disability community. We learn to do things with our bodies in the same way that non-disabled people learn to do things with theirs. Facing a lifetime of inaccessibility and discrimination, we learn to advocate for ourselves and maintain a strong sense of self. Even more so, we learn to build connections and community with one another and form a positive disability identity. When people age into disability, they don’t yet have those same cultural connections and skills that make it bearable to live in a world in which disability is stigmatized.

Those who age into disability can learn from the disability community at large — and the Jewish disability community in particular.

The Torah commands us to respect elders. Since aging inherently involves becoming disabled, we can’t keep this commandment without building accessible communities. For instance, any synagogue building that prevents wheelchair users from entering and reading Torah from the bimah has been built in a way that prevents appropriate respect for elders.

Disabled advocates who have been disabled longer can help Jewish communities learn new ways to do things and help elders learn how to defend their rights. We are also a community of people who know that disability is okay, and we’ve been fighting for a long time to build a Jewish world that knows it. We know that elders matter just as much as they did before they aged into disability.

There’s a lot we glean from Jewish texts and law about thriving even when our bodies age or become frail.

Jewish tradition teaches us that elderly, disabled and sick people are fully alive. This is critically important when we live within a secular culture that all too often conflates disability and aging with death and dying. When communities forget that disabled people are alive, they forget about access. When survival depends on medical care, the misconception that being disabled is like being dead can become life-threatening.

In contrast, Jewish law teaches us that we do not mourn for the living or treat them as though they are dead (Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De’ah, 339). People in declining health are important members of our communities whether or not they are expected to recover, and we are commanded to act accordingly. If your health makes it impossible to go to the communal gathering spaces, members of your community are supposed to come to you. People are supposed to show you appropriate respect, avoid degrading or dangerous boundary violations, and treat you as having an important connection to the community (Shulchan Arukh, 335). Needing others to do some of the work of maintaining connections isn’t a failure; it’s a normal part of life. Aging and living with declining health should not mean being isolated. When it does, that’s an injustice that needs to be corrected.

Pirkei Avot teaches us: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” And the Talmud in Shavuot 39b teaches: “All Israel are responsible for one another.” We are all responsible for making it possible for Jewish people to be part of Jewish communities.

In order to build more respect for elders into the structure of our communities, we need to build in more accessibility for Jews with disabilities of all ages. No list can be comprehensive, but here are some starting points:

Make your spaces accessible to people who use walkers, scooters, and wheelchairs:

• Make sure that it is possible to get into the building and onto the bimah.
• Make sure that accessible entrances, elevators, and bathrooms are unlocked and clearly marked.
• If you use a locked lift, make it obvious where to get the key, and make sure that it is possible for an unaccompanied person to get the key.
• Choose wheelchair-accessible venues for events.

Make videos and speeches accessible:

• If you make videos, caption them. If you upload videos to YouTube, proofread and correct the auto-generated captions.
• When you play videos, turn on the captions.
• Make CART live captioning available at large events. There is almost always someone present who will benefit from it.

Talk about alternatives to institutionalization:

• Seniors are at risk of losing their homes because of the misconception that moving to a nursing home is the only way to get help.
• Talk about home- and community-based services from the bimah.
• Build a relationship with the local Center for Independent Living.
• Know where to make a referral when people need help defending their rights.

Treat people with cognitive and communication differences like adults:

• Don’t make fun of the way people talk or communicate.
• Assume that communication is meaningful even when it’s odd, and make efforts to understand.
• Don’t talk about people as though they are not there. Address them directly, even if you’re not sure they understand. Whether or not people understand everything you are saying, they understand respect.
• For reference, here’s a presentation that I put together on how to listen to people with significant communication impairments.

Budget for accessibility:

• Our budgeting priorities reflect our values.
• In order to build accessibility into our community, we need to invest in accessibility in an ongoing way.
• Both organizational budgets and program- or project-specific budgets should have accessibility line items.

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