After being in a wheelchair for 30 years, I have repeated identity crises — and therapy hasn't helped me. Just look at how our language has evolved over the years. When I was in graduate school in the 1960s, we used words like "imbecile" and "cripple" to describe people like me.
Then we evolved to "invalid" and "retarded," then "handicapped" and "challenged," then "disabled" and "differently abled," and now I am a person with "special needs" — for at least a while. I think this means that some of us have special needs, while the rest of the population — well, never mind.
So who are we, and what do we really need from our Jewish community?
We are 10 percent to 15 percent of the population, and if you include family members, we are close to half the population. If you include friends, almost everyone has been affected.
But what do we all have in common? After all, some of us have physical disabilities, others mental, others developmental. So what makes us "special?"
Sure, I need ramps. And my grandson, Sam, who is on the autism spectrum, needs special programming. My friend who is blind needs Braille. Those things are easy. Build a ramp, and I might visit your synagogue. But I might not stay.
Build that ramp and show me around, and I'll feel better. Take me to the sanctuary, but don't walk away; sit with me, offer me companionship. After the service, ask me about my life — my family, my work, maybe even my spiritual life. And then tell me about yours. And while we talk, look at my eyes and imagine living my life, and I will imagine living yours. That's called compassion.
There's a well-known Jewish parable that tells us that before a child is born, God infuses the child with all of the knowledge and wisdom they need in life, and then puts his finger on the child's lips and says, "Shhh," thus creating a secret pact between the child and God. And as the story goes, that's why we have an indentation on our upper lip — that's God's fingerprint.
What do we need? Sure, we need ramps and books and programs, but our deepest needs — our most special needs — are the same as yours. We have a need to be seen for who we are beyond wheelchairs or loud voices or unusual behavior. We need to be in a community where people look in our eyes and see that indentation on our upper lip — and then feel their own.
When God tells us to welcome the stranger, I have a feeling he was talking about more than access. He was also talking about compassion.
Dr. Dan Gottlieb, host of WHYY's "Voices in the Family," will be the keynote speaker at "Opening the Gates of Torah: Including People With Disabilities in the Jewish Community," a conference on Sunday, May 16, at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. Register online at: www.acaje-jop.org/inclusionconference or call 215-635-8940, Ext. 1231; or e-mail: [email protected]