In his Sefer haMitzvot (Book of the Commandments), the great sage Maimonides elaborates on the meaning of the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18) Maimonides’ take is that “Whatever I wish for myself, I should wish the same for that person. And whatever I do not wish for myself or my friends, I should not wish for that person.” In concrete terms, if we want to live in a comfortable house and drive a nice car and have plenty to eat, that must be our hope for everyone. Furthermore, because Jewish tradition emphasizes action over belief, Maimonides is really saying that we must translate our hope into actions that will bring about this state of affairs. We must work to ensure that everyone has comfortable (and not just adequate) housing, for example.
When our discussion turns to awareness and inclusion of those living with disabilities, we must dig deep to live up to Maimonides’ ideal. We cannot be satisfied, for example, at building ramps and installing power doors on our buildings so that anyone who wishes can enter. We must go beyond the visible layer of disability, and seek to embrace the invisible. Often, this involves identifying and removing our implicit assumptions about those who are different than us.
Let’s consider what might be a simple act—greeting someone when they enter our building. The conventional wisdom when I entered the workforce, for example, was “firm grip, eye contact.” Here’s a short list of considerations in thinking about this dictum:
- If someone is in a wheelchair, eye contact may require leaning over so that an able-bodied person is not towering over the one we are greeting.
- Some people (with autism, for example) may have trouble establishing eye contact or may be intensely uncomfortable with it. We must be sensitive to these needs.
- People with a range of physical issues may have trouble gripping firmly, not to mention those who are uncomfortable with physical contact at all.
This list only scratches the surface of considerations as we work to accommodate disabilities in our society. While it can seem daunting to manage all of these issues, our community and our society will be all the richer for the diversity we can uncover by increasing accessibility to all. – 14 Shevat 5777
TThis post written by Rabbi Howard Stein. Rabbi Stein serves Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, and sits on the JRS Judaic Committee.