Each February the Jewish world raises awareness about disability-related issues by marking Jewish Disability Awareness Month. To prepare myself for that annual encounter, and my need to deepen my understanding of disability-related issues, I spend time on the Internet, visiting different informative web-sites.

Landing on the Facebook page for Jewish Disability Awareness Month, I began to read back-postings and came across one that caught my interest. Imagine my surprise and pleasure to discover that I not only know the author, but that I know, as well, the person about whom she writes. The author is Jo Ann Simons, a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers. You can find her blog-postings on the Ruderman Family Foundation’s website.I reproduce this beautiful blog-posting with her permission:

“Sometimes a picture is just a picture and sometimes it’s more. On a recent Caribbean vacation we were taking a bus tour when I looked forward and saw something so ordinary but so powerful that I grabbed my cell-phone and took a picture. It was a young man’s leg in the aisle of the bus. He was wearing rugged footwear and a fashionable bathing suit and a polo shirt. His hands were clasped together. I couldn’t see his face but he might be handsome, thoughtful and strong. I imagined him happy, accomplished and satisfied. I saw him, in that moment, how I do see him and how I hope the world sees him.

Without judgement.

This picture is my son and it was taken last month on St. Kitts. I was sitting several rows behind him on that bus. Without his face visible, it was possible for me to see, for several exquisite moments, the hope I have for a truly inclusive world. A world where Jonathan was judged by his employment success and not by the facial features that tell the world he has Down syndrome. A man who has his own home, who decides what time to go to bed, get up, shower and what time to eat. What if they saw him as a powerful swimmer and not someone whose chest is defined by the scars of open heart surgery? What if they saw him as a man with 6000 songs on his iPod and not someone wearing hearing aids?

What if disability were invisible and we judged people by their character? While I believe that differences and individuality ought to be celebrated and embraced, they are NOT a reason to exclude or discriminate.

Or judge.

What if it didn’t matter because we didn’t notice?

Or care?”

Ms. Simons’ essay raises the kind of provocative questions that should set us all thinking about how we interact with the people with disabilities among us....which is really another way of posing the question of how we choose to relate to every person we encounter...because some disabilities (i.e. mental illness) may not be visible at all.

I encourage all of us to find some way to acknowledge Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Read a book, troll the Internet, watch a movie (we have some excellent ones to recommend), read some blog-posts....all in the name of expanding our awareness and deepening our sensitivity to our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and the strangers we encounter who are differently-abled.

Reb Elias