Culture, Identity

Hearing the Deaf: Ableism in our communities

Ableism is a spiritual wound. Like white supremacy or misogyny, it exists in both explicit and implicit forms, and on the micro and macro level. A spiritual wound requires spiritual care, and we must not reopen the wound through spiritual community. Our fates as Jewish and disabled people are inextricably linked.

My partner, August, a Deaf and Disabled person in the process of converting to Judaism, once came home from an introduction to Judaism class in tears, saying they wished they were not Deaf or Disabled. They wished ASL was not their language, as the class made them feel it was more of a burden than a path of communication. By refusing to provide interpreters, or trying to make Deaf people feel guilty for requesting interpreters, we contribute to the disappearance of ASL as a language, as well as “oralism,” or the idea that every Deaf person should learn to speak in English and get cochlear implants. This suppresses Deaf culture, language, and community. ASL is August’s language, and their hands are their voice. Forcing them to instead utilize other types of communication inhibits their ability to fully be who they are.

August was born two years after the passing of the ADA and one generation after institutions began to close. When August’s grandmother learned that her grandchild would be born Disabled, she wanted August’s mother to terminate her pregnancy. When their mother refused, August’s father wanted August to be institutionalized. August lives every day with the knowledge of how close they came to being disappeared.

As Jews, we should be familiar with the notion and practice of eugenics, the concept of controlled breeding with the goal of creating an ideal human race. The philosophy of eugenics was first developed to be used on people with disabilities. Hitler called Disabled people “useless eaters” and designated them for death, deciding they were not worthy of investment. In the concentration camps, the sick, the very young, the old, and the frail were designated for the gas chambers immediately.

Enduring the daily trauma, microaggressions, and discrimination of moving through this world and this country as a Disabled person is not unlike the experience of enduring antisemitism. Every time our synagogue makes it clear they feel the cost of paying for an ASL interpreter is higher than the price of Deaf people being excluded from community, they are enforcing an ableist mentality. When we decide it is too expensive to make our communities accessible, we are deeming people with disabilities unworthy of investment and existence in our communities. It may seem casual, but it is perpetuating the same philosophy of eugenics.

I hear staff of Jewish organizations say things like “we don’t have enough Deaf people” or “we’ve never had someone in a wheelchair come,” as justifications for not being accessible. Those are self fulfilling prophecies, as inaccessible spaces prevent Disabled people from being present. It also reflects a lack of understanding and sensitivity of how historically, Disabled people have been systematically disappeared from their communities and institutionalized. To casually suggest that Disabled people aren’t present is to not see the systemic violence that caused their absence. It blames lack of access on Disabled people themselves and reflects a lack of motivation to change the status quo.

Organizations sometimes feel threatened when asked to provide access, and this includes religious institutions. They’re exempt from the ADA mandate to provide access. This was before the era of mega churches. Churches were afraid they would not be able to survive a flood of requests for building accommodations. We don’t need to feel threatened. Yes, it will take a radical restructuring to envision what access will look like. The necessary tools, resources, and frameworks may not even exist yet. Disabled people have often had to invent the accommodations and tools they need for access. Let us think of it not as a threat, or as a drain on resources, but as an opportunity for empowerment. This is a chance to collectively brainstorm, dream wildly, stretch our creative muscles, and be our most resilient selves. This is a chance to imagine the world we want to see. At my desk at work, I have my favorite quote by Angela Davis: “You must act as if it were possible to radically transform the world, and you must do it all the time.”

As Jewish communities, the way we approach people with disabilities must fundamentally change. We cannot answer requests for access with a knee jerk response of “we cannot afford it.” To be clear, I have heard that identical response from synagogues that vary wildly in size and budget. It is revealing. It shows it is not truly an issue of budgets; it is an issue of priorities and power. Often this response is given prior to even examining a budget or educating ourselves on the costs of access.

This reaction tells us nothing about budget and everything about what we believe to be possible and who we value. It indicates who feels they have the authority to decide what is possible and gatekeep access. The constraints we place on what we believe to be possible are limits we internalize from ableism. We must stop diminishing people with disabilities down to dollars and cents and what we believe they cost us. Instead, we must remember the limitless value they bring to a community, and the price we pay for their absence. Disabled people pay this price every day. We cannot put a price tag on Disabled lives.

Change is possible. August and I saw this for ourselves when we fought for the Philly Socialists to attain interpreters. Leftists and progressives can learn to expand their political analysis to include Disability justice, instead of always making Disabled people the first line item in the budget to be cut when they cite their shoe string budgets. This was a statement from the co-chair of Philly Socialists: “In researching interpretation services and options over the weekend, I came across an article that talked about how organizations only see interpretation as expensive because they didn’t plan for it in their budget, so then it feels like there is no room. I’m not proud to say that we had this shortcoming. I also have been thinking about this line I recently heard someone say on a podcast, which is ‘a budget is a moral document.'”

The experience of disability forces a person to become resilient and adaptable. We develop a special kind of ingenuity when we have to design the tools to lead ourselves. Disabilities make people better leaders, rather than disqualifying them from such positions. Shutting out Disabled people means shutting out leaders of the Jewish community.

August recently started taking an introduction to Judaism class at a different synagogue that provides ASL interpreters who are competent in Judaism and Hebrew. August came home having learned the signs for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Moses, Shin, Bet, and Tav. They expressed appreciation for now being able to experience Judaism and Hebrew fully in multiple modalities and with all their senses. This is how Judaism should be. It should be something that fully engages us.

The social model of Disability tells us we construct the idea that disability means a person can’t do something. We construct the idea of something being impossible. When we refuse to provide accommodations, we ensure it will be impossible. We ensure disabled people will not be present and will not be included or participating. ASL interpreters ensure not only that Deaf people can understand what is being said, but that hearing people can understand what Deaf people are saying.

When we love someone, we want to hear the full meaning of what they are saying. We will never hear fully what August has to say if we refuse to provide them with interpreters and instead insist they type everything on their phone. I believe that when we love someone, our first response must always be, “We want you here, and we will find a way.” Access is not the blue print, nor is it the end goal. Access is just one piece. It is the first step that gets Disabled people through the door. Disability Justice is the vision. A world where Disabled people are valued and we are aware of how our fates are intertwined is the end goal.

August has recently begun facilitating the disability caucus of Philadelphia Socialists, and they came home glowing after the first meeting they led. They were able to facilitate the meeting because Philly Socialists provided them with accommodations, in the form of an ASL interpreter. August told me that disabled people can be leaders with accommodations. They said that maybe people are scared by that fact, and their fear makes them hesitant to provide accommodations. Providing accommodations redistributes power. When their face lit up, I saw a glimpse of Olam Haba, the world as it can be.

Noah: Noah is a queer and trans Jewish community organizer, as well as a frequent contributor to Jewish Currents, New Voices, The Forward, Lilith, The New Normal, and Jewschool.

August is a Deaf and Disabled trans activist who advocates for the full inclusion of Disabled people in Jewish life. August is an alum of Gallaudet University, where they were a freelance writer for the college newspaper, and a winner of the MacDougall Creative Writing Award. They are also a poet, flash fiction writer, voracious reader, and an alum of the Iowa Writers Workshop


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