09 December 2015
On October 18, 2015 the Jewish Federation hosted A Call for All. We had over 100 people of all abilities representing a broad cross section of the community including many with different types of disabilities, family members of individuals with disabilities, advocates and lay/professional leaders.Yishai Barth was our keynote speaker and below are his remarks:
My name is Yishai Barth, as you heard. I am a Jew and a person with a disability.
Basically, the message and what I’d like to tell you all about is that it is time to take a hard line. It is time to create a new paradigm of inclusion and this new paradigm is sorely needed. Basically, my recipe for how we can do this – It essentially is by acknowledging this hidden truth about the human race. That we seem to forget or ignore, which is that we all have magical powers, we can use them, they are before us, we use those magical powers the way we say incarnations, like Harry Potter uses incarnations, to change the world around us. And that’s just a fact.
See, I’m going to demonstrate. Like this. I’m going to use one of the most basic of all the magic words. Abracadabra. And I’m going to make all the disabilities in the world disappear. I’m going to say they cease to exist. Abracadabra. No, I’m serious. I did. Abracadabra, means creation or creating through speech or self-expression, and that’s exactly how it works. By what I am saying– I’m creating a new way of thinking, and a new way of expressing ourselves, of talking, communicating. I say to disappear, all disabilities are not. That’s it. They’re words. Like legally blind, hearing impaired, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis. They’re just words.
Here’s the thing. We know that words are magical. We know that they’re powerful. We’ve often heard stories about how the right words whispered in the ear of a loved one can heal. The most terrible of burdens and hurts. About how the words focus anger or typed into a force field have killed as quickly and as surely as a bomb shot or bomb blast, but we don’t like to acknowledge the fact that we have that type of power, because it’s difficult and scary and it forces us to acknowledge the level of responsibility. And most people just deal with that by pretending that this power of words doesn’t exist. But it’s our responsible not to do that. Because we are Jewish. And my dear mentor, this is the language. It is the struggle of how this power works. We use words to shape our reality, to distinguish the sacred from the profane, this whole concept to distinguish X from Y. And I want to talk about it and how we communicate from generation to generation, from community to community, and the focus. That by accepting, by focusing on being cautious and deliberate with the language that we have, the language that we change to express ourselves with, that we create, that a new paradigm of inclusion can be born. So creating, I say, abracadabra, and nobody has disabilities anymore. Instead of saying a person has a disability, there are accessible environments or inaccessible environments, and that’s the words I use. Essentially when I’m talking about an environment, I’m not just talking about the spaces. I’m talking about the tools that we use and the way we convey individuality, the words that people use.
And summed up here in a story, telling the story gives context – I encounter environments that have been inaccessible to me. These are just inaccessible environments, and what needs to be done to make these environments accessible? The first, outdoors spaces, like very rocky mountains, and I want to get up to the top of them. I was on a trip, and the group was going up the mountain, and I really wasn’t going to be able to — everybody worried about how I could possibly get to go up a mountain. The director of the program decided that the environment would just have to be changed, because my disability wasn’t going to keep me from participating in the activity. So the medical device used to evacuate wounded soldiers was adapted as a tool, which allows people in my group specifically, the militarily trained counselors to take me up the mountain so I could access that environment. So that’s one kind of environmental — and another – buildings and access are a more complicated filed. This is where that environmental change can be difficult, especially in things like synagogues. Well, what do we do about change? Right?
And in order to get to that part of the story, I first need to say, we’ll, leave that alone for a second. Imagine what we have. And when nobody has disabilities, you focus on that no matter a person’s background or circumstance, everybody has strength. There’s something called the superhero model, starting with Rain Man, that it was okay because some people had this savant and had extraordinary capabilities, but that is outdated because of course not everybody was Rain Man. So my point is that everybody is. Everybody has strength. Everybody has something of value. And when you approach situations from a paradigm of everybody, absolutely everyone, has something to contribute, then the so-called superhero model makes perfect sense. It’s just a matter of adapting the environment to make sure that that plan actually happens. Do you understand? And this is how that applies. Not just people with disabilities. But to everyone. Absolutely everyone in this room. Absolutely everyone in the community, around the world, absolutely everyone in the world, for that matter
So the thing that I want to ask you, after seeing all that, first of all, is can you think of one of the strengths that anybody mentioned there that someone couldn’t have with any kind of disability, anybody has ever heard of? Like one of the real skills — the seven core strengths, these are things like optimism and perseverance and self-control that a disability cloak could keep anybody from having? Anybody?
Answer no! It is because strength in the way that it is defined in this movement of character strength has nothing to do with these words that we use to categorize things. It goes beyond that. All that is needed for people to unlock it is for them to get in the right kinds of environments, the right ways to learn. And that potential for strengthening can completely be unlocked. Each person is like a unique fingertip of the different colors on this chart, and that makes it pulse and if we can just go to the right prism, select those colors, they will do that, and we will see those. And not just in ourselves, but light activity is sensed in everyone around us.
In terms of the right of the kinds of environment, providing the right kinds of experiences — remember how we were talking about how sometimes making environments accessible can be difficult and hard? Well, on that same trip to Israel, I found out something amazing, which is that the excavations underneath the Kotel were accessible is because of the fact that it was decided that the architecture infrastructure should be reshaped in order to make it possible for certain types of mobility issues to experience being under the Kotel. Now, that was one tiny thing that led to one tiny experience. But it was totally — in the whole world, it can be changed and modified in the name of inclusion, in the name of changing, to access those challenges, to unlock those super powers that it can be done with any environment at all. It is just that simple
We will emphasize the point, and we haven’t talked about it yet, but we need to. Even superman has kryptonite. We can talk about strength all we want. We can talk about strengths– we can pat ourselves on the back and talk about all of the potential for growth and all of the positivity mindset we want. It doesn’t change the fact that blindness is blindness and Deafness is Deafness and I can’t walk long distances without support or do a handstand. And it doesn’t change the fact that we all still face the challenges we face. As individuals we’re all going to come up with challenges that we think we cannot overcome. There’s no way around that. We hid it, we don’t put it into words, we don’t talk to other people, explain to other people, and we don’t even talk about it to ourselves. We don’t even acknowledge it to ourselves.
And this is the paradigm that has to stop. People with disabilities are the types of people who can strongly communicate that everyone has their kryptonite, because people — we do not have a choice. We do not have a choice. They are out there. They are attached to us whether we like it or not. We cannot lie to ourselves about those areas we are unique because it is thrust upon us every single minute of every single day. And I see for myself with what I’m about to say. Other times in my life I didn’t appreciate that label and I view this — I view this as something negative, but I don’t feel that way anymore. Personally, I’m grateful for the label of cerebral palsy and visual disorder and the terms that I have now that are passed to me and I feel sorry for everyone where things aren’t labeled, because I can walk into a room. I can walk into a situation and all of these complexities are instantly communicated to wide varieties of people and folks now have such a great understanding of things and goes to the fact that now it’s not my fault, that it’s just the makeup of my nature.
And so this is what I want you to do. Think of your strengths. Turning that into something comfortable, and it communicates it home. I want those of you who do not have labels for your weakness, to come up with labels. Right now, I want you to turn to a couple of people next to you to discuss those labels. Come up with ways to name your own disabilities. It works. Because in the words of Dumblehor, fear of — fear to name a thing increases fear of the thing itself. So turn to the people next to you, come up with some names of some of your weaknesses.
Okay, everybody, can we try to come back together here now? Hello? Everyone? Can we come back together as a group now? So like I — I’ve been a part of an implementing and executing this activity quite a number of times, and I’ve rarely gotten such an instantaneous and enthusiastic response. I sometimes have gotten a complete silence, and I’m okay with that. It’s a hard thing. Is there anyone who would like to share? All right.
>> One of the things is, no one would know, about the person I talked with, si that she has a really has a hard time paying attention to people talking to her. So that’s very hidden. And she sometimes fears conversations. So I got a chance to get to know her. And I got to hear what she has to say.
>> Is there anyone else?
>> My son was born I learned that there were two classes of people in the world; those who were disabled and those who were temporarily abled.
>> That’s exactly the point of the activity. Is there anyone else? No? Anyone? Okay. That’s okay.
And the thing is, so, what I wanted to make sure to explain to everybody is this idea that if we can just learn to communicate, both our strengths and our weaknesses, to accept that everybody has a unique fingerprint. In the research that I did — we call this strength-weakness configuration, and just encourage everybody in the communal context that it would be okay to express to communicate our strengths and weaknesses – this creates the space for a new paradigm of inclusion that is real.
Once people understand that the desire to include is a national human instinct, because we all have the finite weakness. We all have the strengths and we all have the weaknesses, and we, as human beings, are social animals. We’re predisposed to cooperate, because in coming together, that’s when the greatest human achievements are accomplished, on big and small scales. So if we can just make that spirit of acceptance, communication, embracing the empowerment of self-expression work, we can achieve this whole new level of inclusion.
What this looks like is a situation like what happened to a very dear friend of mine by the name of Brian Charleston, who is a blind man who works at the Carroll Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Newton Massachusetts. In the context of that work early in his career, he was at a school, a school that wasn’t at all for people with — who were physically impaired, and he was just as a teacher in history. And he had had to fight for years to get Braille maps and signs installed in the school building because nobody thought that there would be any point because there was only one blind person. But think what — the people in school didn’t think of — we all have environments where we can’t function. And we all have weaknesses, and sighted people simply — in order to see need an accommodation called lights. We don’t think about it, we all have environments where we can’t function.
At night one night, this thing happens where everybody in attending a school activity, and the lights go out. And all the sudden, you have in effect a situation that is just like a person who is blind without a Braille map, all the sudden, how do you rely on yourself? Now, luckily, you know, Brian — nobody else in the building could see. But he was unaware. He didn’t even notice the lights were off until somebody told him. So this is a night of inclusion teaches something critical.
It’s how we need to think about inclusion. It is about not just doing it because we feel obligated to, but because in doing it, we make our community places of safeness. We make the structures that exist in our communities more adaptable and this makes our communities stronger. And this is like reapplying the superhero theory.
What superheroes do to overcome their weaknesses is that when one superhero can’t beat a super villain, they come together and create the Justice League, the Avengers, a whole group of superheroes that team up. They all have strengths and they all have weaknesses, but they team up so their weaknesses are overcome, and they do what we do. There are many strength-weakness configurations in our communities, so that we can come together and compensate for each other’s weaknesses and become stronger in the whole than we ever could as individuals. And that idea of independence is the answer to the ultimate life’s dichotomy, the truth that everybody has disabilities or is it true that nobody has disabilities? The truth is both. We need to come to an inclusion by embracing incorporated interdependence.
And all Israel are bound up with one another. The fact is, this is a mistranslation, and one of the dangerous misuses of power of words. Here it implies an obligation, right? We do this out of obligation, to see our Jews as we’re bound by our Jewish connections to Jewish people, right? But what that leads to is a disempowering framework, where the powers of Judaism disempowers some and empowers others, and that’s a tragic, tragic mistake.
Instead, when we view everyone on a spectrum and I’m talking about the bright little colors of human nature. We say when say that a combination, a strength-weakness configuration builds incorporated interdepended, when we have the words — which to get this whole thing right. When we mix those colors, those lights together, like a perfect compunction with these words and it grants the spells that grant us this universal sense of empowerment. Now, this all — I’ve encountered that. I was in the 10th grade. I encountered a community where I was accepted for who I was. The objective wasn’t to get me the same experience as everyone else, it wasn’t to treat me like everyone else. It was to treat me for me, as me. And to say, okay, and we accept that you have this contribution to offer, and that you need this degree of help.
And that experience, that incredible experience was the empowering component that unlocked my ability to tell my story. And what I hope, what I really hope is that we can take this idea of a call to all and have that call be a call of all, so just like we have a rainbow of all those ideas and parts of human nature, we have a pardoning of all of these interdependent voices coming together and answering that call and the strengths and innovation that is worthy of that legacy of connection that is granted to us by our genius. I think that the real key is accepting that to include is not just a means in and of itself, but creates the independence of Judaism.