People in the Reform movement have been talking a lot lately about ninclusion, with a particular focus right now on disabilities. It's not enough to accommodate disabilities (not that we even get that right some of the time1) and to remember that everybody is a person deserving of human decency and behave accordingly. No, what I'm hearing (most recently at a synagogue board meeting this past week) is that we have to embrace all differences, no matter what -- that it's Wrong to ask somebody throwing a fit to step out of the sanctuary for a few minutes to compose himself, for example. We're all supposed to celebrate the person's difference and sing Kumbaya or something, because anything less is an invalidation of the person.
I call bullshit.
It is not only ok but, sometimes, obligatory to contain a behavior. This must not be a judgement on the person, but we must not be afraid to act. A child in the midst of a loud and prolonged outburst should not be able to disrupt a Shabbat service whether the reason is Tourette's, ADD, or negligent parents -- the community has a right to expect the behavior to be dealt with (ideally a quick trip out to the hall to calm down and then return). To play the disability card and say that we must grin and bear it and must never ever even think of shushing the kid or glancing parent-ward sacrifices the community on the altar of individual entitlement fantasies.
I say this as somebody with a mild disability, and realizing that some will say that if I don't have a severe disability then I can't understand. But: I know there are situations in which I'm more challenged than others. I have every right to expect accommodations, but I also need to do my part. For example, my congregation has recently started something called "visual t'filah" for some services, where instead of using the prayerbook they project slides so they can vary the content and make it artistic and stuff. There is no seat in the sanctuary from which I can see those slides and I know I'm not the only one; after some pushing from me, they are making paper copies available at those services.
I have a right to demand the paper copies. I do not have a right to demand that they never use slides because some of us can't see them. If it were possible to see them from the front row I might have an obligation to sit there instead. And let me tell you, sitting front and center at every class, conference presentation, or other setting where visual materials are being used, when most people are sitting a few rows back, is awkward and ostracizing and I'd really rather not. But I do my part to mitigate the problem.
Similarly, the person with a disability that potentially disrupts others, whatever it is, has a right to demand a seat on the aisle so he can step out easily if he needs to. If there are known, avoidable triggers for a problem, whether disability or allergy, it's reasonable to expect the community to work to avoid tripping them. These are reasonable accommodations, and I hope that members of religious communities can accept this upon ourselves without needing the big stick of the law. We should all try to offer a helping hand when we can do something to make things easier for another person, and strive to be perceptive enough to not need to be asked for help. And we should be understanding of each other's behavior; we all do things that bother others, some more so and some less so, some from disabilities and some from inattentiveness. This is what communities of decent, civilized people do. But that's very different from what I'm hearing in my congregation lately.
A disability is not a "get out of bad behavior free" card. And anybody who tries to play one is doing a disservice to all people with disabilities. People, you're making us all look bad. Stop the entitled nonsense; we all need to work together in our communities.
And no, I don't want people to "embrace" my differences. How patronizing! That's not sensitivity; that's insulting. It is enough -- and in some cases still a tall order, so let's not over-reach just yet -- if people try to not screw me from the start with important materials I can't see, and if needed, to ask about my needs so we can work together to address them.
I've been trying to figure out how to respond to this in my congregation. It's a small thing, but I realized while preparing next week's torah portion that it gives me an excellent opportunity to talk about some of this, about the need to mitigate. I'm reading the passage at the end of Ki Tisa, when Moshe comes down from the mountain with the tablets (try #2) and his face is glowing. The people can't bear to look at him because of the bright light, so he wears a veil. This is his idea, not theirs. That glow is a direct act from God, something that happened up on the mountain, and yet Moshe mitigates its undesirable effects instead of telling the people "suck it up; this is from God". If he can take steps to contain the negative effects of something clearly not his fault, clearly of divine intention, then surely we can too. So I'm going to try to write a d'var torah around that, and then I'm going to try to get it published on our blog, and then I hope I can get some time to talk at the next board meeting. We'll see.
1 The disabilities task force has now failed, three times, to present material that is visually accessible. They do not seem to recognize the irony. And yet they preach at the rest of us. The emperor should kindly go put on some pants.