I’m An Autistic Teen. Here’s How The Jewish Community Can Do More To Support People Like Me
Judaism is a revolutionary and redemptive religion centered around justice and human dignity. That means dignity for every human.
As a proudly Jewish autistic woman, I have been blessed to meet and form relationships with countless Jews who live up to these values by respecting all humans, including disabled and neurodivergent people — people whose brains function atypically, like those of us with autism or dyslexia. I, along with many other disabled and neurodivergent people that I know have been showered with the respect, support, and love that all people need and deserve by parents, friends, teachers, community leaders, inclusion advocates, rabbis, scientists, administrators, acquaintances, and others.
I have also been disrespected, condescended to, and discriminated against by fellow Jews who have treated me as burdensome, or incapable, due to their misinformed and prejudiced views of disabled and neurodivergent people.
I am not alone; many disabled and neurodivergent Jews have encountered and spoken out against ignorance, prejudice, and stigma within our community.
We deserve better. We deserve respect, accessibility, full inclusion, and the support and accommodations we need to thrive. The Jewish community has made tremendous progress towards respecting, including, and supporting disabled and neurodivergent people, thanks to the persistent and courageous advocacy of disabled and neurodivergent people, our parents and families, and our allies. Yet there is still a lot of work we need to do to make our community a place that is accessible to, respects, and supports all people. We all have a role to play in this and we can all make a difference.
Step One: Assessment
The first step you can take to move us towards full inclusion and disability justice is for you to assess how well you’re currently respecting the inherent value, rights, capabilities, and needs of disabled and neurodivergent people.
Ask yourself if you speak of or treat disabled and neurodivergent people like we’re pitiable, incompetent, or incapable of living independently, speaking for ourselves, and making our own decisions.
Ask yourself if you are consistently aware that just like everyone else, people with speech, cognitive, and/or intellectual disabilities, nonverbal people, and people with serious mental illnesses are valuable human beings who communicate and have important things to say, and treat them accordingly.
It’s vital to remember that disabled people who can’t verbalize and/or communicate in ways you don’t understand have as much to say as the rest of us. With the possible exception of people in deep comas, all people communicate. And people in deep comas are often able to hear what people in their vicinity are saying — they just can’t respond.
Ask yourself if you make sure that every institution you lead or work at or with, every building you’re involved in designing or building, and every event and program you help organize is accessible to wheelchair users, blind and/or deaf people, people with sensory hypersensitivity, speech impairments, or learning disabilities, and other disabled and neurodivergent people.
Crucially, be honest with yourself. If the answer is no, admit it, and then work on doing better. Reconsider your assumptions about disabled and neurodivergent people. Don’t let the mainstream media tell you what to think of us or what our lives are like.
Step Two: Educate Yourself
Listen to us with an open mind. If disabled and/or neurodivergent people in your family, friend group, workplace, neighborhood, or community are speaking about their experiences, needs, rights, struggles, and joys, listen to them. Read articles,blogs, and books about disability and neurodivergence by disabled and neurodivergent authors.
Watch documentaries and movies about disability and neurodivergence that refuse to treat disabled and neurodivergent people as burdens, objects of pity, living tragic, joyless lives, or unable to speak for ourselves and give us space to tell our own stories.
When you interact with disabled people, don’t talk down to us or assume we need your help with everything; speak to and treat us as equals.
If you see a disabled person struggling with something, it’s good to ask if and how you can help, but please don’t assume people need or want help with things we’re having no trouble doing ourselves or without making any effort to find out what we desire.
If you know we have special needs you can help meet, do what you can to meet them. Aside from that, treat us the same way you treat your non-disabled friends, acquaintances, students, and coworkers.
Step Three: Amplify Our Voices
As you challenge your preconceived notions about disabled and neurodivergent people and learn from us about our experiences, struggles, and delights, you will become aware of opportunities for you to amplify our voices and support our fight for freedom, equal rights, accessibility, and respect. Seize these opportunities.
When your family members, friends, coworkers, or acquaintances say prejudiced or misinformed things about us, tell them gently, firmly, and lovingly why their comments are wrong and harmful.
Work to make everything you’re part of accessible and welcoming to disabled people. If you’re in a position of power within an institution, use your power to bring disabled and neurodivergent people into positions of leadership and involvement in institutional decision-making and to make your organization’s physical spaces, events, programs, and daily operations accessible to disabled people.
Step Four: Don’t Put the Burden On Us
Many disabled people find it unpleasant and nerve-wracking to have to ask how accessible every event and program they want to participate in is. Asking these questions may require them to tell strangers about their disabilities, only to be met with rejection and unkindness (a frequent outcome). So please put information about what kind of accessibility, accommodations, and support you offer disabled people and how people can ask for additional accommodations and supports in prominent places on your website, brochures, and advertisements and include it in presentations educating people about your organization.
If you run a business or nonprofit organization, make it clear that you welcome disabled applicants, hire them, give them whatever support they need to do their jobs, pay them well and treat them with respect as valued employees.
And if you aren’t in a position of power or leadership within an organization, but people who do have power care what you think (I’m talking to you, big donors!), use your influence to encourage those who look up to you to use their power to promote inclusion.
And I have news for the rest of you: If you think you have no power and nobody cares what you think, you’re underestimating yourself. You may not have much power or influence (please don’t feel bad about or ashamed of that, and remember that you’re every bit as worthy, deserving, and important as more powerful people) but you have some — we all do — and you can use it for good.
Talk to family members and friends about inclusion and disability rights and share the work of disabled and neurodivergent people with them.
Teach your children to respect and value people of all abilities.
Stand up for somebody who’s being bullied and excluded.
Sit next to somebody who’s sitting alone at lunch.
And if you are a disabled and neurodivergent Jew, stay proud of your Jewishness, disability and/or neurodivergence, and all that you are. Know that you are precious, worthy, and loved.
Thanks for reading this exhortation, dear sisters and brothers. I’m very grateful to you for listening to me. Keep listening and learning, speak up when you see misunderstandings, prejudice, or injustice, and use your voice, influence, and power to promote inclusion, accessibility, and respect for all people.
You will make a difference and together, we will build a world where all Jews and all human beings are free, safe, respected, valued, and loved. I’ll leave you with two quotes:
“For I have known [Abraham] because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice.” -Beresheit, 18:19
“If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.” –Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Eliana Sisman is a proudly Jewish and autistic student, writer, conversationalist, science lover, food enjoyer and amateur chef, neighborhood safety committee member, aspiring public health worker, and passionately idealistic dreamer and advocate for justice and freedom for all. She is a rising senior at her high school and lives in Los Angeles with her absolutely wonderful parents.