I was an IDF commander for decades, but my son with autism taught me the true meaning of strength.
Life is a non-stop battle with disability and human frailty. Whether due to injury, illness, accident or aging, disability touches all of us and the ones we love.
We are not at all comfortable with this reality; we would much prefer to focus on human successes and heroics, on how much we achieve as a society and as individuals.
Our response to this discomfort only leads to more suffering. Every December, we mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, an awareness day created by the United Nations. While I applaud this important initiative, one day a year is insufficient to effectively promote real change for the disability community.
The way in which we relate to the most vulnerable among us, those with disabilities and multiple challenges, constitutes the greatest test of our society. It is only when our societies are able to make the care, development and inclusion of everyone part and parcel of our daily lives that we will truly live up to our own ideals.
I grew up and was schooled in a society that lauded and treated the healthy and strong as heroes. During my service in the Israeli Defense Forces, my unit inundated us with slogans like “nothing is impossible” and “we can accomplish anything.”
Many of those who died or were wounded in battle immediately became legends. My parents, both of whom were born in Israel during the British Mandate era, were part of a generation that never cried. They suppressed and hid any signs of weakness. I never saw them cry, not even when my brother, Eran, was killed during the Yom Kippur War. They always bit their lips and stood straight, no matter how hard things got.
“Of course Doron has to continue his combat service,” my parents would say. “There is no other option.”
The first person to truly teach me a better way was my son, Eran. Though he passed away nearly 15 years ago, Eran remains the greatest teacher of my life.
Born with high-level autism and severe developmental disabilities, Eran never spoke or made eye contact. He never even called me “Abba.” But Eran opened our eyes to the true nature of humanity by taking the veil that hid society’s shame of the weak, the helpless and those struck by fate — the same veil that often hides abuse, discrimination, racism, cruelty, neglect and hypocrisy — and tearing it to pieces.
When we echo the mantra “never leave a man behind,” are we only referring to those wounded on the battlefield, or do we also feel obligated to provide ongoing love and support to those who require assistance every day of their lives? Do we understand the importance of helping them bathe, eat, get dressed and deal with bureaucratic challenges?
When we encourage each other to “take care of the elderly,” do we mean that their care should be handed over to foreign aides while the healthiest and most creative among us do “more important things?” How long will we chase excellence while running away from our societal responsibilities? How long will we let our arrogance and pride shelter us from the realities of disability?
While it is important to build, create and strive for excellence, we have a responsibility to others as we do so. Our societal transformation will begin when we provide persons with disabilities with appropriate care, representation and opportunities for advancement every day of the year; when we launch mass volunteering initiatives in every school, bringing students into senior residences, hospitals and centers for individuals with disabilities to spread joy, lend a hand and learn about the realities of disability, fostering empathy and promoting true inclusion. We must open our schools, community centers, houses of prayer and businesses to people with disabilities, reassess our facilities and retool our programming and offerings to be more inclusive, ensuring that everyone has access to education, enrichment and gainful employment.
When we set these critical changes into motion, we will be on our way to becoming an exemplary society, though it will require constant work to maintain.
In this new world, there will be no need to set aside a single day for people with disabilities. When we reach that point, we will value our healthy morals and strong convictions for good above all else, and our heroism will be seen in our everyday humanity. Only then can we call ourselves an exemplary society.
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