Justice, justice shall you pursue

Jewish justice and disability

In Short

We need to move to a model that embraces differences, confronts privilege and challenges what is considered “normal.”

The moral imperative in Judaism of justice, ethics and morality is intrinsic to Jewish values and taught by both the Torah and the prophets: “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The Torah teaches this ideal of justice for the benefit of society — one that is morally right and fair for all its members. It is also a moral guide for individuals. But it is more than a religious ideal or a suggestion for meschlik behavior: It is an obligation.

The word “tzedek” is from the same root as “tzaddik,” a righteous person who has embodied the quality of “tzedek.” A tzaddik treats all people in the world equitably, pursues justice as a matter of course — a knee-jerk response — because he or she understands that all humans are created b’tzelem elokiemin, in the image of the divine. A tzaddik has placed himself or herself entirely in service of bringing tzedek – justice into the world.

It is through this lens of social justice that I, as a disabled woman, have begun looking at disability services, programs, advocacy, awareness and activism in pursuit of a fair and just society for all people with disabilities.  

I have been blind for 29 years and visually impaired for 28 years before that; thus, I have lived almost my entire life as a woman with a disability. I have been involved in disability awareness, advocacy and activism in one form or another for the past 40 years. And while I readily acknowledge that there is so much injustice in the world, so many who are marginalized, suppressed and oppressed for many reasons, my lived experience is as a disabled woman and from this perspective, I ask, “How do we pursue tzedek in the realm of the disability sector?”

The quintessential means to disability justice to be addressed by our communities, organizations and religious institutions is, of course, access. Without accessibility, disabled people are excluded from many aspects of societal life. This is nothing new, and we can work to understand access in a very general way: Providing ramps, sign language interpreters, accessible web sites and understanding and implementing the concept of universal design for example. But pursuing justice for individuals with disabilities means shifting how we understand access in general, moving away from solely considering individualized and independence-framed notions of access and, instead, working to view access as collective and interdependent, a benefit to all in a society.

In order to ensure disability access, we need to move away from an equality-based model of “we are just like you.” We aren’t. But neither is every able-bodied individual the same as another. We need to move to a model that embraces differences, confronts privilege and challenges what is considered “normal.” I am not like sighted people, sighted people are not like me, my sighted friends aren’t even like each other. In fact, I am not like other blind people and not all people who are blind are like me. I am not like others with disabilities simply because I have one. To think otherwise is to negate the individual’s human experience.

We must, however, move beyond just the consideration of access. We cannot allow the inclusion of people with disabilities to be relegated to the logistics of accessibility alone. We must understand and practice an accessibility that moves us closer to a mindset of justice, not simply inclusion or diversity for the sake of diversity and inclusion alone.

Pursuing justice means shifting our thinking away from the idea that people with disabilities are not normal and accepting that having a disability is another part of the human experience. 

In order to accomplish this, I believe it is necessary to shift away from the concept of people with disabilities having “special needs.” We all have needs – different and unique to our individual situations, but I reject the notion that my needs are any more special than anyone else’s. They are just human needs.

Our society values independence. But what do we mean by that? Is being independent the ability to do everything on one’s own, without any assistance? That definition is limiting and frankly ridiculous. It is also completely antithetical to the definition of a society — a group of human beings living with and interdependent on one another, interacting together for the greater good.  

I do not travel independently when I want or need to go somewhere. I cannot drive myself. I choose not to take public transportation by myself. So yes, these choices make me depend on others, but I reject the notion that this makes me any less independent than anyone else.  

What makes people independent is the ability to make their own choices. Every day, I make the decisions about where and when I go somewhere. I make the decision about how I will get there. Hiring a driver and instructing him where and when to take me to my chosen destination makes me just as independent as my friends who hop in their own cars and just go. My quadriplegic friend who is a university professor requires the aide she has hired to get her out of bed, dressed and ready to go to work. She is dependent on her aide for these services, but she is independent in her choices of who, what, where and how.

The pursuit of disability justice requires us to shift our mind set regarding the definition of  “independence.” None of us is truly independent because we are not hermits on a desert isle. We are participants in a civil society and as such, we are all interdependent on one another to some degree. In fact, our interdependence on one another is what makes us able to form just societies or at least work toward the ideal of one.

Disability justice has the power to not only challenge our thinking about access, terminology, and human interaction, but to fundamentally change the way we understand what constitutes a just society and how we address and fight for social change.

Disability justice has the power to bring our bodies back into our conversations. Our bodies have differences and limitations; some are changeable, some are not, and we may or may not want to change them. But justice requires that we acknowledge these differences and limitations and accept that some of these differences are disabilities.

Disability justice requires us to engage in building an understanding of disability that is complex, whole and interconnected. It requires us to work toward building and organizing community spaces that are mixed-ability and cultivating solidarity between people with different disabilities and abilities. It requires a society that works together as a whole to break down whatever intentionally or unintentionally keeps us separate.

To do this, we need able-bodied people to move from being simply “supportive allies” to being tzadikim who actively pursue disability justice in their own work and lives. Our cause must be the cause of all members of a just society, where differences are embraced, valued, and seen as normal, where no groups of individuals are marginalized, but heard and welcomed to participate fully.  Disability is not monolithic. Neither is ableism. 

Recognizing this truth will enable us to create the kind of world I want my children and grandchildren to inhabit, a world of communities that fulfill the Jewish imperative: Justice, justice, together we can pursue.  

Michelle Friedman is the board chair of Keshet in Chicago, a member of Disability Lead, disability advocate and author.