I live in the vibrant, integrated community of Boro Park, Brooklyn. Yet, I am different; I have several disabilities which keep me from mainstreaming into the larger society.
I have been blind for four years, I have multiple sclerosis and asthma, and use a wheelchair. I was divorced after I went blind (my husband left me). I work for a politician as his handicap specialist, and am presently a graduate student in political science.
I have met barriers in the Jewish community which I feel are insurmountable. The barriers are simple to remove: ramps or elevators can assist in eliminating barriers for my wheelchair. Yet nobody thinks of these things.
Let me speak of doors. I often want to go through certain doors in my community. Yet many places put stumbling blocks in front of me. A flight of stairs to a person in a wheelchair is almost as huge as a mountain. For all purposes, it might as well be a mountain. Restaurants, clothing stores, doctor’s offices, and schools are all but closed to me. Many social service agencies are located in places with stairs. I sit and wonder why I am locked out.
The doors which hurt the most are the doors to the synagogue. I cannot get into them if there are stairs. Often the women’s gallery in an Orthodox shul is upstairs. Even if I could get into the shul, there would be no Braille siddur (prayerbook) for me to use.
Blind and in a wheelchair, I find the place of greatest comfort, my synagogue, is closed, cold to my burning desire to be in there. I am “puter” (exempted from public prayer). But I do not feel I should be nor do I want to be.
I go home and cry a lot. I daven (pray) in solitude. My home’s walls have become my own Wailing Wall. Yet in my own home, I draw to me the strength of my religion, which has survived. Maybe some of the strength of my faith will give me strength.
When I received my get (Jewish legal divorce papers), my blindness was considered enough justification. I could not ask for a get, even though my husband beat me severely. But because I was blind, it was justification for the divorce if he asked for it. It made me wonder if the bias against the Jewish disabled is Talmudically ordained…with a prejudice against the woman with a disability.
Then it occurred to me: I am now in a wheelchair. What if I were married and had to go to mikvah (ritual immersion facility)? There is not one mikvah I know of with a ramp or hoyer lift. There are no grabber bars or hand-held showers. There are also no bathchairs. Even if I did remarry, I would not be able to go to mikvah.
I know other women with disabilities. None of them are ever vocal on accessibility issues. Do wheelchair-using women in the frum (observant) community give up mikvah? Does anyone care?
The pervasive attitude is one of an empty void. I see nobody rushing to fill it. Bikur Cholims (societies for visiting the sick) give hit-and-run help for medical conditions. This denigrates the disabled person to a medical model.
Maybe nobody has thought of these things. Perhaps the issue is to let it be known that these things are needs: ramps, Braille, elevators, accessible homes, stores and schools.
For the deaf, we need TTY’s to call the local meat market for an order or ask a question over the phone.
For the mother with a disabled child, we need yeshivas for the child and an affordable house to live in with no barriers. Where are these things in the community?
I often think…if a rose lost one petal, would it be any less a rose? If a Jew has a disability, is he or she any less a Jew?
Tzipporah Ben Avraham was a contributor to With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Woman’s Anthology (dies Press, 1985)