Monday, December 17, 2007

Don’t Sell People Short

You can encapsulate Judaism’s teachings on disabilities into one simple commandment:

Don’t sell people short.

This idea is expressed most directly in the first chapter of the Bible, which declares:

“And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him”. (Gen. 1:2)

The Bible doesn’t hold back when describing humanity; it says that every person is a reflection of God. Like God, we are all endowed with creativity and spirituality. It is therefore our religious responsibility to appreciate the infinite in every human being, no matter what their physical limitations may be.

It is our religious responsibility not to sell people short.

It is easy to sell people short. The dangerous phrase “quality of life” is now misused to rationalize pulling the plug on the elderly and infirm, because their care has become too complicated. Even worse, the idea that one must have a certain “quality of life” has led to the romanticization of suicide, seducing people with serious illnesses to give up hope and “die with dignity”.

We repeat the mantra of ‘quality of life’ until we are confronted with evidence of the infinite soul that lurks behind physical limitations. The recently released movie “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist. Bauby is afflicted with Locked-In Syndrome, a condition that leaves him totally immobilized, with only the slightest control over his left eyelid. Yet even in this condition, he writes a powerful and inspirational book, by blinking his eye to an assistant. (It took an average of 2 minutes to blink each word).

While Bauby’s story is exceptional, it teaches a universal lesson: life is sacred. It is easy to consider Bauby, a young man who suddenly finds himself completely paralyzed, a pitiful being who is better off dead. Yet Bauby’s memoir reminds us of the infinite value of life, and that a being created in the image of God should never be underestimated.

For too long, we have sold people with disabilities short. Generations of people with disabilities were marginalized and ignored. For hundreds of years, the deaf were assumed to be ineducable, until Charles-Michel de l'Épée systematized sign language and opened a school for the deaf in 1755. His innovation allowed the deaf to receive proper educations, to succeed and excel. Similar innovations such as braille, prosthetics and special education strategies have transformed lives, and allowed people to more fully express their image of God.

I am extremely hurt when religious communities fail the disabled. Schools and institutions, more interested in avoiding inconvenience than in embracing challenges, give the disabled the run around. I understand why parents and advocates feel so let down when this happens; it’s forbidden for us to sell people short.

Yet at the same time, I can see inspiration everywhere. I am inspired by the parents and teachers who devote their lives to helping disabled children reach their potential. With patience, effort and creativity, they refuse to sell people short. Their efforts truly embrace the imperative of respecting everyone as beings created in the image of God.

I am even more inspired by the disabled themselves. They have to keep trying, in the face of profound challenges. They have to deal with prejudice and discrimination. But even more significantly, the spirit they bring to the world inspires us to remember the soul we all have inside. Love is the language of the soul. No matter what a person’s disabilities may be, their image of God shines through every time they give us a caring glance, a simple hug or a beaming smile.

And it’s in those moments we remember how important it is to appreciate every human being, and to never, ever sell people short.

(The previous article is set to appear in Exceptional Family, a magazine for parents of exceptional children, which is edited by a member of our synagogue, Aviva Engel.)

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