5 Ways to Be an Ally to People with Disabilities

Jordan Dashow

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month, a month dedicated to raising awareness of people with disabilities in Jewish communities and striving toward fostering inclusive Jewish communities for people with disabilities. Rabbi David Saperstein, former director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, explains, 

“We are taught in Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, ‘Do not separate yourself from the community.’ The converse is equally compelling: We must prevent anyone from being separated against his or her will.”

As Jews, we therefore have a religious obligation to actively include people with disabilities in our community and to advocate for their full inclusion in all facets of society.

This month, as we highlight disability inclusion and work toward disability inclusion in our Jewish communities all year long, here are five easy ways to be an individual ally to people with disabilities:

1. Listen to people with disabilities.

The most important element (and often one of the hardest parts) of being an ally to any marginalized group is to listen to that group and take your lead from them. No one knows how to advocate for people with disabilities better than people with disabilities themselves.

Being an ally is not about taking charge – it’s about being will to learn from people with disabilities and modeling your inclusion and advocacy efforts based on their priorities, concerns, and feedback.

2. Educate yourself.

Take the time to learn about the state of disability rights in America, best practices, and disability inclusion efforts. No one is born an ally but through continuous education we can better position ourselves to be stronger allies. Reading blog posts about disabilities is a good way to start in order to better understand the many societal and political barriers people with disabilities face.

3. Be conscious of the language you use.

When speaking about people with disabilities, avoid ableist language, which includes words such as “retarded” and “crippled” and derogatory language using disability metaphors (i.e. seeing something wrong and comparing it to a physical or mental disability).

Many disability rights organizations have long supported the use of person-first language, which puts the focus on the person first, rather than on their disability. (For example, rather than saying “a disabled person,” person-first language would say “a person with disabilities”; rather than “an autistic person,” person-first language says “a person with autism.” It is important to note, though, that these guidelines are ever-changing and that many people, especially those in the Deaf and autistic communities, self-identify with disability-first language – and that’s OK, too. Learn more about person-first and ability-first language.

Allies first responsibility is to respect someone else’s self-label (see #1 on this list!) – but as a general rule, person-first language is considered the most respectful way to reference to people with disabilities, unless and until you know how they prefer to be identified.

4. Work for inclusion in your own community.

All communities should be inclusive of people with disabilities, but most were not built with them in mind. While it is important to remove physical barriers to people with disabilities, it is just as important – if not more so – to change attitudes toward people with disabilities.

It is also important to understand that “disability” is a broad term that encompasses more than just physical disabilities; we must also work to ensure that people with mental disabilities are fully integrated into our communities. The URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center offers a variety of resources on disability inclusion.

5. Advocate for disability rights.

We cannot create communities that are fully inclusive of people with disabilities if our laws and societal structures limit the ability of people with disabilities to live independently with economic security. The Jewish Disability Network, a coalition of more than two dozen Jewish organizations working for disability rights, hosts an annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day. Learn more at rac.org/disabilities.

Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month is a great time to raise up the issue of disability inclusion in the Jewish community, but it is essential that we work to be strong allies every month of the year and dedicate ourselves to cementing disability inclusion as a pillar of our Jewish communal values.

If you're a congregational leader, see "18 Ways Congregations Can Observe Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month" for programming ideas, accessibility tips, and more. 

The Union for Reform Judaism is proud of its Presidential Initiative on Disabilities Inclusion, an ongoing effort to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.