Hanukkah 2019

The ‘miracle’ of disability

Watching countless marvels unfold day after day has provided me with a profound appreciation for both the intricacies of the human body and the resilience of the human spirit.

A young woman at ALEH lights the Hanukkah menorah with help from a staff member. Credit: ALEH.
A young woman at ALEH lights the Hanukkah menorah with help from a staff member. Credit: ALEH.
Elie Klein. Credit: Courtesy.
Elie Klein
Elie Klein is the North American director of development for ADI (adi-israel.org), Israel’s network of specialized rehabilitative care for those touched by and living with disability, and an international advocate for disability inclusion, equity and access.    

From a young age, I was taught to recognize miracles.

In grade school, my teachers underscored the multifaceted significance of our unprecedented Exodus from Egypt, emphasized the Purim story’s remarkable reversal of fortunes, and highlighted Hanukkah’s inexplicable spiritual and military victories.

At home, my parents regaled me with tales of the near misses and chance encounters that saved my grandparents from the horrors of the Holocaust, detailed the otherworldly occurrences that brought about the establishment of the modern State of Israel and helped me appreciate so many of the often overlooked wonders of the natural world.

While this early education helped me shape a more mindful worldview and allowed me to better appreciate the marvels around me, I must admit that I never fully appreciated the complexity of those within me—the inner workings of the human body—until I began working with ALEH, Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities.

Watching countless marvels unfold day after day has provided me with a profound appreciation for both the intricacies of the human body and the resilience of the human spirit. The young girl who would “never stand” now walks on her own. The baby boy who had “only a few short months to live” continues to thrive five years later. Negative prognoses are often left in the dust as children with intellectual, cognitive, developmental and physical disabilities charge towards their greatest potentials.

I have also realized that disability itself has several miraculous abilities.

For starters, disability presents an earthly window into heavenly possibilities, opening hearts and minds with supernatural force.

While maintaining a distance, the masses tend to peg people with severe disabilities as a population to be pitied. But as the gap narrows and disability inclusion marches towards normalcy, the world has begun to understand that such individuals are truly worthy of our sincerest admiration. Can you imagine living your entire life without anger, jealousy, enmity or distrust? Without hurting others or compromising your own sense of self? This is the reality for the amazing children I encounter daily, and I am in a constant state of awe.

Though we help individuals with severe disabilities make extraordinary developmental breakthroughs, we gain so much more by simply interacting and sharing experiences with these angels on Earth. Don’t call it gaining perspective or getting inspired. That cheapens it. Rather, it should be seen as the truest form of enlightenment—a glimpse into our best selves and an understanding of who we could (and should) be.

Disability also wields a seemingly ethereal power to shine a light on the inequities that exist in our society in a way that actually promotes change. Where movements to underline other biases and prejudices often struggle, disability has successfully silenced the cynics; taken industry, education and government to task; and empowered people of all abilities to stand against an antiquated understanding of equality. Disability has made it clear that receiving the same thing as everyone else is simply not enough. Only when we work towards equity—ensuring that individuals get what they need to succeed, grow and be fulfilled—will we truly advance as a society.

The decade-long overhaul of Jerusalem’s historic Old City is a perfect example. To right an ancient wrong, seven governmental bodies worked together to install 2 kilometers of handrails alongside staircases, smooth cobblestones, widen corridors and add countless ramps to the area’s streets and walkways to finally make the apex of Jewish history, spirituality and culture accessible to all, with a special focus on wheelchair-users and individuals who have difficulty walking. Seeing one of the most iconic ancient cities in the world transformed for the sake of accessibility caused a ripple effect, opening a dialogue among governmental decision-makers in Israel and abroad about disability, inclusion on all fronts and basic civil rights.

But the greatest wonder of all, in my opinion, is disability’s uncanny capacity for uniting all people, even those who are so often at odds.

From my own experience, I can tell you that it’s rather jarring visiting ALEH for the first time—pleasantly so. On any given day, the full spectrum of Israeli life is on display with people from varied religious and cultural backgrounds—Jews from secular and ultra-Orthodox households; those who immigrated from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union; and Druze, Bedouin and Arab Israelis—working, playing and growing together. With a singular purpose, professional staff and volunteers check their differences and political views at the door to promote the growth and development of children with severe complex disabilities from similarly diverse backgrounds. By focusing on our shared humanity, this miscellany of mankind is actively healing our world.

Now, tens of visits and several years later, I rarely give this scenario a second thought, and that’s a beautiful thing. Because true coexistence should be the norm for everyone.

With Hanukkah on the horizon, Jews from all backgrounds and every age will begin discussing the miracles associated with this magical season. Often lacking are conversations about recognizing the miracles we experience every day, and it is my firm belief that disability is chief among them.

A limiting force that makes humanity limitless. An isolating phenomenon that connects us all. Impairments that bring the world into focus, and constraints that truly set us free.

I know a miracle when I see one.

Elie Klein is the director of development (USA and Canada) for ALEH, Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities and an international advocate for disability inclusion, equity and access.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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