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We Need to Change How We View Disabled People

April 17, 2022 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Michelle Friedman, a blind disability advocate, shares her story and strong opinions on what it means to be disabled.

Michelle Friedman, a Jewish community leader in Chicago and mom of three, has been blind for decades, but don’t call her special needs. “I despise the term special needs. To me, special needs has a negative connotation. My needs are no more special than your needs – they’re different, but we all have needs and mine are just human needs.

“My disability does define me – and I’m proud of that. Just like being a Jewish woman, an American woman, a Zionist woman, I’m a blind woman. If I deny that it would be like a puzzle missing a piece,” Michelle explained in a recent exclusive interview.

Her unique skills and experiences – including her blindness – has made Michelle a vocal leader in Chicago’s Orthodox Jewish community. For decades, Michelle has served the boards of some of Chicago’s largest Jewish schools, summer camps and other organizations, and currently is Chairwoman of the Board at Keshet, which describes itself as “a one-of-a-kind organization that brings classroom experiences, camps, recreational, social and vocational activities, adult day programming, and residential opportunities to 600 people with disabilities each year.”

Michelle with Keshet resident, Rachel.

In her many years on charitable boards, Michelle has noticed that she’s nearly always the only person with a disability at the table. “That has to change,” she points out. “When we fail to make our organizations accessible to everyone, we’re writing off whole portions of the population and failing to be enriched by their views.” Michelle believes there are some concrete steps we can all take to become more inclusive.

Growing Up with Few Resources

Growing up, Michelle, who is now 64, remembers having very few resources or accommodations for a serious, deteriorating eye condition that began in early childhood. In second grade, Michelle began losing vision; by the time she was ten years old, she was completely blind in one eye and had very poor vision in her other eye.

Michelle’s parents, Moish and Laurie Rosen, had the option of sending Michelle to a special school for visually impaired and blind children, but they resisted. They wanted to give all their children – including Michelle – a Jewish education in a day school. Another consideration was the narrow horizons that many schools for the blind fostered back in the 1960s. Too often, blind students were trained in just one or two low-level professions and didn’t gain a broad education. They were given the not so subtle message that having a career and a family were out of reach. Moish and Laurie wanted more for Michelle, but it wasn’t easy.

“My parents were accidental advocates,” Michelle remembers with a chuckle. In the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, schools and other places weren’t required to be accessible to all people. Michelle’s parents had to request specific accommodations for their daughter, such as letting her sit close to the blackboard, taking some tests verbally, and allowing her to use a special lined paper for writing with extra dark, easy-to-see lines on which to write.

“I was made to feel very different, which wasn’t a comfortable place to be.” She was the only disabled person in her Jewish school and for a long time she never knew anyone else with a disability.

Michelle and her family

Even when teachers thought they were being kind, it was embarrassing to be singled out as different. Michelle recalls the mortification she felt in 5th grade when her teacher announced to the entire class that they should all wish her luck on her upcoming eye surgery. “All my life, when I didn’t want to stick out, I was made to,” Michelle explains. As a child, she pretended her vision was better than it was and avoided making close friends who might actually discover just how difficult it was for her to see.

“I grew up being told there was nothing I couldn’t do – except drive,” Michelle recalls. Her parents were relentless in trying to find ways their daughter could thrive despite her limited vision. “I didn’t have a great experience, but in retrospect I was expected by others and my family and myself to do things typical children did.” She attended college and graduate school in Chicago, and continued to keep the extent of her disability hidden from friends and acquaintances.

For Michelle, being disabled felt synonymous with sticking out and it seemed unappealing. She occasionally noticed blind people walking in Chicago holding white canes, and it appeared to her that the white cane was the first person anyone noticed about its holder. The few blind people she glimpsed on the train didn’t seem fashionably dressed. Michelle didn’t want to be judged by the same assumptions she was making. “I didn’t want to be a blind person. I was in total denial about my disability.”

Finding Disabled Role Models

That began to change after college. A stellar student, Michelle graduated with a Bachelor's degree at the age of 19, but finding a job was difficult. After being rejected from one position for which she was eminently qualified, Michelle strongly suspected that she was turned down because she was nearly blind. One day, an ad in the Sunday paper caught her attention: “It was a job that said disability preferred.”

The job was in a newly formed organization called Access Living in Chicago, an organization that describes itself as “a center of service, advocacy, and social change for people with disabilities.” Nearly all of the staff members are people with disabilities. Michelle was hired as a case manager for people in independent living, and working there shifted her views of what having a disability means. “I learned to embrace my disability there,” she explains.

Her colleagues were good at their jobs and welcomed Michelle as a valued colleague. “I saw that being disabled wasn’t an embarrassment: you could be successful and do meaningful work as a disabled person.” She also came to view disabilities as part of the variety of human experience rather than some sort of an aberration.

Michelle having dinner with Keshet residents, Julie, Rachel and Erin, and Jen Phillips, Keshet’s CEO.

While working at Access Living, Michelle started dating. Even though she was learning not to hide her disability at work, in her dating life she was still hesitant to open up just how visually impaired she was. That all changed one evening when she met Robert Friedman through a Jewish dating service. Being with Robert felt different. After dinner he suggested taking a walk and Michelle agreed, warning him that she had no night-time vision at all and walking at night wasn’t easy for her.

“All my disabled friends from work came to my wedding,” Michelle recalls. Being with so many people with disabilities seemed startling to some of their able-bodied guests, but Michelle didn’t care. It was the wedding she’d always wanted, surrounded by her family and her wide circle of friends of all abilities.

Losing her Sight

After having children, Michelle became a stay-at-home mom and she began to serve on boards of her synagogue, of the Jewish school her children attended, and other Jewish organizations. She found she was a gifted fundraiser and thrived on her busy schedule of volunteering.

In the midst of this wonderful time in her life, with young children at home, Michelle suddenly lost what little vision she had and became completely blind. “I went into surgery for a cornea transplant – and woke up blind.” A follow-up operation to restore her sight was unsuccessful. Even though Michelle was used to living with extremely limited vision, she was unprepared for the experience of losing her sight altogether.

“I struggled with panic disorder and anxiety,” she recalls, “and I was struggling with depression, not because of my loss of vision, but because of my panic and anxiety.” Michelle stopped going to friends’ houses for Shabbat lunches, telling her husband and children to go and say Mommy wasn’t feeling well. “For a year I didn’t leave the house.”

A turning point came when Michelle forced herself to get out of the house with Robert and go to their daughter’s first grade Siddur presentation, when students receive their very first Jewish prayer book. On the way, Michelle had a panic attack and had to go home. After that, she began to reach out and get professional help. She saw a therapist to help with anxiety and received mobility orientation training to help her get around without sight. For the first time in her life Michelle even began learning to use a computer, availing herself of new technologies that were being invented to help blind users. At the end of that year, she forced herself to go on a family camping trip. It was crucial to Michelle that her blindness not prevent her kids from enjoying family vacations and time with their parents.

Michelle speaking to students at Ida Crown Jewish Academy

Michelle and Robert also had their third child. It might not always have been easy, but Michelle and Robert were determined to build the beautiful family they’d always dreamed of, no matter what. They were also fortified by their warm, close-knit Jewish community, where friends and neighbors were often happy to step in and help.

Bringing New Skills to the Jewish Community

Slowly, Michelle emerged from her terrible year and resumed her busy volunteering schedule. She even became the Chairwoman of the Board of her children’s high chool, the very same school she had attended, Ida Crown Jewish Academy. “I could no longer hide my disability,” Michelle recalls. She walked the school’s halls proudly, not bothering to try to pretend she was anything other than herself, disability and all.

“It was important for me to let these kids know that being disabled doesn’t mean I’m not abled. I might have to do things differently, but my disability doesn’t limit the impact I can make on the world.

One central message that Michelle wants people and organizations to understand is that people with disabilities bring valuable, necessary perspectives. They are the largest minority and this should be reflected on boards and in leadership.

Battling Stereotypes

Despite her accomplishments, Michelle still faces situations where she’s underestimated and perceived as less than capable. She describes attending a business lunch in a restaurant when the waitress asked one of Michelle’s colleagues “What does she want to order?” right in front of Michelle. “Why don’t you ask her?” her colleague replied.

It was, sadly, a typical experience. Despite the fact that Michelle is the author of two children’s books (There Once Was a Camel and Close Your Eyes) and serves as the board chair of an $11 million organization, some people insist on viewing her only through the lens of her blindness.

This has made Michelle more determined than ever to fight prejudice and create a more inclusive environment. In some cases, there are actual, physical barriers, like a lack of wheelchair access and websites and other technologies that lack accessibility. In other cases, the barriers are internal, based on our attitudes and expectations that people with disabilities have no space in our lives and our organizations.

5 Ways to Create Change

1. Avoid offensive terms.
The words we use influence the way we perceive others. Some derogatory words – like handicapped or crippled – have fallen out of fashion. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what to say. Michelle advises people to follow the lead of people with disabilities: “I am a firm believer that I am entitled to refer to myself in any words I choose without being judged by others.”

2. See the person, not the disability.
Instead of defining people by their disability, place the person front and center. Assume they’re capable.

3. Are disabled people unwelcome in your building?
Do you have ramps for wheelchairs, automated doors, braille signs, and other accommodations for people who need them? If someone has a hard time just getting in the door of an organization, it’s unlikely they will feel welcome there.

4. Are you actively looking for representation from everyone in your community?
People with disabilities are the largest minority group. It’s important that we seek them out and integrate opinions and experiences from as many diverse people as we can. Seek out the voices of the people with the lived experience.

5. Recognize disabilities as part of the human condition.
Michelle’s dream is to get to a place where people will no longer make assumptions about others based on their disabilities and their perceived limits. Often the assumptions we make – that a person with a disability would be too difficult to have as an employee – are erroneous. She encourages everyone to move past their discomfort and get to know people who are different from us. “When we change our mindsets and get past our assumptions and stigmas, we can see that all of our differences add value to our communities.”

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