Rethinking Disability: Let’s Do Better

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Nathaniel (Nati) Faber

In January 2023, famed YouTuber, Mr. Beast received lots of backlash on a video he made where he ”cured” blindness for 1,000 people. While many accused Mr. Beast of performative altruism, I think the mainstream media misunderstood why so many people in the blind community were upset by his performance.

Mr. Beast took what is called the “Medical Approach” to disability. The Medical Approach to disability holds as its fundamental tenet that is better to be abled than non-abled. This turns disability into a purely medical phenomenon. The disability is essentially the same as an illness that must be cured. To Mr. Beast, as a seeing person, it was obvious that being able to see is better than not being able to see. It seems Mr. Beast genuinely wanted to help the blind; his controversy lies in his assumption that it is better to see than to not.

As opposed to the Medical Model of disability, the Social Model of disability holds that disability is purely a societal construct. The best analogy to explain this thought is any magic/ superhero/ alien story out there. One could argue that the non-supernatural beings are disabled in a sense: they are quite literally less able than those that have supernatural abilities. Except, no one would really ever argue that, because the “regular” people function just fine. They live in a world that perfectly caters to them, even if there are those who can do more.

The blind community was upset with Mr. Beast because many members felt that there was nothing inherently wrong with being blind. In fact, many believed there were many beautiful facets to it, such as community or experiencing the world through our other senses. The only reason why being blind should have any “dis” associated with it is because the world isn’t accommodating enough for it. Many blind activists felt that Mr. Beast should have spent his time and money on making the world more accommodating, not the people less blind.


I imagine that the Social Model of disability sounds pretty revolutionary to some of you, especially if you’re an active member of a Jewish community. In truth, our communities take a very similar approach to that of Mr. Beast. I would be remiss to fail to mention that in many ways the Jewish community has come very far in our accommodations and acceptance of disabled people. We have dozens of organizations helping those with cognitive and or physical disabilities; we have schools with great integrated programs; and we have members and organizations fighting to end stigmatization.

However, we fail to address the structural issues that stigmatize and marginalize disabled people to begin with. In other words, we still perpetuate systems that force disabled people to live in a world not built for them. For example, the only reason giving a wheelchair-bound person an aliyah is a special occurrence is because it is out of the ordinary of what we expect to happen. It requires so much forethought and logistical planning, it really is a “big deal.” But it doesn’t have to be. Imagine if our tefilah spaces were just wheelchair accessible. Have you ever seen a bimah that had a wheelchair ramp? I haven’t. Yet, when a disabled person does get an aliyah, it is applauded for days because we did such a hesed, helping those in need. We never take the time to think why that person is “in need.” It is as if we view successful accommodation and integration as how much the disabled individual can be “normal,” and not how much “normal” can include the disabled individual.

Another area where we unfortunately take a “Mr. Beastian” approach is in our schools. Again, we must mention that our schools have done tremendous work in creating accommodations for our students. We have IEPs, integrated programs, and teachers who go through special training and mentorship on how to best teach to all students (although, we could do some work on how accessible our buildings are to those with physical disabilities). However, our students who don’t fit our classical views of disability, that is our mentally ill and neurodivergent students, are often left in the dust. They are labeled as “bad,” “poor performers,” and “problematic.” In reality, those students probably are just not in an environment that supports them. We attempt to try to fit the student around the classroom, not the classroom around the student.

I remember when I was a student with undiagnosed ADHD, despite being bright and studious, I would fall apart when it came to organization and time management. My teachers, with all the best intentions, tried hard to instill discipline and impulse control in me, but were never successful because that model of education was not built for me. I simply could not fit the mold that was prescribed. For example, as a high schooler, I never possessed the time management and executive functioning necessary to keep up with the multiple hours of homework I was given a night. What teachers would assume should take me twenty minutes, would sometimes take me multiple hours because of my attention deficit. When I would approach my teachers with these difficulties, they often would blame the issues on my lack of discipline or inappropriate priorities, such as the youth movement I was a part of. My teachers were trying to change me, not what was expected of me. The problem was, I could not be changed. My neurochemistry is what it is. As a result, I was left feeling like a failure, and despite being smart, I was a “bad” student. Thank God, I still managed to succeed in school, but many of my peers did not. Thank God, I still managed to succeed in school, but many of my peers did not.

I feel the need to mention that the issue of accommodations and accessibility in the classroom is not and cannot be the responsibility of solely the teachers. Teachers are bound by the requirements of the administrators, who are bound by the requirements of the accrediting bodies. And, that doesn’t even begin to address the issues of lack of proper training for teachers on how to educate certain types of students, nor the lack of financial compensation teachers receive for their off-the-clock work. To change our educational models, we must address the issue on multiple levels, through multiple educational bodies and agents; nevertheless, we must change our educational models.


I am writing this piece on February 16th, 2024, when my students found out last night if they got into a Jewish high school. I think about my students that inevitably got waitlisted or rejected from schools because of whatever mental illness and or cognitive/learning disabilities that have gone under the radar, making them appear to be “poor students.” The pain I feel knowing that there are children who are systemically being locked out of Jewish education is indescribable. I often think about what those children’s lives would look like if school was actually a place for them and didn’t just reluctantly manage them.

How beautiful would our schools be if we adopted the Social Model of disability? Could you imagine what it would look like if all students could just succeed? How our disabled students would feel knowing that they have strengths and challenges just like every other student? How beautiful it would be for every student to know there was a place for them?

Just imagine.

I dream of a day where every student in our schools is accepted as they are for who they are. Our neurodivergent and mentally ill students would never have to feel like they are failures because they can’t keep up with an impossible workload. Our students who require mobility accessibility would never have to jump through metaphorical hoops to move around the building. As an educator, I know that when we make our classrooms accessible, it helps all students. If our schools were truly accommodating, not only would we be giving support to those who are most in need, but all of the students would also turn into active community members who are knowledgeable in and feel accepted by their faith and heritage.

So, this is my call to action for our heads of school, school boards, principals, and educators: it’s time for us to do better. It’s time for us to build communities and schools where everyone has a place. Because the problem is not disability, the problem is the world that excludes it.

Nathaniel (Nati) Faber is a rabbi, teacher, and linguist originally from Southfield, Michigan. Nati studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut for 7 years. He also studied at the Jacob Herzog Teacher's college, with a focus in Biblical Linguistics, Rabbinic Literature, and ESL. He received his Smicha from the World Mizrachi Musmachim program.