Arielle Silverman, a disability activist and social scientist, has worked as a consultant, researcher and mentor, with the goal of changing the way people think about disabilities.
The 37 year old, who introduced herself as someone that’s been both “blind and Jewish since birth,” also serves on The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s disability and inclusion committee. She recently published her first book, “Just Human: The Quest for Disability Wisdom, Respect, and Inclusion.”
When did you get into disability activism?
I’ve been blind my whole life and I’ve been part of the blind community since childhood. I think the main motivator for becoming an activist is when I joined the National Federation for the Blind. I started meeting new people and seeing how much discrimination is out there. Discrimination takes a lot of different forms. Sometimes it’s overt and obvious and other times it’s unintentional.
How does your disability serve as a strength and how has it been a challenge?
It’s given me a focus in terms of what I want to do professionally and personally. I’ve really focused my career in these ways doing research, mentoring, training and writing in improving the lives of people with disabilities and if I didn’t have a disability I wouldn’t have that focus. Personally, it’s opened me up to a great community of people that I work with and I’m friends with that are also blind.
There are practical challenges, such as not being able to drive, which means it takes me longer to get places or I have to ask for help getting to a place. Or if I’m walking on foot, being able to find the place that I’m going can take a little more creativity and patience. I don’t think blindness has inhibited me professionally at all.
How did you decide to write a book?
I started writing these stand-alone stories about periods of my life and lessons I’ve learned from different experiences that I had. I kind of had a dream in the back of my mind of putting them all together. It was during 2020, when everything shut down, that I got really motivated to write these stories down and put them together in a coherent whole and bring them to readers.
The book focuses on the idea that even though I was born with a disability, it never seemed like a bad thing to me, but public attitudes tend to say otherwise and I had to go through this whole process of understanding that other people saw my disability very differently than I did.
Where does this activism intersect with Judaism?
Judaism calls upon us to do tikkun olam, to make the world better. That’s become part of my values and what drives my life forward and drives the decisions I make. When I was doing disability consulting, some of my clients were Jewish organizations that were working on inclusion. I had a mixed experience growing up in the Jewish community. The synagogue that I went to advocated a lot so I was included nicely in religious school, but socially, I was less consistently included and was actually excluded from the Jewish summer camp. It was really refreshing for me to see Jewish organizations take active steps to figure out how to be more inclusive and being involved in that process.
What are some common misconceptions that you confront?
Researchers have found that there are all different kinds of prejudices about people with disabilities. There is the typical rejection, exclusion behavior that people may engage in and some of the reasons are thinking that people with disabilities are incapable of doing certain things. There are misconceptions that our lives are tragic or are less valuable than people without disabilities. There are also just general public attitudes that people need to contribute to society in a certain way in order to be acceptable.
The one I deal with the most is benevolent discrimination. It’s a little bit of an oxymoron, but it’s discriminating against people by treating them in this condescending way, with too much kindness almost. Seeing them only as recipients of charity rather than participants in society. For example, if I’m walking down the street and going to the Starbucks that I’ve been to a zillion times, I have no issues getting there but somebody may stop me and ask me if I need help or in some cases they might get more aggressive and block me from crossing the street or pat me in the shoulder and tell me I’m doing such a great job. While it seems kind, it has this connotation of like “I don’t think that you’re a full equal to me.”