For Jewish teens, especially those preparing for b’nei mitzvahs, mitzvah projects are a rite of passage. Jewish young people are encouraged to do good things on our journeys to becoming full-fledged adults by participating in beach clean-ups, getting involved in social justice initiatives, collecting books for schools and programs lacking access to new reads, and then there’s the classic: volunteering with nonprofit programs to befriend peers with “special needs.”
Often, these well-intentioned and needed programs serve young people with disabilities like autism and other intellectual and developmental conditions, sometimes lumping them under the stigmatizing label of “special needs” — a term which disabled advocates say is outdated and harmful.
I was raised on the bedrock of mitzvahs, trying to help others and uplift marginalized people whenever possible, whether through giving time, toys or my friendship. As someone diagnosed with autism as a toddler, social exclusion is familiar to me: I’ve had difficulty connecting with peers because my disability is marked by differences in communication and social skills. I was quiet, respected authority, and struggled to bond with kids my age, particularly other girls. I got along well with adults, and most of the friends I made were either older or younger kids (or boys, because we had similar interests). Having a peer to relate to, who was also a mentor of sorts, would have been amazing. As a child and teenager, making friends was a key goal of mine that everyone knew about. I would have relished the chance to have a female, neurotypical peer befriend me because we clicked.
But something about neurotypical, nondisabled kids being paired with disabled peers while expecting something in return, like service hours or checking a box towards successfully becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, sits wrong with me.
I was never part of a peer/buddy system for kids with disabilities at school or within the community. Because of my masking skills and maturity, I could’ve easily ended up as either the “buddy” to someone more visibly disabled than I was, or, because of my diagnosis, on the receiving end of that “friendship.” The disabled “buddies” are usually impacted by disability in ways that appear to be obvious, while those who seem as if they need less support don’t receive equitable assistance in friend-making. While I needed support in making friends and sometimes had a hard time meeting people with similar interests, I never thought friendship with me (or others like me) should be conditional in any way, shape or form.
But friendship programs unintentionally convey this message, promising selfish personal growth, community service hours or the successful completion of a mitzvah project, if only you befriend and spend some quality time with a peer with a disability. The lessons you learn from your “buddy” will be invaluable, and so will the lessons your “buddy” learns.
I think about the young nondisabled people who temporarily join in on these programs for finite amounts of time. They receive their community service hours and successfully complete their bar or bat mitzvahs, then they go off to college, start jobs, or otherwise fall into their new young adult lives. Of course, friendships can be temporary because people naturally grow apart, not because there was a motive to begin with. But inclusion is a commitment and practice, not a trend or means to an end.
Not all volunteers join selfishly and I am immensely grateful for those who genuinely do want to help the disability community and make long-term friendships. The disabled teens join without subtext or hidden meaning: wanting to make friends and needing support in doing so.
When temporary visitors seeking personal benefit show up, what’s the message being sent to disabled people like me, who are left behind when our new friends lose touch and move on with their lives after it is no longer required for their project? While I have peers who are still friends with their assigned buddies, others immediately move on following the end of the service — the transaction of friendship ends. We believed we had a real friend; instead, we’re left with a scar of transition and starting over with strangers after being shown that our friendship lacked the same meaning as neurotypical friendships. What we’re left behind with is the aching notion that friendship with disabled people is disposable.
Friendship isn’t something that should be conditional or rooted in pity, complete with major power differentials. We aren’t typically invited to hang out with the person’s regular friend group at school or other activities, it’s always one-on-one or with other program participants. We aren’t viewed as genuine partners in the friendship who need the same acceptance and inclusion that all teenagers so desperately crave. Some of my disabled friends recall having a “buddy” approach them at lunchtime, hoping just sitting with them would complete their service requirements, much like those (often) cringeworthy “inspirational” moments like asking disabled teens to prom to score good people points.
People with disabilities don’t have spaces to make friends designed with us in mind. Instead of building those inclusive and accessible spaces where we could be recognized in our full humanity, we become the mitzvah projects.
I’m not saying there’s no hope for these kinds of programs. Samantha Novick is the president of The Friendship Journey in Parkland, Florida, an organization that fosters inclusive friendships between people of all abilities. “We’ve been working hard to shift to creating a space for genuine, authentic connections to develop organically versus the standard fabricated ‘buddy’ system, and also providing more leadership and empowering roles for people with disabilities,” Novick tells me.
We disabled people are part of the community — at school, in Jewish spaces, and everywhere — and not just “community service.” I am not your mitzvah project. I want people to be friends with me — and others like me — for the right reasons: seeing our humanity, sharing common interests and experiences, and recognizing that, honestly, we’re cool people and loyal friends. Don’t friend me for lessons learned, self-improvement, service hours or community service.
The real mitzvah would be transforming the culture to be rooted in disability justice and empowering people with disabilities, rather than seeing us as a way to meet a goal. The real mitzvah would be taking an interest, dismantling barriers to friendships, and creating genuine inclusion for all people with disabilities.