In recognition of Jewish Disability, Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, and coinciding with the start of Black History Month, The Branch welcomed Asha Chai-Chang on Feb. 2 for a webinar titled “The Intersection of Race, Disability and Religion: A First-Person Experience.”
An award-winning and Oscar-qualified director and writer, as well as an Emmy-nominated producer and RespectAbility Entertainment Lab Alum and certified speaker, Chai-Chang is a disability advocate and accessibility coordinator with non-visible disabilities. She is the Jamaican/Cuban/Chinese/Jewish daughter of immigrant parents.
Chai-Chang said she embraced her Jewish heritage when she met others of a similar religious background while a student at Yale University.
“That helped me a lot with realizing, ‘OK, this is where I fit in and it feels good to, kind of, put my faith first,” she said. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that she began speaking about her respiratory disability, which she had previously “masked,” or hid.
After she began speaking about her disability in public, Chai-Chang took the next step and began writing about it and embracing “all of her identities,” she said.
“I was worried there weren’t other people like me around,” she said, “so I’m really happy we’re having a discussion that includes talking about a person of Jewish faith and, also, speaking about being a person with disabilities. And it is Black History Month, so it’s a perfect combination and a time to be proud of all my identities at one moment.”
Part of Chai-Chang’s identity is tied to her projects in the entertainment field, and she took her audience on a tour through her work with RespectAbility, a national nonprofit advocating for people with disabilities. She spoke of her appearance in an Apple commercial that airs during Sunday Night Football and her work in Unstoppable, a program created in 2020 for and by disabled filmmakers.
About one in four Americans are disabled, Chai-Ching said — and that doesn’t include those suffering from long COVID.
One in seven Jews identify as Jews of color, she said.
Asked by moderator Nancy Gale, executive director of The Branch, to recount notable stories of inclusion, Chai-Chang recalled a time in college when she and others at Hillel hosted a “prom-ukah,” combining a prom with the holiday of Chanukah.
“I remember feeling like I could invite some of my friends who weren’t Jewish,” she said, “but also, we were putting our Jewish pride on display. That was a full coming together. We also provided easy access and shuttles to get there. We thought about how to make the in-person event accessible, too, and this was before I started advocating for having accommodations at events.”
That was the first time, she said, when all her worlds coalesced.
When advocating for people with disabilities, Chai-Chang said, it’s important not to simply act as an “ableist” and speak for people. Rather, she said, those wishing to help should find ways to support those with disabilities without speaking over them or tokenizing them, and by first asking people if they need assistance.
Advocacy, she said, doesn’t mean arguing about a problem.
“I’ve had to speak up in those moments and say, ‘We’re all in this together,’” she said.
Speaking specifically about inclusion for Jews of color, Chai-Chang encouraged the Jewish community to pursue diversity training.
Additionally, she said, finding descriptors other than a person’s race is important, as is creating safe environments where people can speak freely — an anonymous tip box, for instance.
An important “don’t,” she said, is to avoid asking for proof of identification or if Jews of color know how to perform particular traditions. The Jews of Color Initiative, Chai-Chang said, is a good resource to learn more about the subject.
Turning an eye to the intersection of race and disability, she noted that disabilities are still stigmatized in some “communities of color.”
“My mom didn’t come around to embracing that I’ve accepted being disabled as an identity until about a year ago,” she said.
Saying she has a “just ask” policy, Chai-Chang encouraged her audience to freely communicate and ask questions if they are unsure about the situation surrounding a person with disabilities.
The webinar was attended by 85 people.
“I think she’s a really impressive person and has a really important message to get out,” Gale said of Chai-Chang. A large takeaway, Gale added, was the Just Ask/Don’t Ask portion of Chai-Chang’s talk.
“I think she’s encouraging the audience to stop and think and ask more questions,” she said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.