Ari Ne’man, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, admitted for a long time he struggled to feel included in the Jewish community.
“Like many Jews with disabilities, I haven’t always felt welcome or included in the Jewish community,” the 26-year-old said. “I look forward to the day when I feel as welcome as a disabled person in the Jewish community as I feel as a Jew in the disability rights movement.”
When Ne’eman was younger, he had to leave his Jewish day school when the teachers felt that they could not meet his special needs. He then ended up attending a public school for kids with disabilities which he said had drastically lower educational standards and expectations.
In response, Ne’eman decided to take it open himself to create the opportunities that others were refusing him both in the Jewish and secular world.
“That to my mind informed my sense that if people with disabilities, including autistic people, were going to have opportunities in society, we needed to become politically active,” he said.
So shortly after graduating high school he founded Autism Self-Advocacy Network, or ASAN.
Since then, he has been advocating for inclusion for persons- many accomplished like himself – who happen to have a disability.
Jay Ruderman, of the Ruderman Foundation, said that awarding Ne’eman with the Inclusion Award – which comes with a $100,000 prize – recognizes both Ne’eman’s accomplishments so far and his potential to change the way the Jewish community perceives those with differences.
“Society often looks at people with disabilities as people who are inferior who need to be either cured or help, and help often means segregation: separate schools, work forces or housing,” Ruderman said. “Ari is perhaps one of the leading voices in our country telling the disabilities and general communities that people with disabilities have rights they deserve to receive.”
Ne’eman declined to say exactly how he would spend the $100,000, but said it would be used in a project to help persons with disabilities feel more accepted.
“A very big part of our work is to attempt to build social acceptance so passing is less necessary,” he explained. “In many ways it’s similar to the dynamic in the Jewish community — the tension between efforts to fit in and a desire for community and acceptance on our own terms.”