My sister Carol, of blessed memory, was six years older than me. She had Down’s syndrome, and as a kid I vividly remember going with Carol and my mother to Teen Town, a Thursday night social get-together where developmentally disabled teenagers could mingle socially, form friendships, and plan outings together. It was there that Carol met Sam Berniger, who also had Down’s syndrome.
Carol and Sam were an item in those days, often flirting with one another. At first it was strange to observe because I viewed my own sister as disabled in some way and not capable of romantic relationships. However, after witnessing Carol and Sam’s obvious affection for one another, I realized they were no different from other teens I knew. They wanted human connection. They wanted to feel love and affection, and that desire is common to all people, not just the developmentally disabled.
I thought of their romance as I watched Becoming Bulletproof, an arresting documentary about a cohort of disabled people from all over the United States, who come together once a year to make a movie.
Some background information is in order. Zeno Mountain Farms has an annual project of making a film using people with disabilities of all kinds as actors. Although their disabilities are wide-ranging, the young men and women come together in the service of art, making a movie that somehow transcends the limitations of their disabilities.
The project takes place in their summer camp program, and this year the project is to produce a short western movie by the camp’s residents. Period costumes are used, some paid for and some donated. The key scene is the confrontation between the hero and the villain in a shootout on a deserted street. The entire cast serves as bystanders to the imminent bloodshed. The camera pans over the worried faces of people in the crowd and then focuses on the guns in the holsters of the antagonists, who are about to draw their weapons against one another. It is a scene reminiscent of many classic western movies.
Working with the campers are people without disabilities who relate to the disabled as normal human beings. They see the disabled as significant others; and by doing so, they discover their common humanity, and forget about the disabled label. Watching the residents learn their lines and act their respective parts is both very heart wrenching and inspiring. What is especially noteworthy is how the staff relates to the residents as regular friends and family, even though the disabilities that distinguish them are glaringly evident.
Although there is an implicit message embedded in the movie, the movie is not preachy. The message: the disabled want to be recognized as people of value, who have an independent identity, who want to be taken seriously. This harks back to the Biblical notion that we are all created in God’s image; therefore, we all have infinite value regardless of our physical disabilities.
Jewish law recommends treating the disabled as regular members of the community as much as is humanly possible considering the idiosyncratic nature of each disability. As a synagogue rabbi, I recall vividly a father who painstakingly taught his developmentally disabled son how to recite the Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah. In the father’s eyes, it was very important that his child experience the same rite of passage as other young men.
Becoming Bulletproof is testimony to the fact that the disabled are part of the human family, and want to be treated as such. Stigmatizing someone as disabled may be a necessity in the world of therapeutics, but labels should not define a person in the world of human discourse.