Disability Language Is A Guidewire
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Disability Language Is A Guidewire

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.

At New Jersey’s Camp Marcella, where many blind children spend a few weeks each summer, I used to sprint down the track, with no fear of veering into trees or other obstacles. I held a rope suspended vertically from a loop on a wire high above, which followed the course of the track. If I began to stray, the rope, zipping along the guidewire, would steer me back onto the track.

The Exodus Guidewire

The running rope came to mind during these past few weeks, as the Torah portions recited in my synagogue recounted the Israelites’ redemption from Egyptian slavery. Three siblings —Miriam, Aaron and Moses, helped guide their people with intrepid dignity and courage. Miriam protected newborn Moses as he lay in a basket among reeds on the Nile’s banks. Moses confronted Pharaoh, demanding that the Israelite slaves be allowed to worship God in the wilderness. Aaron was Moses’s “right-hand man.”

It is not uncommon for siblings, children and spouses to follow the footsteps of family members and aspire to political power. Yet, how is it that three siblings, members of an oppressed nation, guided their lives according to the most noble quality of leadership—self-sacrifice?

A Parental “Language Tradition”

Amram was the father of Miriam, Aaron and Moses. His name meant “Exalted Nation.” The name of his wife Yocheved meant “God is to be honored.” In my imagination, the three siblings gained courage and strength from this linguistic thread in their running rope.

The Language of Disability

Choosing the language with which to describe ourselves isn’t like deciding what flavor of ice cream we prefer. Language is a guidewire.

“Special needs” implies that having a disability automatically makes you special. Underlying "inclusion” is the idea that "Powerful Society" decides that it’s commendable for the "Less Powerful Disabled" to join it.

The designation “Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month” itself contains a language pitfall. It steers us towards the notion that disability is the central and defining characteristic of the people on whom attention is being focused. “Awareness of Individual Jews with Disabilities Month” would never work as a slogan, but it would send the message that the person comes first, the disability is secondary.

My Disability Philosophy and Language Choice

I am an American Jew who has a disability, seeking full integration for myself and other individuals with disabilities into all aspects of Jewish society. Integration means being acknowledged as equal — an equal contributor who is equally responsible for the strengthening and supporting of his fellow Jews. Since I do not consider having a disability as a stigma, I have no need for euphemistic terms like “challenged” and “special.”

God gave us the gifts of cognition and speech. May we use them wisely to choose language that guides us on a noble and admirable

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.

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