Limmud & the Language of Disability

LimmudUK is a festival of Jewish ideas, where controversy and debate are encouraged. So it was not perhaps so very surprising that there were some fundamental differences about approaches to disability expressed by different presenters. The debate was specifically around language: ‘handicap’; ‘the differently abled’; ‘people with disabilities’; ‘disabled people’.

Rabbi David Levin-Kruss, a highly respected educator who I first met when he was teaching at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, asked the question: “Is Judaism handicapped when it comes to relating to the differently abled?” I took a very different path, looking at the four corners of inclusion, asking the question of how we make room for people with disabilities within Judaism. Each question is almost an inverse of the other – but we share a recognition of the difficulty confronting Jewish people with disabilities both within Judaism and within Jewish communities. We also share a desire to bring about change for Jews with disabilities. As we didn’t engage directly at Limmud, I thought that extending the conversation to the broader community was credited.

Over the last 50 years, there has been a dramatic change in the way in which people understand disability.  The question of who is included as a person with a disability is both a matter of fact and law, but it is problematic to talk of the disabled – for the preposition objectifies a group of people who are being understood and positioned as other. People with disabilities have in common the experience of a disabling characteristic. This may be one or more of a wide array of physical, neurological or psychosocial differences which are outside the range of what is considered to be ‘normal’.  However, knowing that a person is deaf or has a mobility impairment; has a chronic illness or an acquired brain injury, or has one of many other possible disabilities tells you very little about the person.

Illustrator: Roman Fedin

There has been a great deal of conversation about words that are used, and how language can be empowering or disempowering. It is now accepted that we need to understand people as people first, independent of any disabling characteristic. While a description of someone as ‘handicapped’ may appear to be neutral, its history and association with what is now known as the ‘medical model’ of disability, make its use offensive to many people with disabilities.

The medical model of disability sees disability as a tragedy which individuals have to manage. This starts with an impairment and an assumption of brokenness. The functional limitations of an individual were to be fixed by medical experts. Those who are not able to be fixed are inherently broken, so are to be pitied, treated with sympathy, and to be the objects of charity and good works. The treatment of people with disabilities, on this account, is a medical or rehabilitation model. Society’s obligation, if any, is to offer medical remediation. This may extend to the provision of adaptive equipment – glasses, crutches, wheelchairs. At this point the state can withdraw – and there is an assumption that there is a direct causality between the ‘handicap’ experienced and the treatment of an individual with a disability. It is at this point that the language of ‘handicap’ becomes offensive because it is actively disempowering. It fails to recognize that the barriers to inclusion and participation have very little to do with impairment. ‘Handicap’ leaves the individual responsible to navigate the world, rather than society taking responsibility to make structural changes that would facilitate accessibility and remove obstacles that prevent a person from experiencing equality and social well-being.

My concern with the medical model of disability is that it fails to recognize that a person’s impairment is NOT the most problematic aspect of their disability. Let me explain this with something you are likely to have experience of – a broken leg. There is no doubt that medical intervention will have a role to play in fixing the problem. In most cases, a few days after the leg has been set and cast, medical people have no role to play until it is time to have the cast removed. In some cases, physiotherapy will be needed, but generally, the injured person is ‘fixed’ and life gets back to ‘normal’.

Picture courtesy of Pixabay: rawpixel

It is easy to forget the vast array of other problems for the individual and those around him or her experienced because of the broken leg. A short-term problem can be quite manageable because the changes in life and routine are temporary and in a crisis situation people go out of their way to be accommodating. But for a person with a mobility impairment, the issues are more than irritations that resolve themselves with time. Nonetheless, the experience of a person with a broken leg provides the individual concerned and the community of support around the individual, insight into the everyday world of people with disabilities.

What a person with a broken leg discovers, is that they now need to navigate society in a fashion that is different from that of those with two working legs. What is quickly discovered, is that the world is not suited to those on crutches or those using a wheelchair. The person may not be able to go to school or work, because they may not be able to get in and out of buildings. The person may not be able to go to the cinema or hang out with friends for exactly the same reason. They may be unable to cook because the design of the kitchen assumes that every person is of an average height and in a wheelchair, they may not be able to reach the bench, counter or the stove. They may not be able to do the washing or the washing up. They won’t be able to drive and mostly they will be unable to use public transport. These are just a few of the barriers that a person with a broken leg may have to manage temporarily. However, a person with an equivalent mobility disability will be confronted with such structural barriers to inclusion every day.

So, if we assume that Judaism could be handicapped, we are assuming that whatever the limitations we find within Judaism are inherent to Judaism and inherently unfixable. As such, our version of this essence of Judaism would be determinative of the way in which Judaism mediates the Jewish experience of Judaism for people with disabilities.  A ‘handicapped’ Judaism would be broken and unaccommodating. As nothing can be done, the logical response of people with disabilities to ‘Judaism’ would be, to be sad that they’re excluded from what they thought was their cultural heritage. This would be a tragedy for individuals, who would have to put up with it, or leave.

Photographer:Rafael Ben-Ari

This is a theological position. Defining Judaism as a religion which is static and disabling is not the Judaism to which I subscribe. If we are able to recognize that all people are made in God’s image, then there cannot possibly be the intentional exclusion of some groups of people. However we look, however we act, however ‘normally’ or ‘abnormally’ we behave, we are an articulation of God. Whatever skills we have or don’t have, whatever abilities or characteristics we have or don’t have, we are all part of Klal Yisroel. Exclusion is an abuse of power; exclusion brings loss both to the affected individual and to the community as a whole.

So it must be the task of anyone in a position to do so, to liberate Judaism and Jewish people from the ‘handicap’ attendant on an exclusionary reading of our tradition. Jews with disabilities have the right to equal treatment in the community, in communal spaces, in Synagogues and in everything we understand Judaism to be. After all, we know about exclusion and being ‘othered’, because we were slaves in Egypt.

About the Author
Melinda Jones is a feminist human rights scholar & activist, working on a range of social justice projects on women's empowerment; disability, Judaism and Jewish law; and gender and children's health rights. Her previous research has included books, chapters and articles about the rights of vulnerable people in domestic and international law. Topics have included the rights of people with disabilities; free speech & racial hatred; the rights of the child; religion & the law; and feminism, gender & women's rights. Melinda taught political science and law at Australian Universities for over 20 years.
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