A Cantor's Experience of Living with a Disability
This post is part of #JDAMblogs, a series of blog posts throughout the Jewish community during the month of February in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM). #JDAMblogs is the brainchild of Lisa Friedman, who blogs at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block. You can participate by writing your own post and linking up with Lisa.
"Don't curse the deaf": One implication of this great biblical moral principle is that we should not vilify or mock any disabled person. It further implies such an injunction even when the object of our remarks might be unaware of them. This suggests that our curses can cause harm beyond hurt feelings, by damaging the reputation of an individual, or even by prejudicing others against an entire class of people.
I have lived most of my life as a member of that class sometimes called "the handicapped" or "the disabled." I contracted polio at the age of 20 months, in the epidemic of 1931. It wasn't until I was six that I could walk, with the help of full length heavy iron braces supporting both legs.
Before that, my older sister would wheel me about in a stroller, and we would be met with looks of pity or of disapproval by the adults. Many of them shrank away from me so as not to be contaminated by my disease. My parents, Orthodox immigrants from Poland, told me God would heal me if I prayed, so I prayed and prayed - until I ultimately rejected God when no miraculous healing occurred.
Children in our neighborhood called me a variety of nasty names when their parents weren't present. I cried. My brother and sister tried to assuage my very real emotional pain with the bromide, "Sticks and stones can break your bones but names can never harm you." How wrong they were! Names can hurt. Broken bones can heal, but the degrading labels - cripple, limpy, crybaby, and others that I can't repeat here - particularly when heard over and over again, left a broken self-image leading to disastrous consequences in my behavior and a vacuous personality devoid of any feeling.
Children my age would not let me play with them. At elementary school age, we "cripples" were herded into one room, with one teacher for all eight grades. Mainstreaming was a concept yet to be invented! We were allowed no recess and were bussed to school from many different neighborhoods, making formation of friendships at school nearly impossible.
By sixth grade I could finally walk without braces, although with a noticeable limp, and I had learned that I could command favorable attention with my singing. In my twenties, I pursued a successful theatrical career, eventually gaining access to opportunities despite my disabilities, being limited to playing old men or villains. But it required many decades of therapy and help from many friends before I could finally feel whole and start making peace with the physical and emotional traumas of my childhood.
The stresses on my ankles due to performing on stage forced an end to that career, but led me to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a career as a cantor, which I love. I have spoken many times to classes of schoolchildren about what it's like to be disabled, teaching them not to fear asking questions about our disability or equipment. We love to talk!
Gradually, over many years, muscular strength has left my legs, due to Post Polio Fatigue Syndrome (PPS), and I am now confined to a wheelchair. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, I can now access most synagogues and theaters, which would have before been impossible. Yet I still cannot enter most private houses for shivah services, sick calls, or even to visit friends. One Rosh HaShanah I was given a most wonderful gift: A friend added ramps to his home so that I could participate in a "normal" way. Thank you!
I urge you to consider: How do you respond to people with disabilities, particularly to their insistence on accessibility? How quickly do stereotypical labels surface in your brain, even though you are sophisticated enough not to actually say them? And finally, are you consistently aware that the power of words goes far beyond the physical to heal or to hurt?
Cantor David Unterman is the cantor emeritus of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA, where he continues to be a popular teacher of Jewish spirituality and often participates in musical events at Beth Am. This post was originally a sermon selivered at Yom Kippur services in 2005.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.