leezaphotoFor several months now, Sandy Miller Jacobs (a former Professor of Special Education) and I have been working on writing and editing a discussion guide to accompany Mayyim Hayyim’s short film about accessibility at the mikveh, Open Waters: Mikveh for Everybody.

The film and discussion guide are both projects of a generous grant we received from the Ruderman Family Foundation. The aim of the discussion guide is for youth (at their school, summer camp, or synagogue) to use the film (and the discussion guide questions) to better understand accessibility at a Jewish organization. Ultimately, the goal is for participants to identify real ways to make their community more accessible and inclusive.

As part the writing and editing process, I’ve been learning about the subtle ways that language undermines our good intentions. For example, I’ve come to see that, despite all of the lingo about ‘special needs,’ disability is actually a completely natural part of being human.

Although we live in a world that’s all too often not designed around access, most of us, at some point, will experience a disability, whether through a family member, or our own experience of aging, a temporary injury, or impaired eyesight.

Let’s take a quick look at the term, disability. It was originally intended to articulate a need for services at school, work, or elsewhere. Disability, then is more an indication of a need, than a commentary on who a person is.

In a building with a ramp, someone who uses a wheelchair doesn’t have a disability because they are able to use the space. In a building without one, they will indeed experience a dis-ability. Instead of implying a human defect, the term should focus on the needs of an individual, and the space they inhabit.

Think about your own identity for a moment; perhaps you are a father, an artist, brother, immigrant, and maybe you are also lactose-intolerant. No single item on that list describes you fully, right? Especially not your need to eat lactose-free foods! A person’s needs are one aspect of their experience, and yet, how many times have I heard someone say, Jane is coming over, she’s disabled. What should we serve for dinner? A person’s needs shouldn’t be the first thing we say about them, nor the primary way we think about who they are.

The learning I did as part of working on this discussion guide pointed me to something very concrete, called people-first language. Here’s how it works: instead of saying we redesigned our space for disabled people, we say, we redesigned our space for people who use wheelchairs or people with disabilities.

Have you ever heard someone say their friend is (God-forbid) cancerous? Probably not. Usually, we say, ‘they have cancer.’ I’m not myopic, rather, I wear glasses. Similarly, a person isn’t handicapped or disabled –they have a disability, or they use a wheelchair. Working towards making our communities truly inclusive is as much a shift in our language and perception as it is the design of our classrooms.

While working on this guide has offered me countless opportunities to reevaluate assumptions, one piece stands out above the rest: issues of access are universal. There is nothing special about it. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. No one likes being boxed in by any single label, no one wants to be reduced to a need, made to feel different, accommodated, patronized, or pitied. And most of all, we all deserve to be at the center.

Leeza is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She is looking forward to February, when the discussion guide will be available on our website for download. If you would like more information about the discussion guide, please write to Leezan@mayyimhayyim.org.