Thursday, March 28, 2013

a passover story

I had a lot of thoughts over the first few days of Passover that I wanted to share.

My story
The Passover seder I was at did a thing where people spoke as objects or people from the Passover story. For example, someone speaking as the frog leader from the plague of the frogs about what it was like to be a frog in that story. 

One woman chose to be Moses/Moshe/משה. She began to speak and then quickly made some statement (I forgot what it was) and began speaking with a fake lisp. It was not only a fake lisp, but a very imprecise one that essentially combined multiple different speech problems into one. I was really upset by this and found it HUGELY offensive for a number of reasons. 
1) Emotionally as someone with a former speech impairment
2) Intellectually/academically as someone who reads about disability studies stuff
3) As a disability advocate

(1) I was in speech therapy for 5 years when I was younger and still can’t listen to my voice recorded because I hate how my own voice sounds. For years after I stopped speech therapy I wouldn’t speak to strangers if I could help it and would use my family to interpret for me. In case the image isn’t clear enough, when I was in high school and on a date with someone I realized it was one of the first times I ordered for myself at a restaurant. So, I am obviously very sensitive about these things. 

(2) Through my disability studies reading am aware of the more academic issues with such an act. Tobin Siebers in his book Disability Theory discusses the topic of disability masquerade and specifically “disability drag”. He talks about the problems with non-disabled people pretending or acting like they have a disability. This was in the context of movies and other media, but I think the act is still problematic on a much smaller stage.

(3) The family hosting that seder, have a daughter with disabilities. I don’t know if she was previously in speech therapy. I know that her “non-disabled” sibling (who is my friend) was in speech therapy and was also offended by it (we spoke when we left the room quietly so we wouldn’t have to listen to all of it). That sibling was offended in similar ways to the #1 reason I listed above as well as from being an aware person of disability stuff. The daughter with disabilities I don’t know well. However, I do know that having multiple disabilities makes me more aware of these issues and more sensitive and even when the disability being mentioned isn’t mine, I’m still way more sensitive. I have no idea if she noticed it, saw it as wrong, or was offended by it. 

My thoughts about this story
These types of situations are hard to navigate. There were a lot of people and there isn’t an easy way to stop someone in the middle and chastise them without it being really rude, embarrassing, and NOT educational. I don’t blame them or fault them. I however know that if my parents are silent when something about another disability is mentioned in a way I’m offended by, I feel hurt. As a disability advocate, I worry about things like this happening which aren’t “such a big deal” in the scheme of things but are really missed opportunities for a wonderful teaching moment and a really good excuse to remind your daughter, or remind people in general that respecting people with disabilities is important. 

My friend spoke about it after as a missed teaching moment. I think that is really one of the things that bothers me most. Some of the woman’s points would have been wonderful to listen to (e.g. ‘why would God choose someone like me who has trouble speaking and expressing himself to be a leader?’) if I could have listened. Moses and his speech problems is a wonderful disability teaching moment and an empowering discussion. So, I will take this opportunity to share a few thoughts about it. 

(Note: I am discussing this story, the characters, and my own things about it from a literary perspective of viewing the hagaddah and the Passover narrative as a disability related story. I don’t want to get into religion or religious discussions or anything. “God” is being used as a literary character who makes choices and beyond that I have no interest in getting into. My own religious beliefs beyond being a Jew are irrelevant.)

Teaching Moment
God chooses Moses to lead the Jewish people. He chooses him to essentially go and advocate for the Jewish people before Pharaoh. Choosing a leader and an advocate who has trouble speaking is a strange choice. God appoints Aaron as an interpreter for Moses. Despite the fact that Aaron is supposedly speaking for Moses, he is still a secondary character. There is no question that Moses is the leader and that he got the Jews out of Egypt. Moses is the focus and the hero and his words are viewed as such. Aaron is a character as Moses’ brother and as an interpreter, but his role as an interpreter is viewed as just that; interpreting what Moses wants to say into words that others can more easily understand. 

I don’t have any wonderful insights to share. I just want to bring this idea up. That Moses seems to be the first person in history to use AAC (stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, wikipedia calls it an "umbrella term that encompasses the communication methods used to supplement or replace speech or writing") and have his words viewed as his own. Not only that, but despite his needing an interpreter, he was still viewed as capable of advocating for others (and others who had very different childhoods than his own). 

On that note, I hope those of you celebrating Passover have a good one and those of you who aren’t celebrating/aren’t Jewish have a good week anyway. I don’t usually look to the bible or religion for things about disability (as they often depress me) but when I’m smacked on the head with a disability scenario which can be viewed positively I think sometimes it is good to share. It would be nice if someone who is better with words than I am wanted to interpret my ideas and write something actually nice about this topic. 

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