When I applied to rabbinical school in 2001, they told me to take the GRE (Graduate Record Exam.) On the opening screens of the test, it asked demographic questions, including a question about disabilities. I had never used that word to describe myself, and I started to click past. Then I remembered: oh yeah, the learning specialist I saw made me go see an audiologist, and I’m hard of hearing. OK, I’ll click that.
And as my eye moved on, I realized with shock that I had other boxes to click. Learning disabilities? Uh, yes. That was why I’d seen the learning specialist. Mobility problems? I eyed the cane propped against my chair. Yeah, I guess. I quit reading and clicked to the next screen, where it fed me back my demographic info, including the words “multiple disabilities.” I felt queasy, clicked past, and shoved the whole thing out of my mind to take the test.
That was the first time I admitted to having ONE disability, and I will admit now that I read “multiple disabilities” as “object of pity” which I had no intention of being. I spent the next year proving I could keep up with my twenty-years-younger peers, in class and out, and by the end of the year I was on antidepressants (for one of the other little issues I hadn’t mentioned) and my body was a wreck. I was deep into chronic pain territory, and determined to deny everything.
Because, you see, I had two problems with this multiple disability thing: first, I looked down on disability, so I couldn’t possibly have one (much less lots of ’em) and secondly, my disabilities weren’t legitimate. Other people had worse disabilities so I couldn’t possibly take up room in that category. Or something.
It was years before I finally owned the category of “disabled,” thanks to the encouragement of friends whose disabilities I regarded as legitimate. Then, and only then, was I willing to take the blue placard the doctor offered me, which has made life so much more manageable. There were more years, and more isolation, before I was willing to step up and get myself a scooter so that I could go places that required more than 10 minutes of walking or standing. And I must confess that to this day, I spend more energy than I should worrying that someone will think I am using the scooter because I’m fat, and they’ll judge me, and — what? I’ll die? I will eventually grow up and quit worrying about that, too, I hope.
So why am I yammering about this on a Jewish blog? To start, Torah covers all of life: there is no subject about which there is no Torah. I needed to learn to accept the body I’ve got, to regard it as holy, and I’ve made strides in that direction. But even more, there’s this legitimacy thing. I was hesitant to accept a handicap placard for the car because I didn’t see myself as legitimately needing it. In the same way, I remember my longing for Jewish legitimacy: the thrill when I stepped out of the mikveh, the struggles I had every time someone questioned my legitimacy as a Jew, because no one questioned it more than me. And then eventually I learned the truth: I would be a real Jew when I acted like one.
So here I am, 100% Jewish and definitely disabled. Also fat, lesbian, Southern by birth, Californian by choice. Pretty smart in some subjects, remedial level in others. A work in progress.
I believe that every human being has a spark of the Divine. I have very little trouble believing that, except when it comes to myself.
I gather a lot of people feel that way. So to all of you (and myself) I will say: Wake up! Life is marvelous, terrifying, a gift we have only for a short time. Figure out how to make the most of yours, and do what you can.
As for legitimacy – well, more about that later. I’m on a roll.
9 thoughts on “The Problem of Legitimacy, Part 1”
Loved this! I had to use a scooter once in Target, because my pain was so bad I couldn’t shop otherwise. Wow, did I feel weird about it, because I’m fat and I always worry people will think I’m lazy. (I’m definitely not.) Like you, I always thought it was “the other person” who was disabled and needed help. I guess it was my pride getting in the way; I’d spent about four years on crutches and never felt disabled more than once or twice. I got a lot out of this blog entry, Rabbi, and I thank you for it. A good lesson learned.
I hope you have a great day today, with less pain than usual.
I love this so much! I struggle so much with legitimacy and authenticity. Because my disability is not visible all the time, I’ve internalized the idea that it isn’t real. But it is! And I’ve come to accept this!
Disabled is a terribly heavy sign to hang around some one’s neck. I don’t feel disabled. I don’t see my daughter as disabled. And yet, if I check the boxes, we both clearly are. The fact is that at some point in our lives, each and every one of us will experience some sort of disability. May we have the grace to accept it, and move on. I hope people will think of me for what I can do, and not on what I can’t do.
Bruce, I challenge you to look at why disabled feels to you like “a terribly heavy sign.” What does it mean to you to “see someone as disabled”?