People First

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


About mayyimhayyim

Mayyim Hayyim is a 21st century creation, a mikveh rooted in ancient tradition, reinvented to serve the Jewish community of today
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4 Responses to People First

  1. I was extremely excited to read about the forth coming discussion guide to accompany Mayyimhayyim’s documentary on making the mikvah more accessible to folks with disabilities. Kol hakavod. I do wish to offer a slightly different frame when it comes to language and disability. While you are absolutely correct in asserting that to create truly and deeply accessible communities we must both be mindful of physical access and the language we do use, I would like to point out that in recent years, activists in the disability community have begun to complicate the social model of disability, which you refer to in your post and which says that disability is a social construction that can be alleviated by accommodations, in affect making the disability either nonexistent or a minor inconvenience. Installing ramps does not mean that wheelchair and scooter users no longer have a disability; rather, they are able to access spaces in the bodies they inhabit as their full selves. To use myself as an example, I am both a rabbinical student and someone who is blind. All of the Brailled Jewish texts in the world doesn’t mean I no longer have a disability. Instead, Braille and texts in other accessible formats, including digital access, means that I have unimpeded access to information as my full self, in the body I inhabit. Providing accommodations enables access on one level. Those accommodations then allow people with disabilities to exist in spaces as their full selves, with agency, and with the ability to work with our able-bodied allies towards making Jewish communities which are truly and deeply accessible. Access means that a person with a disability can bring all of their unique talents to a space, some may having to do with disability directly and others not. Just as we welcome folks from all kinds of marginalized communities to bring their life experiences to our communities which benefits all of us and allows us to expand our perspectives, so, too, for many people with disabilities, disability is an identity with its own life experiences in all of its variety. It is absolutely the case that not everyone in the very large and diverse community of folks with disabilities see disability as an identity category. However, for those who do, accommodations don’t erase the disability; rather, they enable it to come into a space as an integral part of the individual. Disability is natural, part of human diversity, and does not diminish the humanity that we all have as beings created b’tzelem Elokim.

    • mayyimhayyim says:

      Lauren, thanks so much for your reply. I’m going to re-post an amended comment wrote in response to a similar reply on my Facebook wall: Since reading about identity-first language I’ve come to reconsider aspects of the people-first model. I really get the purpose of this complication, and I also think it is double-edged. True, accommodations don’t erase a person’s lived experience in the body they inhabit, and separating a person from their lived experience implies a judgement. We do not say, for example, ‘people with gayness’ or ‘people who have sex with people of the same gender’ or ‘person who moved here from a different country.’ We say he is gay, or an immigrant, a brother, a daughter, wife…etc. We would general understand separating their identity from who they are as bizarre and judgmental. My own personal experience has shown me that claiming an identity can be a powerful, redemptive act in a world that demonizes ‘otherness’ of all kinds. But I also don’t want to pretend that any identity will ever restore humanity to an individual, or offer genuine respect to someone when, at the end of the day, oppression still exists, and that is the ultimate problem. For me, an identity is a vague summary of someone’s actual experience that we are habitually relying on, (often more than we should be). For example, someone can have an identity as a ‘lesbian’ but be in a long-term relationship with a man. One person can be ‘autistic,’ and be at one place on the spectrum, while another person can be ‘autistic’ and have a completely different experience! If we rely on ‘our idea’ of what this identity implies about the person and the world around them, we will often be wrong, and worse yet, we’ll lose an opportunity to be a real ally to them. I do see now, that separating the person from their claimed identity can create a vacuum where societal confusion can seep in. At the end of the day, I think what we are both after is a change in actual perception. If I had my way, humans could just be smart about respecting each others self-expression and choices, without needing to figure out what to call it.

  2. Tom Zenaty says:

    Thanks, Leeza, for another thought-provoking piece!

  3. Hassan says:

    Unter den privaten Ludern die Lust auf Sexkontakte haben findet man auch immer mehr junge Frauen zwischen 18 und 19 Jahren.

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