When people ask what inspired me to become what I am today, I point to Morah A. who always believed in me.
My story begins the day I was born, the day my parents were told that their brand-new baby daughter had spina bifida and hydrocephalus and would be physically impaired for life. Although they knew I would be physically challenged, my parents made a firm decision: Leg braces and all, I would always attend a regular Bais Yaakov school and I would be treated like a regular child. Navigating life with a physical challenge is, of course, fraught with difficulty, especially when doing so at a young age. I suffered my share of pain, frustration, and being taunted by unsympathetic classmates, but finally I switched to a group of girls who recognized that my mind worked even if my body didn’t. I managed a normal workload, played at recess, and did chores at home. My life was reasonably stable and quite normal, my gait notwithstanding.
And then my whole world caved in. I was hit by a car and and left apparently unscathed, with just a few stitches on my forehead. But several months later, when I started complaining that I couldn’t see the blackboard, an eye doctor suggested an x-ray to examine the tube that had been installed to shunt spinal fluid away from my brain. The results came back with his suspicions confirmed. The tube was broken, presumably from the car accident. More serious was that the spinal fluid had built up in my brain, putting pressure on my optic nerve. I went into the hospital for surgery to repair the tube, but I never got back my sight. Now I was a sixth-grader, with two handicaps, and I was terrified. My parents, friends, and teachers assured me that I could go on with my life, that I could triumph over my disabilities, but I was despondent. “I can’t do it!” I told my teacher endlessly. She countered with a very firm, very wise slogan. “‘Can’t’ is not a word in my dictionary,” Morah A. told me over and over again.
To this day I repeat her uplifting motto, like a mantra. It enabled me to do things I never imagined I could do, like participate in class, take tests, learn Braille, and even attend summer camp, where I white-water rafted down the Delaware River with the rest of my bunk and was accepted as just another camper. Morah A, my sixth-grade teacher, never wavered in her belief that I could do whatever was demanded of me, and she went out of her way to treat me exactly the same as any other student. Her strict policy against sharing test marks or report cards with other girls applied to me as well. When friends asked if they could read me the grade on my test paper she said no, preferring to tell it to me herself. She had a policy, and I was included in it. This was an immense comfort to me; being singled out for preferential treatment would not have done me an ounce of good, whereas this firm approach was just the right medicine. I am still close to this kind and caring teacher. When people ask me who inspired me to become what I am, I readily point to Morah A, who went above and beyond to support me and guide me every step of the way.
In eighth grade, Morah C’s dedication also went far beyond the call of duty. At the beginning of the year, when we were assigned an important term paper, I created mine in the only way I could—typing it out on my Braille typewriter. How would my teacher grade my paper? Would she want me to read it to her? Would she give me an ‘A’ for effort?
No. My teacher taught herself to read Braille in order to mark my paper. She learned my unique language so she could participate in my world and affirm my efforts. It was the most loving thing she could have done for me. When we learned about the Bais Hamikdash, using diagrams that I could not see, Morah C asked a friend to trace the diagrams with glue. When they dried I could feel them, and learn their structure and appearance. Morah C found out about a technique called “sighted guide,” whereby a blind person holds on to the wrist of a guide and can feel, by wrist movements, when the guide is ascending or descending. Realizing this would be a valuable tool to help me navigate the school building, Morah C urged me to teach it to the class. I reluctantly agreed, and from then on, sighted guide became a natural part of our school routine as girls slipped their wrist into my hand so I could navigate the hallways.
Today I work as a lecturer, speaking publicly about people with disabilities. I am, baruch Hashem, the grateful mother of a precious son whose intuitive attention to my lack of sight has opened my eyes to the Ribbono Shel Olam’s miracles. At a very tender age he would guide my hand to his mouth during feeding time and help me guide a cup to his lips. At the age of two he took me by the hand and led me up the steps into our bungalow, allowing me to lean my weight against him, so that I could wash for Hamotzi. He has learned a lot about physical handicaps, and I have learned a lot from his sober questions and concerns. I can cook, clean, and keep house, albeit with a little help, and I even run a small company, manufacturing tactile books for children. I may need a support cane and a walking stick, but there’s no question that today I’m an independent, joyous person. Where did this joy and independence come from? From my teachers and family, who never allowed me to give up or give in. The gift they have given me is priceless.