Academic Exchange Quarterly
Summer 2002: Volume 6, Issue 2
To cite, use print source rather than this on-line versions.
Disability, Education and Empowerment: From Silence to Finding a Voice
Students with physical, learning, or emotional disabilities often face extra
challenges in completing university coursework, including integration with peers,
obtaining and receiving accommodations, educating faculty about their disabilities,
and receiving proper diagnosis and treatment. Both students and faculty with such
disabilities struggle continually with the additional stresses of uncertainty about
how their disability will affect their performance and whether or how much to
disclose about a disability that is not physically obvious.
Moses, a central figure in the scriptures of the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim
spiritual traditions, provides an excellent example of this struggle. In the Koran,
as in the Torah, God calls Moses to confront Pharaoh. Even after God has wrought
two transforming miracles, changing Moses’ staff to a serpent and back, then
changing the color of the skin on Moses’ hand without hurting him, Moses reminds
God of his disability and asks for help:
Lord,…put courage into my heart, and make my task easy. Free my tongue
from its impediment, that men may understand my speech. Appoint
for me a counselor from among my kinsmen, Aaron my brother. Grant
me strength through him and let him share my task, so that we may give
glory to You always and remember You always. You are surely watching
over us. (20:24-26) 
In another surah’s version of this conversation, Moses expresses his anxiety about
others’ reaction to his disability and asks that someone seemingly more able be
sent: “I fear [the people of Pharaoh] will reject me. I may become impatient and
stammer in my speech. Send for Aaron.” (26:12)  Elsewhere, he explains, “Aaron
my brother is more fluent of tongue than I; send him with me that he may help me
and confirm my words, for I fear they will reject me.”(28:29)  In the Torah,
Moses actually tries to argue God out or this call, starting with the question, “Who
am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus
3:11)  After raising several other objections, Moses attempts to draw God’s
attention to his chronic disability: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither
in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of
speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)  God pointedly reminds Moses that he
is speaking with the very Creator and Empowerer of all people with disabilities.
“Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it
not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are
to speak.” (Exodus 4:11-12) Even then, Moses asks plainly, “O my Lord, please send
someone else.” (Exodus 4:13)  Moses’ lack of self-confidence angers God, who
reminds him of his brother Aaron’s eloquence and promises to send them together. In
the Koran, God reassures him, “Have no fear…. We shall be with you and shall hear
all.” (26:14) God expands on this promise in another surah: “We will strengthen
your arm with your brother, and will bestow such power on you both, that none shall
harm you.” (28:35) 
God reminds Moses in several places in the Koran and Torah that in spite of his own
doubts about his ability and disability, God had chosen him for this prophetic task
even before his birth. In the Koran, Moses is called “the Apostle of the Lord of the
Universe.”(7:105, 43:47).  He is the intercessor for his people, “a true
believer,” and (along with Noah, Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad) one of Islam’s five
prophets. (40:38; 2:137, 33:7)  Moses had a unique conversational relationship
with God: “God spoke directly to Moses.”(4:165)  He received God’s revelation
and proclaimed it to others, giving all succeeding generations of “People of the
Book” (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) an understanding of “the distinction between
right and wrong” through the Torah. (21:49)  “Such is God’s guidance; He bestows
it on whom He pleases of His servants.” (6:88) 
In both the Hebrew and Arabic accounts of God’s covenant with Moses, several key
ideas for a spirituality of teaching and disability emerge. First, God grants each
of Moses’ requests for help, demonstrating what the 1990 Americans with Disabilities
Act calls “reasonable accommodation” on both a spiritual and practical level.
Second, God doesn’t heal Moses. (Exodus 4:10) Rather, God empowers him to fulfill
his vocation. (Surah 28:35, Exodus 4:12) Third, the Torah suggests that God
intentionally creates humans with a variety of abilities and disabilities. (Exodus
4:11) God doesn’t seem to attach any stigma to what we call “disability.” In both
the Hebrew and Arabic versions, Moses’ disability isn’t a problem with him or with
God, rather it is a problem created by the Egyptians’ and Israelites’ reactions.
Fourth, both the Torah and Koran assure that God is always with people with
disabilities in our struggles and successes. (Surah 26:14, Exodus 4:12) Finally,
the God-ordained relationship between Moses and his brother Aaron demonstrates that
God’s intention is for people with and without disabilities to work together and to
help each other. While Aaron did indeed help us brother articulate God’s messages,
Moses helped Aaron to remain strong in his faith and courageous in his leadership
of the Israelites. (Exodus 32:21-35) 
While these interactions between God and Moses provide a spiritual model and
resource for teachers, it is significant that this relationship is not one-sided.
First, Moses asks for help, as students should be encouraged to do from the first
day of class. (I put a paragraph for students with disabilities in all course
syllabi and mention it during the orientation session.) Second, Moses doesn’t ask
to be healed; he does remind God that his disability appears to be ongoing. (Exodus
4:10) His doing so illustrates the need for students with disabilities (especially
chronic or degenerative disabilities) to be assertive about reasonable accommodation
with teachers, administrators, doctors, and even family members and friends sometimes.
Finally, in both the Koran and the Torah, Moses continually expresses his frustration,
fears, and self-doubts—even to God. Moses’ courage to confess his struggles with
his disability to his Creator points to the kinds of conversations we need to be
free to have in the academy if teachers and students with disabilities are truly to
be “reasonably accommodated,” welcomed and supported.
 The Koran. Trans. N. J. Dawood. New York: Penguin, 1995, 220.
 Ibid., 258.
 Ibid., 274.
 The New Oxford Annotated Bible. 3rd ed. Michael Coogan, ed. Oxford: Oxford University, 2001, 87.
 Ibid., 88.
 The Koran, 274.
 Ibid., 117, 346.
 Ibid., 31; 23, 294.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 230.
 Ibid., 100.
 The Bible, 130.
Heather Ann Ackley Bean, Ph.D.
Azusa Pacific University
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