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Standing Up to Stigma

Libi Astaire

There are a few things Chava Willig Levy would like you to know about her, but the fact that she’s needed a wheelchair since a bout with polio at age three, doesn’t top the list. Indeed, shortly after the publication of her book A Life Not With Standing, she assures us that her memoir is not a sob story, but a chronicle of the adventures of an iron-lung alumna. Here, Chava shares her views, as well as two excerpts of a book that is poignant, playful, and pensive all at once.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

In an article you wrote years ago for Family Circle magazine, you mention that you used to cringe when a television show would present a news segment about disabled people and sappy violin music would start playing in the background. Since you don’t want your story to bring sentimental tears to people’s eyes, why did you write your book?

The book is about my life as a polio survivor who gets around in a wheelchair. One of the main reasons I wrote it was to convey that far more tragic than a disability is the stigma that people attach to it. The book chronicles my internal struggle of learning how to look this stigma in the eye and fight it tooth and nail, so that I wouldn’t internalize it.

 

How did you contract polio?

I contracted polio in August 1955, when I was three years old. The polio vaccine had already come out in April 1955, but they didn’t distribute the vaccine quickly enough. There are two kinds of paralytic polio — spinal, which typically affects the leg muscles (but in my case affected my legs and, even more so, my arms), and bulbar, which affects the breathing muscles. I contracted both kinds.

I have to say I feel it was Yad Hashem. I was born and raised inBrooklyn, and that summer was the only time in our family’s history that my parents decided to go to a bungalow colony in the Catskills. Everyone knew that polio tended to rear its ugly head in the city, so they decided to go to the country.

There were lots of kids there, but no one else contracted polio. Polio is a virus and in its acute stage, it’s very contagious. Yet none of the other kids got it.

 

How do you make peace with the fact that you were singled out?

Rabbi Benjamin Blech shlita once quoted me a chassidic vort: Ribbono shel Olam, I don’t need to know the farvus, the why. I just need to know that there is a farvus.

I don’t know why Hashem masterminded this for me. But I know that there is a farvus.

 

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