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First deaf Knesset member gives maiden speech in sign language

‘Alongside me stand 1.8 million men, women, and children with physical, mental, emotional, and intellectual disabilities,’ says Yamina MK Shirly Pinto

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Shirley Pinto, the first deaf Knesset member, speaks during a plenum session on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Shirley Pinto, the first deaf Knesset member, speaks during a plenum session on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Yamina MK Shirly Pinto, the first deaf lawmaker in the Knesset’s history, gave her maiden speech to the Knesset plenum in sign language on Monday evening.

Pinto, whose words were voiced by her interpreter, Liat Petcho, gave thanks to her ancestors for bring her to this moment, marking the first ever speech delivered from the podium in sign language.

“Here I am, Shirly Pinto Kadosh,” she began, following a quote from Psalms. She said her love of the State of Israel, of Jewish traditions, and arts and culture came to her through her parents and grandparents. “They answered every question I asked, and with every query I presented, they reminded me every day that where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Pinto, 32, entered the Israeli parliament following the resignation of one of Yamina’s ministers through the “Norwegian Law,” which allows any MK who is appointed to a cabinet post to step down temporarily from the Knesset, thereby permitting the next candidate on the party’s slate to enter parliament in their stead.

She is a long-time activist for disability-related issues, particularly those dealing with the hearing-impaired, and serves as Yamina’s representative in the World Zionist Congress.

“Already from a small age, together with my parents [who are both deaf], I experienced firsthand the lack of accessibility, the absence of awareness, and the inherent barriers in society,” Pinto said.

Despite these challenges, she said, her family instilled in her a deep love for the State of Israel and its values. “Today, I am standing in front of the Knesset plenum, where generations of Israeli leaders have stood,” she said. “I am excited and I am proud.”

“I do not stand here in just my own name,” she added. “Alongside me stand 1.8 million men, women, and children with physical, mental, emotional, and intellectual disabilities, as well as those with invisible diseases, like post-trauma, who are unable to live full lives in the State of Israel as equal citizens.”

Since the founding of the State of Israel, she said, “Israel has not succeeded in providing a proper response to people with disabilities. The same population has been rejected and completely pushed to the margins. Its voice has cried out, but not been heard.”

Pinto vowed to serve as that voice from her new position in the Knesset.

“In my name, and in the name of millions of Israelis with disabilities, and all Israeli citizens, I pledge my commitment,” Pinto said at the conclusion of her speech.

She was met with a standing ovation, made up of a mix of applause and hand waving (“deaf applause”) by the Knesset members present.

Following her speech, Pinto was embraced by coalition and opposition lawmakers alike, including both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

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