It's all too familiar. It's 5 on a Tuesday afternoon. A room full of fidgety fourth graders. A teacher going around the room, student by student, asking each one to practice reading Hebrew. And to make it harder, there is one student in perpetual motion who disrupts everything, by climbing out of his chair and crawling under the desks.
Fast forward seven years.
This boy, now a young man, stands proudly on the bimah to receive an
award as our synagogue's first Youth Person of Honor. Educators and
clergy are thrilled to share with the congregation that he became bar
mitzvah and continued his formal education through Confirmation and
Post-Confirmation. He attends Torah study a few times each month. He is
described as dependable and responsible, serving as a madrich, or guide,
in the religious school and is a positive role model for younger
students. He has an active leadership position in the youth group, is
involved in NFTY, Reform Judaism’s youth movement, and is more or less a "go-to" around the synagogue to get things done.
How did we get from one point to the other?
It wasn’t always easy. But he was never labeled “that difficult kid.”
We referred to him by his name, not by his behavior. When he crawled
under the tables, we strategized with his parents to meet his needs more
effectively, rather than deciding his needs couldn't be met. We offered
a program that tailored instruction in a way that helped him to find
academic success. We embraced his energy and found ways for him to
express it. We never spoke about him in terms of his ADHD, but rather
understood that ADHD made it necessary for us to continually revise our
strategies. Most importantly, we never gave up. And as a result, he
learned to believe that he was worth it.
By recognizing that not every child can learn Hebrew or Jewish Studies
successfully in a traditional classroom setting, we send the message
that a Jewish education is important, important enough to make the
grown-ups respond to the child. When we work hard to meet each student’s
unique learning needs, we demonstrate the Jewish value that every soul
matters. Every one of us a gift from God.
Including students with disabilities enables us to teach all of our
students that they can find success, that they matter and that they are
valuable members of our community.
This piece originally ran on the NY Jewish Week's blog The New Normal: Blogging Disability.
A documentary called "Miss You Can Do It" is set to air on HBO on Monday, June 24. The premise of the program is to follow girls with intellectual and physical disabilities as they have the opportunity to participate in a pageant. At first glance, those involved with disability advocacy might be pleased to know that such an opportunity exists.
After all, experiences like pageants have long been exclusive of individuals with disabilities. Heck, they have been exclusive of anyone who doesn't fit a preconceived notion of "beauty"...but I'll hold my ranting for now.
Despite this obvious attempt to open a previously closed door to girls with disabilities, I have two major issues with the premise of this contest.
First, as an advocate for inclusion, I feel that creating a separate and different opportunity for girls with disabilities perpetuates the notion that the girls are not worthy of participation in a traditional pageant. Interestingly, this pageant was started in 2004 by Abbey Curran, who represented Iowa in the 2008 Miss USA pageant, and who herself has cerebral palsy. Curran, who was able to participate in traditional pageants herself, should be working toward greater inclusive opportunities, not creating segregated ones.
Yet it is the goal of this pageant that causes me even greater concern. Press for the documentary (about the pageant) cites: “The unique event brings together girls with mental and physical disabilities from across the country who are judged on “what is in their heart and not by how their outfits look.”” Ok, this is good, right? Yes and no.
I honestly find it staggering that anyone could publish this statement and not immediately recognize how this highlights inherent flaws in the traditional pageant system. I am less concerned here with the way in which girls with disabilities will be treated and/or "judged" but rather, that the standard to which we hold all our young women, disabled or not, isn’t "what is in their heart instead of how their outfits look". What a sad statement on society when it must be overtly pointed out that this pageant will seek to discover the content of the contestants' character.
It seems so ridiculously simple to me: Why haven't we created a pageant in which all contestants are "judged" on the quality of their character, not their appearance? How about one where we encourage all contestants to speak(or type, or draw...) intelligently on a topic about which they are knowledgeable and passionate as they present themselves with poise, regardless of the "dress" they wear. Better yet, how about we don’t judge anyone at all?
I have a daughter. She doesn’t have disabilities. It's likely obvious by now that I hold no real regard for traditional pageants, but I would love for her to be a part of an experience called "Miss You Can Do It" where she is encouraged to demonstrate "what is in her heart", without being judged.
If we aren't going to do away with pageants all together, then we owe it to our girls to create a "Miss You Can Do It" for all of them; a truly inclusive pageant without concern for abilities or appearance.
Many children with disabilities crave the consistency provided by set patterns of routine. And while some may not acquire the language to fully express this desire, these structures enable them to function. So while many of us look forward to weekends and vacations, times when our everyday, even mundane, routines are interrupted for an opportunity to relax; families with children who have disabilities often find these times more stressful and more challenging.
This chasm between families of children with special needs and “everyone else” is one that many of us unknowingly perpetuate. We make assumptions that all families look forward to things like weekends and summer vacations. What message do we send when we continue to wish people a great weekend or a wonderful vacation, without knowing enough about their lives to know if these are challenging or enjoyable times for them?
How many other ways do we perpetuate social norms that expect conformity without even realizing it?
· When you learn that a student is a high school senior, do you automatically ask where he or she is going to college?
· Have you ever given a subtle look to someone using a handicapped parking spot that doesn’t look “visibly” disabled?
· What about those reproachful glances we give to the parent of a child having a meltdown, silently criticizing their parenting without considering other reasonable reasons?
Attitudes can be the greatest barrier to inclusive communities. Sometimes such attitudes are malicious, but other times it’s innocent ignorance. Either way, we have to work hard to ensure that our attitudes, our behavior, and even our everyday dialogue are truly inclusive. But it’s worth it.
One recent Shabbat, on the anniversary of his bar mitzvah, a young man with Autism chanted Torah at our erev Shabbat service. I've been thinking about it since, and was genuinely moved by the whole experience.
I have known this nearly seventeen-year-old young man since he was in Kindergarten, and I am proud to have had a significant role in his Jewish education for so many years. And yet I find myself struggling to put what I felt on this recent Shabbat into words.
It was wonderful that he walked to the bimah with poise and pride, but I expected that. It was impressive to hear him chant smoothly and clearly, but I expected that. It was awesome that he allowed himself to be hugged by everyone on the bimah when he finished, but I have come to expect that, too.
So what made this so remarkable?
What made this Shabbat so remarkable was the very fact that it was just another Shabbat, with another one of our teens chanting Torah on the anniversary of their b'nei mitzvah. And no one said, "Wow, I can't believe he did that," or "how wonderful" in that mildly patronizing tone. It was simply yasher koach (job well done), the same thing we say to anyone who beautifully chants Torah.
And yet I will acknowledge that there was one moment in the evening that was truly unique. After services had ended, I wanted to share what a wonderful job he had done - but I couldn't get past the ridiculously long line of congregants all waiting to do the very same thing!
This is the beauty of inclusion. Please share your stories of inclusion in the comments below.