Jewish Children's Books with Disabled Characters

three children's books covers: Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles, Sigh Language Shabbat, The Mitten String and the title Jewish Children's Books with Disabled Characters

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It has been some time since I shared a list of books for children with disabled characters.

Representation is a critical component to helping children develop a healthy self-image. 

It’s important for children to experience books that provide mirrors (books where children can identify with the characters) and windows (books where the children can see into the lives of those that are different from them).

There are a lot of great secular books with disabled characters for children of all ages and reading abilities. Here is a long list that I continue to update: Disability Inclusion Book List

It can be harder to find good Jewish-themed children's books with disabled characters, but the list is growing. Here are a few really good ones to add to your library:

The Mitten String by Jennifer Rosner "When her family invites a deaf woman and her baby to stay, Ruthie, a talented knitter of mittens, wonders how the mother will know if her child wakes in the night. The surprising answer inspires Ruthie to knit a special gift that offers great comfort to mother and baby—and to Ruthie herself. With language and imagery reminiscent of stories told long ago, this modern Jewish folktale will resonate with those who love crafts, anyone who’s encountered someone with physical differences—and with everyone who has ever lost a mitten in the depths of winter."

Nathan Blows out the Hanukkah Candles by Tami Lehman-Wilzig "Jacob loves his autistic brother, Nathan, but when Hanukkah comes, Jacob worries that Nathan might embarrass him in front of his new friend. What if Nathan blows out the Hanukkah candles?!"

Cakes and Miracles by Barbara Diamond Goldin "Purim is approaching and Hershel, the only blind boy in the village, wishes he could help his mother prepare hamantashen for the holiday. If only I could see, he thinks, I could help my mother more. That night, Hershel dreams of a winged angel descending a sparkling ladder. She says, "Make what you see. You see when you close your eyes. You see in your dreams." With new courage, Hershel learns to trust his dream and creates something more beautiful than anyone in the whole village can imagine."

Sign Language Shabbat by Alisa Greenbacher & Jennifer Rosner "The children in this book sign words for things people do on Shabbat, such as eat challah, drink wine or grape juice, sing Shabbat songs, and (of course!) read books. Shabbat Shalom!"

I'd love to add to my list. Please share your suggestions!

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We Have To Teach So We Can Employ

You are hired; Removing the Stumbling Block

People with disabilities are underemployed. Many individuals who want to work and contribute to the economy cannot because they are often not considered for positions as a result of their disability. We are turning away many capable employees.

Jewish professionals (educators, rabbis, cantors, youth directors, camp professionals, etc.) feel great pride when “one of their own” goes on to a career in the Jewish world. I know that I am thrilled when “kids” we have raised in our congregation come back to teach in our religious school. And when asked, most Jewish professionals will cite meaningful Jewish experiences such as camp, trips to Israel, or youth group participation as well as specific relationships that they formed with “their” rabbi, educator, or youth director as the reason why they pursued a Jewish professional life.

I continue to feel deep pride that we are, at my synagogue, giving all children and teens the opportunity to have those experiences and build those relationships.

However, we are remiss if we do not take it beyond school. Only 25 percent of people with disabilities are meaningfully employed. It is unacceptable that individuals who are otherwise capable, qualified, and eager to work are denied opportunity based solely on disability. We must do better.

Thankfully, there are a few gems that are on a mission to change this trend. If you do not know about Bitty & Beau's Coffee or No Limits Cafe, you should. These companies are showing the world how to meaningfully celebrate the skills and talents that everyone can bring into the work force. 

School is important; a critical starting point, and we have to take it beyond grade school. 

Our colleges and graduate programs must teach accessibility and inclusion while being accessible and inclusive. 

Are we then equipped to make Jewish professional life a reality? To truly call ourselves inclusive we must find the way to go beyond accessible and inclusive Jewish education and programming for children to supporting all aspects of Jewish life. 

Does your community offer accessible jobs in the Jewish world?

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Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make

Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make

updated November 2020

Inclusion takes intentional planning and hard work. Especially now in the time of remote and hybrid learning experiences. Even the most seasoned educators are figuring out a new way of teaching and will make mistakes from time to time. It is not a time to be critical of ourselves or others. Rather, the key is to recognize that mistakes will happen. Our goal is to accept responsibility and grow in the process.

Here are what I believe to be the ten most common inclusion mistakes:

1. Not devoting enough time for planning
Most teachers will agree; there are just not enough hours in the day to do it all. Yet successful inclusion requires intentional planning. It can not be accomplished by short-cut. Each of us is guilty of rushing from time to time, but to be committed to inclusion means to devote the necessary time to appropriate planning.

2. Going it alone
Jumping off from number one above, inclusion is at its best when teachers plan intentionally AND collaborate. There is no shame in asking for help; ever. Despite this, many teachers feel that asking for support or assistance is a sign of weakness or lack of competence. Many teachers also believe that they have do it themselves if they want it done right. Letting go of some of the control and working in collaboration with others is not only acceptable, it is critical for successful inclusion.

3. Forgetting that successful education isn't one-size-fits-all
When we find strategies that work, it’s easy to assume that those same strategies will continue to work. However, the truth is that many students, particularly those with disabilities, require different strategies across different learning situations. Educators must have a “bag of tricks”, but consistently pulling the same trick out of your bag will prove unsuccessful.

4. Assuming that accommodating is the same as inclusion
Making accommodations is necessary to ensure that the needs of all students are met. However, simply adapting or adjusting lessons is not inclusion. Inclusion is about belonging. It is about every student being fully integrated into the life of the classroom. Making accommodations is an integral part of the process, but it is not sufficient in and of itself.

5. Believing that group work is the same as differentiating instruction
Differentiating instruction is a methodology which enables students to progress at their own pace via activities that are developmentally appropriate. It exposes all students to a vast array of learning opportunities and experiences. Simply assigning students to work in groups is not an effective form of differentiation.

6. Thinking that fairness in the classroom is best accomplished by equality.
Fair is not equal. Fairness is when everyone gets what he or she needs to be successful. Students should not be compared to one another or to an arbitrary level of expectation. All students should be working toward progress from their own current level of functioning.

7. Not having an inclusive school community despite highly successful special education programs
This one is hard for teachers to control on their own, but ignoring it altogether will not move a community forward. Advocates for inclusion must raise their voices at every opportunity and support those who have yet to fully embrace the value of inclusion. Special education teachers have a unique vantage point in a school community and can help colleagues and school leaders learn to advance their inclusive practices. It may not be part of your “classroom work”, but it is absolutely a part of the job.

8. Underestimating a student
We have all done it; been wonderfully surprised when a student accomplishes something we never expected. We do not mean to underestimate our students, but sometimes we haven’t yet seen what he/she is capable of achieving. It is essential for us to always push our students to their highest potential, even if that potential has yet to be fully discovered. This is what it means to expect competence.

9. Not practicing what you preach
Do you teach special education, but justify parking in a handicapped spot because “you are just running in for a minute”? Do you advocate for school inclusion, but then allow your own child to exclude another child in her class with disabilities from her birthday party? We need to work toward a place where we are as inclusive in our personal lives as we are in our professional ones. It’s important to be consistent models for our peers and our children, not just in formal situations, but in day-to-day life choices and experiences.

10. Reinventing the wheel
Educators too often recreate materials and/or lessons that have already been successfully developed and utilized. Collaborating, sharing resources, and taking the time to find a proven differentiated lesson will pay off later as you free up more time to devote to student’s individual needs and issues.

None of these mistakes make you a bad teacher! Rather, recognizing our natural human tendencies and our own limitations will enable us to grow both personally and professionally.

The day we stop learning is the day we should stop teaching!

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Another version of this article originally appeared on Think Inclusive.

Inclusion is NOT Social Action

Inclusion is NOT Social Action; Removing the Stumbling Block

updated Oct. 2020

While all of our programs, classrooms, and worship opportunities should be inclusive, inclusion itself is not a program. It’s not a one-time workshop or training session. Inclusion is an attitude, it is something that is just naturally woven into the fabric of what we do. At least it should be.

I was reminded of something significant that I have learned from one of my mentors in the world of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion. Rabbi Lynne Landsberg z"l (of blessed memory), taught that "Inclusion is NOT social action." And yet, all too often, congregations do not know where to "put" their conversations (if they are even having them!) about inclusion, so they fit them under the umbrella of social action. 

There is a distinct problem with this.  

By definition, social action stems from the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. There is no doubt that we all need to work together to bring real and lasting change to our world, particularly around the conversation of inclusion. But typically, in congregational life, social action is the term we use to describe "projects" that benefit others. We do not "do" inclusion "for" people with disabilities. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to figure out how everything we would have done anyway, can be inclusive. See the difference??

Need more?

Preparing food for your local shelter = social action.
Planting a garden as a sustainable food source = social action.

Inviting residents of a local group home to Shabbat dinner, NOT social action.

Hosting a bake sale to raise money for Special Olympics = social action.
Attending the Special Olympics to cheer for a member of your congregation, NOT social action.

Inclusion as social action perpetuates stereotypes; Removing the Stumbling Block

Thinking of inclusion as a function of your social action committee perpetuates stereotypes and devalues the significance of any effort you might otherwise bring forward.

Please, have the conversations. Invite individuals with disabilities to be a part of those conversations. And then maybe you can all plan a social action event together.

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I appreciate that the editors at Thinking Person's Guide to Autism cross-posted this article.

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