About 15 years ago, Meredith Polsky co-founded Matan, a nonprofit that advocates for the right of Jewish students with disabilities to receive a Jewish education.
From day one, well-meaning advisers encouraged her to boost support for Matan by divulging her personal reasons for creating it. Perhaps she herself was dyslexic? Surely she had a family member in a wheelchair?
In fact, as Polsky reveals in a post she wrote for the Jewish Week’s disability blog, The New Normal, she had no such reason to found Matan. Assuming the Jewish community has the same disability rate as the general population, about 200,000 Jewish children have a disability — but she found our schools insufficiently able and willing to welcome them. That was enough for her.
Now, however, Polsky does have a personal connection. Her daughter Lucy was diagnosed at age 3 with Selective Mutism, a severe form of anxiety in which a child doesn’t talk outside his or her home. Because of Lucy’s hard work, she entered kindergarten two years ago, speaking. Polsky vowed to help the school help her daughter, and thereby other students with anxiety, succeed. It didn’t work. Deemed “too complicated,” Lucy didn’t fit the day school’s mold. Polsky and her husband pulled her out, and will start her at a public school in the fall.
If this can happen to Polsky — with her years of training and expertise, and a child with no diagnosed cognitive or developmental delays — it can happen to any parent. That it happened to her and after a decade and a half of work on the issue was both demoralizing and enlightening. Most Jewish day schools, she realized, lack supports such as specialists that are standard in public schools, and their classroom teachers do not have public school teachers’ training in how to adapt their styles and methods to different students’ needs.
The day school community has not mustered the will to address the systematic rejection of students with disabilities. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has mapped disabilities programs and services in the world of Jewish overnight camp. Day schools have not. This year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference offered not a single session on disabilities.
Matan tries to focus Jewish educators’ attention on this problem by offering professional development, training and mentorship. Awareness of this issue is rising, no doubt because most Jewish educators entered the field out of a desire to serve every Jewish child, not just the easy ones. A pluralistic day school for children with disabilities is slated to open next year, and other area schools have taken it upon themselves to step up services. But the field as a whole needs to internalize the notion that not every child learns the same and put sufficient resources behind this principle. That Jewish schools reject inconvenient Jewish children is perverse. What’s a Jewish school for, if not to cherish and teach all of them?