Editor's Note: The name of the student written about below has been changed to protect his privacy.
Congratulations to Germany on winning the World Cup! For those full-hearted soccer fans, I hope you enjoyed the World Cup with all the attention and talk it garnered.
As for me, I started to lose interest when I could no longer watch the amazing Tim Howard, Team USA’s goalie, after the United States team lost. But I have to admit it was more than soccer itself that kept me glued to the televised USA matches. It was the amazing story of Tim Howard and how he played with such incredible prowess and timing while having Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics and vocalizations and often the compulsive utterance of obscenities.
Howard was the backbone of the team and helped Team USA surpass expectations and get to the knockout round.
His story reminded me of an experience I had two years ago when I attended my nephew’s high school graduation from a Jewish day school in the Midwest. I was sitting in an auditorium filled with over 500 people when I heard what I thought was a dog yelping. My first reaction was that there must be a service dog of some type barking, but nothing was happening to elicit that type of reaction from a service dog. I began to look about to try and see the source of the noise and I noticed that I seemed to be the only person trying to see where the barking sound was coming from. Everyone else in the room had their eyes glued to the speaker. My sister noticed my fidgeting and leaned over to me with her eyes still trained on the speaker and whispered in my ear, “There's a kid in the class with Tourette’s.”
Wow! No accusatory stares, no shooshing from the crowd. Instead, everyone stayed focused on the words of the speaker accepting that the person with Tourette’s could clearly not help himself. I was really impressed and I too just started focusing on the speakers. Then the valedictorian got up to address the audience and started to give the typical student graduation speech about how much the class had experienced and grown both individually and together and how this growth will be the foundation of their futures as they go through trials and tribulations in their adult lives.
But it was at this point that the student speaker’s address took on a special air. He told his classmates that they have an exceptional reserve of inspiration to draw upon when their lives gets overwhelming, because they have been taught how to cope and overcome difficulties by the example of their classmate, Brian, the student with Tourettes’. The speaker reminded the class that they have heard Brian’s voice for four years and while listening they have learned that life throws obstacles within our paths and that our job is to cope and work our way around those obstacles and set new goals. What a life lesson to have been taught!
Too often, people objectify a person with a disability and say that they have been put on this earth to teach us all lessons. The truth is, we are all put on this earth to teach others by our example and to learn from the example of others. I do love those moments when a community reminds us that there is value in every human life and that sometimes, the most important lessons can come from our having created the most optimal inclusive places within our Jewish communal infrastructure.
I hope Tim Howard’s teammates and soccer lovers everywhere were also able to gain valuable lessons from having a player with disabilities included in the game. Full inclusion and participation by all members of society can teach us a lot about soccer, and about life.
Shelley Richman Cohen is the founding Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, an inclusion training program for Rabbis, and other communal leaders funded in part by the Ruderman Family Foundation.