At a recent seminar for nonprofit leaders, I heard one who oversees some 40 Catholic schools in Australia tell of a boy with Tourette Syndrome who, in the midst of a school assembly, stood up and screamed a string of obscenities. When the child finished, the school’s director rose to address the students. “We have just heard from Johnny,” he said gently, “and he is a valued member of our community.” Not a single child chuckled or made the boy feel anything other than welcomed. Full inclusion.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether the head of a Jewish school — or any Jewish organization — would have reacted with the same equanimity.
According to the U.S. Census, one in five Americans has a disability and one in 10 Americans has a severe disability. As there are some genetic and environmental differences between Jews and the general population, Jews may be even more at risk for some disabilities, in part because Jews tend to give birth when they are older, compared to the general population. Yet the larger Jewish community has failed to adequately recognize that welcoming and serving those with disabilities is not only the right thing to do, it’s essential to Jewish survival.
Our tradition offers ample precedent for including people with disabilities from Moses’ speech impediment to Jacob’s limp.
Despite that history, the Jewish community is only beginning to take disability issues seriously. We need to do more, in the same way we are tackling civil rights issues such as fully including women and gays, even though the issue of disability is especially complicated for us. Jews often prize achievement above inclusion.
Of course, talk is easier than action. Including people with disabilities can be infinitely complex: a child with physical challenges has very different needs than a child with intellectual challenges or a bright child who happens to have dyslexia or autism. And it can somehow be easier to help someone who is blind or in a wheelchair because you can see his or her challenge. But the challenges of those facing mental health issues or autism spectrum disorders are just as real.
The Jewish community needs a national strategy to serve and include people with disabilities. One model to consider is the public school system, which by law must offer services to children with a full range of challenges. In some cases, zoned neighborhood schools can meet their needs. But when children have deeper issues, special private and public schools often do the job. Even the biggest education budgets do not assume that every school can accommodate every child. The social contract is that every system needs to be able to accommodate every child.
That should be the Jewish community’s approach.
Some Jewish schools, synagogues, camps and youth groups can meet the needs of children with special needs while keeping them alongside their typical peers. But the reality is that only major Jewish population centers can afford to offer a full range of services to meet the needs of children whose more significant special needs require increased professionalized talents and resources.
And for all the advantages of including special-needs children with typical peers, there are also benefits to having enough kids with differences at a school or camp that they can support each other. Just as Jews require 10 people for a prayer minyan, a group of 10 or more children with a range of special needs within a school can create a cohort of compassion, a safe space to learn together.
Still, due to the intense needs, public and special-needs schools are often a better option for Jewish children with special needs than Jewish day schools. That makes after-school and weekend programs important components in fostering ongoing Jewish learning and relationships and setting the stage for inclusion.
Some models are already emerging. Exciting work on this issue is being done in Boston by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies and globally by the Jewish Funders Network; both organizations are supported by the Ruderman Family Foundation. And the Jewish camping movement is doing important work in this area.
Given scarcity of resources and demographic realities, it’s not realistic to make every Jewish institution fully inclusive of every kind of different ability. But creating central policy and focus can help create change. Local communities, too, needs strategies in sync with national efforts. The time is now to pull all efforts together into a national system that makes sense for Jewish dignity, respect and survival.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of laszlostrategies.com in Washington, D.C. She is a proud parent who knows the challenges of raising a Jewish child with special needs.