When Tikvah Juni was 16, she received her first standing ovation.
“I remember all the people, cheering and smiling,” said Juni, who had been the guest speaker at an event hosted by Yachad: The National Jewish Council for Disabilities.
“That was the first time I really believed the world could change,” she said. Since then, she’s been trying to change the world one speech at a time.
Juni, who has Down syndrome, travels around the U.S. teaching audiences about inclusion. In Washington, D.C., she even lobbied state and federal legislators to increase resources for special needs students.
Though she begins each speech with a thought on the weekly Torah portion, she ends by detailing her experiences as someone with special needs.
“I hate the words ‘disability’ and ‘consumer,’ she said, two words commonly used to describe those with special needs. “People with special needs aren’t takers, and we aren’t incapable. We want to be accepted just as much as everyone else.”
Growing up in the 1980s when inclusion was rarely a topic of conversation, Juni often felt excluded.
“Schools kept closing their doors to me after they heard about my special needs,” said Juni, who grew up in the Orthodox community of Flatbush. Socializing was also difficult, and Juni spent much of her childhood reading books instead of romping with friends.
“People didn’t treat me so nicely. They judged me by the way I looked,” she said.
Even today, audiences are often surprised when she first walks up to the podium. “They’re expecting someone big and important, and here’s this small little girl,” Juni said. “But when I start speaking, they shift their focus. It’s not about my exterior — it’s about what I’m saying.”
When not on speaking tours, Juni works with special needs children. During the school year, she serves as a preschool teaching assistant; in the summer, you can find her at Camp HASC.
To reach an even broader audience, Juni completed a several-hundred page book about her experiences. Though not yet published, she’s hoping one day her story, and her message, can reach thousands.
Capturing color: In her downtime, Juni loves oil painting. She is particularly fond of landscapes. “An artist can see the world in a way no one else can,” she said. “It’s important to notice things other people don’t.”