All Jewish children, regardless of their skills and abilities, should get a shot at Jewish life. It’s their birthright. Jewish children with disabilities should no longer be denied access to Jewish day schools and other institutions. But for that to happen, we need to use best practices.
There are numerous academic books and studies on best practices for serving children with disabilities. I am a big fan of the work of Professors Stuart Schleien, Ari Rimmerman, Erik Carter, Steve Eidelman and Steve Brannan. If we truly want to serve all Jewish children, regardless of their skills and abilities, we need to learn from them.
From studies, experts and experience, it is clear that we must invest in two things: 1. upgrading the skills of the professional staff at many Jewish schools and religious institutions and 2. bringing in professional inclusion coordinators.
The first issue is staff training. Inclusion, as has been pointed out by Professor Carter, is about much more than location. It is entirely possible for a person to be physically present in a Jewish organization, but without the proper supports, completely isolated from all of the interactions, learning opportunities, and relationships that energize that setting. Even at the most open institutions this is still happening today because of a lack of training.
Indeed, as we can learn from the “National Inclusion Project,” a key purpose of inclusion is for kids with disabilities to be able to make friends and have experiences with their typical peers. According to the most recent views on best practices for working with kids with disabilities, the job of a staff member, teacher or counselor is not to fix every problem or to constantly hover over participants; it is to help children discover solutions on their own. There will be times of course when a teacher/counselor/aid will need to assist them, either physically or in a conversation to support them in meeting their needs. Once the immediate need is met, however, it is then important that children are given the space to be as independent as possible. They need to step away slowly, allowing more freedom. This best practice is is known as “AID AND FADE.”
Yet, I have witnessed 1-1 supports (also known as “shadows”) who don’t understand the concept of “AID AND FADE.” Indeed, in some cases I’ve even seen kids with intellectual disabilities, Down Syndrome, and FragileX treated in a patronizing fashion as if they were toddlers. Many of the 1-1’s I’ve had personal experience with actually mistakenly think their job is to be the child’s big-brother/big-sister/friend.
Obviously this can be harder because it requires typical children to make an effort to be friends with a child who may have limited social skills or other differences. But that hard work pays off.
Some say it is easier to have a 1-1 support when a kid is younger as when they get older it is more obvious and intrusive to the dynamic of the other students. However, in some cases, that may be because the 1-1 doesn’t have the experience or training to understand that they should be a helper to the WHOLE group, and should AID AND FADE as needed. There are admittedly real issues inserting an adult into a youth group dynamic, especially in older children, but this method would be a step in the right direction.
This is also just one example of why ALL staff at Jewish institutions need to be trained in at least the basics of inclusion and how to respect/value people with differences — not just staff whose sole job is to support children with disabilities.
The second issue is that there must be a hub-and-spokes system where at the center of the inclusion system there is someone who has the right skills and experience to make inclusion a win-win for everyone involved. Thus, it is vital throughout the Jewish world to recruit inclusion coordinators with the right skills and experience, or get dramatically more training for the ones we have. Their responsibilities should include:
• Planning and communication with parents of children with disabilities
• Developing and implementing individual accommodations as needed
• Training all staff about children with disabilities and inclusive practices
• Developing and implementing program-wide inclusive strategies
• Assisting program specialists to develop adaptations in recreation and/or education areas
• Assigning and supervising teachers/staff to facilitate inclusion of children with disabilities
• Problem-solving with other staff on situations that arise related to the needs of children with disabilities and their groups.
There are many dedicated, experienced special educators, therapists, social workers and psychologists who do not currently work at Jewish institutions but who, at some point, were part of the synagogue life, Jewish Day Schools or Jewish camps. As a community we should recruit more of them in as staff, especially in key leadership roles such as inclusion coordinators.
This will take additional funds, but the investments will pay off with rich rewards in better experiences for all children.
Improving the experience level and training of staff will allow communities and institutions to go beyond the job groups do now with the narrow population of kids with disabilities that many serve. It will enable schools, synagogues and camps to serve children whose disabilities are more “involved.”
I am very pleased that our foundation will sponsor training in the Washington area soon on these issues. But if we really want to live up to our Jewish ideals, which teach us that EVERY Jew is in the image of G-d, then much more training and professional staff are needed around the country.
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.