How Children View Disability: A Refreshing Perspective
search

How Children View Disability: A Refreshing Perspective

Rabbi Michael Levy: As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition, boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, N.Y. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to email him.

While I waited to donate blood at my local firehouse, I was introduced to a friend’s five-year-old daughter. I covered my face and said “I’m shy.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I’m not?”

Within minutes, we were strolling around the firehouse, enjoying each other’s company.

Meeting a Child for the First Time

My parents (may they rest in peace), siblings, wife and finally children have taught me many “opening moves” after being introduced to a child. Some kids take up my challenge of jumping into the air and reciting their names before their feet hit the ground again. With others, I pretend to sleep and they “wake me up.” If it’s thumb wrestling, even the smallest children manage to win.

I seldom start my interactions with an explanation of my blindness. There is no shame in being blind. It’s just that blindness isn’t my central or predominating characteristic. I present myself as the one with the interesting games, the maker of funny noises, the one onto whom children can climb.

Introducing Disability To Children

Children and I talk about blindness when it comes up naturally. In an unfamiliar area, I might ask them to lead me to their room, or to the bathroom. If they want me to read a book to them, I show them Braille.

Kids don’t hesitate to ask questions. “What do you see? Do you see in your dreams? What about colors? I respect even the nonsensical inquiries: Did your wife take care of you when you were born?”

Most Children Are Comfortable with Disability

Children’s comfortable candor about disability is a spiritual pick-me-up. Every day during my recent trip to Israel, I spent at least a few minutes with great-nephews and nieces, and with children and grandchildren of friends. Over the years, my favorite game has been to let three or four kids hold me down with all their might. Then, I try to escape (if they are over age nine, I don't have a chance.)

Adults Aren’t So Comfortable with Disability

Why do some adolescents and adults forget that we who have disabilities are first and foremost persons? Do they absorb stereotypes about us from the media and well-meaning educators? A wall suddenly separates “us” and “them:" an attitudinal barrier. What can we do to prevent that wall from rising in the first place?

A Simple Guideline: Together is Better Than Separate

My personal view is that the more time non-disabled and disabled people spend together, the more all of them will realize that disability is not the defining characteristic of most individuals. The togetherness starts with families.

Personally, I would prefer that whenever possible, a child with a disability experience the rough-and-tumble, sometimes bruising environment of daily family life. Such an environment is better preparation for adult life than an atmosphere of “special,” “sensitive” and “programmed.”

As we advocate to remove barriers in our synagogues, schools and camps, we might also consider recapturing that comfortable candor with which many children naturally approach a person with a disability.

By the way, if I ignore you and pay more attention to your children, please don’t be offended.

A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah and disability-related topics.

As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (www.yadempowers.org), Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons, boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at info@yadempowers.org

read more:
comments