I have been watching the Olympics with a mixture of delight and disbelief. The athletes are so extraordinary. A lifetime of relentless preparation has brought them to this moment, the pinnacle of desire, ambition and performance. Most are fierce competitors, yet expected to be generously accessible to the media and humble in interviews. I am also aware that many of these young athletes have required an infusion of enormous resources, from taxpayers in general and from their families most especially. Parents and siblings have had to uproot their lives and turn their priorities upside down to enable these talented competitors to hone their skills by training with the best coaches and traveling the world perfecting their performance.
At the same time, we are hearing about President Vladimir Putin’s attitude toward gays and his government’s continued hostility toward the rights of gay citizens. The international outcry carried some strength initially, but clearly has melted into the background as the games themselves have been front and center. I doubt a single athlete has refused to attend these Olympic games out of a sense of moral outrage or solidarity for the human rights violations endured by the gay community.
As a parent of a special needs child, one who is particularly athletic and enjoys participating in Special Olympics basketball, among other sports, I am struck by the parallels between his life and that of, say, a gay athlete at Sochi. Like typical Olympians, our special Olympians require families to turn their lives upside down, and to bring huge resources to bear in order to help our children develop their potential. Just as an un-coached skier cannot hope to reach the podium, our kids are unlikely to achieve success without coaching from a whole team of therapists, medical specialists, educators, and community professionals. My own Special Olympian can make a three-point shot and a layup, can run fast and loves to try tricks like those performed by the Harlem Globetrotters. But he relies on coaches and buddies to keep him in the game.
This dependence on supports in order to participate touches upon the human rights issue that concerns me now: The lack of outcry by an indifferent public to the many ways our children are shut out of the Jewish community. My heart breaks when my son asks me why he can’t go to Hebrew school. How can I explain that there is no Special Olympics for Hebrew school?
In the Jewish world, solidarity with folks who have disabilities dissipates when the price tag rises or when typically-developing kids need to make space for their peers with special needs. In theory, most people support the rights of special needs individuals. Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month (JDAM) is an opportunity to challenge all of us to evaluate and make further changes in the way we conduct our community affairs so that families with special needs are fully included and, yes, even embraced.
One setting that is going to require a lot more attention is the supplementary religious school. Very few of us can honestly say that our local synagogue is doing everything it can to accommodate different learning needs in its afternoon classrooms, or to provide a roadmap for parents and teachers to work together to assess needs and implement supports. Even fewer can say they have access to spiritual support for families with special needs, such as sensitive counseling, guidance, networking and socializing opportunities or even Shabbat and holiday celebrations that are particularly welcoming to families with differences.
Like the young Olympians on television this month, kids with disabilities require some extra resources. But that’s okay, because I want to live in a community where each child has the right to learn, to receive appropriate encouragement and to be nurtured to grow and reach their individual potential. As I said, my son does not have the equivalent of the Special Olympics in his Jewish life. We are solving this problem privately, through tutoring and preparation for a joyous bar mitzvah where he will be celebrated for his many wonderful abilities. The bimah will be his podium, the Torah his prize.
But private solutions are not enough. I invite you to join me in supporting Whole Community Inclusion, an initiative of Jewish Learning Venture that seeks to partner with synagogues to implement training and support for educators to learn how to work with different types of learners in a single classroom. It offers webinars for parents and educators to learn specific skills or work through issues surrounding inclusion; it hosts play dates for younger children that include sensory breaks and a variety of supports and it works to integrate awareness of special needs throughout all the programs, trainings and consultation offered by Jewish Learning Venture to the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community.
I hope you will learn more about Whole Community Inclusion and Jewish Learning Venture. I invite you to contribute your own resources, and encourage your community to be part of this network, that has the potential to bring a sense of achievement and belonging to every individual, whatever their ability.