The proverb “The perfect should not be the enemy of the good,” means that insisting on perfection often results in no improvement at all. In keeping with the wisdom of this sentiment, I think the time has come to begin the discussion of what does inclusion of people with disabilities really mean? And should we as a community allow for sub-optimal solutions? Recently I was faced with two separate situations that echoed these questions for me.
The first situation causing me to wonder about what we mean by inclusion is happening in the heart of Manhattan. For decades in our city, children with disabilities have been turned away from all of the Jewish day schools of all denominations: pluralistic, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Knowing the reluctance of the Jewish day schools to open their doors to children with disabilities, the empathetic and capable Ilana Ruskay-Kidd has decided to try and service these children by starting a self-contained school for students with learning and developmental disabilities called the Shefa School.
She is to be applauded by all for her wonderful desire to service this population, but in this day and age when we know about the benefits and importance of inclusion, and communal monetary resources are becoming progressively scarce, I wonder why the Jewish community is investing in yet another exclusive Jewish day school. Creating a separate school sends the message that people with disabilities need to be kept apart from the rest of the Jewish community. I know that Ms. Ruskay-Kidd would welcome the opportunity to have her program housed in a day school that could offer a child with disabilities the opportunity to be with his/her neurotypical peers in those classes where he/she is capable of being mainstreamed. At the very least children with disabilities could be mainstreamed for prayers, lunch, gym, art and music, thereby setting a more appropriate tone of “you belong.” This country's public school system has been inclusive of people with disabilities since the IDEA Act was passed in 1975. Why are our Jewish day schools still behaving as if the concept of “separate but equal” is perfectly acceptable?
The second situation: A petition for signatures was circulating between many disabilities organizations asking Congress to legislate the end of legally sanctioned sheltered workshops for people with disabilities. Sheltered workshops were initially created to give employment to people with disabilities; many also provided transportation, habilitation and opportunities for recreation. As a reward to the companies for hiring people with disabilities, they were exempt from paying minimum wage. Many organizations like the Salvation Army and Easter Seals signed on to create sheltered workshops, with good intentions, but that resulted in an imperfect situation for people with disabilities. What started as legislation to help people with disabilities find useful employment has turned into something comparable to slave labor, in which some people are being paid as low as 21 cents an hour.
Through this petition, many disabilities organizations are hoping to end these unfair practices. When the disabilities organization of which I am a board member was invited to sign the petition, a discussion ensued among us regarding whether to sign it because the workshops are so egregiously unfair or to reject it because the sudden closure of such places, upon passage of such a law, would hurt the exact people and families whom we are trying to help.
In our present economy, many of us know how awful it feels to lose a job, not to mention the burden to family members who might not be able to work full time because their loved one with a disability would no longer be safely occupied during the work day. Certainly we should legislate that no new sheltered workshops be allowed to open and instead, focus on government and private sector initiatives to create fair employment opportunities for both employer and employees. With the creation of productive, equitable alternatives to sheltered workshops, eventually they will become obsolete.
So here we are with two cases of people trying to right a wrong that has persisted in our midst for years – substandard situations for people with disabilities. Are we supposed to be satisfied with suboptimal measures that answer a pressing need or should we stay pure of heart and say if it can’t be done the right way then it just shouldn’t be done? As a community, we need to define what real inclusion means and take action to make it happen, or we are left with a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good?
Shelley Richman Cohen is the founding Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, an inclusion training program for Rabbis, and other communal leaders funded in part by the Ruderman Family Foundation.