Editor’s note: The author of this post is the cousin of Jennifer Lazslo Mizrahi, a valued supporter of and contributor to The New Normal.
I recently got together with my cousin Jennifer. Even though we live on two sides of the Atlantic (I live in Israel), she does her best to make sure we stay in touch. When we do meet there’s always a lot of catching up. Since both of us have children with disabilities, our discussion inevitably revolves around our kids.
However, this time catching up also entailed finding out about the new role Jennifer is paving for herself by sponsoring training programs to help promote the inclusion of Jewish children with disabilities into programs for “typical” Jewish kids.
“Inclusion” is Jennifer’s top priority. As she put it: “We are all made in G-d’s image. So why do some Jewish institutions segregate children with disabilities from other children? Not since “Brown vs. Board of Education” has America thought that separate is equal. At a time when 70 percent of working age Americans with disabilities is outside the workforce, our kids need every advantage they can get so that they can acquire the skills they need to be independent later. Segregating some children from others hurts all children who can benefit from the spark of G-d in us all.”
Interesting, but after living in Israel for 36 years my take on inclusion is totally different. My challenged son is no longer a child. Nonetheless, way back when he was growing up, I was among the few Israeli parents acknowledging that their son was “Einstein” but with a learning problem. My husband and I enrolled him in a small, special needs first grade class housed in a regular public school. He succeeded so well that year that he “graduated” to the regular, Israeli religious public school system — and then the problems began. Over the ensuing nine years, keeping up with the learning load became increasingly tough. Friendships were hard to come by, although there were a few. Behavior problems? Don’t ask. Even though Israeli children tend to be on the wild side, this “inclusive” environment was just too much for our son to handle.
A relentless optimist, I never gave up looking for a solution. That day arrived when I found a very small, private school catering to children like him. I will never forget my son’s reaction when he first saw the little shack of a school. While I said to myself, “Oh my God!” – he muttered under his breath (loud enough for me to hear), “Thank God it’s small!”
That’s when I learned to start listening very carefully to what my son wants and disregard my need to mainstream him. To this day, he insists that the two years he spent learning there were his best years in school. As he put it back then: “Finally, I’m with kids just like me.”
Now he has schizophrenia. But he’s under the care of a psychiatrist also trained as a psychotherapist, living independently with a young schizophrenic lady he met during his last hospitalization. When they first started living together three years ago, I was beside myself. What kind of normative life would this be? Then I got hold of myself, remembering what he said about the special school he attended. Who would understand him better than someone similarly challenged?
Inclusion? The two of them laboriously swim upstream whenever placed in a “normal” situation. But put them in a social gathering of other mentally ill individuals and they feel at ease, even flourish.
This all leads me back to the long years of hardship the Children of Israel experienced in the desert. Way back then we were instructed to accept, not to “include.” Inclusion means placing emotional stress on those incapable of swimming with the tide, but answering our own need for feigned normalcy. Acceptance means understanding – listening to the wish and want of those who day in and day out have to actually deal by themselves with their not inconsiderable challenges.
Tami Lehman-Wilzig is an award winning, Jewish-content, children’s book author (tlwkidsbooks.com). Living in Israel but primarily writing for the American market, she has published 10 books. Her next book, Stork’s Landing (Kar-Ben) is due to come out in March 2014.