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Jewish Schools Are Failing Kids With Disabilities — And Themselves

Jewish Schools Are Failing Kids With Disabilities — And Themselves

About a month ago, The Forward ran the story “Should Every Disabled Child Get a Jewish Education?” which frames the issue as follows: Jewish parents want their kids with learning differences to attend Jewish day schools, but financially strapped Jewish day schools say that they can only go so far in meeting their needs. I, along with others parents of kids excluded from Jewish schools, was interviewed for this piece.

While the article exposes an important aspect of the inclusion dilemma, it misses another critical dimension: many of the supposedly “disabled” kids excluded from a day school education are highly talented and will succeed as adults beyond our wildest imagination. While some kids really do have needs that most Jewish schools do not have the capacity to handle, many of the kids being excluded from our schools could be educated if the schools recognized that children with alternative learning profiles don’t hamper learning but enhance it.

It’s no secret that a disproportionate number of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and visionaries are dyslexic or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In other words, it’s not only that Jewish day schools are failing these children by barring them from a day school education, it’s that they are failing themselves, society and the Jewish people by depriving us all of the tapestry of talents required to prosper in the 21st century.

Human institutions rely on a diversity of skills and strengths. Top learning expert Mel Levine notes that “the growth of our society and the progress of the world are dependent on our commitment to fostering in our children, and among ourselves, the coexistence and mutual respect of these many different kinds of minds.” Society needs the kid who can’t sit still in class or otherwise breaks the mold. Today’s deviance is tomorrow’s variance.

Some people are highly organized but lacking in creativity; others are highly creative but lacking in organizational skills. Neuroscience tells us that strengths in one area may dictate weaknesses in the other. According to one recent study, the prefrontal brain systems that allow for control may work against creative thinking. People high in cognitive control tend to be lower in creativity, and people high in creativity tend to be lower in cognitive control. Society needs both types and more, but schools place a premium on the well-organized child and barely acknowledge the creative person until he reaches the working world and starts a Fortune 500 company or writes an award- winning play.

Like much of today’s educational establishment, many Jewish day schools consider a “good student” one who learns well sitting in a seat for eight hours a day, balances numerous subjects effectively and excels on multiple choice tests. They value one kind of learner and devalue others. When was the last time you heard of a Jewish day school that excluded a creativity-challenged child who had superb math and reading skills? Most Jewish day schools are not behind the curve in this regard, but neither are they ahead of it.

I recently learned of a Jewish day school that admits roughly fifty percent of its high school students into an intensive Israel education and advocacy program, which includes several months of study in Israel. The program director explained that it’s very competitive and that grades weigh heavily in the selection process. I was very impressed with the program, but then it hit me: Had I, an ADHD kid, gone to that school, I would never have made the cut for that program. Today I run an Israel education and advocacy organization.

The “disabled” child overlooked for that program or deprived of the opportunity to attend a Jewish day school may be precisely the person we need to be a lay or professional leader of a Jewish organization, a visionary rabbi or the inventor of the next online Jewish education platform. Yet we see her particular combination of skills as a disability rather than a strength and a necessary piece of the puzzle. Don’t we all possess a unique combination of skills?

It’s high time that we rethink our concept of disability, and come to appreciate the colossal diversity of human capabilities necessary for us to thrive and grow. If the current educational model cannot accommodate such diversity, perhaps we need a new model. Why shouldn’t Jewish day schools lead the way?

David Bernstein is the executive director of The David Project. His opinions in this piece do not reflect the views of the organization. You can follow him on twitter @DavidLBernstein.

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