Permit me to challenge you to look at inclusion from a different perspective.
I think it is time to stop viewing inclusion as a chesed — an act of selfless kindness — to benefit only the individual with special needs. I believe that the inclusion of people with disabilities into all aspects of mainstream life benefits society as a whole, and has a profound impact on everyone who takes part in it.
As the Dean of SINAI Schools, a network of special education schools and adult programs, inclusion is a core principle on which our institution was founded over 30 years ago; each of our special education schools is partnered with a different Jewish day or high school, with the purpose of providing our students with an individualized educational program within an inclusive school community. Over a generation later, we at SINAI have witnessed the profound benefits that inclusion has had not only on our own students, but on the typically-developing partner school children for whom inclusion is a natural part of daily life.
Last year SINAI set out to examine the impact that inclusion has had on the students in our partner schools, those without disabilities who have grown up side by side with our students.
To this end, we created a contest for the elementary and high school students of our five partner schools asking them to explore, through either art or essay, what inclusion meant to them: How the lives of students who do not have disabilities are impacted by sharing their community with students who are different from themselves.
The contest spoke directly to New York philanthropist Joe Sprung. As the founder of Bear Givers, a national nonprofit which strives not only to comfort children in need, but to empower them and to raise their self esteem, Joe thinks outside the box, and he immediately saw the potential for philanthropic synergy in this contest. He jumped at the opportunity to drive thought and conversation on the topic of inclusion, and offered to sponsor the Grand Prize: a trip to Israel—on condition that the winner would deliver a large donation of stuffed bears to Hatzolah on this prize trip.
Sure enough, the contest yielded extremely moving and powerful entries from our SINAI students, but what was particularly illuminating was the response we received from the students in our partner schools who do not have special needs. Both the artwork and the essays illustrated how deeply they value each individual in the community, regardless of abilities or challenges. Throughout the contest process, at SINAI we received feedback and thanks from parents at the partner schools, who told us that the contest had sparked thought and discussions within their families.
The words of the children who participated in this contest say more than I ever could to prove what an important impact inclusion has on everyone in the community:
“As we are surrounded by all different types of people in our school, we ourselves are shaped as people. Hearing, seeing, and speaking to all different kinds of students enhances our own lives.”
“We all have an incredible amount to offer to the world and to each other. Being in an environment that appreciates all that we can give makes each day more enjoyable and much more real… Although our similarities connect us together, it is our differences that bind us as a whole.”
“Even if someone looks different from the rest of us, or their bodies or minds work differently, it’s important to remember that without them we would be missing an important piece of our school. Without them, we would be missing an important part of our world.”
“By befriending the Sinai students, I realized that previously, I wouldn’t sit with other girls in my grade if I felt I didn’t have enough in common with them. I have learned, however, that there are always some similarities that can be found, as long as you give each person a chance and make the effort to learn about them.”
“My school has shown me that if we coalesce and put our varying strengths together, we can come together to create harmony and beauty. We unify to form a community of acceptance and love, as we embrace diversity and individualism.”
“If in an orchestra there is only a harp, only drums, only a piano, or only a violin, it would not be an orchestra. If at my school there was no Sinai, it would not be the same. Together, we are a symphony.”
This past summer, Grand Prize winner Rivki Hook, an 8th Grader from Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, took her first trip to Israel, joined by her family. Indeed, the Hook family visited Hatzolah while they were in Israel. Joe sent them with a large shipment of stuffed bears, which they donated on behalf of Bear Givers to Hatzolah.
A number of these bears have already been distributed by Hatzolah to young children in traumatic emergency situations. By thinking outside the box, Joe managed to build one mitzvah on the shoulders of another. Thanks to his encouragement, hundreds of children spent time considering those around them with disabilities, and how their lives had been affected by inclusion.
Slowly but surely it seems that inclusion is indeed taking hold in many of our communities. As it does, we need to think of the next step: changing the lens through which we view it. Of course inclusion benefits people with special needs. But just as important, it positively impacts the way that everyone else in the community perceives the world.
Individuals with disabilities, like every other member of society, have much to give back. Everyone wins when the concept of “us and them” shifts to become “we.” I know that inclusion has succeeded in influencing a generation when I witness it become ordinary. To the typically developing children who have grown up in inclusive environments, inclusion is no big deal, because it is an expected part of life.
Not a chesed. Not something you “should” do because it’s right. Just the way their world works.
I believe in a future where this is the way that everyone’s world works, and all of our lives are improved as a result.
Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs is the Dean of SINAI Schools, operating several inclusive special education schools throughout northern New Jersey for Jewish children Grades 1-12, as well as programs for adults with developmental disabilities. He maintains the SINAI blog, with topics of interest in special education, at www.sinaischools.org/blog, and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.