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Playing Wheelchair: Kids Keep It Simple, Why Can’t We?

Playing Wheelchair: Kids Keep It Simple, Why Can’t We?

Lisa Friedman is a widely recognized expert in Jewish disability inclusion. She is an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey, where she has developed and oversees an inclusive synagogue school. She is also the Project Manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. Lisa consults with congregations, schools, camps and other organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy and families through dialogue, interactive workshops, and awareness training. Lisa is a sought after speaker on a wide variety of topics and blogs about disabilities and inclusion at "Removing the Stumbling Block."

Like most parents, I have a lot of funny stories about my kids. I also have things I’d like to brag about, some frustrating stories, a few sad stories and a handful of stories about those “aha” moments. But every once in a while, there is a story that is the complete and seamless merge of your parenting and your professional life. This is mine.

First, a little background. My husband and I have really close friends that we have known since high school. They fall into that special category of “lifelong friends,” so of course our children have become friends. Their son is 13, our son is 12 and our daughter is 9. They have been playing together all their lives. None of them can remember a time when they weren’t in each other’s lives. We just celebrated the second night of Passover with them.

Oh, and their son has Cerebral Palsy, and uses both a wheelchair and a communication device.

So one weekend when my kids were five and three, we all got together for dinner. It was unremarkable in that we went to their house, the kids played, we parents schmoozed, we ate (and ate and ate!) and then we went home. Two days later I was in my kitchen making dinner when I looked up see my son pushing my daughter around our hallway at top speed in her small stuffed Princess chair. Immediately worried for their safety, I called out for them to stop and asked what they were doing. My son’s response? “Mommy, we are playing wheelchair!”

In that moment, two things happened:

I cried. Real tears. The joyous ones.
I quickly closed the basement door so they would not topple down a flight of stairs and told them to go back to playing.

Since then I have reflected on this experience a great deal and I have told the story to anyone who will listen. It is a touchstone for me, both as a parent and as a Jewish special educator. It brought together all that I had already known, all that I believe and all that I strive to teach.

Lesson #1:
Modeling works. Period. It is totally and completely possible to teach children that disabilities are a normal part of life. That wheelchair is not our friend’s son. It’s just a way for him to get around.

Lesson #2:
Children innately know how to overlook the things that make adults uncomfortable. Adults bring complicated emotions to their interactions; children bring a natural sense of joy and wonder. Of course my children wanted to have a wheelchair. They are big and shiny.

Lesson #3:
Every child is a precious gift from God. Each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God).

It really is that simple.

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. She oversees an extensive special needs program within the religious school, with programs designed to help students learn about their Jewish heritage, feel connected to their Jewish community and successfully learn Hebrew. Additionally, Lisa facilitates conversations about inclusion throughout the synagogue as whole and helps the congregation to shape its best practices. Lisa writes a blog about her experiences in Jewish special education:

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