As a college student living with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have learned to know when I am being accepted and included. I’ve learned about my challenges and my strengths — and I speak out about what true inclusion feels like. When I am viewed as a person with unique areas of strengths in addition to unique areas of challenge instead of primarily as a person with special needs, I know that I am being fully included and accepted.
For example, if there is an activity that others are unsure about whether I will be able to do, the best way to be inclusive is to ask me whether I think that I can do the activity instead of others trying to make decisions for me. When I am asked whether I think that I can do an activity, I am given the opportunity to make my own decision about whether I can do it. I am fully comfortable with my need for extra assistance in some contexts and I think all people, whether they will admit it or not, need extra help in certain contexts.
I have several special memories regarding inclusion at my family's synagogue in Washington, D.C. However, there is one memory which is especially vivid for me. There is a children’s program which meets during the school year once a week, after school. When I communicated interest in working for the children's program, I have the definite impression that the youth director not only seriously considered a variety of ways in which I could participate but wanted me to be able to participate in a way that would represent my abilities and areas of strength. The youth director asked me if I would be willing to write summaries of the Parasha on a weekly basis along with discussion questions for the children to use to discuss and to share with their families. I was thrilled to do so and wrote those summaries for the year’s program. That experience for me represents an example of what inclusion is all about: I was being treated respectfully, my opinions were being taken seriously and others were encouraging me to offer contributions in my areas of strength.
Additionally, I have a vivid memory of inclusion is from my junior year in high school on an Israel trip with my school. I attended a special education program called Sulam, housed at the Berman Hebrew Academy and the Torah School of Greater Washington (Orthodox schools in the Washington, D.C., area). Sulam is one of the very few educational options, if not the only educational option, for Jewish children with special needs who have the goal of obtaining a rich Jewish education with appropriate accommodations. The high school at the Berman Hebrew Academy takes a trip to Israel once every four years and the students in the Sulam program who are in high school go on the trip. On the last Shabbat of the Israel trip, we were in the Old City of Jerusalem. At Shabbat dinner, different students briefly spoke about meaningful experiences on the trip. I decided that I had some reflections that I wanted to share. I had asked in advance if I could speak and had written remarks before Shabbat. As soon as I began to speak, the entire room, in which there were many high school students and adults, became silent. I deeply and truly appreciate the respect shown to me by me by fellow students and teachers. Everyone wanted to hear what I had to share. I am still very moved by that experience and I always will be. My fellow students were treating me with respect and were communicating that they accepted and respected me unconditionally and did not primarily view me as an individual with special needs.
My personal dreams for the future are to work in a profession in which I will be able to have a positive impact for individuals with special needs. I have thought about being a psychologist, a special education teacher, a consultant and a rabbi. I have thought about advocating for people with special needs in a variety of contexts.
Furthermore, my dream of a truly inclusive future is as follows: individuals who have special needs being viewed not primarily as individuals with limits but as individuals with strengths and abilities as well as challenges and obstacles. I think that if when people meet somebody with special needs, if one were to think about that individual's abilities and strengths and how one can help encourage and support that individual in his/her areas of challenge, this would be a far more friendly place for individuals with special needs. It is my hope that we all do our best to continue to make this world into a friendlier environment for individuals who have special needs.
Nathan Weissler, 22, is a college student at Montgomery College in the Washington, D.C., area. He has been advocating for individuals with special needs for several years. In his free time, Nathan likes to read. He hopes to work in special education after completing his studies.