Acknowledging the Invisible

December 1, 1999
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Sara Rubinow Simon

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches that “A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the Holy One, Blessed be God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human, and each one of us is unique.” Each of us is a bearer of the Divine image although we come in an infinite variety of sizes, shapes, abilities, and disabilities. Therefore, each of us must be treated with kavod, with respect.

Each society determines its parameters of acceptability and deviance. Changing times are extending these boundaries to encompass individuals with special needs who were once excluded from mainstream opportunities, such as schooling, recreation, socialization, and employment. Today we see people who used to be mostly invisible. They are functioning independently as never before because, due to federal legislation, advances in technology and increased awareness, they are being given a chance to enter “normal” society.

According to the National Organization on Disability, 54,000,000 of us have a significant disability. The logo for accessibility depicts an individual in a wheelchair, yet only a small proportion of people with disabilities  1,400,000 use wheelchairs or scooters. About 26,000,000 of us have hearing impairments and the rest of us have special needs that may not be readily apparent. This prompts a cautionary note as we think about “people with disabilities.” Many of us fall into that category, especially as we age.

Our vocabulary about the disabled has changed as well. We no longer speak of “the handicapped.” A handicap is a barrier that society places on a person. A disability is a permanent physical, sensory, or intellectual impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities. We are learning to use “people-first language,” which acknowledges that the person is primary and the disability is secondary. In this way, we affirm a person’s humanity instead of labeling them like objects.

The Jewish community reflects these emerging attitudes and sensitivities. Across North America, Jewish communities are working to make their institutions architecturally, attitudinally, and programmatically accessible to all Jews. From birth through adulthood, support systems are being developed. In the Washington DC area, where I live, the Federation and its beneficiary agencies work cooperatively to provide comprehensive services that enable Jews with disabilities to enhance their Jewish identities. The Board of Jewish Education provides consultation to children of all ages, from preschools, where young families are starting to develop their Jewish lifestyles, to adults with special learning needs who want to continue to explore their Jewish heritage. Jewish special education keeps proving that an individual can learn if he or she is taught appropriately.

As parents of adults with disabilities grow older and no longer serve as primary caregivers, they worry about their children’s welfare. Hopefully, Jewish group homes and supervised apartment programs will enable adults with disabilities to live as valued, independent, and integrated members of a community, in an environment that reflects Jewish tradition.

A major challenge confronting the Jewish community, is how to provide the necessary funding for the necessary extra staff and the special programming required to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. Why do we pit assistance to frail, elderly Jews against the need to create self-contained day school classes and resources for students with learning disabilities? Are there not Jewish philanthropists attracted to these new incentives? Have the day schools mined the state and local education agencies that provide federally mandated services to private and parochial schools? Does the Jewish program duplicate similar programs in the general community that could be accessed and supplemented?

Given both a commitment and the necessary funds, another challenge assumes gigantic proportions: the disturbing shortage of trained professionals to staff programs for individuals with disabilities. For example, congregational religious schools can barely find adequate teachers for their regular classrooms, despite enticements and offers for training. Imagine the probability of finding a teacher who also has special education experience!

Times are changing and we are moving forward. However, there is still much to achieve as we work to become a k’lal Yisrael for every Jew. Look around your own community and its many settings. Does your congregation welcome and accommodate all who wish to worship, study, or take part in activities within its walls? In our diversity, each one of us must be accorded kavod because we were all created in God’s image. Are you a partner as we accept the commitment to fulfill this moral mandate?

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Dr. Sara Rubinow Simon has been the Director of the Special Needs Department of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington for 25 years. Among her many volunteer activities, she is founding co-chair of the CAJE Special Needs Network. In 1991 she was granted a Covenant Award for her work in Special Education.

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