By Guest Blogger Shelley Cohen, consultant and advocate for people with disabilities
February came and went and with it NAIM (North American Inclusion Month) came and went. The National Jewish Council for the Disabled (NJCD) better known as Yachad created NAIM to heighten awareness of the need for inclusion in all aspects of our Jewish life. They provide synagogues and schools with speakers and programming that encourage people to focus on the issue of inclusion of people with disabilities. It is a noble and worthwhile goal but sometimes by the time it’s over I wonder how can we turn the remaining 11 months into more of the same.
Ironically I have recently attended two grassroots meetings of parents who have children with various disabilities. One group was of young parents whose children are between the ages of 9 months and10 years whose children have Down’s syndrome, PDD and Autism. The second group was of older parents who have very high functioning children who are socially challenged and are between the ages of 18 and 25. The former group is worried about how they are going to give their children a Jewish education and the effect that their not receiving one will have on their typical siblings. The latter group is worried about their children living a very lonely life on the social outskirts of the Jewish community and whether they will find jobs to help give them a sense of purpose.
In both meetings, stories were shared, tears were shed and a general sense of fear and frustration prevailed.
I know that 20 years ago there were only a handful of schools, synagogues, camps and social groups that had any type of disabilities programming. Back then there were no integrated religious summer camps, few Jewish day schools had any inclusion or self contained programming for special needs, and synagogues were inaccessible in both the physical and spiritual realm. Progress has been made but there is so much left to do.
The English translation for the Hebrew word naim is pleasant. Unfortunately, for most parents of children with disabilities the response of the Jewish community is less than “naim.” Parents are either implicitly, or too often explicitly made to feel that their special needs child is their personal burden and that the community has no responsibility to make these children part of it. We can and need to continue to make dramatic improvements to our community’s acceptance of responsibility for and integration of all our children into our synagogues, schools and camps. If we did, then maybe just maybe the remaining 11 months of the year would be more pleasant for families who strive to be part of the Jewish community.
– Shelley Cohen