Sarah sings like an angel, but if another child joins in, she screams and retreats into a corner. Ezra draws beautiful animation, except he doesn’t want to stop putting marker to paper to connect with others. David is sitting back in his wheelchair, head downcast, gazing wishfully at his active peers. Chava needs to move her body – all the time. Brian is embarrassed by outbursts from his brother, Jason. Kenny makes fun of kids he thinks are not as cool as he is.
How can we use music, dance, and theater to foster inclusion for these aspiring artistic and differently abled minds? Through shared creative experiences in an inclusive environment – everyone benefits. I have had the privilege over the past twenty-five years to witness transformations in individuals with and without disabilities and their families. How do we bring out the best in others and ourselves?
1. Focus on the ability within each individual. In Exodus 4:10, when Moses shies away from G-d’s challenge to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” G-d replies, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak; therefore, go.” G-d tells us to use what strengths we have to be a positive influence in the world. We all have strengths and challenges. Being a creative type, myself, it is easier for me to write a script for a play than it is for me to copy, collate, and ultimately find a place to file it. If I were judged for not being able to adequately manage paperwork, my self-esteem would be diminished, impacting all aspects of my life; in time, even my writing would suffer. By focusing on each person’s abilities, everyone has an opportunity to shine.
For a child like Ezra, whose drawings bring him comfort and calm, we encourage him. We do not remove his markers to stop him from drawing; on the contrary, while he is concentrating on his drawing, we notice him and his work, and every time he glances up, we say, “Ezra, you’re participating.” One second of engagement turns into five, which turns into minutes – until one day Ezra takes part in all aspects of the class and shouts, “I’m participating!” We soon learn that in addition to his drawing gifts, Ezra has a beautiful singing voice and now engages in the entire class, performing solos in our productions. Ezra’s drawings become the covers for our show programs and for the T-shirt designs. He takes an animation class and his later artwork becomes the inspiration of best selling author and illustrator, Tom Lichtenheld’s book “E-mergency!”
2. Join in their world. Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer teaches our parent group about the Baal Shem Tov’s (founder of Hassidism) poignant parable of the “Turkey Prince,” where the King’s son thinks he’s a turkey and hides under a table. In the story, Royal doctors cannot cure the “turkey prince,” but a sage appears and sits under the table with the prince, gently guiding him one-step at a time, patiently, without judgment, helping him to rejoin regular kingdom life. Like the king’s dilemma, traditional therapies did not work for my own son, Neal, non-verbal, withdrawn into his own world, diagnosed with severe autism. My ‘sage,’ the esteemed Dr. Stanley Greenspan OB”M guided me to enter Neal’s world. When Neal stared intensely at his hand, I stared at mine. When he screeched, I screeched. When he spun in a circle, I took his hands and spun with him, round and round for as long as he wanted, until the two of us were breathless, connecting, relishing our own unique form of “Ring Around the Rosie.” All this led to a progression of days and experiences that were magical, unique, and amazing. Bit by bit, Neal relinquished his solitary, isolated world. Gradually he merged into mine.
So, too, do we join the interests and abilities of our students.
Dr. Greenspan encouraged me to rally my creative colleagues and use these same methods to enter the worlds of other individuals with disabilities. If one of our students is too frightened to participate in class, one of our volunteers will literally hide under a table with them, until they feel confident to come out. Suzanne was so shy when she first started classes, she stayed by the door hugging onto her mother’s leg. Our volunteer stayed beside her; never forcing her to come in the room, but rather, building a relationship with her until she felt trusting and safe to join the group. Within a few weeks, Suzanne chose on her own to sing, dance, and act with everyone.
(Part II next week)
Elaine Hall is an internationally renowned arts educator for her starring role in the HBO Emmy Award winning documentary, Autism: The Musical. Her groundbreaking Jewish musical theater and film program, The Miracle Project Judaica, has been named by the Slingshot Guide as one of North America’s best Jewish organizations to foster inclusion. Elaine’s memoir, Now I See the Moon, was selected reading by The United Nations for World Autism Awareness Day 2011 and for Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month 2013. Elaine is a motivational speaker seeking to change attitudes towards Inclusion through her religious and arts education programs, and through the I Win (Inclusion from Within) programs. Elaine lives in Santa Monica, California with her inspiration, her son Neal Katz diagnosed with autism at age three, and husband, therapist, Jeff Frymer – as she answers the call to bring The Miracle Project Judaica to communities nationwide. Connect with Elaine on Twitter or learn more on Facebook.