Challenges in Learning: The Hidden Disability

Etta Barry is a Pacer Center Parent Liaison to Minnesota Private Schools, and is a resource for parents and students visiting Student Support Services. She is a mother of three children with learning disabilities, and advocates for understanding, patience and teamwork to help children overcome their challenges. This post is an edited version of a D’Var Torah Etta recently gave in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, which ends today. If you are interested in reading the entire D’var Torah or if you have any questions or comments, feel free to send an email to [email protected].


The first time I heard the term ADHD, it was the ‘90s and Ben, my son, was a toddler. I figured my son was “just being a boy.” He had to touch every button in the house, turn lights on and off and crawled to every outlet within reach.  He was constantly on the move and no matter how many times I would pick him up and redirect him, he would go back.  Sounds manageable at 2, 3 or even 4 years old, right?

Ben was now a 5-year-old, Alex was 7 and Jacob was 3, and we were beginning our journey into the world of psychologists, psychiatrists, medications, paperwork, evaluations, learning disabilities, socialization concerns, and learning new terminology. All I could think was, what is wrong with my children, was it something I did, am I doing something wrong, why can’t my children be like my friends’ kids?

As I look back on that time in my life, I realize that I was afraid to talk about it with other people because I didn’t want my children to be labeled and I didn’t want to open up about the day-to-day stress. I spent so much of my time over the years going to a variety of doctor appointments, attending workshops to educate myself, using my teaching background to help in the education of my children at home and at school, and finding my own ways to help my kids succeed. Still, I was left feeling as if I hadn’t done enough.

A person with a disability is a person who has physical, sensory, emotional or intellectual impairment that substantially limits one or more of his or her life activities. They are your students, friends, neighbors, congregants and campers who suffer from cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences, mental health disorders, and hearing and vision impairments. Disabilities aren’t always obvious to the onlooker, but can sometimes limit daily activities. They can range from mild challenges to severe limitations. Everyone with a disability is different, with varying challenges and needs, as well as abilities and attributes.

Knowledge will bring understanding and understanding will bring about change.

We chose to send our children to a private school because we felt the small class size and the small community would be the right nurturing environment for them. We also believed strongly about having our kids growing up with the same Jewish education, values and experiences as we did. That meant going to the Adath Jeshurun Congregation Gan Pre-School, graduating from Beit Midrash at the Talmud Torah, having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, going through Confirmation classes, being a part of USY, going to Jewish summer camps and developing a love of Israel. And our kids did exactly that — but what we didn’t plan for were the learning challenges that would create stress, tension, frustration and sometimes loneliness for them.

For example, learning Hebrew was difficult. I was lucky to find a program that used a method which combines auditory, kinesthetic, and visual pathways to teach language. Preparing for my kids’ B’nai Mitzvah meant constant tutoring and hoping someone would notice my struggle. And every day, I wished for a mentor to help them succeed into their teen years.

So, how can a parent be the head coach on their child’s team?

The role of “Head Coach” requires a great deal of time, energy and commitment. In short, it is hard work, but it can be very rewarding. So, I highly recommend that you also recruit grandparents, friends and neighbors to your child’s team. Educate as many people as possible about the realities of ADHD. Knowledge will bring understanding and understanding will bring about change. Read books, talk to other parents, attend workshops, keep a notebook, and learn about medications. I eventually started a Parent Support Group at our school to surround myself with the support of others who could share and empathize with me.

A child and his or her family may feel uncomfortable talking to others about their personal situations or may not feel that they will be accepted if they share this information. Jewish schools and camps have a moral and ethical obligation to provide a quality Jewish education for all. To accomplish that, we must be clear on communicating missions and values to our families in order to build strong, trustworthy relationships with parents and students. To help facilitate this, Jewish organizations could:

  1. Write a statement of inclusion that welcomes all students and campers, regardless of their learning styles and include it in the marketing of their school and camp as well as in their registration material.
  2. Include a “Special Needs” section in the registration packet that inquires about any academic or social/emotional challenges or difficulties, the child’s specific diagnostic description, modifications or accommodations and medication information.
  3. Hire a special education teacher/specialist/counselor to serve as an ‘inclusion specialist” to be a support to the child’s success.
  4. Learn about the many ways in which to modify a Bar or Bat mitzvah. For example, I learned to modify how Jacob could learn to read Torah by highlighting the different trope so he could see the differences and remember those differences.
  5. Integrate disability awareness and sensitivity training into the curriculum for staff, youth leaders and the participants in a way that everyone will learn to understand and acknowledge it.
  6. Train and educate post-B’nai mitzvah students and CITs or OZOs to learn how to teach, work and play with children with learning disabilities.

Finding out your student has a disability

When a family enrolls their child into a Jewish program, the organization should have a meeting with the parents to talk about their child. This is the perfect time for them to share their concerns about their child as well as their joys and excitements. The organization should make that time a safe and welcoming meeting so that the parents walk away feeling like they’ve been heard and understood.

All people learn differently. It’s important to approach each child as an individual first, and not see them as their disability. Listen to parents and their children, and you will find that they usually have a solution to their needs within themselves. What works for one may not work with another. Promote an environment of open communication between parents, counselors, teachers, administrators and students, and they will feel heard.

I am proud to say that Alex, Ben, and Jacob are now the “Bus Drivers” in their lives. They are successful in college and studying and working abroad and learning to live their lives, their way.