Reality Check on Inclusion of People with Disabilities

This is a guest post by Shelly Christensen, the Program Manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities and co-founder of JDAM.

“Treat no one lightly and think nothing is useless, for everyone has a moment and everything has a place.” – Pirke Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, 3:4

It was a very difficult morning for several parents attending a workshop at a medium-sized congregation on a recent Sunday during Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Clearly, discussion around living a purposeful and meaningful life struck a deeply resonant chord. This was the first time several of the people felt comfortable enough to tell their own stories within their own community.

I sat in the room with the parents as they shared their shattered dreams for their children. Hope seemed remote for them.

“I don’t think my child will make a shidduch (marriage match),” said one mother, barely able to get the words out through her tears. “What are we going to do?”

Another parent, a father, shared that he didn’t allow his son who has a non-verbal disability any connection to Judaism at all because it’s just too painful to bring his son to the synagogue and see how others stare at his son. He thinks he is sparing his son the pain of rejection by the community but the price he is paying, the horrible isolation he has felt for years, never measuring up to the community ideals for parents, has left him bereft.

Another parent wanted to know why the state was planning to close its institutions for people with disabilities. This parent stated, “Some people, like my daughter, should live in an institution. It’s the safest place for her. Now I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Isolation takes a toll.

How will a young man or woman who has a disability make a shidduch? What can we do to help parents feel comfortable and safe enough to bring their children into the Jewish community and live Jewish lives? Where will a vulnerable young man or woman live an independent, meaningful life that includes Judaism in the community rather than in an institution?

I believe that the answers lie, not in some hopeful day dream of a parent, but in the Jewish community’s ability to treat others as you yourself would like to be treated.

The simple truth is that nearly 20% of the population has some kind of disabling condition. Biases still exist creating isolation and marginalization.

The answers lie right here, right now, with each of us. We must be people of good intentions and loving kindness. Sometimes we must walk in the shoes of the mother, the father and the person who has a disability to understand that their need to belong to the Jewish community is no different than our own.

To learn more, please visit the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis website.

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