During this period of repentance and self-reflection, I feel the need to confess that before our second child was diagnosed with developmental disabilities, I didn’t really give much thought to special needs. Not that I ever knowingly insulted or offended anyone with special needs or a disability, but frankly I just didn’t give a damn about the issue.
In fact, when we looking to enroll our typically-developing first child in nursery school, I purposely stayed clear of anything that even smacked of special education. Why should my daughter, who reached every developmental goal to the minute, have to be “held back” by kids who simply weren’t at the same level of learning? Didn’t they have “special” classes for “those” kinds of kids? I dare say the majority of Jewish parents probably still feel this way.
It is human nature to care most passionately about those things that impact us personally. All too often, unless we or a loved one has experienced a chronic condition or illness, the problem can feel far removed, suspended among the many global concerns such as famine, war or natural disaster. In my journalism classes in college, I was taught that if a hurricane happened on the other side of the world, it was worthy of a small item towards the back of the paper, but if it happened in the hometown, it was front page news. The Internet, Skype and You Tube have made the world feel smaller, but in general, the more “local” the issue, the more we tend to engage.
But with the number of active and affiliated members of the Jewish community shrinking, we don’t have that luxury of only focusing on those issues that touch us personally. We do a disservice to ourselves and the Jewish collective if we put up barriers for literal and spiritual access to families raising a child with special needs. Every parent who contacts their rabbi or educator and asks, “Can you make a space for my child in your synagogue or religious school?” needs to be welcomed warmly, and accommodated to maximum degree possible.
May we all be sealed in the Book of Life.