A wheelchair user goes to buy stamps at the post office. She can’t get in because there’s no ramp. She calls to complain. The postmaster says, “That’s ridiculous. We don’t need a ramp. I’ve been working here for 25 years, and no one in a wheelchair has ever come in.”
When we exclude people, it’s easy to forget that they exist. We see the people who are in the room. We might sometimes notice the people who try to get in and are denied access. But we don’t see the people who have given up.
This also exists in education. We only see the kids who are in our schools. When Jewish children don’t enroll in our schools, we might not notice that they exist — or we might erroneously assume that their needs are being met elsewhere.
What is in front of us biases us to notice some problems more than others. We feel the painful consequences of incomplete inclusion when we regularly see certain children who we care about personally. But when we completely exclude children, we don’t have to see what happens to them. This can lead us to believe that we should only “do inclusion” when we are prepared to meet the needs of the children whom we are including.
And — many kids really do have needs that we can’t meet. Much of the time, disability involves big problems that no one knows how to solve. Education of disabled children is still in its infancy — for far too long, many were just assumed to be incapable of learning. Some needs can’t be met with current technology and methods and it may be a very long time before meaningful progress is made. Sometimes there is no place that can meet all of a child’s needs; yet they still need to be welcome somewhere.
Don’t despair. It’s often possible to meet more needs than you think you can. Some that sound large in the abstract turn out to be easily manageable in practice. Much becomes possible with training, and training is most effective when it’s applied to a real situation. If we wait to be fully confident before we include, we miss out on all of the meaningful work that is possible.
Regardless of what we are able to teach any particular child, welcoming them still matters. These kids still need to go to school and they still need to be welcome in the Jewish community. They can’t wait for us to be ready. They can’t wait for us to have the capacity to meet all of their needs. They need us to be there for them now, even if we can’t do it perfectly or even well. These kids exist and struggle with unmet needs whether or not we see their struggles. Sometimes the only need we can meet in the immediate term is community. That’s not enough, but it’s much better than nothing — and it’s the foundation that can enable us to learn to do more.
As Jews, we know how to do the hard things and stay in it for the long haul. We’ve been doing it for centuries. We have always found ways to build community and connection in very difficult circumstances. We know how to create things that matter even when there are big problems we can’t fully solve. We build what we can, and we make it possible for others to build more. We are Jews; this is who we are and what we do. And we can include Jews with disabilities in the long-haul communities we are building.
It is not upon us to complete the work of inclusion, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Ruti Regan is Matan’s first Rabbinic intern. A 4th year Rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time disability advocate Ruti will contribute her own teachings via the Matan blog, webinars, Matan Institutes and new curricular projects.