As a child, I was fortunate to attend a day school that believed in inclusion. Students who were blind, deaf, confined to wheelchairs or who had Down’s syndrome called my school home just as I did. The students with disabilities were not kept to themselves and then paraded around to make the other students feel good about themselves. They were integral parts of each class and part of school life and learning like any other student.
Having students with profound physical and cognitive disabilities must have been challenging for the administrators and teachers in my school. It is hard enough to meet the needs of so many students, but how to teach and include those who can’t hear or grasp a pencil? How many meetings, how much experimentation, patience and creativity must this have called for? How much soul searching must the faculty have gone through every year to determine which students to accept and who they could not accommodate? Yet, I never saw frustration with the added responsibility or self-righteous arrogance because of their decision to include. I saw pride on the face of the principals and teachers that our school loved every Jewish child and determination to be sensitive and accommodating.
The presence of students’ with obvious physical and mental disabilities helped me in many ways. Their presence taught me that I could respect and trust the administration and teachers in my school even as I felt wronged by some of their decisions. I knew that they were elevated individuals who were trying their best. I saw that my teachers and administrators believed that every Jewish child was entitled to a Jewish education and I felt safe because of that. I experienced that the adults in my school building believed what they preached – they were willing to sacrifice their time and resources to teach any child if it was possible.
As a selfish child, I wanted to believe that including those who were less able would slow me down and rob me of the Jewish education to which I was entitled. I was fortunate that my school did not let me entertain this notion. They taught that the value of my Jewish education was not what I learned intellectually but what I did with that education. I was expected to demonstrate strength of character and sensitivity to others, and I was given opportunities to do so in a setting that mattered, not as an extra-curricular activity meant to entertain. I learned to be patient and think about other’s needs even when it felt unnatural and awkward to do so.
As an adult, I am grateful that the school I attended believed in inclusion. The value of every human life and of a Jewish soul is seared into my consciousness simply because I attended an institution that valued every Jewish child. This lesson has shaped the way I parent and teach. It has made me more patient and empathetic.
It is no coincidence that when I look at my classmates and fellow alumnae, I encounter individuals who have a broad vision and sense of responsibility for the Jewish people. When we chat, there is still an idealism and a disdain for superficiality that I don’t always encounter in other communities.
Making a decision to be inclusive requires faith. With limited resources, why use scarce funds on a handful of students when so many could benefit? Why divide a teacher’s attention from those who will be the most successful? Yet isn’t a religious education a lesson in faith? I learned from being in an inclusive school that if we do what is right, we can have faith that G-d will provide the means. I learned from being in an inclusive school that our job is not to worry about outcomes and results but to do the right thing. The results are G-d’s domain, our job is to care about the person sitting next to us. This simple faith has served as an anchor that has made my life richer and safer in good times and bad.
The question should not be whether we will include those who need our assistance, it should be what are we losing when we do not.