Two annual events in the Jewish community took place this week — the North American Jewish Day School Conference and the start of Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month. Perhaps not coincidentally, despite the fact that the Day School conference is the largest in history with more than 1,000 educators and supporters gathering in Washington, it does not offer a session on educating and respecting children with disabilities.
So here’s the dirty secret of the Jewish community. While Jews have been at the forefront of civil rights for African Americans, gays, women and immigrants, Jewish Day schools barely do more than “talk the talk” when it comes to including children with disabilities.
If you have a child with a disability who wants a Jewish education, it’s hard to get them accepted and supported. Many parents will find that if their kids are slightly outside the mold of the “cookie cutter kids” that are smoothly on their way to excellent universities and successful careers, that their child might, just might get accepted. If they are lucky, there will be some special support for them child in the early years of school. But if their child’s learning, physical or other differences become too inconvenient eventually they will be called to the school so they can “counsel out” your child.
They will be told ever-so-nicely how sorry they are that they can’t accommodate this child. They might even give you a free lecture about how grateful you should be (as your child is being dismissed) that the school previously offered your child a time slot for the public school speech therapist to come in or tutor. After all, none of that was offered at Jewish day schools decades ago.
As if that could make you and your child feel better and get the education you wanted. Additionally, parents will find that if their child has “behaviors” or mental health issues, certain physical disabilities, seizures, or a lack of “normative” social skills due to Autism Spectrum Disorder, their child simply won’t ever be accepted to many of the Jewish day schools.
Worse yet, the school will accept the child briefly, until they discover that they have not put the proper supports in place. Then something bad will happen like an “unexpected behavior” and the child will be unceremoniously thrown out. The parent might be offered a discussion on the importance of making schools “safe and successful” for the other children who don’t have disabilities.
The parent will feel the full sting of rejection for their child. The combination of hypocrisy, humiliation and hurt may mean that the Jewish community loses this child and family forever.
This isn’t an isolated problem. Approximately 200,000 Jewish children in America have some sort of disability. Given that there is a link between the age of a father and Autism – and that Jews wait longer than most other group in America to have children – this is a growing challenge.