My grandchild with special needs failed Sunday school. Actually, to be accurate, Sunday school failed her. Because the teacher had no idea how to include her in the class, even after her mother shared some ideas, she spent most of her time coloring with a teen volunteer.
She was “welcome,” but only in the sense that she could physically be present as long as she didn’t disrupt too much. Needless to say, not much religious learning happened for her in that class. In fact, the only positive Jewish experience for her that year was the Purim carnival where she was able to participate in the happy chaos like any other child.
As her grandparent, I often wonder how families of children with special needs can find a place in our religious communities. Does the importance of formal prayer and following religious customs precisely trump the importance of making our religious institutions truly accessible? They shouldn’t. And yet sadly, in too many instances, it appears they do.
I do understand that religious communities have members with a wide variety of needs that should be respected. Like crying babies, children who make noises, talk out of turn, or can’t sit still disrupt those who come to traditional services for prayer and contemplation. But what about programming specifically designed for children?
I met with a Reform rabbi to ask her why she thought there were so few children with visible special needs in shul. She shared with me that most synagogues would say, “All are welcome,” and mean it with good intentions. But she went on to say that many synagogues did not have a deep understanding of what it would take to make their congregations truly welcoming to the LGBT, interracial, interfaith and special needs communities, though they wished they knew how.
All religious institutions struggle with this issue. A friend with a child on the autistic spectrum had been active in her liberal Baptist church until she felt compelled to stop going because the Sunday school was unable to meet his needs. When she was asked to be in the class with him, preventing her from attending adult services with her husband, she decided to leave the church.