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It surprised her because her church was “dynamic, open, and inclusive.” The church saw itself as a home for people of all races, religions and sexual orientations, and valued diversity, respect and compassion. But there did not seem to be a place there for both her and her little boy, unless she was supervising him.
Because she missed her connection to her faith community, this mother initiated a dialogue with her church on how it could truly include children with special needs. The church hired a child and family programming director who had experience working with children who have special needs, and he recruited and trained additional volunteer aides. Once the church leadership understood the true meaning of inclusion, its motto of “all children are welcome” became a reality.
In addition to making Sunday school a more appropriate experience for a child with special needs, the church service included moments for all children to participate. The congregation accepted that these moments would be chaotic and noisy. She summed up her journey as a work in progress that began with a deliberate conversation in which the church members addressed the question, “How will you rise to this need?”
Solutions to meeting the need abound. Like my friend’s church, it might take some thinking outside the box. As an educator and founding director of an inclusive, developmental preschool, I have some ideas. Perhaps a cross-age grouping class for children with special needs staffed by a special educator and volunteers would work. Perhaps some children could be included in regular classes with appropriate training and support. Perhaps a support group could be started for their parents, and then they could help design a program. Perhaps a service for families that includes children with special needs could be created. All of the above are possibilities worth looking into, at least.
Too often, these possibilities go unexplored. In our quest for a truly inclusive Jewish community, our family has asked for accommodations at several congregations, only to be told that, while they were open to the concept of my grandchild coming there, they had no real plan for the inclusion of her or our family as a whole.
Not one ever asked what they could do to make it a truly inclusive experience for us. Not one thought about how, as a family with a typically developing child as well, we were seeking a community that embraced our whole family, not just part of it. Not one understood that we longed to belong somewhere together.
Laurie Levy was founder and executive director of Warren W. Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Ill, She currently writes a blog, Still Advocating, for ChicagoNow.