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.
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.