by Beth Land Hecht, LCSW-C
February is national Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month. The mission is to unite Jewish communities and organizations for the purpose of raising awareness and supporting meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Jewish life.
According to the National Organization on Disability, 54 million Americans have a significant disability… that’s one in five Americans. In 2010, the Baltimore Jewish Community Study revealed that more than 6,000 Jewish households had at least one person with a disability, be it physical, developmental, or a learning disability.
My family and I make up one of those households. Our 25 year old son Daniel is positive, polite, caring, helpful in every way that he can be, and he has special needs. We are so blessed to have Daniel is our lives. We are also blessed with wonderful daughters and a mother who would move the world and does for Dan and for us. Our extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins is an incredible support network.
Support of family and friends is what every parent needs. But it’s sometimes hard for people to know what families of special needs children are going through. Shelly Christensen is one of the leading authors and speakers on inclusion of people with disabilities. She’s also one of the founders of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.
Shelly has written about being the parent of an adult child with disabilities and how her life differs from those of her peers. I would like to share some of her comments to help you understand some of what we as parents are experiencing.
“Time simply ticks by and before you know it, your child isn’t 18 anymore. They are in their late twenties or early thirties and you are starting to panic. You stay awake at night asking yourself, ‘What is going to happen to my child when I no longer can care for them? Will they miss a window of opportunity to find a job that pays a living wage? What happens after they graduate from a community college, technical school, or 4-year university? Is someone preparing them for a life outside of academia or their day program? How will they get groceries? Who will be their friends? Will they ever have an ordinary life?’
“We’ve been their dependable ally for so many years. Many of my Baby Boomer peers who have children with autism or Down syndrome or learning disabilities or mental illness know is that the road to living independently has many more challenges for our children than for our neurotypical children.”
Fortunately, times are changing for our children as well as for us, and we are seeing this right here in the Baltimore Jewish Community.
According to Christensen, “There is a sea change afloat as Jewish communities become aware of the number of children and adults who will need support in order to live as independently as they are able. Every February for the past five years Jewish Disability Awareness Month is held in Jewish communities across North America. The result of programs, events, services, virtual book clubs and webinars is that communities are much more aware that parents need a supportive community to assist them in developing meaningful lives with these young Jewish adults.”
“There is a sacred responsibility that our Jewish communities must honor. Caring for all people with disabilities in the Jewish community is not just up to the family members. It is up to all of us.”
The Baltimore Jewish community has good resources for people with disabilities. Most recently, The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore launched through its Disabilities Task Force the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance (BJAA) at the JCC, an in-person and online network linking individuals with disabilities and their families to resources and to one another for personal support. In addition to support services, information and referral, and innovative programming, the BJAA has launched a Parent to Parent Network, matching parents of children with disabilities for guidance and support.
In addition to BJAA, the JCC offers year round recreational activities for children and adults, summer camp and other social experiences in a variety of settings, including an inclusion camp at Camp Milldale.
Jewish Community Services offers counseling, case management, alternative living units (homes), employment training and placement, and information and referral to assist individuals with meeting basic needs and living independently. This month JCS and the JCC are hosting a free parent discussion series for parents and siblings of children with special needs, Through My Eyes: Reflections on Having a Sibling With Special Needs.
CHAI – Comprehensive Housing and Assistance Inc., also provides housing and support such as home repair and modification to assist with living independently.
The Center for Jewish Education provides Advocacy to individuals with special needs and support for their families, enabling individuals with disabilities to participate in Jewish life to the fullest extent possible regardless of intellectual, emotional, physical and learning differences.
Shemesh, provides, on a community-wide basis, the educational support necessary for Jewish children with learning differences to reach their full intellectual, academic, emotional and social potential in a Jewish setting, by providing support to students in Jewish schools in inclusive settings.
And those looking for Jewish education and inclusion can check out the BINAH class at Beth Israel.
Some final thoughts from Christensen. “Just as our communities have provided support to older adults they are realizing that living a Jewish life and having a Jewish home of one’s own is an expectation and not just a dream. This is one of the most persistent dreams that we share for individuals and families living with disability.”
For my husband and I, this is certainly our dream as Daniel’s parents. Everyone can have a role of making that dream of living a Jewish life and having a job, friends, and a Jewish home of his own a reality for Daniel and our family and for other families such as ours.
By Beth Land Hecht, LCSW-C, JCS Senior Manager, Volunteer Services
Questions about parenting? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on parenting click here or call 410-466-9200.
Christensen, Shelly. Synagogue Inclusion: Do Not Separate Yourself From the Community, Jewish Funders Network.
Christensen, Shelly. Baby Boomers, Children and Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Jewish Sacred Aging.
Join us Sunday, February 23 from 10am – 12pm for Through My Eyes: Reflections on Having a Sibling With Special Needs, a joint program with Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, where parents and siblings will have a rare opportunity to hear a candid account from Stacy Israel, Director of Special Needs Services, JCC, who grew up with siblings of varying abilities. For information and registration, click here.