Ontemporary Jewish Treatment of Disability

Contemporary Jewish Treatment of Disability

About 18 years ago, I was practicing as a neuropsychologist at Mass General Hospital, and was referred a young girl who was a student at a prominent Boston-area Jewish day school. The girl was Israeli-American, bilingual and from an observant home. She also had a fairly mild dyslexia, and some equally mild behavioral issues that no doubt resulted from her being a learning disabled student within a competitive academic environment.

After I conducted my evaluation, I made recommendations to the school which included some one-on-one tutoring and counseling. I even found a bilingual Israeli speech-pathology graduate student who was willing to come to the school to work with the girl for free! The school appreciated my efforts, but decided in the end that it could not properly service the student and told the parents that they should send her to public school where they had the resources to a?deal with her needs.a?

I was frankly shocked at the schools decision, as was the family who had other children attending that school at the same time. With no recourse, however, they had to abide by the schoolas decision and sent her to public school. I heard from the family periodically and know how hard it was for this girl to both transition to the public school, and also to deal with the significant emotional baggage that this a?rejectiona? on the part of the Jewish educational community represented. Thank God, she managed to rise above it. The happy ending of the story is that years later I learned that this girl grew up, and found her way back to the fold by herself becoming a Jewish educator.

Itas a nice ending to a not-so-nice story, and frankly it could have turned out quite differently. Disenfranchisement doesnat typically lead to later reattachment. Moreover, this story (at least the first part of it) was unfortunately more the rule than the exception in the Jewish world at the time and until rather recently. I am happy to say, though, that I think given the exact same fact pattern a even at the exact same institution a that girl would now be accepted and educated in the day school that evicted her less than twenty years ago.

So what has changed? Like most sociological changes, I think this one has come about due to a number of factors, many of which are unconnected. Here are some of them in no specific order.

Improvement in diagnostics. Our ability to diagnose neurocognitive impairments has greatly improved over the last couple of decades. We are now able to target much more directly the specifics difficulties that students are having in a range of areas such as reading.

Improvement in therapeutics. The diagnostic enhancements have also led to better remediation, allowing more students to access dual-curricula.

Rise in autism spectrum disorders. Not too long ago, autism was diagnosed in about 1/1000 cases. These numbers are now closer to 1/150, a huge increase that has affected the Jewish community in at least proportional numbers. Therefore, there are many more children in our synagogues and schools with some form of autism spectrum disorder, and it is our responsibility to help them learn and thrive Jewishly.

IDEA. Federal special education law underwent a major overhaul in 1990 with the advent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA. This act was reauthorized in 1997 and again in 2004. Its expectations for students with special needs within educational settings are far greater than had been previously the case. This law led to significant advancement in general understandings of disability and its relationship to education.

Overall sense of entitlement. Along with greater expectations in general education, IDEA and its ensuing paradigm shift led to a change of expectations within Jewish education. An emancipated parent body would no longer be content for their children to receive sub-par Jewish education, just as they no longer accepted mediocre general education.

Rising consciousness among Jewish professionals. Jewish synagogue professionals, including rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators have become far more aware of disability in classical sources and more importantly among their own congregants.

Changes in synagogue culture. Synagogues have become much less formal overall and more inclusive of a wider spectrum of participants. Those with special needs are just one group for whom this is true.

Involvement of central Jewish agencies. Local and national agencies, such as bureaus of Jewish education, federations, JESNA, CAJE and others have taken up the mantle of leadership in Jewish special education, offering support and resources to educators and synagogues. In addition, many cities now have dedicated organizations that foster Jewish special education across local settings, such as Gateways in Boston, Matan in New York, and the Council for Jewish with Special Needs in Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona.

Jewish camping and informal Jewish education. Programs such as the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah have paved the way for greater inclusion in informal Jewish educational settings for individuals with special needs.

Economics. Day schools in particular have needed to open up their schools to students with special needs in part because of economic realities, namely the need to increase their admission numbers in order to make their schools financially viable. This has led to a broadening of the profile of students whom they typically accept, including especially students with mild learning disabilities and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Training programs, research and publications. Programs such as ours at Hebrew College have begun to produce a new cadre of Jewish professional, namely the Jewish Special Educator. These programs, combined with research on best practices and increasing publications in the area of Jewish special education have contributed to a birth of a new field and an awareness that we must provide education for all Jewish students, regardless of cognitive, behavioral or physical needs.

Question: What factors do you think have led to greater expectations for Jewish students with special needs? What led you to an interest in this field? What do you think the future holds for this area?