When it comes to supporting inclusion, the Jewish community has a strong track record. But there’s still much more to be done
Judaism prides itself on helping the needy, the disadvantaged and the stranger. Simply put, there’s a basic obligation to help those who are in need of assistance, not because they’re outsiders, but because it’s what God expects of us. It doesn’t matter how we accomplish this essential task – whether it’s by befriending someone who may be isolated, or by helping a person move up in life – the expectation is that all of us are human beings, and therefore deserving of validation.
The Jewish imperative to help the disadvantaged is something that has always struck me on a personal level. I have both Asperger’s syndrome and Tourette’s syndrome. The former was diagnosed when I was in Grade 5, though I’d known I was different for many years before that. The latter I suspected I’ve had since middle school, although it wasn’t confirmed until many years later.
Needless to say, growing up was difficult for me. I often found myself struggling to understand basic concepts like math, colours, social cues and simple patterns that everyone else took for granted. I look back on it now and laugh, but when you’re a young kid, you find it more tedious than humorous. Which is why I’m so relieved that I had such strong support to keep me growing.
An old African proverb states that “it takes a village to raise a child.” In my life, I have found that axiom to be literal and figurative at the same time. On one hand, my family, particularly my mom, was incredibly accommodating and adaptable to my unique situation. If I wasn’t progressing efficiently in school, my parents would teach me at home after school hours were over. If I wasn’t developing social skills efficiently, they’d send me to a specialist for hands-on training. If I, essentially, felt like I was useless, they were there to remind me that I wasn’t.
What also helped me was the strong, communal supports offered by the Jewish community – one-on-one remediation, shul activities and social outlets like Yachad, an organization that champions the inclusion of all Jewish individuals with disabilities in the full spectrum of Jewish life.
These days, social interaction isn’t as hard for me as it was when I was younger. That doesn’t mean I don’t still get my foot caught in the door on a regular basis, because I do. It’s just not as difficult to correct. Still, there are definite areas of improvement that I could benefit greatly from, and I’m always grateful to the Jewish community for helping me out along the way.
Which brings me to something that I feel needs to be addressed more: helping individuals with disabilities. I’m not talking serious disabilities, because that’s a given, but rather those people in our community with more invisible disabilities, who may need some assistance managing within society. Judaism preaches heavily about the need to help anyone who’s disadvantaged, regardless of whether or not it’s obvious at the outset. I see a great deal of support when it comes to helping extreme cases. But meanwhile, those with more moderate needs aren’t really attended to, and I think that’s a shame.
So let’s focus on continued integration. How can we ensure individuals like myself transition into adulthood like their peers? What are some ways for the Jewish community to invite higher-functioning individuals with special needs into larger social networks, the workforce or the dating sphere?
God made everyone in His image, and individuals with disabilities are human beings, too. The sooner we can collectively acknowledge and appreciate that they need a little guidance, the more likely it is that they’ll become active participants in Jewish communities and, ultimately, society as a whole. Because, while it might take a village to raise a child, I think it takes a supportive, Jewish community to raise someone like me.
Zachary Perlmutter i s graduate of the Jewish day school system in Toronto. He has an honours B.A. from York university with a double major in English and Jewish studies.