I want excellence. I want opportunities.

I’m the mother of a 17 1/2 year old girl with special needs. As I watch Adina’s peers without disabilities graduate from high school this month, going on to mechina or the army, my heart aches. What future awaits my daughter? She has another 3 years to go in the Israeli special education system. And then what?  Where are her Mechina programs, army options, college track?

vinnyAdina started out by being individually included in neighborhood preschools and elementary school until fourth grade, when she expressed that she was tired of always being “on the side”. We transferred her to special education – Tidhar – a wonderful school for children with severe learning disabilities, as well as emotional and behavioral issues in Jerusalem. She had three excellent years there. But since then, she hasn’t yet found a place that truly answers her emotional needs.

And yet, the bigger question is what happens after the school years? Adina loves to work with babies, horses and dogs – she’s a good worker. Where is the vocational school that will train her to do these jobs, truly believing her capable of hard work and giving her the emotional support she needs to succeed as well as the social framework that a young person craves? Where are the adult education frameworks, and college programs for young adults with special needs, like Adina? Don’t they also deserve to continue their formal education, just like everyone else? Where are the job opportunities for these capable young people?  They are part of our society, even if they think or move a bit slower than most of the rest of us.

For example, the Jerusalem municipality should have a certain number of places set aside for people with disabilities – cognitive and physical – in its city programs. Imagine if the municipality, when planning a complex of discounted studios for artists, set aside a studio or two for artists with special needs. Nobody wants or needs a “Festival Tsamid” – a separate municipal festival for people with disabilities – that just emphasizes difference. It’s condescending, wastes public funds that should be spent on quality services and ultimately and is of no interest to anyone in the broader society.

I want opportunities, excellent opportunities for my daughter. I want people to see and really understand what she CAN do and not only focus on her limitations. Stop separating and feeling sorry for the person with cognitive disabilities! Instead, stretch your mind and open your eyes to believe in that person’s abilities and her inherent right to be an integral part of society. That will benefit the person with cognitive disabilities and even more, will strengthen our society.

It’s time to think about finding a way to integrate people with cognitive disabilities into every walk of life, naturally.  Cafe Aroma does it on a national level. Why can’t the government? It’s not because of limited budgets, it’s because of limited thinking.

More must be done for kids with disabilities

Original article from the Israel Hayom Newsletter on Monday February 25, 2013. By Miriam Avraham and Beth Steinberg.

February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month, a time when Jews around the world come together publicly to raise awareness and support for people with disabilities and their families. In Israel as well as worldwide, families and children are isolated and marginalized by disability; in their synagogues, schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. Fear, inadequate education, as well as a lack of meaningful opportunities for integration, prevent understanding and connection between people, an effort which must begin in childhood.

For Israeli families coping with disability, February is an anxious month as the lengthy Passover vacation looms only a few weeks away. Parents are faced with an impossible situation — close to three weeks of school vacation, with limited or no programs available for kids with special needs who can’t be left alone at home to cope like their typically developing peers.

And it’s not just during Passover vacation that this issue complicates the lives of families. Children and teens with special needs are in need of quality informal education programs year-round, especially during longer school vacations.

Who gets needed services in this country? Children with more significant disabilities benefit from longer school days and shorter school vacations but there’s a whole population of children and teens with special needs, many of whom are educated in special education frameworks, who are considered less needy by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Welfare. This population often lacks traditional developmental labels to describe their needs — they receive fewer services and their school schedules are much like those of typically developing children. After school and camp programs meant for typical kids don’t work for this group, which requires a more structured environment and individualized attention.

The issue is further complicated by government funding resources that are determined per child and per disability, an approach that often precludes inclusion of any kind. It’s simply easier to keep kids segregated according to their disabilities — in school and in after-school programs. With this model in place, after school often consists of a class of kids who are bussed to a local community center, or provided with activities in the building where they spent most of their day, an approach that limits all children socially and developmentally.

The government’s approach to this population in need is short sighted and ultimately flawed. A planned and proper investment of time and resources, along with a thoughtful informal education response for these kids and teens would help ensure their future success as capable adults in the greater society.

It is time that the Israeli educational system recognize the need and value for quality, informal education programs, a goal that will serve everyone — children with special needs along with their typically developing peers. The vast majority of existing informal education programs in Israel for children are unprofessional, often staffed by teens with limited training and mentorship, with a high camper-to-staff ratio. As for programs for children with special needs, the educational approach is far from therapeutic; in fact, it’s not much more than babysitting. Sadly, a huge educational opportunity is being missed.

This is not just Israel’s problem. Today, every country worldwide is challenged by the question of how to best meet the needs of people with disabilities. It’s time that the government and the greater community remember to include those members with special needs, as well as to provide quality services that promote mutual respect and understanding between all people.

The Jewish approach to disabilities has always been compassionate, although not always enlightened, held back by the push for success especially in modern times. As Passover approaches, let’s recall that the Jewish people’s most important leader, Moses, had a speech impediment, a special need that he felt cowed by when accepting the yoke of leadership.

Diversity is the key to a healthy, strong and just society. Let’s all join together and make it happen today.

Giving, How to teach it in today’s world? Part I

Giving. It’s such a loaded term in today’s world. Give back. Give of yourself. Open up your pocketbook. Care for others. Pay it forward.

We live in a hard-driving, information-technology maelstrom; we’re supposed to live our lives online, maintain our friendships and data in the cloud but still have the skill to make it personal, pay it forward, reach out and touch someone.

If we’re blessed with comfort and means or even greater financial wealth, the impetus to give, to set an example is even stronger, especially if we have children and let’s not forget those tax advantages. No longer can we just make sure they have piano lessons and play a sport, we have to see to their ‘giving education.’

Last year, Shutaf took part in a great program at a pluralistic, Jewish day school in Brooklyn. Five charities were chosen and presented to an enthusiastic and young student body – K-8th grade. Over the course of the following 10-day period the kids focused on the notion of charity, choosing how to give and where to give, following that up with a daily choice of charity. At the end of the initiative, monies were divided with proceeds divided according to which charity received the most votes over all. Everyone received, everyone felt good.

And yet, I wondered at the message of the program which seemed too focused on the immediate and the daily voting for ‘my charity of choice.’ A parent of a then kindergardener that I know commented that her kid tended to vote on the fly, choosing whichever picture or image of one of the 5 charities spoke to him that day. Is that terrible? Maybe not, but was it meaningful and did it have a long lasting lesson to teach – even subliminally.

When I was in 3rd grade, I would bring 3 pennies to school every day. I was religious in my giving – no doubt because it also impressed my teacher, Mr Schiff, a seemingly ancient man – taking my daily allotment from the penny dish in our suburban, Long Island kitchen each morning. The amount had been determined with my parents approval who pointed out that 3 pennies was a generous amount (I liked the idea of a daily nickel) and that if I really remembered to give my 3 pennies every day, that those pennies would add up to the tidy, truly princely sum to my 8-year old mind of of $54.

And so, I gave. Daily and with pleasure. Without any thought to where the money would eventually end up. I never even thought about it. I was only eight after all. I even recall that at one point during the year, there was some sort of giving competition to encourage more givers but I stuck to my 3 pennies, pleased with my ritual, knowing that my giving would add up, refusing to be swayed by those who showed up with more impressive currencies, my parents reminding me of my goal whenever I expressed doubt – again, only about whether or not the amount seemed generous enough, never about what would happen with my gathered funds at the end of the school year.

As a parent, the amounts increased but when our children were smaller, they received an allowance that was divided in threes; $2.00 for charity, $2.00 for spending money and $2.00 for long-term savings. Both boys enjoyed accruing their funds over the course of the year, then choosing where their money went at various points; breast cancer research after a friend’s parent was diagnosed, the local synagogue fund during a capital campaign, to a friend who was recovering from a car accident. The pleasure in giving was a simple one; the message was straightforward and there was no sense of competition at all. It really wasn’t the point. We focused on the habit and ritual of giving and less on the amount and even less on the choice of charity.

Suddenly the stakes seem higher, perhaps because of social media and the ability to spread the word and show the love in a more global way. But, what gets lost in the message?

Tell me how you give and in what ways does it answer your needs.
Part II – Does competitive giving teach us how to give?