“That Word”

Yoni and Gabi

Yoni and Gabi

I recently attended a birthday party for a friend. There were sixteen people at the party — I knew four of them — one’s a very close friend of mine. We were all sitting down to eat when somebody used the word retard.

Of course, I’d heard it, but seeing as the guests were mostly strangers to me, I decided to just move on, and let it go. I convinced myself that this person — this girl-who-used-the-word — didn’t know that she was misusing “that word,” that is, using it in a negative way. My close friend, knowing how I feel about people using “that word” (and I truly believe my friend didn’t mean any harm by it, and did not expect the girl-who-used-the-word to react as she did), jokingly said,

“Yoni, did you hear that?”

I tried to laugh it off instead of starting a debate on why we should or shouldn’t say “that word.”

Which did not happen.

Instead, the girl-who-used-the-word, turned around and asked me why “that word” bothered me?

In an attempt to avoid a major disagreement, I kindly explained that the word “retard” bothers me, and would she use another word. Like many people my age, (I’m 23), she thought that it would be amusing to keep using “that word” to get a rise out of me. I continued to explain that I personally don’t like getting into this kind of conversation with random people that I don’t know, let alone at a friend’s birthday party. Just as in previous situations I have been in, where I’ve heard people justifying the use of the word “retard,” the girl-who-used-the-word began sharing her thoughts;

“But I don’t mean anything bad by it,”

“It’s just a word,”

“It bothers you because you work in that field,”

The last one is what really hit home for me, and I was ready to burst but kept my cool. I wanted to say, “No, it bothers me because I have a sister who’s retarded,” just to see what her reaction would be, and what would be the next excuse she would have for using “that word.” Instead, I resisted, and (slightly more aggressively than before) explained that I have my own personal reasons for my reaction when people use “that word,” and could she please respect my decisions.

At this point, I realized I wasn’t going to change this girl-who-used-the-word’s mind, and that in the process had put myself into an agitated mood.

When I find myself in a situation like this, I like to use a technique that I practice when working with kids. The main point of the technique is to bring the conversation back to something to which both parties can relate — individually and together. I asked the girl-who-used-the-word to respect me as a person, and just use a different word. Just like when you ask someone on the bus not to put their feet on the seat. They might not think it’s a big deal, or see why it would bother someone, but usually out of respect for the other person they’ll take their feet down. People in any setting should be able to have safe conversations with each other — to learn and discuss topics that spur different opinions, and in this case, not put the other party guests in an uncomfortable situation.

I ended up leaving that party feeling very irritated. It wasn’t just because “that word” was used, but that I was put into a compromising position — either abandon my principles or come off as an opinionated person who went off on a rant, lecturing someone at a birthday party.

When I mention “that word,” I am not just talking about the word “retard,” or “retarded.” It’s about so much more than that.

Many of us, myself included (my mother can attest to that), take very little time to consider how our words can hurt someone — with or without our knowledge. Whether it be racially, anti-Semitic, sexist or just a mean word, we should all just take a second, and before we open our mouths, try to respect the people around us.  Like my mother always says, “think before you speak!”

Yoni is the Teen Leadership Coordinator for Shutaf. 

Shutaf: The Best Place To Be

In one room, four pre-teen girls closely followed the complicated sequence of Zumba steps their teacher, Lisa, was doing in time to the music.  In an adjacent room, a small group of children, aged 6-13, sat in a circle petting a variety of animals brought in by Aryeh, a staffer from Jerusalem’s Nature Museum who has worked at Shutaf for many years.  One boy finally worked up the courage to pet a rooster (more than I could do); another stoked the soft fur of a white a rabbit; and others carefully held guinea pigs, and other tame animals.  Downstairs in the gym, under the supervision of a gym teacher, two teams were engaged in a spirited obstacle course-type relay race involving running, balancing on a beam, and aiming a basketball into a net.  A preteen unable to run due to a back injury, participated by serving as the timekeeper with her Smartphone.  But, winning or losing didn’t really seem to matter; it was all about being in the best place to be for having fun, socializing, cooperating, and getting exercise.

Marci, the Program Director of Shutaf’s informal, inclusive education program had been giving me a tour of the inclusive afterschool activities held two afternoons a week at the Jerusalem YMCA.  It was important for me to see and appreciate first-hand one of the Shutaf programs in action.

Arranged by Skilled Volunteers for Israel, I was a volunteer from the U.S. for a month. Thus far, I had been spending my time working at the Shutaf office alongside Beth and Miriam, the organization’s founders; Marci and Yoni, a staff professional), with Elizabeth, the Director of Outreach and Education, and Rebecca, another volunteer from the U.S.

Meeting four days a week at the office, we collaborated on key issues: program planning, grant writing, and program assessment.  We clarified ideas about each program’s goals and objectives (for the after school program at the YMCA), camp programs (the week before Passover and for three weeks in the summer), and the different units specially designed for the teens.  For example, we documented what had occurred during a teen unit on going to a restaurant, and another on sex education.  We listed the ways in which these units resulted in a positive impact on the teen participants.  For the restaurant unit, we discussed how the teens succeeded in learning appropriate restaurant behavior, how to order, and what it meant to converse over a meal.  We worked on formulating and refining plans to share with current and future donors, to ensure that they would understand and financially support Shutaf’s many, valuable programs.

I have come to appreciate that no matter where you may be—at the YMCA, at camp, taking a field trip with the teens, or working at the office with extraordinary colleagues—Shutaf is the best place to be, not only for the program participants, but also for a volunteer.

Thank you, Shutaf!

Judith Zorfass, February 24, 2015

P.S. And the extra bonus for me was that it was the best place to be for the month of February—who cared about a Jerusalem snowstorm (we had much, much worse back home in Boston).

judyz (1)Dr. Judith Zorfass is currently a senior advisor to a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs and a supervisor of special education student teachers for Lesley University.  From 1986-2014, she directed over 25 federally-funded projects at the nationally-recognized organization, Education Development Center. Her work focused specifically on literacy development, special education, and technology implementation. She has conducted research studies, developed curriculum, created software, designed and conducted online courses and webinars, designed websites, and carried out professional development. In addition to authoring the book, Helping Middle School Students Become Active Researchers, she has written book chapters and journal articles. She frequently presented at national conferences.  Dr. Zorfass received her doctorate in reading and language development from the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.  She has been delighted to be visiting Israel from Boston for the month of February, volunteering at Shutaf in Jerusalem.


Distraught and Isolated

In the Western world we place great store by a person’s intelligence. We have the greatest respect for people who are ‘brilliant’. We can even feel more comfortable with someone with a disability if they have normal intelligence. Here in Israel you hear the term ’emotional intelligence’, referring to people who can connect with another person, any person, with surprising ease, way beyond the norm or capable of easily understanding nuances of a complex social situation.

vin in poolMy daughter, Adina, has incredible emotional intelligence, way beyond what you would think someone with cognitive challenges would be capable of. She knows when someone is ‘for’ or ‘against’ her – accepting her or being judgmental. She also knows, for example, that an aide in a special education school should be respectful of the students. In recent weeks the aide in her classroom has been making her life in school untenable. She calls Adina ‘annoying’ tells her to go ‘cry elsewhere’ or embarrasses her in front of the class. Is Adina super sensitive? Absolutely. Should this aide be allowed to continue to work with teens with special needs? I think you’d agree with me that if she hasn’t changed her behavior in several months then she should be fired. School administration doesn’t see it that way. They’d much prefer to have Adina adapt, the way the other kids manage with this staffer. In fact they will explain to me how Adina is probably misinterpreting the situations and the aide’s intentions.

But I’ve just told you that Adina has higher than average ’emotional intelligence’. You see Adina knows how inappropriate this aide’s behavior is. She knows she is deserving of respect. For Adina, these issues are black and white – which means that she can’t go to school while the aide is there because that feels unsafe and I think she also knows that the aide’s behavior is simply wrong.

In the past I would have picked up the fight to get the aide dismissed. By this time in my life I know exactly how that’s done. But I’m not choosing that path this time around. I think Adina is saying more than just I can’t stand this aide. I think she’s sick of school, sick of people wanting her to fit into their cubbyholes, sick of them trying to ‘fix’ her. I think she’s ready for more choice in her life. She’s ready for less pressure to conform.

But how do I make that possible for her? I have no idea. I thought she had four more years of a special education framework so I’m not quite up on what’s out there besides school. The little I’ve heard about doesn’t seem so exciting. She needs time to transition into adulthood. She’s not ready for a full time job for example. And meanwhile she’s at home.

Talk about feeling distraught and isolated…