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APRIL 2007

Inclusion for People with Disabilities

By Sybil Maimin

A much-needed conference on “Building a Culture of Inclusion for People with Disabilities,” recently held at UJA-Federation of New York,  offered strategies, goals, and personal experiences that clearly have universal applications. Noting the major commitment by the agency, senior vice president Louise Greilsheimer explained, “Inclusion is the responsibility and obligation of the entire community, not just caregivers.”

We live in a time of “diagnoses” and constantly changing definitions and terminologies.  Ignorance, stigma, and discrimination are widespread, and people with disabilities often lead unnecessarily lonely, sad, and misunderstood lives. Their abilities and talents go untapped. Featured at the conference were excerpts from a very moving film, “Praying with Lior,” starring a charming 12-year-old boy with Downs Syndrome who is surrounded by love and support. A young classmate accepts the boy’s presence, observing, “How we treat Lior is a test for us.” Filmmaker, Ilana Trachtman noted we rarely interact with any of the millions of people with disabilities. “Where are they,” she asked. “They are hidden, sort of undercover,” but increasingly, like Lior, their stories are coming out. Lior’s father and fervent advocate, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, stressed the need for a paradigm shift in attitudes and a recognition that inclusiveness can be enriching for all. “One who gives, gains,” he promised.   “We don’t like to be confronted with our own frailties and mortality. That’s why we put disabled people away.”

While there is clearly a need for more understanding of disabilities and inclusion, many fine programs that grapple with the issues are already in place. The conference was an opportunity to share best practices, identify challenges, and rally for expanded efforts. Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, who has two children with learning problems, decried a society so focused on success and achievement that “there is no room for those who are different.” She applauded her daughter’s special education school where she is “not a stranger in a strange land.” She is made to “feel good in everything” and her disabilities do not stand out. Lisa Ginsburg of Ramapo for Children, a residential summer program for children with social, emotional, and learning challenges, stressed the importance of highly trained staff with “back pockets full of skills.” Relationship building is key to impacting a child, she advised. Programs of inclusion do not start at the grass roots, emphasized Dr. Jed Luchow of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and a special education professor. They must be believed in and mandated from the top and implemented by staff below with the help of continuous training and support. He spoke of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act which moved the discussion from physical access (as required by a 1973 law) to Universal Design for Living (UDL), a set of principles and guidelines that gives a new definition to accessibility. The design of products, learning materials, and means of communication must accommodate diverse abilities and styles. The whole idea of inclusion is “universality,” he explained.

Typically, the disabled are “served, not heard,” said Marc Arje of the Hebrew Educational Society (HES) and its Special Needs Family Center. As increasingly diverse and demanding populations emerge, organizations are becoming more progressive and supportive of inclusion. Change is gradual as staff move from resistance to assistance and, instead of expelling those who act differently, try to find ways to help them. Bonnie Waring of the Sam Field Y in Queens explained its CAP Connects for families living with autism offers an array of services including Basketball Buddies, a mentoring program that has local high school players teach basketball to children with autism. One mentor exclaimed, “Never before have I wanted so much to see a ball go into the net….These children are incredible.” A sober note was offered by Rabbi Judy Cohen-Rosenberg of Federation Employment and Guidance Services (FEGS) and its Partners in Caring program: “It is hard to have a disability. Kids who are left behind are sad and overwhelmed. . . . It is difficult to struggle as a parent of a special needs child.” Lawrence Lieberman, a parent attending the conference, spoke of countless legal battles with the city to have special programs provided in public schools for his son, Eric, now 19, who has cerebral palsy. Lieberman is working to assure his new local community center accommodates the disabled. “Access is important,” he said, “But once inside the building, programming must also be accommodating. Universal Design principles ensure that equipment is usable by all.”

Conference attendees left reaffirmed in their convictions that people with disabilities should have the same rights as other members of society and should be seen and treated as “people,” not conditions or diseases. The challenge is transmitting this attitude to the general public.

On May 5, Education Update is hosting the first citywide Special Education Conference for teachers, administrators, and parents. Held at City College of New York on 137th Street and Convent Avenue, the conference will address autism, ADHD, and inclusion. For information email: ednews1@aol.com



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