I am a college student in the Washington area and, throughout the years, have thought extensively about inclusion and disabilities. When I was 4, my family learned that I was on the autism spectrum; and I’ve attended a variety of special education programs, such as the Sulam program housed at the Torah School of Greater Washington and Berman Hebrew Academy. (I studied at the program housed at the Berman Hebrew Academy for high school, from 2008 to 2012.) I regularly advocate for the full inclusion of individuals who have special needs, often in the context of public speaking, at schools, synagogues and other locations.
Although there are many important lessons about inclusion, I will be focusing on three that are especially important.
My positive educational experiences, which continue in college, and advocacy have helped me to continue thinking about what the essence of inclusion is. Inclusion truly means that one treats all people in a way that is respectful and kind; it means that a person who has special needs is regarded as a person who, like other individuals, has unique gifts and talents in addition to experiencing certain difficulties. Those difficulties can require extra help, and many people, regardless of whether one has special needs, need extra assistance in different ways.
When feeling that people consistently encourage me, help me to address difficulties and even offer constructive criticism in a way that preserves my dignity and is respectful and kind, I do not feel judged. For instance, in high school, several friends who noticed that I struggled with reading Hebrew not only offered to help me improve my Hebrew reading skills, but did so with extraordinary kindness and sensitivity. I will always remember that as an important example of what true inclusion needs to be like.
Additionally, listening is an essential aspect of inclusion, and communicates that one is genuinely interested in others’ ideas and opinions. Conveying that interest and respect is a critical way of helping people to feel included. Furthermore, listening is a highly important way to help individuals to feel respected, regardless of whether one has special needs. In school, college and different jobs, supervisors, teachers, professors and peers have asked me to let them know any way in which they could offer extra help. It is clear how important it is to others to understand my thoughts and opinions. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate how meaningful that is.
Another important element of inclusion is helping one to find opportunities to continue developing his or her talents and gifts.
Because connections with others are increased, opportunities to use gifts and talents is an important way in which people can feel fully included. For example, in high school, I found delivering divrei Torah to be a wonderful experience, and the staff regularly looked for appropriate opportunities. Feedback from fellow students and from teachers is one of the most important examples of inclusion from my time at Sulam. A particularly special memory is in 2011, when as a senior, I studied Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and had an opportunity to make a siyum (an occasion to commemorate the completion of study). I will always appreciate the care with which the school community made it a memorable and wonderful occasion. Even though it is certainly very important to help all people to continue developing their talents and gifts, it is essential for individuals who have special needs.
Although continued improvement is always important, the Jewish community has made incredible progress regarding inclusion! Sulam and the connections nurtured through it is an example of that. Going forward, people must bear in mind that even though individuals who have special needs might at times need extra assistance, it is critical to do your very best to be inclusive of all individuals, regardless of whether one has special needs. That knowledge will be one of the biggest steps to continuing to achieve the goal of inclusion, and I look forward to continuing that advocacy.
Nathan Weissler, 24, lives in Chevy Chase.