I am a mother of three and a social worker by trade. Two of my kids are neurodiverse. The oldest, who is 11, has autism, ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing disorder and for the last eight years I have been working very hard to advocate on his behalf within the Jewish community. The road has been difficult, with lots of doors closing in my face, lots of missed social opportunities and friendships lost throughout the years.
Advocating for him is my second full time job and I find myself lucky to have the professional background I do, because it has given me the skills and knowledge to do this effectively (Hashem works in mysterious ways). I know how to advocate successfully, I know my rights, my children’s rights and I know what’s out there.
Many parents do not.
Throughout the years I have made many friends and connections with those who are in a similar boat to me and every time we talk the same issues come up around a well-rounded education, social inclusion, emotional difficulties, and religious struggles.
I am currently on parental leave where I can purely focus on my kids. My ‘antennae’ are up now more then when I am working, I have been networking a lot more, seeing more of the gaps in our community and the heartbreak of parents feeling let down by our community.
Conversations have been centred around struggles to keep children enrolled in mainstream schools, children being bullied and not having the support of their communities. They dream that their children will be able to attend youth groups, holiday programs and overnight camps. Conversations around accessibility for children who are in wheelchairs, how to keep children connected to Yiddishkeit, what to do about their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and most importantly how to educate the community, as a whole, about neurodiversity and disability inclusion.
Every conversation, whilst cathartic, was frustrating, made me angry and upset.
I went to a talk given by Rabbi Shay Schachter of New Jersey, whose primary work, aside from his congregation, is the Rabbi and spiritual leader of Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s international program for individuals with disabilities. Since the summer of 2017 he has served as the Rabbi of Camp Simcha, Chai Lifeline’s camp for children battling cancer and chronic illnesses.
He reminded me of the idea, that “it takes a village” to raise a child. He explained that in centuries passed when Jewish communities were set up around Europe Rabbanim directed that in Jewish community, there must be the capacity, and the social infrastructure, to provide for all children’s religious participation. Which included the education and financial support for families who were struggling. In this way, Jewish children were given the tools to make sure they could achieve their potential in life.
This really spoke to me. The concept is beautiful, wonderous.
We have a thriving community here in Melbourne with many Jewish day schools, shuls, community organisations, youth groups, charity organisations and disability programs.
Why then are families still struggling? Why are children who are differently abled still unable to attend programs, schools, and why do families still feel so isolated.
I decided to see if I could perhaps do something small to change things. I wanted to try and raise awareness about what is going on in the community for children with disabilities and what if anything could the community do to help.
I held a workshop this week for parents focussing on the social, educational, physical, emotional and religious well-being of our kids and what is needed.
Despite knowing my own world, what goes on, and what I wish could be achieved, the evening was full of surprises and a real eye opener. It was run like a fact-finding mission and was hugely successful.
One of the activities we did was to answer some simple questions, to try and paint a picture of our collective lives.
I won’t go into all the questions and answers but two really stood out to me;
On a scale of 1-10 how well do you think the community is meeting your child’s needs?
The answers were telling. The average response out of all 26 responses was 2.3/10. This just broke my heart.
The second question was;
In which area does your child thrive?
Responses included – sports, art, creativity, imagination, compassion, academics, social, maths, IT, science, logical thinking, nature, music, animals, cooking, history, philosophy, water sports, singing, dancing and kindness.
Why, with all of these areas of interest and expertise, are our children still feeling left out? Why are parents struggling so unbelievably?
In a few weeks I am holding a second evening, to share the results and findings of the workshop with community leadership including, Jewish day schools, community organisations and charities, Rabbi’s and disability specific organisations.
I am hoping to make some change, shift peoples thinking and make our community stronger.
If you are reading this, and are one of the above, please get in touch about attending this important event.
If you are a parent reading this and need support please reach out and I will do what I can, to be a listening ear or point you in the right direction.
It takes a village.