By Sarah Javaherforoush
Recently I attended an inclusion training program hosted by Yachad, an international organization for Jewish people with disabilities. We discussed what the role of an advocate is and how we can rise to the challenge of being one. Not only did we learn all about leadership, we also learned about the necessary skills to be a leader who ensures inclusion of everyone in daily life (regardless of disabilities).
The training program had workshops that featured multiple exercises and activities to help Yachad volunteers connect and understand Yachad members. For example, one activity involved figuring out the challenges people with disabilities would face in different settings and then finding potential solutions.
In addition to the exercises, Yachad brought in a bunch of fascinating speakers. One, a young woman named Pam, had grown up with Tourette syndrome, a nervous system disorder where a person involuntarily loses control over specific muscles and makes unwanted sounds or noises. Pam described her disability and how she winks uncontrollably. Discussing her journey, she outlined how her disability has shaped who she is today.
One story in particular really struck a chord with me. Pam spoke about a time that her Tourette syndrome got so bad in the middle of a class that her teacher asked her to please step out, not knowing that Pam had a disability. Pam started to trudge out of the classroom, embarrassed, when suddenly her classmates informed the teacher, in unison, that if Pam left, they all would. No one had told her classmates that they had to stick up for her, yet they all did. That level of unity and inclusion really resonated and impressed me. I think that this is definitely what we should be doing: looking out and standing up for each and every member of our community.
Another phenomenal speaker was Akiva Frishman, an advocate for individuals with disabilities. He explained how every person can make a difference. Additionally, he spoke about how much each of our actions and advocacy efforts affect those who otherwise feel alone.
Personally, this whole experience inspired me with a new perspective on what it means to be a leader. I learned from Pam that having a disability is not something to be ashamed of. Pam is proud of her Tourette syndrome; it is who she is, but we as a community need to make sure we support and include everyone. I learned from Akiva that change is only possible if a group of individuals fights for it.
Every person can say, “I do not make a difference. I am just little me. Someone else will do it.” The truth is that everyone denies that they can make a difference and leaves the responsibility to someone else.
After attending the seminar, I started noticing the many parts to my day that would present a challenge to those with disabilities. For example, walking on an uneven, broken sidewalk is just an inconvenience for me, but for someone who has trouble walking or is in a wheelchair, the uneven sidewalk is not an inconvenience, but a deciding factor in whether or not to attempt an outing.
Another example I hadn’t thought about previously was loud music in stores. While the music may not bother me (in fact, I may even enjoy it), it can pose a serious difficulty to a person with a disability. Whether it’s a person with a hearing aid, or just someone highly sensitive to sounds and noises, it can greatly distress that individual and consequently exclude them from that space.
If I had to give advice to our community, I would say that the first step is to recognize these daily obstacles and understand that there are hidden challenges that you don’t notice. Another concrete step is to bring awareness to local officials about the difficulties in our community that pose problems for someone with a disability. Most importantly and most fundamental is simply to start with caring about inclusion.
Sarah Javaherforoush is a 10th grade student at Bnos Yisroel.