Most parents have a vision of the kind of person they would like to see their children become. Whatever that mental image is, something shared by all of us is the idea of kind, compassionate, caring individuals, ready to include a wide variety of people in their lives, accepting of all, whether differently abled or more “typical.”
The reality is, this rarely happens by itself. Even the best-natured children need the guidance of loving parents to develop an inclusive attitude in their lives. As parents, we can help our children reach this high level of humanity and, in fact, that is one of our primary responsibilities.
Think about what our children observe in our own behavior. Do we communicate respect for all people? When our children see us interact with anyone who is “different,” whether physically or cognitively, do they see genuine caring and consideration? Do we ever use the r-word when a driver cuts us off? We may not always remember that our children learn far more by watching who we are and what we do than hearing what we say.
Do our children see inclusion in our own lives? Are people with any type of disability a part of our Shabbat meals or our special occasions? When they observe that we include people with clear disabilities or even those who just don’t quite fit in, children absorb the lesson that each person is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of hashem. No lecture can get that same lesson to sink deeply into their hearts.
Over the years, The Associated has always placed a priority on the Baltimore Jewish population that has special needs, making inclusiveness an integral part of our community agenda. The Associated’s support and guidance for SHEMESH has made a crucial difference in the lives of hundreds of children. This commitment of The Associated encouraged me to accept the presidency of SHEMESH, since I knew we will always have their strong backing.
We have moved forward over the past few years in our appreciation for the challenges our differently abled brothers and sisters face; there is still a lot further to go. While we can’t change everyone’s perspective, and stereotypes and preconceived notions will always exist, we can guide our children to be aware and committed to a climate and a reality of inclusiveness.
When we accomplish that, we can rest in the knowledge that the next generation will take it for granted that every person counts, every person matters and “differentness” is just that: A different way of being a unique individual.
Jen Kaplan is president of SHEMESH, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore that provides educational support for Jewish children with learning