SARA RUBINSTEIN, 33, wants people to assume that people with disabilities are competent. Currently in Columbia, she hails from Gaithersburg. She studied dance movement therapy at Drexel University, but eventually found her passion in helping people with disabilities.
Sara Rubinstein is director of Inclusion and Ability at the JCC Owings Mills, and helped change its name from the Special Needs Department as part of an initiative to welcome the wider community to participate in all activities.
How did you come to the Inclusion and Ability department, and what is its main function?
I actually came to the JCC after I finished a fall program in Israel. I worked at Children’s National Medical Center in DC before that, and then really wanted to work in a Jewish community with people with disabilities. I was fortunate to find a position with the JCC. We facilitate inclusion. [Ours is] currently the only Jewish day camp in the area for inclusion support for children with disabilities – this summer we had 39 campers. We also have a social program for adults in Park Heights.
What influenced you to choose this line of work?
I fell into it. I started working with people with disabilities in my junior year of college as a therapeutic counselor at a summer camp and fell in love with the people I met. When I studied dance therapy, I thought I would go into a psychiatric field, but I found myself really missing working with people with disabilities. It really is where I’m supposed to be.
What age group do you work with?
We work with children in preschool until generally eighth grade. We focus on families. We are happy to work with them in any programs we have. Say you have a child with a disability who really wants to try ballet or basketball; we will work with you to make that happen.
What do you find fulfilling about your job, and can you name a specific experience?
The people I meet. There’s a participant this year in our inclusion program who had more significant needs. I was watching his art camp’s showcase, and watching the campers do a dance number. Suddenly his inclusion counselor wheeled him out and he was participating in the dance number even though he was in a wheelchair. That was like, tears are just running.
What is the biggest struggle you face at work?
Having the capacity to have as many people in the programs as possible. We are limited by funding and staff. Our inclusion program fills every summer. It breaks my heart to tell a family we’ll put them on the waiting list.
What is the biggest misconception you find people have about children or people with disabilities?
People assume someone’s limits are going to be much more than their strengths. You want to, just with any other child, focus on what they can do, what they like to do, more so than what they can’t do. A kid may meet a kid with autism, may be fearful at first, but then they see that is just my friend who communicates in a different way.
What role does your Jewish identity play in your motivation or duties in this role?
I have a Jewish blessing I keep with me on a necklace I wear. Basically, it means to thank G-d for making people different. You say it when you see someone who may have a disability. Be thankful someone is different and we are not all the same.