For the majority of my life this question didn’t really weigh on my mind or have any significant meaning to me or my family. Throughout my life I have met, known and worked with children and adults who have a disability but it was never personal. 9.5 years ago as I left the paediatrician office with my then cute 7 month innocent and gorgeous baby Mendy this question took on a whole new meaning and life. My precious Mendy, our 4th child, had just been diagnosed with a rare genetic syndrome called Angelman syndrome, a syndrome unknown to us and barely ever seen by our doctor Suddenly my world changed from the few words said by the doctor.
Inclusivity, disability, doctors, acceptance, non verbal, unconditional love, accessibility, worry, appointments, seizures, awareness, special needs, therapy , advocating are now not just abstract words to me and my family but things we live with every waking hour of our day.
You see, for our family and many others like us having an inclusive society isn’t just a wonderful initiative or something lovely but rather something we need and something that will be imperative to our son’s and family’s quality of life.
Ask yourself the following questions:
What does an inclusive society look like to me?
What role do I play in creating one?
Do I have an inclusive mindset towards my family, workmates and my community?
The great sage Rabbi Akiva was once asked by one of his students ‘please tell me the whole Torah while standing on one foot” to which Rabbi Akiva answered “ve’ahavta leracha Kamocha – love your fellow as you love yourself”
We as a society have an obligation to cater to the needs of everyone especially those who require extra assistance. NOT out of pity but with dignity, love, respect and because each individual matters and is an important part in the tapestry of the world. We are all created in the image of Gd.
The strength of a community is how it’s members look after their most vulnerable members.
I believe we have come a long way but we have a long road ahead. Together person by person we will and can make a difference. However our first and important step is our mindset.
Positive and crucial change happens when together as a community we say “we can”, “we will”.
Yes, our mindset must change , but our actions will speak louder than our attitudes and words.
The list of suggestions is endless, but here are a few suggestions which come from my personal experience of being a mother to our magical Mendy.
- Children and teenagers are watching us very closely, how we interact and behave towards people with disabilities, so be an example.
- Staring and pointing is very common, especially for children but that can be modified easily by encouraging the child to change the stare into a smile and the pointing into a wave. look into the person’s eyes, give a smile and one too to the parents or carer. One smile can go a long way.
- When inviting someone with a disability, call before and ask what is needed to make their stay as comfortable and as happy as possible.
- Read books and show videos featuring people with disabilities. This will normalise the differences and start the discussion.
- When meeting someone who has a disability and especially someone who is non-verbal, try not to talk in front of them in the 3rd person, but rather to them directly. They might not be able to answer you, but they definitely can feel and most times understand what is being said.
- Look around your school, shul, community centre and sporting team, are their venues accessible? Is there an appropriate ramp or way to get in, is there an accessible bathroom and is there room for someone who uses a wheelchair to have access to everything? Is there a quiet/calm space for people who get overwhelmed?
- Our words matter – choose them wisely. If unsure what people want to be called or identified as, ask them. Don’t assume. No two people are the same. Respect each person’s choice.
- Show love and care to the individual and their families – not out of pity or feeling sorry for them but out of love and because they deserve it just like every person in this world.
- We are fortunate today we have many organisations that cater to people with disabilities, which give plenty of opportunities for teenagers and young adults to volunteer their time and learn and make a difference to someone’s life. Support organizations or work places that employ or support people with special needs.
- Educate, read, listen and learn. I can’t stress this enough. We as a community and each of us independently needs to be constantly learning and most importantly listening to what are the needs of the people in our community. Conditions and attitudes change and evolve so we must keep the discussions open and relevant.
Please remember, not all disabilities are the same: some are visible, some are not. Some need high levels of care, some do not. Some are physical, some are cognitive, and some are emotional. Some people like to share, others prefer their privacy.
So do I believe an inclusive society is attainable? Yes, I do but there’s a lot more work to be done.
What are YOU going to do to make it happen?