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Lessons from the special needs community on responding to coronavirus

The general public is now dealing with many of the questions and worries we face every day. Here is what we have learned
People with special needs practice for the Passover seder. Source: Alei Siach

A crisis like the coronavirus pandemic inspires questions that many of us have never before asked ourselves. Should I take the risk of leaving my house today? Is it physically safe for me to be in this packed grocery store? What if the bus is too crowded? What if I start to feel lonely, stuck in my house all day?

While these issues are now being faced by many people in mainstream society for the first time, the special needs community in Israel has been navigating challenges around isolation, limited job opportunities, and accessibility to public spaces and public transportation for decades.

As the Director and Founder of a nonprofit organization serving people living with disabilities and their families, as well as the father of two children with special needs, I’d like to share three things that we can learn from the special needs community about responding to the coronavirus.

Attitude is everything

While we all have bad days, and it’s natural to feel discouraged when things are tough, maintaining an optimistic outlook is critical for getting through challenging periods. Nobody knows this better than people living with disabilities. Even after 30 years in the field, I am continually amazed by the resilience of the people that I serve. It’s also clear that a positive mindset directly correlates with positive outcomes. People who have a positive mindset are able to achieve more and reach their fullest potential, despite their challenges.

But when we talk about attitude, we need to think beyond our day-to-day lives or interactions with other people. Our attitude is something deeply personal and internal, and reflects the relationship we have with ourselves and our relationship with HaShem. In times of hardship, it is important to be grateful for what we do have. Take 6 seconds and reframe and just say thank you!

One Day At A Time

Accept that we are currently unable to continue living our lives in the manner we’ve become accustomed to. Just as the situation is constantly changing, our limits and abilities are not static, and people living with disabilities, especially those managing mobility issues, are acutely aware of this. One day, a person might be perfectly comfortable taking a long walk to the grocery store, shopping, waiting in line, and returning home uneventfully – the next day, the same person can have a day where physical activity is painful, and such an errand could prove to be a formidable challenge. Rather than wasting energy getting angry about the unfairness of the situation, people living with disabilities are compelled to understand that tomorrow is another day, bringing a different set of challenges and opportunities.

This situation compels us to change our collectively held illusion that we are in control. We may think that we can directly influence our parnassa and the X amount of hishtadlus that we put in will bring us Y amount of money. In reality, Hashem is showing us that we are dependent upon him for everything that we have. Now is the time to turn to him and to say thanks and recognize that. No need to make sweeping changes – just look inward, make that connection and have that thought at the forefront of your mind.

Reach out for support

Even if we are naturally independent people, we must remember to ask for help from others when we need it. Reaching out for support does not make us weak or flawed, and people living with disabilities and their families understand that we can’t do everything on our own. We need to feel that we are valued members of our communities, who deserve a helping hand when we need one. If you are struggling to cope, physically, emotionally, or mentally during this crisis, I strongly encourage you to reach out to your family, friends, and Rabbi.

As an ultra-Orthodox Rabbi and a human being who has worked for over three decades in the special needs sector, the biggest lesson I have learned is that “no man is an island.” All of Am Yisrael is inherently connected, and our continued survival depends on us working together. The Jewish people have faced every type of disaster and catastrophe throughout our history. We will survive this coronavirus pandemic, but it’s critical we remember that as Jews, we are all responsible for each other.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the Director and Founder of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.
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