How a Disability Awareness Program Impacts our Community

2014-11-07 m bentley low res-001By Sharon Goldstein

Over the last three years, Gateways has partnered with Understanding Our Differences© to bring their disability awareness program to the Jewish day schools in Boston. The program is a series of units that aim to raise awareness of various disabilities to students in grades 3-5 and to understand what Judaism says about treating others. The program involves an educational piece, an opportunity to try and experience what it feels like to have a certain disability and an opportunity to hear one person’ s experience living with that disability. Gateways received funding from the Ruderman Family Foundation for the program.

Understanding Our Differences began in the Newton public schools; currently it is also used in schools systems across Massachusetts. We were excited to incorporate it into our programming because it aligns with Gateways’ mission and with the Jewish value of teaching every child according to his way (adapted from Proverbs, Mishlei, 22:6) We took the existing program and added a Jewish perspective by including Jewish texts, biblical characters with disabilities and Jewish values into each unit.

The program was so appealing to us because it involves the whole community. Not only do we work with teachers and students at each school, but we also bring in parent volunteers, who are trained and then help facilitate groups. We have gotten positive feedback from parents who participated, who talk about what an incredible experience it was to hear the questions that the students asked the speakers and see lightbulbs going off in their heads. “Did you get bullied in your school for your disability?” asked one of the students.

All the speakers that come to the day schools are Jewish. Some have spoken about their disability for years, while for others, it was the first time. We’ve have been blown away by how powerful the experience has been for the speakers. Some of our speakers include a 7th grade student who is hard of hearing, a marathon runner who is blind, a lawyer who has cerebral palsy and a rabbi who is deaf. One of our speakers shared that “The best way to be a friend to someone with a disability is to just be their friend – regardless of the disability.”

Most importantly, while each unit is only 2 hours, it has a lasting impact on the students. I hear from parents and teachers that the students continue to talk about it, ask questions and make connections to what they are learning/reading in school. I had a parent reach out to me recently who shared that her daughter came home from school “with so much to say about the program and so many thoughts to share…she retold the speaker’s entire story and asked interesting questions. She had so much to say over dinner, she barely wanted to eat!” That is what I call a ringing endorsement!

Sharon Goldstein is Director of Day School Programs, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.