By Rachel Gold
Each day I come to work and am greeted with loud giggles and a huge smile as Bella comes through the door, bursting with excitement to be at school. I work with Bella, who has a developmental disability, at the Early Childhood Center at JCC Chicago in partnership with Keshet as a paraprofessional so that she can grow and learn alongside her peers in an inclusive preschool setting. My job entails adapting the curriculum so that Bella can be an equal member of her classroom community while developing skills through socialization and increased opportunities for independence. All of these factors will allow Bella to reach her fullest potential. Throughout the day, she participates in circle time, eats lunch with her friends (one friend has begun saving a seat for Bella during snacks and meals), creates art projects, chooses toys to play with, and attends music and Shabbat. While Bella loves all of these activities, she has different needs that require adaptations so she can fully participate. For example, when we read books, she often sits on a vibrating pillow or I pat her back to provide extra sensory input, allowing her to remain attentive. When we do art, we use a “hand over hand” method so Bella better understands the purpose of the project. And, sometimes, if Bella just needs a break, you can find her laughing on the gym swing or slide. With these adaptations, Bella completes her daily schedule right alongside her friends.
Inclusion has had an immense impact on Bella in just five months. When we met, Bella stayed in my lap throughout the day and was only interested in playing with my keys. When she got bored, I would pin a shoelace on her shirt as a fidget “toy.” She did not walk or crawl, and she did not intentionally socialize with her peers. Fast forward to the present, and you’ll see a very different Bella. She is walking independently, she picks out toys to purposefully play with, she can entertain herself without me constantly at her side, she needs fewer breaks, and she has created relationships with her classmates and teachers who consistently encourage her and absolutely adore her. When Bella began to stand, her peers would yell “Yay, Bella!” and clap for her. When she started taking steps independently and was nervous, her friends would put their hands on her back and shout “Go Bella! Bella walk!” If Bella has a hard day, I often see a friend try to check on her and pat her back. We should all strive to be as selfless and compassionate as these two-year-olds.
Inclusion is mutually beneficial. Not only do people with disabilities gain independence and a sense of belonging, but their peers grow up with inclusion as an expected societal norm. At an early age, these naturally loving kids are socialized to accept differences rather than fear them. I have watched Bella’s peers seamlessly include her in the classroom and jump at the chance to help her when activities need adaptations. The other day, one of Bella’s friends brought over a toy truck and asked me if Bella would like to play with it. The kids also see me help Bella while she eats, and one of her classmates always asks if he can “help feed Bella.” Without being explicitly told, these kids understand that Bella does not communicate with the same words they use, and that I act as her advocate. Even when Bella expresses her emotions differently, they are accepting and naturally inclined to help. They have begun to learn that differences are not flaws, rather, our differences make us each unique. Exposure to inclusion and following the lead of positive role models has given these two-year-olds the ability to one day advocate for inclusion far beyond their preschool years as they become our future leaders and contributing society members.
After spending many summers working to support inclusive camp with Keshet and JCC Camp Chi, Rachel Gold is now Keshet paraprofessional. She will attend Georgetown University Law Center in Fall 2019, where she intends on pursuing a career in disability advocacy.
Keshet is internationally recognized for its leading-edge services for individuals with disabilities. From its local programming at over seventy sites in the Chicago area to its international consultations, the organization strives to meet its most important mission: To do whatever necessary to allow individuals with disabilities to achieve their potential.