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How Do We Teach Our Children to Be Accepting of Disabilities?

It's not difficult to teach our children to be accepting of disabilities. But as Jewish parents, why should we?

Jewish values shape our character, guide our actions and inform how we interact with others. Values such as chesed (kindness), hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger), and b'tzelem elohim (being created in the image of God) can be naturally and purposefully woven into our everyday lives. Sometimes we do this well, such as explaining that our donations to the local food bank are tzedakah (charity) or that it is a mitzvah (good deed) to light candles on Shabbat. Other times, however, we miss the opportunity to acknowledge the Jewishness of a simple act, such as referring to visiting a sick relative as bikkur cholim (caring for the sick) or explaining to our children that holding the door for a friend demonstrates kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another).

From Leviticus we learn, "Do not insult a person who is deaf or put a stumbling block in front of someone who is blind." At face value, this seems so logical; some might even argue obvious. Who among us would intentionally place a physical barrier in front of a person who is blind? Yet we do this all the time. We teach children to be unwelcoming, wary or even fearful of people with disabilities, sometimes without even realizing it. Children learn through imitation, and as they grow older, they form habits and opinions by repeating what they see and hear. It is essential for each of us to be mindful of our words and actions.

When an adult walks past someone in a wheelchair, turning his head to the side to avoid making eye contact, the child next to him learns to avoid interactions with people in wheelchairs.

When a woman without a disability parks in the handicapped spot in a parking lot, she is teaching the children in her car that the needs of those who truly require such spots are insignificant.

When a woman deliberately avoids the checkout line at the grocery store that has a clerk or a bagger with disabilities, she teaches the children with her that this person's work means less than someone else's.

When a parent tells a teacher, in earshot of his own child, that he doesn't want his son in class with "that" child, he teaches his son that children with disabilities are less worthy of an education.

Robert Fulghum once said, "Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you." With those words in minds, consider the following alternatives to the scenarios described above.

What if an adult looked the man using a wheelchair in the eye and said "good morning"?

What if a woman explained to the children in her car that the reason they have to walk a little farther this morning is because certain parking spots are saved for people who have trouble walking–and that fair isn't always equal?

What if a woman deliberately chose a line at the grocery store for the clerk with a disability and once outside the store, quietly explained to her children that their family continues to shop at this very store because of its inclusive employment policies?

What if a parent told a teacher, in earshot of his son, that his son has already mastered the math lesson and would be happy to help another child in the class catch up?

Lead by example. Be the person you hope your children will become. Teach your children that a wheelchair is just a ride. Demonstrate the value of treating others with kindness . Discuss the significance of choosing your words carefully and standing up for equality and the rights of others. Our Jewish faith commands it of us, and our children will be the better for it.

How about: This is what it means to weave the values of our faith to enable each of us, and our children, to live a Jewish life in word and deed.

Lisa Friedman is the education co-director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey, where she oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. Lisa also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training. She blogs at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block.