According to the Jewish Family Service website, “People with special needs can often feel profoundly isolated and disenfranchised with regard to critical issues affecting their health, education, and well being…SNSS helps adults and families with special needs to navigate the incredibly complex social service, education, and health systems, and to be integrated into schools, synagogues, and places of employment.”
In 2003, the Special Needs Task Force was originated by LaRhea Steindler with a generous grant from Jewish Federation Orange County. One of the missions of the task force was to collect data from Jewish institutions county-wide to assess the accessibility of buildings, programs, services, education, inclusion, and outreach for Jewish individuals with disabilities. In the following year, this effort revealed that although parts of the Jewish community were accessible and inclusive, Orange County comparatively had a long way to go. The project led to the publication of a resource book about accessibility, counseling, and other services.
More recently, the Task Force, now called the Special Needs Commission, is collecting follow-up data to report progress over the last 5 years. Although data collection is still underway, it appears that more facilities have come on board. Some of the evolution includes: (1) the hiring of a special needs inclusion support staff member for a few synagogues; (2) the formation of parent support chaverim dedicated to family and parent assistance; (3) making Shabbat and Bar/Bat Mitzvah more accessible for individuals with sensory and other challenges.
One synagogue has gone to such great lengths to be inclusive that it has recently been awarded a very prestigious honor from the Regional Center of Orange County. When asked what the core driving force is that motivates these sites to be inclusive, the answers vary from a core belief that all belong and should have access to their community, or all should be able to come to the bimah and read from Torah. There is an overwhelming sense of embracing and respect for individuals with differing needs at certain locations, which appears to be setting the tone for the county as a whole.
Another critical mission of the Special Needs Commission was to create an off-shoot service. Recently, Jewish Family Service of Orange County announced the start of its Special Needs Support Services (SNSS). With the assistance of funding from two families and the Irvine Spectrum Rotary Club, Dr. Jan Weiner, has been hired as the program coordinator. Dr. Weiner, who is also a professor in the Department of Special Education at Cal State, Fullerton, has more than 35 years of experience in the field of disabilities with a special emphasis on best practice and inclusive programs for persons with autism spectrum disorder.
Weiner was also the project director of the Full Inclusion Preschool Project that resulted in 80 students with disabilities integrating into general education preschools throughout Orange County. The program serves a vast range of needs including: providing information regarding laws and legislation on families’ and consumers’ rights; authentic assessment; assessment, advisement, and or training on positive behavior support; advisement and training on evidence based best practice; universal design, accommodations; consultation and collaboration with schools and other community facilities to design inclusive opportunities; assistance with developing IEP/ITP/IFS goals and objectives; and referrals to additional resources.
Anita Kurtz chairs the JFS Special Needs Commission. Her committee of more than a dozen volunteers identifies the concerns of those with special needs and empowers the community to fill those gaps. Commission members also serve as a resource for the families of those with special needs. Since the Commission’s inception, Kurtz and fellow members have surveyed the community, developed a resource directory, held three educational community forums attracting more than 150 people, and worked with many Jewish and secular organizations to break down the barriers. Commission members are meeting with rabbis and congregations to further mobilize their message.
Talking points include: What have you done since the initial date were collected? What is the driving force for your special needs program? What were the barriers and how were they overcome? What are the next steps, goals, or objectives? What are the barriers to those? How can the SNSS help?
In some synagogues, there is support for the school-age population, while in others, there is support for the adult population. SNSS provides services for families with children with special needs, including: advocacy, on behalf of families, with the school district, medical providers, and insurers; assistance in the development of IEP/ITP/IFS goals and objectives; education of parents about their rights; help with the design of inclusive environments in school and other settings; and referrals to appropriate therapeutic, diagnostic, legal, and other specialists. SNSS can also provide direct behavior management training to parents with significant parenting challenges. In addition, the program assists adults by connecting them to resources to meet their basic needs, helping them to develop an employment and self-sufficiency plan, connecting them to legal and other professional services, and advocating on their behalf with employers, landlords, and others.
Currently, 80 individuals or families are being helped or supported by the new SNSS program since its inception in September. Needs and objectives currently range from searching for a neuro-pediatrician to do a diagnosis, to searching for financial support for a family, to assessment and attending an Individualized Education Planning meeting at a school district. Because this is a new program and the needs are vast and growing, the program has no bounds. Individuals from 0 through adulthood can be served. Weiner describes SNSS as a holistic program where there is a team approach to meeting all of the concerns of those with special needs.
“Family members of people with special needs can be affected financially and emotionally,” Weiner, who does not believe anybody should be segregated, explained. “Because of time constraints, parents sometimes require in-home support to meet all of their children’s needs adequately. They can fee; alone, overwhelmed, and frustrated.”
She concluded, “My job is to build bridges, create networks, connect people to people, and connect people to resources.”
For more information on the SNSS program, contact Dr. Jan Weiner at (949) 435-3460.