In 1987, President Ronald Reagan declared March as Developmental Disabilities Month. As a community we celebrate those with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our Orange County Jewish Community.
It can be understood that Judaism has always been enlightened when it comes to special needs; the Torah specifically prohibits “cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). However, society tainted the way many, including our own Jewish community, viewed those with special needs. Often the intellectually and developmentally disabled were institutionalized and subjected to neglect and barbaric treatments. Children were kept ostracized from other children in “special” classrooms, and the lifespan of a child with a developmental disability was substantially shorter than a typical child. Until the 1980s, we often failed to see the value and importance of caring for individuals with developmental disabilities. The answer was to shut them away—either in hospital rooms, “special” classrooms—or by disabling them further with psychosurgery and medication.
According to Reega Neutel, MSW, Coordinator, Special Needs Services at JFFS. “Taking care of [the] developmentally disabled in our society is a fundamental requirement in any community.” It is especially relevant to the Jewish community due to the concepts of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Tzedakah (charity), and Chesed (loving kindness). And it is especially relevant now. As our population grows so does today’s population of children and adults with learning disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Down syndrome. According to Neutel, recent research reports the average lifespan of a person with Down syndrome in the U.S. is approximately 60 years. That is an increase of 35 years since 1983. Autism Spectrum Disorder has increased 289.5%, ADHD 33% and developmental disabilities 17% in the last 15 years. This indicates that awareness and inclusion are key.
Look around the Orange County Jewish Community and inclusion appears to be at the forefront. Programs like Friendship Circle provide a wide range of programming for families and children with special needs; Jeremiah Society serves the needs of Jewish adults with special needs; and Mandel House is Orange County’s first Jewish residential home for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Under the direction of Dr. Lauren Gavshon, JFFS Interim CEO, Mandel House has become part of the solution to a shortage of housing and residential facilities for the growing population of adults with special needs.
In all of the Jewish programs supporting intellectual and developmental disabilities, dignity is part of the theme that runs through the Orange County Jewish community. Programming highlights the core values of dignity, respect and compassion for those served. We have come a long way from the days of shame, secrecy, and misguided therapies… But we still have a long way to go.
In honor of March, the Whiteboard at work asked the simple question: How can we include those with intellectual and developmental disabilities? My question back: How can we NOT? Α
Lisa Grajewski, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and adjunct Assistant Professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She has been a contributing writer for Jlife magazine since 2004.