Are You Sure? A Response to "I Couldn’t Find a ‘Back to School’ Ad That Included Kids With Disabilities… So I Made My Own"

There’s an article from The Mighty circulating the internet called “I Couldn’t Find a ‘Back to School’ Ad That Included Kids With Disabilities… So I Made My Own” Maybe you’ve read it, or maybe you’ve already shared it.

It’s a well written article in which the author expresses her frustration about the lack of disability representation in online back-to-school ads, so she creates her own. And I agree. Disabilities are absolutely under-represented in all forms of advertising.

But here’s where I got stuck: This author assumed (you know what they say about assuming…) that all disabilities are visible. In looking for a “child who looked like her daughter” she may well have overlooked children with Dyslexia, ADHD, social issues, anxiety or other psychological issues, those with mental illnesses and many others. Is it accurate to say that each child in each ad she shared in her post doesn’t have some form of a disability? Can she really assert; “Not one model in close to 50 ads included one child with a disability. Not one.”? I will graciously stand corrected if she did the research and verified that each child is typically developing. But I am very uncomfortable with the assumption.

People with disabilities and their families do not want assumptions made about them. None of us do. But this article made assumptions FOR them. Is that any better? I realize that some may argue that this is a bit of semantics, but hear me out. If we are truly invested in creating a more inclusive society, then the rules have to be consistent; for everyone. If it is unfair to make assumptions about a person’s needs or abilities without getting to know him/her, then it is unfair to assume that every child or person we see in an advertisement is neurotypical. The truth is that not all disabilities are visible. Period.

I agree wholeheartedly that we need greater diversity in advertising, specifically where disabilities are concerned. I'm just not confident in her assumption that every single child in every single “regular” ad she found didn't have a disability.


Finding An Inclusive Community - URJ 6 Points Sci Tech Academy

I have the pleasure of spending a few weeks each summer at Jewish summer camp. There are a lot of reasons why, as a Jewish Educator, I do this. I go to support the students from my congregation. I love being in this space with them, sharing in the joy and magic that can only happen at camp. I also go so that when I promote our camps to our families, I can describe the experience and answer questions in an authentic, “I saw it firsthand” way. I also go because at camp we can find experiential learning at its best, and I seek out innovation to bring back to our school and community. And I go so that I can help to mentor the young adults serving on staff in what it means to be Jewish role models as they strive to find their footing on their own Jewish journeys. 

Last week I had the good fortune of serving as a part of the pioneer faculty for the URJ 6 Points Sci Tech Academy. I’m not quite sure where to begin in describing all of the significant moments that I observed and experienced, so if you have not been following their inaugural season on the blog, I urge you to catch up!

At Sci Tech they have so seamlessly blended science and technology with living Jewishly. Here, campers are deeply exploring, creating and discovering while experiencing the true magic of Jewish camp. It is a specialty camp like no other and I have no doubt that many of these children would not have otherwise had a Jewish summer experience. Point in case, on Shabbat morning I taught two of the youngest campers how we honor the Torah during hakafah (Torah procession) as they had never participated in a Torah service before.

And, as is my nature, I enter into experiential learning spaces with an eye toward inclusion. From the moment that I arrived at Sci Tech it was clear to me that it was an inclusive space, attracting campers with a wide range of intellectual, emotional and social abilities. The staff was prepared to welcome campers of all abilities, and the appropriate support was in place to enable every camper to find success. 

It is this support which impressed me the most. It is a part of the fabric of Sci Tech. Inclusion is not an after-thought or a band-aid stuck on problems after they arise. Rather, this is a community built with intentionality and the foresight to anticipate the many needs and complexities of a wonderfully diverse population.

When I had the honor of offering the dvar Torah on Shabbat morning, it is this support that I chose to make the focus of my teaching. Here is a part of what I shared with the Sci Tech community:

"This Shabbat we read from D’varim, the first chapter of the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. D'varim means words. In this portion Moses begins his farewell address to the Israelites. In it he recounts all of the struggles they have had over their forty years in the desert as a reminder of what NOT to do in the future.

But here is what is really interesting. When God addressed Moses for the very first time at the Burning Bush, sending him on his life's mission to liberate the Israelite slaves, Moses resisted, saying, Lo ish d'varim anochi . . . , “I have never been a man of words…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

And yet now, at the end of his life, we have a whole portion dedicated to a powerful and memorable speech that Moses will give. He has become a man of words; he has become a master storyteller.

How can that happen? Moses’ speech impediment was so severe that it paralyzed him with fear. It’s not just that he didn’t want to heed God’s call. It is that he genuinely and wholeheartedly believed that he could not. And yet, we know that Moses goes on to do exactly what God has asked of him. What made it possible for Moses to overcome his insecurities and limitations and gain the confidence he needed to face this challenge?

Quite simply, it is because he had the right support. God wouldn’t take no for an answer and gave Moses what he needed to be successful. Aaron, Moses’ brother, became his aide and was designated to speak on Moses’ behalf when he could not. I believe that the comfort of knowing that Aaron was there for support was enough to enable Moses to rise to the challenge, discover his own gifts and shine.

Being here this week has shown me that you have a camp full of Aarons. Your counselors and this incredible staff support you and enable you to be the best you that each of you can be. I will go further and say that you give this support to one another, too. Truly, this camp, this amazing Sci Tech community is Aaron. It is a place where you can be you; where you have the support you need to find the gifts that were there all along while you discover some new ones along the way.

Thank you for welcoming me in to this holy community and for letting me share this time with you. May you continue to support one another as Aaron supported Moses while you learn, grow and discover. Shabbat Shalom."


 Another version of this post can be found on the Sci Tech blog.

Our Children Aren't Broken - Thoughts On How Society Treats Disability

Do you know Jonathan Mooney? You need to. He’s awesome. This past Spring I heard him speak and I’ve recently finished reading his book, “The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal”. I was immediately drawn in by his deliberate use of the proverbial short bus. Instantly recognizable and virtually impossible to overcome as a stereotype, the “short bus” brings with it society’s negative constructs around special education and the derogatory slurs frequently assigned to children who have disabilities. Whether you are as immersed in the world of inclusion as I am or not, this is a book of outstanding depth and profound insights.

I was most taken by chapter twelve, a chapter which focuses on Katie, a young woman with Down syndrome. As a part of his quest to understand “normal”, Mooney explores Katie’s desire to live an ordinary life, yet worries aloud that this may not be possible in America. In conversation with Katie’s mother, Mooney learns of her fear that Katie will always be poor as she “does not accept SSI or any other aid from the federal government…If Katie accepted SSI, she could earn no more than seventy dollars a month from a job; if she made more than that amount, she would lose SSI money. To remain eligible for Medicare in Ohio, Katie could accumulate no more than a thousand dollars’ worth of assets. So Katie can’t even own a cheap, used car. [Her family] had been told not to include Katie in their will, because this “wealth” would threaten her future ability to get SSI and Medicaid.” I believe that this resonated so deeply for me due to the time I spent earlier this year in Washington DC lobbying on behalf of the ABLE Act as a part of Jewish Disability Advocacy Day. There are similar stories to Katie’s all over our country.

Further, as an advocate for inclusive education, I found it frustrating that “Katie’s space in the community college, one of her best outlets for socialization, was also evaporating. Because of a complicated legal loophole, she is not eligible to receive special accommodations in her classes without identifying herself as a student with a disability. But if she self-identifies as a student with Down syndrome, she will be considered ineligible for financial aid and accommodations because, based on an assumption of her “low IQ” she would be considered to have no “abilities to benefit” from higher education.”

And so, given all of this, Mooney earnestly asks Katie’s mother, “How do we help Katie?” By way of reply, she simply laughs. “I understand where that question comes from – I used to ask myself the same question. How can I help or fix Katie? But Katie isn’t the one who needs to be fixed.”

And there it is. There is the profound truth. When we spend our lives trying to “fix” our children and our students; no matter how pure our intentions, we perpetuate a societal concept of “normal” that views disability as broken. It is deep in our cultural consciousness to view Katie and other people with disabilities through the lens of what is wrong with them. We teach, we train, and we try our best to fix. But our children aren’t broken. 

Every child is perfect, created in God's image. Every child is a gift and has gifts to share. That’s it. It’s a simple truth. Our children aren’t broken.

Fireworks as a Model of Successful Inclusion

As we prepare for July 4th celebrations around the country, many communities are organizing fireworks displays. One of my family’s traditions is to point out our favorites as we watch together. My daughter likes the swirly ones and my son likes the ones that are loud and bright. My husband enjoys the ones that shoot up the highest while I am most drawn to the ones that crackle.

I suspect that we are not so unique. After all, a fireworks display is most enjoyable when dozens of different patterns explode together in a bright mix of color and sound. In fact, most of us would be quick to criticize a display that had a lack of variety, too much of one color, or anything else that made it seem dull or uninteresting.

Our day-to-day lives should be a mirror image of a successful fireworks display. Experiences should be their most enjoyable when we successfully bring together a vast array of people and perspectives, merging them into a colorful and intriguing whole.

And yet, we know that this is not always the case. We know that we have a way to go before we can say that we fully celebrate such diversity. We continue to find comfort in familiarity and security in the known. We need to move our culture to a place where we look around and wonder what’s missing; rather than sitting idly by while a select few even notice those who are kept at a distance.

Quite simply, inclusion is belonging. And when we recognize that every person - yes EVERY person - has a right to belong, then, and only then, will we experience the most outstanding finale of the most spectacular fireworks display we have yet to see.