Jewish Day Schools are failing youth with disabilities. It’s time to focus on inclusion – and speak out against those who assume it’s not possible
Last month, the Jewish community noted Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), an annual opportunity each February for Jewish communal institutions to recommit themselves to working for the full inclusion of Jews with disabilities in all aspects of our community. Much work is needed on this issue, and recent events have convinced me that not everyone in our local Jewish community is on board with the cause.
To mark the start of the month, Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, Headmaster of DC’s prestigious Charles E Smith Jewish Day School, published a blog post on the school web page. The piece briefly noted JDAIM, before quickly shifting to making the case that parents must adjust their expectations, offering a parable of a parent who “honestly felt the school had tried too hard to keep her daughter enrolled…[and] upon reflection a few years later…realized it would have been a better choice to seek a more specialized school with specific resources.”
The Rabbi then goes on to articulate different kinds of schools that might specialize in students he is reluctant to welcome, noting that “one school may focus on students with dyslexia, ADHD, and other language-based learning differences, [while]…another school serves students with obsessive-compulsive disorder, sensory processing disorder, autism, or Asperger syndrome.” The message is clear – such students belong elsewhere, not in the hallowed halls of Rabbi Malkus’ august institution.
Of course, not every student will succeed in every school. But such lack of capacity is far from a law of physics – it is a deliberate choice, made by educational institutions when they choose to allocate funds in a way that de-prioritizes meeting the needs of disabled learners. Secular public schools face an obligation to serve students with dyslexia, ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, autism and other disabilities Rabbi Malkus cites in the general education classroom. They frequently do so with far lower per pupil funding than schools like JDS charge in tuition. Is the implication here that secular institutions are inherently more capable than Jewish ones in providing a high quality education? I do not believe this to be the case – instead, it’s a matter of setting priorities.
Commitment to inclusion should not be dismissed as a matter of naive ideology. We should realize the consequences of telling Jewish students with disabilities that they do not belong. Often, it means a break in Jewish continuity, with youth and families determining that if Jewish communal life has no place for them, it will not have a hold on their hearts. At best, it means a lifelong sense of looking at the Jewish community from an arms length perspective. At worst, it may mean increased vulnerability to abuse and a sub-standard education, given the evidence showing that students with all kinds of disabilities have consistently worse outcomes in segregated environments. Kicking people out of our schools doesn’t make it easier for them to have their learning needs met – it simply makes meeting those needs someone else’s problem.
It is an astonishing marker of attitudinal barriers in Jewish education that this is the message on disability that Rabbi Malkus chose to start the conversation with. For non-disabled students, one may typically assume a welcoming attitude, and approach challenges with the expectation that they can be surmounted until it becomes clear that they cannot. Rabbi Malkus’ message seems to take the opposite approach, assuming that the most relevant message his community should hear around disability inclusion is to accustom themselves to the idea that JDS may not be a place for disabled Jewish youth.
As a disability rights professional and a disabled Jew who left a Jewish Day school upon receiving one of the diagnoses Rabbi Malkus cites, I find this indicative of a broader trend in which Jewish day schools fail to see the education of students with disabilities – particularly those with significant cognitive or behavioral challenges – as within their purview.
This isn’t a new problem – in the secular world, we have a wealth of data on what happens when administrators “counsel out” families with children with disabilities from their schools from the charter school movement, whose leaders make similar statements.
The research literature on including students with disabilities in the general education classroom shows that one of the single biggest predictive factors is administrator and teacher attitudes, regardless of the severity of the child’s disability. We also know from data in the public school system that there are vast disparities between district to district and state to state as to the rate of inclusion of students with disabilities – disparities that indicate that it is political will, not level of impairment, that drive whether or not a child will be included.
No such data exists for Jewish Day Schools because we fail to collect it, though we do know that Jews with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in other youth-focused communal activities, such as summer camp. Local funders and Federation leaders should consider requiring the collection of self-reported data on disability status in local schools, camps and other programs, and making it available in a properly anonymized format in order to ensure that community members can see where different programs stand on inclusion.
Furthermore, though the Americans with Disabilities Act’s religious exemption shamefully means that schools like Charles E Smith are not bound to the same legal obligation that secular institutions with comparable resources and missions are, Federation and other philanthropic organizations should require Jewish Day Schools and other programming to commit to comparable non-discrimination protections. An independent, clearly marked process of recourse to address disputes should also be established, to make up for the courts being blocked off when the school, camp or program discriminating is religious in nature.
Rabbi Malkus’s remarks are only one sign of a much bigger problem, and work is needed to send a clear message that Jewish Day Schools are willing to welcome and work for the inclusion of all Jewish children. As the Rabbi may recall from his own rabbinic education, R. Hillel wrote in Pirkei Avot, Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibur (“Do Not Separate Yourself From the Community”). We must recall that Jews with disabilities are part of that community – and when we are relegated to separate, segregated settings, our leadership fails to live up to Jewish values.