I recently had the pleasure of touring the NY School for the Deaf in White Plains, NY with Alexis Kashar, the president of its board. Alexis is an attorney specializing in special education and disability rights and has dedicated herself to activism and pro bono work on behalf of the deaf.
For a few hours, I had a glimpse into the world of people who are deaf. Alexis is Deaf, she uses sign language and also speaks so I found it relatively easy to communicate with her. I had a few moments at the school where a child was attempting to communicate with me and I had no idea what they were saying. It felt a bit uneasy. If there were words that I didn’t understand I asked Alexis to repeat them and I found it quite helpful when she signed (although I do not speak American Sign Language).
Many of the students at the NY School for the Deaf have moved out of the public school system and into the school because they were not being successfully educated there. Some students found it difficult to learn and to make friends because they were not able to have meaningful dialogue with teachers and students from the hearing world.
For Jewish children who are Deaf the experience is similar but also comes with a few additional layers. When a Jewish child leaves the education system, they find that the Deaf school has very few other Jewish students. Their access to Jewish schools, synagogues and Jewish programming is very limited. If the family is very involved in the Jewish community and if they have access to interpreters, then perhaps their child will be a part of that community. For the majority of Jews who are Deaf, that is not the case. Alexis feels that as a community we need to bring Jews back home. If we can ensure that Jews who are deaf will have access to Jewish life through accommodations such as sign language interpreters in synagogues, federation events, camp programs then not only will be working to bring them back home but their families will come with them. It is what Alexis calls the Ripple Effect.
When I asked Alexis to share her thoughts on how we could best serve children who are deaf at camp her answer was, “It is not cut and dry.” Alexis grew up attending public school and summer camp in the hearing world. She understands the benefits of that upbringing for a person who is deaf but Alexis feels that a child can also benefit from being in a world where they relate to other people who are deaf. They will be among role models who understand their deaf background and communicate in their native language.
Children who are deaf have joined Jewish camps in the past, but what Alexis is suggesting is that we first focus on what would best meet the needs of the children who are deaf and then go from there. One idea would be to have children who are deaf live in cabins with other campers who are deaf. These cabins could be located on the grounds of any Jewish camp so that the children would still have access to the exact same activities and experiences available at camp. They would be a part of the larger community and attend the same programming. They could be fully included throughout the day. Alexis further suggested that there could be programs tailor made for the campers who are deaf that the hearing campers would be invited to participate in. A play performance would be a good example. There might even be campers who are hearing involved as actors in the play.
As we have noted in other contexts, the term we are seeking is full inclusion. For a deaf camper, this doesn’t mean being present but unable to communicate, and it must not mean being merely on the same campus as the fuller camping program. It must be an atmosphere that provides the tools and peers for communication, challenge and exploration like any other camper.
For example, at Camp L’man Achai, one of the camps of the FJC network, there is a one program for boys who are deaf. The program was a great success in 2014. The boys had a Jewish experience in a totally supportive environment that was specially designed with their needs in mind. They also had full access to the hearing community at camp. That was not an issue.
During the school year there are many reasons why a student who is deaf might prefer environments that are less inclusive, but this must not happen at the sacrifice of Jewish involvement. The unique strengths of Jewish summer camping, with its informal educational tools, is a perfect place to break down those barriers and bring Jewish campers who are deaf into the fold. Visiting with Alexis helped me to understand how that may be made possible, and how important, that is.
When I left the school, I felt invigorated and I also felt that I had missed out. I would love to be able to say that I grew up in a world where I had children of all disabilities in my classrooms or in my summer programs and that I had a good friend who also happened to be deaf. There is no doubt that having close ties and experiencing community with a diverse group of people broadens our horizons in so many ways. Our Jewish community is quite diverse though it may not seem so because we have not yet achieved our goal of making it as open an as welcoming as it needs to be so that all Jews will feel that they are always able to come back home.
It’s only November, but I am already hearing the buzz of kids at Kiddush lunch talking about their plans for the summer. One particular young lady spent about a half an hour with me asking all of her most pressing questions as she mentally prepares for her first summer at Jewish sleep away camp. She wants to know what she should pack, what she can wear, will the girls be open to having a new person in their bunk, do the boys have payos –Hebrew for sidelocks or sidecurls, and will there also be other kids at camp who attend public school. What she was really getting at was the following: Will I fit in? Will the other campers and counselors look like me? Will I be at a disadvantage? Will I have fun? Fortunately, this 6th grader is very articulate. She is aware of her feelings and can ask for help in preparing for this big step in her childhood. She has already asked for some time to sit down with me again in the spring to further prepare and she has asked me to speak to her mom to provide any information I think would be important for them to know.
On another Shabbat, I had a conversation with a parent who has never experienced Jewish camping at all. His child has never attended a Jewish day camp and the family has never visited a sleep away camp. What this parent does know, is that every summer almost all of the children over the age of eight disappear from the halls and the sanctuary of the synagogue. They all go away for four to eight weeks to Jewish summer camp. And he knows when they return they are taller, they are happy and they have stories to share about their summer at camp. This is the experience that he wants for his child as well, and there are many questions to be asked about the different options available that will meet the family’s desires. What makes this conversation unique is that this parent has a child with a disability. That changes the nature of the conversation.
As the conversation progresses, the family expresses their desires (level of Judaism, types of activities, lake vs. pool, proximity to home) and the child also expresses their desires (activities that they like, food served at camp), but there are many more questions that are not expressed by the child. Unlike the girl I mentioned above, this child is not able to articulate her needs in the same way. For this family there is an awareness that they will need to make some compromises in order to find a place that will be the best place for their child. The non-negotiables: counselors who will know how to work with their child’s particular disability, their child will have fun, and their child will make a friend. While these desires are no different from the desires of other parents they may not make the top three on the list on non-negotiables.
Yes, finding the right summer home for a Jewish child to spend the summer is not an easy feat. For families of campers with disabilities the search may be a bit more extensive. Where to start? The Foundation for Jewish camp has a Find a Camp feature which enables users to search for camps throughout the country. You can also speak to your synagogue rabbi or other parents in your community to learn about the camps their children attend. The number of camps offering programs for children with disability continues to increase. Parents now have options across every Jewish denomination and movement, including non-denominational camps. Options also include general or specialty camps that exist in many parts of the country.
There are Jewish camps that offer programs for children with disabilities including, but not limited to: Deafness, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual and Developmental disabilities as well as physical disabilities. I want to share a few examples of such programs. The Foundation for Jewish Camp welcomed Aryeh Adventures, its newest summer program for teens with disabilities in 2014. It is a teen travel program where participants travel across the West Coast. In the summer of 2014, Camp L’man Achai opened a program for Deaf boys and has plans for an even larger group this summer. Round Lake Camp of NJY Camps offers specialty camps with a variety of options including fine arts, sports and the sciences. Camp Moshava Malibu opened its doors in the summer of 2014 and already experienced much success with its inclusion program. Camp Yavneh in partnership with Yachad will open an inclusion program in the summer of 2015 and Camp Ramah Darom which runs a family camp, Camp Yofi, at the end of each summer, will now offer summer sessions for children with disabilities. Camp HASC is another such program which is focused on serving the social, therapeutic, academic, recreational, and medical needs of campers with intellectual and physical disabilities.
As you prepare for summer camp, I encourage you to meet with a senior member of the camp staff so that you can get a better sense of whether a particular camp would be a good fit for your child. You should also feel comfortable sharing as much information as possible about your child with the staff at your camp so they can begin to prepare for a successful summer for your child. Feel free to share things that make your child happy, their interests, their fears, their favorite bedtime rituals, their triggers and strategies that work well for you at home or for the teachers at home. Let the staff know how they can support your child and what tools they can use to help to make for a meaningful and fun summer at Jewish camp.
The number and variety of options will continue to expand as the Foundation for Jewish Camp continues to work towards our goal of meeting the needs of a diverse community and ensuring that every Jewish child experiences the joy of Jewish camp.
Last week, the Foundation for Jewish Camp hosted our biennial conference, Leaders Assembly, in New Jersey. The topic of inclusion was high on the agenda and I engaged in so many invigorating conversations with colleagues about the topic and what each camp hopes to achieve within their own camp communities. Alexis Kashar, a civil rights and special education attorney, spoke to attendees about how growing up deaf impacted her access to the Jewish community. I was particularly struck by Alexis’ description of the effect that living in a home with a family with two parents and a sibling who were all deaf had on her sister who is hearing. Because synagogue life and supplemental school were inaccessible to the family, her sister was never introduced into it. Alexis stressed to us how inclusion has a ”ripple effect” and can profoundly affect the lives of the family of the person with disability.
Just one day after the close of the conference, I read the report that had just been released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcing that the escalating numbers of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis continued to rise. According to the report, one in 68 children are now believed to be diagnosed with ASD, a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. It reaffirmed for me the important work that our camps can do to engage children with disabilities and their families and continuing to evolve in order to embrace them in the best way possible.
People with ASD are common and prevalent members of any group of youth or adults. The drive towards inclusion is recognition of the new normal in our lives. In the past, specialists were sought to address the particular needs of individuals who “didn’t fit,” in a hope to “help them succeed.” But the numbers tell us that this is not a fringe issue. As camps continue to accept more and more children with a variety of disabilities, I hope that staff training focused on caring for children with disabilities will be offered to all staff so that everyone can better understand and interact seamlessly with a variety of capabilities and needs. Sports specialists, swim instructors, and other recreational specialists will likely be challenged to use techniques that will engage children who are not naturally drawn to activities such as sports and who need to be coached differently in order to acquire certain skills. Visual directions, visual schedules, sensory considerations and flexibility in choice of activities will likely become a part of necessary accommodations so that camp programs can become naturally inclusive. I can say that in all of the conversations and sessions in which I participated in at Leaders Assembly last week, I was happy to see that the field of Jewish camping is moving toward a more inclusive society where all campers will be able to experience success.
Today is Share the Word to End the Word Day. The word “retard” that is.
It was once acceptable to use the words “mental retardation” as a clinical description for people who had below average IQ’s and had delays in adaptive skills. Nowadays, the r-word has a significantly negative connotation as it has often been used on playgrounds and in school hallways as a put-down. Even adults have used it, and still use it, in conversations when referring to something or someone as being an idiot or idiotic. Due to the incredible misuse of this word and the hurt that it causes, we now use “intellectual disability” as a replacement.
One of the purposes of today, is to ask people to pledge to remove the word from their vocabulary and to discourage others from using as well. The r-word must be replaced with RESPECT, respect for people of all abilities. It should also be replaced with what we call “people first language” (a child with autism, a person who is hard of hearing, a person who uses a wheelchair, my brother, my bunkmate, my friend). A person’s disability should never be what defines him or her; it is only a part of who that person is. As we continue to move in the direction of inclusion for children with disabilities at Jewish camp we will break down barriers and allow children and adults at camp to learn what makes us more alike than we are different and why the words that we choose to use even in jest, must always be respectful and must always put people first.
This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
Each year the most talented dancers and performers at Cedar Lake Camp would audition to compete for first place in a lip-syncing contest in their annual talent show. Kids would plan in the off season, and work all summer to be the best. Last year, however, the camp was challenged to change the show. Cedar Lake had recently welcomed the oldest campers from Round Lake Camp, another NJY camp for children with learning differences and social communication disorders, in a model of inclusion – and these new campers were encouraged to participate as well.
Some of the staff was afraid of what would happen. The new campers could not do the complex dance moves and choreography which was the hallmark of this event every summer. How would the other campers react to them on stage? Would the campers with disabilities feel successful and have a positive experience?
The group was placed in the middle of the show, amidst all of the other competing teams. One by one the acts performed – rock, pop, and hip hop. Each of the competing acts was amazing and received enthusiastic applause from their bunks and fellow campers. Behind the scenes the tension mounted awkwardly as the new group lined up to take the stage.
As these campers with disabilities walked up the stairs, their counselors cheered them on enthusiastically, and the 700 onlookers watched quietly. The group took their positions. What followed was magical.
Each camper made his moves in his own way. Each lip-synced with enthusiasm and joy. Some body motions were exaggerated. Some facial looks or ticks were clear. The rock anthem, “I want it that way” blared over the speakers and the crowd began to cheer. Teenagers who didn’t know how to feel when they took the stage couldn’t help but get swept up in the pride of the moment. By the end of the song, 700 campers roared to their feet as one. It was the only standing ovation of the day. Those campers were super stars.
No, they didn’t “win” first place. But yes, they won the day. And for that moment, everything we want in a camp came true for every single camper who was there.