Jewish Disability Awareness Month

February is a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s Black History Month,it’s the time for Phil the GroundHog to predict the length of winter, and it’s when football fans (and fanatics, alike) glue themselves to the TV for the SuperBowl.

**And it happens to be Jewish Disability Awareness Month**

Hebrew School Inclusion for Children with Special Needs Is Possible, Here’s How

By Lisa Friedman

As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Lisa Friedman, a Jewish Special educator and advocate for inclusion, shares her guiding principals for creating a learning environment that is accessible to all students.

In my role as an Education Director of a synagogue’s Hebrew school, I have the good fortune to be able to use my skills to develop programs that enable students of all abilities to learn and thrive in a religious school setting. As an advocate of inclusion, I help guide my community to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to participate and find meaning through all aspects of synagogue life. Yet, not all synagogues have a Jewish Special Educator. Not all synagogues have a professional who advocates for inclusion. What can parents of children with disabilities do to ensure that their children are fully included in Hebrew school?

First and foremost, open and supportive communication is essential for a successful Jewish Hebrew school experience for any child, but especially those with special learning needs. Be forthcoming about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Do not assume that the school will turn you away or will not be able to accommodate your child’s needs. Share your child’s IEP, successful strategies from home and other information that will make it easier for your child to be successful. I am not suggesting that this is a magic bullet. There may be bumps and disappointments along the way. But without the willingness to have the conversations, you will never know what is possible.

Here are some guiding principles to start the conversation:

1. Students with special learning needs and disabilities CAN learn Hebrew.

It is a misconception that students with learning challenges struggle so much in learning to read English that they should not even try to learn Hebrew. While it is true that some children who have difficulty with their primary language will encounter similar struggles when learning a second language, some children have a natural propensity toward language acquisition, regardless of their formal classification. Hebrew, in many situations, is taught traditionally through read & repeat exercises that require children to sit still and wait their turn. Multi-sensory strategies that cater to a wide variety of learning styles can enable all students to learn Hebrew in ways that meet their individual needs.

2. Special Education (or inclusion) DOES NOT hold back the “other” students.

A classroom rich with activities to meet students at their current level of functioning maximizes all students’ potential for success. It is proven that ALL students benefit when children of varying abilities learn together. It is a misnomer that having different expectations for different students within in the same classroom isn’t fair. All students should be working toward progress from their current level of functioning. When this is done successfully, no student is “held back” or exposed to less challenging content than he or she is capable of encountering.

3. Negative behavior can ruin a whole class.

This is a tricky one in Jewish education classrooms. And the honest answer is this: negative behavior can “ruin” a class dynamic if the teacher lets it. When parents serve as partners with teachers, openly discussing behavior challenges and strategies, teachers can gain the necessary skills and understanding to manage student behavior in a way that provides all students with a warm, supportive and meaningful environment.

4. It is reasonable to ask for a bar/bat mitzvah experience that is tailored to your child’s needs.

Individualized bar or bat mitzvas do not take anything away from other students. Rather, such an accommodations demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to embrace a wide variety of needs within a synagogue community. When and if children question why another student “did less” than he/she did, it is up to parents, teachers and clergy to explain to our children how to welcome differences and to be proud of what we each accomplish without comparison to what anyone else may be doing.

Strong relationships are key. Communication is necessary. Myths and misconceptions are perpetuated by a lack of understanding; but when we join in conversation with real-life examples and hands-on experiences, attitudes can change, and inclusion will be possible.

Book Review: Good Kings Bad Kings

(Updated 2/26/2018)


Good Kings Bad Kings

By Susan Nussbaum

Copyright 2013, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

373 Braille pages

Disability, Fiction

When a book opens with a teenage girl in a wheelchair shoving another teenage girl in a wheelchair to the pavement, you know you’re in for a rocky ride. Susan Nussbaum’s novel Good Kings Bad Kings smacks readers right in the conscience as she weaves together an important message about greed, America’s failing care facilities, and the rights of disabled persons.

Meet Yessie. She is already in the “time-out” punishment room on her second day at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC) when the story begins. A tough, motherless sixteen-year-old, Yessie was raised to defend her Puerto Rican identity, and taught that three is the magic number.

“…and when three things happen to you that are so, so bad and you feel like the whole wide world is just throwing up on your new shoes,” she says,  “don’t worry. Your bad luck is about to change.”

But Yessie’s “number three” has delivered her to the ILLC. She is less of a commodity now, and simply a costly burden. As with the other 80 teen residents, Yessie is not only disabled, she is critically dependent upon houseparents and teachers whose personalities may be kind or twisted, whose desires may be innocent or dastardly. Like the inhabitants of any small kingdom, their fates are forever at the mercy of good kings and bad.

The author’s raw and gritty language realistically channels the voices of ILLC residents, staff members, a bus driver, even a recruiter. And while juggling the various characters was a challenge for me at first, I found Nussbaum’s technique dramatically effective. She skillfully crafts layer upon vivid layer to set the tone—Yessie’s best friend Cheri disappears without warning, Pierre’s obsession with food doesn’t compare to his need for Ricky’s protection—and as tension builds, the action drives you deeper and deeper  into yourself, until your heart wants to explode.

Susan Nussbaum is a playwright, novelist and longtime disability rights activist. Good Kings Bad Kings earned her the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. As she puts it, “When I became a wheelchair-user in the late ’70s, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the sh** out of me.” She subsequently became most interested in creating authentic disabled characters.

Like Yessie,  who doesn’t wait long to take destiny into her own hands.

Good Kings Bad Kings is not an easy read, but I urge you to take it on. As electrically charged as modern society, this book ignites disability awareness like nothing I’ve ever read.

Hearing Voices

January 2018 is rounding the corner to February. So I’m grabbing one more chance to honor Louis Braille’s birthday (January 4) with a repeat post.



Sitting in my office across the hall from the Braille production room…

And all I can say is “Please, please, grant me a bit of silence!”

Because it is true–the Braille embosser is an amazing device. It somehow, almost magically, converts a computerized word document into an actual Brailled document in my hands.

But it is SO VERY NOISY! The rowdy, rapid-fire punching as the cylinders move across and down the paper make conversation—and sometimes even thought– nearly impossible.

So I turn to my faithful computer, outfitted as it is with speech so that I may access the world of print locally and globally.

And, what do you know? It is so chatty!

And here’s my IPOD, not to mention old friends like the Franklin talking dictionary, and the BrailleLite notetaker—they are wonders of human ingenuity, indeed.

But do they have to be constantly yammering at me?

Oh, sure, I can’t read the words on the screen…but good grief, I hear so many voices throughout muy day!



I will accept with humble gratitude the gift of Braille text you offer me.

My fingers will dance with delight over these textured curves and sways, these graceful ups and downs

As images and ideas tumble and swirl into and out of existence.

And I will slow my breath,

unclench my eyebrows,

unfurl my white flag in peace.

For your rumble is no longer growling in my ears,

But like thunderclap on Mt. Sinai—

Whose word is liberation.

Story (fragment)

I’ve shared a number of poems via this little blog, as you darling readers know. I’ve related my experiences teaching, my attempts at self-improvement (still searching for the perfect exercise for my basically non-physical personality), and lately, even original music and a book review. And each time I try something new, I still tingle a bit with hesitation.

Just a little shy, I guess.

So here we go again.

***Story (fragment)

It was totally unexpected. I mean, the morning started like every other morning of my teenage life–the alarm sounded at 6:15, I pushed snooze a couple of times, and finally my Dad’s voice roused me bleary-eyed out of bed. I pulled clothes from drawers and wrangled them off hangers, and soon enough I was washing my face and combing my hair for breakfast. Naturally, my little sister was dancing all over the place, and Mom was still somewhere upstairs with Dad.

Now I typically snag my own breakfast most school days and eat it running out the door to the bus stop. But this particular morning was so cold and bleak, and I knew that Jake and Todd were out of town at some kind of track meet. So I figured what was the rush? I could take my time, and have one of the folks drop me off at the ultimate minute.

I put my fork-split English muffin halves into the old familiar toaster which my family has used for probably a hundred years, and walked over to the counter to pour my orange juice. I usually pour my orange juice at the table, but this time the carton was nearly empty, so I just hung near the fridge thinking I might also need a glass of milk with my muffin. About the time I finished off the two gulps of juice, rinsed out my glass and was reaching for the milk carton, I heard the toaster pop up.

The muffin on the left felt all warm and crispy in my hand as I scraped it with butter and globbed on the orange marmalade. And when I eagerly bit into it, mmmmm, I couldn’t wait to grab the other half.

That’s when I got the shock of my life.

There was no warm and crispy muffin half sticking out of the familiar old toaster. There was only a trace of steam, and a slight hissing sound. Boy was I ticked. That old toaster was trying to eat my muffin.

I stuffed the yummy half into my mouth, grabbed the toaster off the counter, and with one perturbed yank, freed it from the electrical outlet. I was still chewing angrily as I shook the thing and tried to peer inside…

“What’s the deal?” I growled. .

Finally, I swallowed, held the blasted gadget over the sink with one hand under its slots, gave one good, strong shake…and there it was.

My mouth fell open. The toaster clanked to the floor. My parents called my name like a curse, and my sister started singing with Kermit the frog. I could only stare.

There in my hand, beneath a sprinkling of toasted crumbs, something puffed. Or maybe…sneezed?

Then the warm, shiny ball of doughy sweet-smelling fuzz began wiggling and squirming. From one side of the thing, I watched wide-eyed as a thin wagging finger extended itself; while on the side facing me, two twitching flaps shook themselves free, and with one blinking-sniffing motion, a face pushed its way into being.

When I leaned in to get a better look, my face was slurped into warm wetness.

But before I could call out for someone to come look, the thing started pushing against my palm. The force was kind of startling, so I had to scramble and use two hands to keep from dropping it.

One final push, a little yip, and the puppy emerged—legs and tail and long ears and licking tongue—with its deep black eyes looking up at me.

I was speechless…but it wasn’t.

The toaster pup stood there squarely in my cupped palms, and said in a gruff little voice, , “What’s up, man? Cat got your tongue?”

On Friday, January 5, 2018, Ari the WonderDog officially turned in his Guide Dogs for the Blind harness, and became a homebody. For ten years he served me as guide and companion—attending online classes with me during my Master’s coursework, accompanying me to teach and worship at Temple Beth Sholom, flying with me to visit family and friends in St. Louis. In his honor, I am posting a poem more suited to High Holy Days.

Thanks Ari for all you continue to be in my life.




My dog Ari wears a leather leash,

and I wear leather shoes.

But not on Yom Kippor.

Then we sit together quietly and listen

To the rabbi’s teachings about important matters,

To our tradition’s teachings about life

and death

And the meaning

we must seek in between

We listen to each other

And we listen most attentively

To the heart of what we know

About ourselves

And about God.

We listen together.

And we rejoice together.

Then each goes home to her shoes,

And to his leash;

To his work,

And to her learning.

To another year

More meaningful than the last

Because we came together

To listen.


Book Review: Accidents of Nature

Accidents of Nature

By Harriet McBryde Johnson

Copyright 2006, Henry Holt and company, New York

360 Braille pages

Disability, Young Adult

If you dive heart-first into Harriet McBryde Johnson’s autobiographical novel, “Accidents of Nature”, you won’t come up gasping for air. Rather, dwelling among strange creatures, you will find yourself breathing for the first time.

Set in 1970, the story is told through the experiences of Jean, a seventeen year old girl who just happens to have been born with Cerebral Palsy. Jean thinks she is like everyone at her “normal” high school in small Crosstown, South Carolina. She has friends, goes with them to ball games, even joins them when they grab a burger. But when she spends ten days at Camp Courage, her reign as poster child and telethon inspiration seems destined to crash.

For the first time in her life, Jean ventures beyond the parameters of her loving family and is thrown into the mix with other “freaks”. She watches as fellow “crips” remove body parts to enjoy the weightlessness of swimming, and listens terrified while cabinmates moan and howl with seizures and fits. She endures the patronizing attitudes of camp staff, even as they risk their own well-being to assist campers in distress. Most touching of all, as we listen in, she collides with the reality of who she is, and questions her place in the world.

Ms. Johnson masterfully sets the tone for Jean’s story in the prologue as she reflects upon the camp’s setting, and hints at the title’s meaning. “Twisted and shapely, bent and straight” trees which survived the process of natural selection, she writes,

“…did not survive because they were fit. Rather, they were proven fit because they survived. They survived by accident.”

And as Jean’s fellow campers come forward, the question arises in our minds: what about their quality of life?

Everyone is sure to steer clear of Willie, with the hideous face you can’t stomach and physical characteristics equally as abominable. Dolly is mindlessly oblivious of everything around her as she babbles on and on about the novella she is writing. Margie is sweet and always helpful, but you know she is destined to remain a child. And Sara may be more intelligent and well-read than anyone, but she will require assistance with everything for as long as she lives.

No wonder Jean questions her own future happiness.

The story’s everyday realism becomes most significant when you learn Ms. Johnson writes from personal experience. She attended a school for children with disabilities until age thirteen, and a cross-disability summer camp until age seventeen. She became a lawyer in 1985, was active in the struggle for social justice, especially disability rights, and holds the world endurance record (fifteen years without interruption as of 2006) for protesting the Jerry Lewis telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. She died in 2008.

Reading Accidents of Nature in Braille, I couldn’t help considering my own sense of independence, and all the people in my life who have helped me achieve it. At the same time, my emotions were seized by memories of the two years I attended Litzsinger, a special school for physically challenged, mentally retarded, and deaf students. I remember how easy it was to become one of them, reveling in their off-beat humor, learning alongside classmates born with cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, teenagers who struggled minute by minute to move a hand, formulate discernable speech, or simply prove to onlookers they were in fact human beings.

Accidents of Nature is definitely a window into the world of difference. But a funny thing happens as readers gaze, or sometimes gawk, at the “spazzos” and “aussies” attending Camp Courage. We catch a glimpse of our own reflections in the glass—and recognize we are one of them. Their longings are our longings. Their dreams are our dreams. And by finally engaging their humanity, we, too, become human.

And like Jean, we can’t help declaring,

“I’m not disgusted by the others, people with pieces missing or mangled. I count it a rare privilege to see them all without their coverings, their equipment, their attachments, their replacement parts, as they really are, in all their strange variety.”

20 December, 2017 00:29

It’s time for this passionate, soon-to-be-retired Hebrew teacher to head down a different creative path.

Which means in 2018 I’ll be shifting the focus of this blog somewhat to include:


-Book Reviews


-Stories and articles

-All about disability, or created by writers experiencing disability up close and personally.

I’m glad to have you along for the journey, and hope you will join the discussion.




My Sukkah

Looking up.

Into the blue.

Into vastness.

Into forever.

Looking in.

Into my heart’s

pulsing wonder

and Oceans of longing.

And soul,

where can I find her?

Flitting on sunbeams,

Moonbeams, starlight?

Dancing with the wind?

Splashing through puddles

Among the homeless,

The broken ones, the mourners?

My sukkah is small,


even in sunlight.

But its sides are open,

Its thatched roof


I look up.

My heart sighs

at twilight;

while spirit

embraces guests,

readies herself to dance.