By: Kee Frishman | Opinions  | 

On Inclusion and its Future

Much of the typical morning at YU remains the same. Groggy-eyed students still flood Amsterdam Avenue trying to make it in time for their 9AM class. Many wield a fresh cup of coffee as they finish their breakfast from Nagel. And a few, reminded of the past night’s stress, decide to catch up with friends

There is one thing that’s different this year. Today, a few of those drinking coffee have Down syndrome; one of the students eating a bagel arrives in wheelchair, and a couple of those still lingering on 185th street have autism.

An accomplishment that wouldn’t have been dreamt of just 30 years ago, people with intellectual disabilities are now students at Yeshiva University. If there were ever a reason to wear that emblem-emblazoned YU sweatshirt with a little more pride, this would be it. And though this institution and Makor (a program of Women’s League Community Residences, a social services organization supporting people with disabilities) deserve much praise, the underlying message of disability inclusion is perhaps more significant.

It goes without saying that the Makor curriculum will have a tremendous impact on the special needs community. Higher education—and many post-high school pursuits in general—have simply not existed for a large number of those with disabilities, limiting their opportunities for future success. Now, however, equipped with the proper knowledge, instruction, and vocational training, graduates from Makor can realistically earn employment and become more productive in a mainstream setting.

Even greater is the sense of confidence that this program will instill in its students. For a group of people that are reminded time and again of all of the things that they “can’t do,” acceptance into a university is an achievement like none other. Just like their brothers and sisters before them, a young adult with special needs is finally able to study Torah alongside Rabbeim in the Beit Midrash, complain about which restaurants are not included on the Caf card, and proudly—and yes, maybe even sometimes mockingly—proclaim “Nowhere but here.”

But inclusion isn’t about offering a hand to an under-privileged population. It’s an outlook that focuses on the strengths and abilities—not weaknesses—of a person; a philosophy that believes that this world is a better place to live in when people interact with and learn from one another, regardless of any physical or cognitive limitation.

The values of inclusion are actually quite similar to a major goal of any university: to provide a space for diversity of thought, expression, and background. By engaging with people who see life from a totally different perspective, a student will become more knowledgeable and sympathetic. Unfortunately, because this sort of “diversity” has historically neglected an entire population, a person’s scope of understanding has been rather limited.

Many of YU’s new Makor students have overcome significant challenges, shrugged off stereotypes and “limitations,” and proven themselves capable of all sorts of accomplishments. And sure, not all of them have had such experiences. Some are extra witty and creative, while others can rattle off any number facts and statistics. Yet, all of them have something to teach and contribute. YU is a stronger institution because a young adult with Down syndrome majoring in “Office and Business Studies” can have discussions in the library with students studying Accounting or Management. It’s a more compassionate, more thoughtful, and more introspective university because both an able-bodied young adult and his wheelchair-bound peer can share their life-experiences in the cafeteria.

Ultimately, though, pros and cons and explanations as to why those with special needs are entitled to a seat in the college classroom shouldn’t really be necessary. Too often it seems that the “included” party must always bear the burden of proof as to why they belong. The rationale is simple: Because of their status as people, as Jews, and as knowledge-seeking young adults, they deserve a place in this university.

What is also clear from the YU/Makor partnership is that inclusion doesn’t require an institution or person to make extreme changes in order to welcome those with special needs. It just takes the right mindset and a little bit of creativity.

A heartwarming example of such an attitude can be seen in Netflix’s Atypical. Because of the loud noises, Sam, an 18-year-old with autism, never attended his school dance. But, at the insistence of his family and friends, the administration decides that Sam should also be able to participate. The solution is a “silent” themed ball in which everyone still dances to the same song but with the music played on headphones—allowing both Sam and his friends to enjoy the event. Inclusion doesn’t imply that someone else “gets less” or others need to be inconvenienced; it only requires the awareness that a dance, a university, or anything else would be better off if it were accessible to all.

More and more institutions are recognizing the value and importance of inclusion. Summer camps wanting to offer the most enriching, growth-oriented atmospheres are opening their doors to people with disabilities. Shuls, realizing that Tefillah is far more powerful and inspiring when all of its members can participate, are constructing ramps to allow for access to the bimah and adapting Siddurim for those with visual impairments. And Yeshiva University, in a remarkably inspiring step in disability inclusion, is declaring that higher-education ought to be one more place in which people with special needs belong.

The enrollment of individuals with disabilities into a college system puts the dream of a fully inclusive world a little bit more within reach. Many of the so called “differences” between those with and without disabilities are purely structural. If a child in a mainstream pre-school never met a boy with Down syndrome, or if a typically-functioning 7th grader never spoke to a person with Cerebral palsy, it’s no surprise that such a person will look foreign and that conversation would be difficult. It’s barriers and labels—not inherent flaws—that prevent meaningful relationships.

But today, students stand before a great and promising future in which such obstacles—like non-inclusive campuses and summer programs—do not exist. Today’s students will graduate university and build families with the knowledge and understanding that people with and without disabilities can not only achieve many of the same things but create a better community when they’re together. Naturally, future children of all abilities will interact on the playground, in the bunkhouse, at sleep overs and birthday parties, in synagogues, and colleges. In due time, the lines dividing different types of people will fade away.

The “World of Tomorrow” is far more than just a place where people with special needs share a campus and eat at the same bagel shops before class. It’s a world in which kids grow up befriending their neighbors in wheelchairs. A world where a “disability” matters a whole lot less, and asking oneself whether this person make me laugh, smile, and feel supported matters a whole lot more. With some activism, determination, and creativity, a bright future lies ahead.