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The Stare

By: David Mandel  

When you really consider it, it was such a "normal" event, but we’re still not accustomed to it, so we look at these situations as an anomaly. People with disabilities involved in similar activities which people with abilities do shouldn’t be anything to be stared at, shouldn’t be viewed as so special. Yet, they are. 

Going back a few months, many people went to Great Adventures Amusement Park on Sunday, Chol HaMoed Pesach. NCSY accommodated our community, as they do every year, by renting out the park (although every year, I wish they could rent out Central Park instead). Yachad, an affiliate of NCSY that provides many social and recreational programs for people with developmental disabilities, organized trips for hundreds of people with disabilities on that Sunday, Chol HaMoed to Great Adventures. 

Walking through the park that day with my family, it seemed the park was truly rented for people with disabilities and everyone else was a guest. Children and adults who were walking, or those wheelchair-bound or with the aid of crutches, seemed to be having a grand time, and why not? Enjoying the music on that warm day, these individuals, who live at home or in residences operated by organizations serving people with disabilities, played coin toss and basketball, enjoyed the merry-go-round and the new wild upside-down monster superman roller coaster. Not me; my feet were firmly planted. 

What was very noticeable was how children and adults stared at the people with disabilities. Why? 

Is this a function of our discomfort? Of our subliminally thanking HaShem for our gifts of abilities? Is it momentary guilt that we ought to do more to help others? Or is it that as a society, as a culture, we ultimately view people with disabilities as different; hence, we pause, we stare. 

Clearly, people with disabilities have made significant strides in recent decades. Advances in medicine, technology, psychopharmacology, coupled with legislative landmarks such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1979, created permanency and opportunity in housing, employment, transportation, education and other institutional frameworks. But how to rid ourselves of "the stare", that momentary feeling that makes us uncomfortable deep down and can create discomfort for the individual with a physical, developmental or psychiatric disability? By eliminating the stare, that sense of "difference" amongst us, we could substantially alter the ultimate stigma and make it a level playing field, opening new access and opportunities for these individuals as yet unimagined. 

Consider the following examples: 

My colleagues at OHEL/Bais Ezra, Leah Markovic, David Sharvit, Rochel Lewitter and Asher Fogel, organize summer sleep-away camp experiences for boys and girls by arranging to include them in mainstream summer camps such as Romimu, Shira, Dora Golding and Raninu. Twenty-nine boys and girls, young men and women with developmental disabilities, ages ten to thirty are attending these four camps this summer. They will have a full, enriched, summer experience in a "normal" camp (excuse the expression) and the lives of all children in camp are enriched by spending time with people with disabilities in many fun settings. These experiences will create immeasurable memories as these kids mature into adults and, hopefully, view disabilities in a different light. We gratefully appreciate the directors and staff of these four camps for integrating these programs: Rabbi Shlomo Pfeifer at Camp Romimu, Mrs. Rosenberg at Camp Shira, Mr. Alex Gold and Rabbi Siegal at Camp Dora Golding and Rabbi Tuli Klein at Camp Raninu. 

Rabbi Yaakov Reisman, Rav of the Agudah of Long Island, suggests encouraging your child to invite over children who are less popular. Dr. Moshe Becker, of Congregation Shaare Tefilah in Lawrence, organizes several Shabbatonim every year for scores of children and adults with disabilities as Shabbos guests in several dozen homes. This gives parents of the disabled child a much-needed respite as many other families open their homes and thereby teaching their own children about people with disabilities. 

"Chanoch lana’ar al pi darko" can also be interpreted to mean not only to teach children torah and mitzvos in an age-appropriate way, given their level of understanding, but also to teach an understanding and appreciation early on about people who may have different abilities. Encourage your teenage son or daughter to volunteer with people with disabilities or to give maaser from their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah gifts. Young children often see their grandparents or great grandparents walking with a cane or a walker. Encouraging your young children to accompany Bubby or Zaide can teach them a valuable lesson in patience, an important trait often needed when speaking, playing or working with a person with a disabling condition. 

Let us strive to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate "the stare".

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