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What the Americans with Disabilities Act Means to Me

What the Americans with Disabilities Act Means to Me

Front of a classroom with a large chalkboard and an empty teachers desk with a laptop and school supplies

These days, I have tears in my eyes when I worry about the state of public education; I worry that we’re taking steps – leaps, even – backward. This issue is especially important to me because, like so many others, my public school journey would have been very different if not for the Americans with Disabilities Act, commonly known as the ADA

When I was 8 years old, my mother was helping me pack for summer camp and asked if I wanted to pick out some books to take with me. I looked at her and said, "Why? I can’t read." Though she’d known I didn't like to read, she was stunned that I felt I couldn't. Even more upsetting, she wondered how I could have finished second grade without this issue ever being mentioned at school.

It turns out that our district had cut spending for learning disability services and couldn't afford to provide accommodations. No resource room. No reading or math specialists. No separate testing facilities. The only available service outside of the classroom was ESL (English as a Second Language). My parents fought hard with the district to have me tested for learning disabilities, only to be told I didn't have any problems that warranted review. In fact, my mom was told that she was just another “pushy Jewish mother” whose expectations were unrealistic. She needed to calm down, they said.

I was fortunate that my parents could afford outside testing, and sure enough, it indicated multiple learning disabilities. Still, the school district refused to provide services. Their claim was that there was neither a budget nor a sufficient number of students to add any new programs. But how would they know if no one was being tested?

My parents knew they had few options: Stay in the district and continue to fight for services, pay for a private school education, or move. We moved, and I am forever grateful because it was life-changing. For the first time, my disabilities were recognized and services provided. I was in fourth grade and will never forget how much it meant to me to feel like I was finally being understood. Being heard. Being helped.

With my Individualized Education Program (IEP), I could learn what my classmates were learning, just differently. I had my tests read to me, and trained professionals taught me organizational and coping skills I still use today (thank you, Mildred Paley!). And, of course, I was fortunate to have many dedicated teachers and staff who not only supported me but fought for me.

Those dedicated educators weren’t limited to public school; they extended to Hebrew School, too. As if reading Hebrew wasn’t difficult enough, my learning disabilities made it feel like an impossible task. Once, while attending someone else’s bat mitzvah, I whispered to my mom, “I will never be able to do this!” It was her idea for me to meet with our rabbi, who she knew would encourage me.

Sure enough, Rabbi Susie talked about my love of music and helped me realize that the prayers and blessings were like beautiful songs. If I listened over and over again, like I did with my favorite *NSYNC songs, I could easily learn them. It worked! This is the mark of an excellent educator – someone who looks at her students as individuals and plays to their strengths and passions.

These invaluable skills I learned throughout the years helped give me the confidence I needed to succeed not just through high school but for the rest of my life.

Upon graduation from a competitive high school, I was accepted to Indiana University, where I thrived. My IEP followed me throughout college, continuing to give me every opportunity to succeed. I found staff who understood my learning disabilities and helped me pick out courses and professors who would understand my needs. I was also entitled to private testing rooms and the use of adaptive technology to have my textbooks read to me and help me take notes.

To prove how important the ADA was to me, I gave back to the university that gave so much to me. Prior to my senior year, I created a mentor retention program for IU's Disability Services called Peer Undergraduate Mentoring Program (PUMP).. My goal was to make sure every IU student with disabilities would have the help of a unique support system, giving them the best chance to succeed and to overcome obstacles and challenges. I received a number of prestigious  awards from the city and the University for PUMP, which remains in existence today.

I am a living, breathing example of what the ADA can do for public school students in need of services. If someone tries to tell you otherwise, share my story. It's not one in a million. It's one of millions.

Take action to preserve the ADA by urging Congress to oppose any legislation that would reverse the progress the ADA has ensured for over 25 years.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life. Visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to learn more.

Alexandra Gilbert is the WZC campaign director for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

Alexandra Gilbert
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