How Do We Teach Our Children about Disabilities?

It's not difficult to teach our children to better understand and discuss disabilities. But as Jewish parents, why should we?

Jewish values shape our character, guide our actions and inform how we interact with others. Values such as chesed (kindness), hachnasat or'chimHachnasat or'chimהַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִיםLiterally, “welcoming guests;” the religious obligation to offer hospitality to those in need and to welcome guests into our homes and communities. Tradition teaches that the Biblical patriarch Abraham’s tent was always open to passersby, and he is often portrayed as demonstrating this value. , and b'tzelem Elohimb'tzelem Elohimבְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִיםLiterally "in the image of God;" the concept—from Genesis 1:27: “God created humankind in God’s image”—that because all humanity is created in the image of God, each person is equally valued.   can be naturally and purposefully woven into our everyday lives. Sometimes we do this well, such as explaining that our donations to the local food bank are tzedakahtzedakahצְדָקָהFrom the Hebrew word for “justice,” or “righteousness;” refers to charity or charitable giving. May also be translated as “righteous giving.”   or that it is a mitzvahmitzvahמִצְוָהLiterally, “commandment." A sacred obligation. Jewish tradition says the Torah contains 613 mitzvot Mitzvot refer to both religious and ethical obligations. to light candles on Shabbat. Other times, however, we miss the opportunity to acknowledge the Jewishness of a simple act, such as referring to visiting a sick relative as bikkur cholim (caring for the sick) or explaining to our children that holding the door for a friend demonstrates kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (all of the people of Israel are responsible for one another).

From Leviticus we learn, "Do not insult a person who is deaf or put a stumbling block in front of someone who is blind." At face value, this seems so logical; some might even argue obvious. Who among us would intentionally place a physical barrier in front of a person who is blind? Yet we do this all the time. We teach children to be unwelcoming, wary or even fearful of people with disabilities, sometimes without even realizing it. Children learn through imitation, and as they grow older, they form habits and opinions by repeating what they see and hear. It is essential for each of us to be mindful of our words and actions.

When an adult walks past someone in a wheelchair, turning their head to the side to avoid making eye contact, the child next to them learns to avoid interactions with people in wheelchairs.

When a dad without a disability parks in the handicapped spot in a parking lot, he is teaching the children in his car that the needs of those who truly require such spots are insignificant.

When a mom deliberately avoids the checkout line at the grocery store that has a clerk or a bagger with disabilities, she teaches the children with her that this person's work means less than someone else's.

When a parent tells a teacher, in earshot of their own child, that they doesn't want their son in class with "that" child, they teaches their son that children with disabilities are less worthy of an education.

Robert Fulghum once said, "Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you." With those words in minds, consider the following alternatives to the scenarios described above.

What if an adult looked the man using a wheelchair in the eye and simply said "good morning"?

What if a dad explained to the children in his car that the reason they have to walk a little farther this morning is because certain parking spots are saved for people who have trouble walking – and that fair isn't always equal?

What if a mom deliberately chose a grocery store line staffed by a clerk with a disability and, once outside the store, explained to her children that their family continues to shop at this very store because of its inclusive employment policies?

What if a parent told a teacher, in earshot of their son, that their son has already mastered the math lesson and would be happy to help another child in the class catch up?

Lead by example. Be the person you hope your children will become. Teach your children that a wheelchair is just a ride. Demonstrate the value of treating others with kindness . Discuss the significance of choosing your words carefully and standing up for equality and the rights of others. Our Jewish faith commands it of us, and our children will be the better for it.

How about: This is what it means to weave the values of our faith to enable each of us, and our children, to live a Jewish life in word and deed.

For more on this topic, visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's disability rights issue page