The New Normal

Everyone is welcome in The New Normal, a Jewish blog about disability. We're a source of information, inspiration and a challenge to received wisdom.

Autism Acceptance Is More Than Awareness

April is Autism Awareness Month.

It's not only about making people aware that autism exists. One in 68 individuals in the United States have autism. Most people know someone or know of someone that's affected by it.

It's not about just wearing blue for a day or making your kids wear blue to show support, although I do appreciate that and hope that there was a teachable moment in there somewhere!

From The Roots We Build

Editor's Note: As we think about Earth Day this week, we are happy to share this blog from a young woman interning in Israel's LOTEM program that supports bringing nature to people of all abilities.

Last February, I visited three of the ninety nature clubs that LOTEM runs around Israel. LOTEM's mission statement came to life as I watched Noa, a nature club guide, run her activity and lesson for adults with severe disabilities. Nature was brought to life in front of them and I was able to see the direct impact that it had on them, whether it was a large smile or scream of joy!

Participants at Elwyn. Courtesy of LOTEM

Sam Gelfand: Speaking Out On Asperger Syndrome, Bullying and Jewish Community

Editor's Note: I was delighted to be an audience member last spring when Sam Gelfand, a teenager from Florida, presented to a group of Jewish educators at Boston's Hebrew College about his experiences living with Asperger Syndrome. In the last few years, Sam has spoken to schools, synagogues, camps and other Jewish organizations, sharing his first-hand experiences of living with Asperger Syndrome. Sam is an incredibly engaging speaker and would love to share his powerful message with your community.

NN: Sam, since you were 12 years old, you have been speaking to communities about what it's like to live with Aspergers. Were you initially afraid to speak in front of audiences? What got you through it?

SG: Believe it or not, I have never gotten stage fright. If anything, I feel that the pressure of speaking in front of a live audience actually forces me to do better.

Autism, Aggression And ECT: A Mother's Story Of Hope

This month, many inspiring stories will be featured in the media in celebration of Autism Awareness month, such as one I just read about a young autistic basketball player who recently sank his thousandth half-court shot, or another about the teen who performed a duet with Weird Al Yancovic at the recent Comedy Central benefit. While these victories should unquestionably be celebrated by everyone touched by autism, it’s important to realize they don’t reflect reality for a significant chunk of the community.

The author and her son Jonah. Courtesy of Amy Lutz

The Freedom Of Nature: Making Hiking Accessible To All Students

This past winter, LOTEM - Making Nature Accessible organized a hike for both Plagim School's Keren Or (Ray of Light) special needs class and fifth grade regular education class. Two students, one with special needs (Rom) and one from the regular education class (Gal), shared their experiences in a conversation with LOTEM on what going out to nature means to them.

Participants on a hike in Israel. Courtesy of Lotem

All Are Welcome At The Seder

In your mind’s eye, look around at those with whom you have celebrated past Seders. 

A contemplative girl is full of questions: How could a respected family in Egypt so quickly become an enslaved nation? Why was Pharaoh so stubborn?

There’s the "Squirmer." If he doesn’t declare outright that he’d rather not be at the Seder, his body language clearly broadcasts the message.

Seated next to each other are two frustrated guests. One is always losing his place in the Haggadah, and the other’s eyes often stray to the kitchen.

During its recounting of the Exodus from Egypt, the Haggadah “pauses” to consider Seder participants resembling those described above. They are portrayed as four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who doesn’t know how to ask. 

Rabbi Michael Levy

The Four Children, Without Judgement, In The New Gateways Haggadah

Rachel was, by turns, enthusiastic, grumpy, silly, listless, sunny and full of pre-teen attitude. As the result of her childhood stroke, she used a bright pink wheelchair to get around, and she communicated through hand gestures, vocalizations, facial expressions and a communication device called a Dynavox (also pink). Rachel’s love of Judaism was unmistakable, but her parents told us they had always hated the Four Children in the Hagaddah.

If Elijah Arrived In A Wheelchair, Could You Welcome Him To Your Seder?

If Elijah had a disability would he be welcomed at your Seder? During Passover we traditionally have a cup of wine at our Seder table for Elijah and we open the door to let him in. Could he get into your home or the place in which you celebrate the Passover holiday? If Elijah used a wheelchair or had other ambulation challenges could he get in?  Would you invite him in if he looked different or sounded unusual when he spoke? Could he participate in the rituals of Passover if he could not read the Haggadah? (For people who do not read or read well there is now an adapted Haggadah.)

Jewish Disability Awareness Month: How To Keep The Message Alive

Last month, many people worked tirelessly to make congregations and communities across our country aware of the capabilities and aspirations of Jews with disabilities. What can we do to transform the message of Jewish disability awareness into meaningful changes that bring us closer to full integration into Jewish life the other eleven months of the year?

Dramatic and widely publicized events have their place, but how long will their message remain effective? The experiences of the Biblical stories of Moses and Elijah remind us that ongoing “small quiet voices” must be heard after the fanfare. Let’s look at some “awareness initiatives” from early Jewish history that can help to guide us.

Rabbi Michael Levy
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