The therapies, the disrupted daily schedules, and the physical challenges all shrink when contrasted with the pointed stares of people on the street and the nasty comments overheard when advancing to the head of the line. ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran social worker Chen Gordon expounds on the difficulty facing parents of children with disabilities.
This week marked International Children’s Day, the goal of which is to advance the welfare of children and adolescents, many of whom live under poor social conditions and face complex challenges. Though all difficulties and challenges are worthy of mention, on this day it is particularly important to spotlight the various levels of challenges facing children with disabilities.
Data published by The Brookdale Institute shows that as of 2020, there were 326,000 children with disabilities in Israel (including children with learning disabilities or severe ADHD), making up 10% of Israel’s child population. These numbers point to an increase in the number of children with disabilities in Israel compared to previously accumulated data.
In Israel of 2022, many people are still put off by people and children with disabilities, from their unique physical appearance, the rehabilitation equipment they use, the way they express themselves, or their different behavior. Such people construct and erect a wall made of stereotypes and prejudice, a wall that prevents the full integration of people with disabilities into society and abandons them and their families to suffer the challenges of raising a child with disabilities by themselves.
We tend to be tolerant of the reactions of children who see people with disabilities and to prettify their responses with sentences such as, “she’s only a child, she doesn’t understand.” But this is a common mistake that further embeds distancing and fear of people who are other than ourselves. Education and dialogue to tolerance, equality, and acceptance of the other begin first and foremost at home, with overt and covert messages transmitted from parents to children during childhood. A parent who displays a lack of patience towards a person different than themselves transmits to their child a message that this is an acceptable way to act towards one who is different.
We see this in neighborhood playgrounds when a mother pulls her child towards her, distancing him from the child with disabilities. It happens at the grocery store check-out counter when the father of a child with disabilities faces shouts and angry stares because he bypasses the line in accordance with the law that allows him to do so, a law that seeks to make life easier for him and his child.
This is the cry of children with disabilities and their parents. A real cry that stems from the depths of their souls. This is an authentic offense, one for which we, as a society, not the government, are to blame. Parents and families whose lives are a complex reality of myriad challenges ask that the voices of these children be heard.
Many parents and families report that the main difficulty in raising a child with disabilities is not the unpredictable and demanding daily schedule that includes therapies, treatments, and absence from work. Rather, they disclose, the hardship lies in the daily challenge of dealing with society and the environment that does not accept them and their child with a disability. Many parents hide diagnoses and are not open with their surroundings, or even other family members, about having a child with a disability. They do not go out to the playground, to restaurants or to malls, and siblings do not invite friends to their home, all to avoid dealing with pointed stares, hurtful comments, being shunned by people who cross the street so as not to face them, etc.
Families of people with disabilities have nothing to be ashamed of. They do not have to hide. It is our job to affect a societal Tikkun Olam. To educate our children to accept those different than us.
When we meet someone different than ourselves, a child with a disability, it is important to pay attention to the way in which we look at them, how we react to their outward appearance, and what overt and covert messages we transmit to our children regarding acceptance, tolerance, and equality.
Chen Gordon, M.S.W., is the director of the ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitative Daycare Center and parental counselor.
Translated from the Hebrew. Appeared in Israel Today, Nov. 22, 2022