For at least the last decade, there has been increasing conversation about how to broaden inclusion in Jewish day schools, so a greater number of students with disabilities have access to serious Jewish education. Some of this conversation is about the challenges schools face, how day schools have failed children with disabilities, and what practices support inclusion. Yet, until recently, no research had been done that explored the experiences of parents of a child with disabilities in a Jewish day school setting.
Dr. Abigail Uhrman recently published the findings of her study on the parent perspective of disabilities and Jewish day schools. Uhrman found that parents of students with a disability:
- Chose Jewish day schools because they were looking for a warm and nurturing setting that supported their Jewish/religious commitments.
- Felt that, with a few school exceptions, day school teachers and administrators were generally lacking in providing guidance and support around disabilities.
- In cases where the students had mild to moderate disabilities, parents found parent-school communication to be positive, while parents of children with more severe disabilities felt the schools were insensitive and ineffective in their communication.
- Noted that there were few alternatives to a serious Jewish education and that the broader Jewish community was generally unaccepting. These families experience feelings of aloneness and marginalization.
- Overall, the parents in the study paint a "grim portrait of their interactions with individuals and institutions within the Jewish world" (day schools and others).
While Dr. Urhman's study is limited in scope and was conducted in only the New York/New Jersey region, she writes that the findings mirror those found in non-Jewish schools. Jewish day schools are, therefore, not alone in the inadequate experience parents feel as they support and advocate for a child with disabilities.
As my concern is the Jewish day school world, I will focus on the implications of Dr. Uhrman's study in that context. As Dr. Uhrman notes, "Schools should be more transparent about the resources they can provide and the needs they are able to successfully accommodate." Having a greater awareness both from schools and parents around supporting students with disabilities can alleviate some of the feelings of aloneness that parents experience.
A second implication is that schools need to understand better that parents of a student with disabilities do not expect schools to solve the challenges themselves but "to be part of the team that ... [is] working on the problem." Parents of a child with disabilities want and need to feel that schools are in this with them.
Another implication Urhman suggests is parents of a child with disabilities are incredibly open and willing to help school teams better meet their child's needs when they are asked compassionately. How schools explicitly engage parents, elicit their advice and a support, and manage parent conversations is essential.
Beyond expanding resources for broader inclusion and developing greater awareness of the challenges students with a disability face, Uhrman's study shows that Jewish day schools can work to better engage, communicate, and form stronger partnerships with parents of a child with disabilities. Being part of the Jewish community demands that we make central the experiences and feelings of parents of a child with disabilities.
Follow Mitch on Twitter: @MitchMalkus.