If you weren’t looking for it, you probably missed it. And that’s kind of the point.
This year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade featured, as always, marching bands, Broadway performers, 50-foot long character balloons, as well as tons of cheer and good will. And about three-quarters of the way through the parade appeared the Sesame Street float, complete with Julia and her noise-canceling headphones.
Julia, a Muppet with autism who was introduced on Sesame Street in 2017, is featured regularly on the show. The other Muppets learn that Julia may communicate differently than they do, that she may exhibit repetitive movements or avoid eye contact, but, ultimately, they are all Muppets, essentially the same in all the ways that matter. With Julia’s help, the Sesame Street gang learn how to tailor their games and conversations slightly so that everyone can be included, and usually they discover that the new way is more fun anyway. Julia often notices things that the other Muppets never thought of, and brings a new perspective to everyday happenings in the beloved neighborhood.
So it made perfect sense that Julia’s friends would make sure she was well prepared for the over-stimulating noise and crowds of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Julia’s a great advocate for herself, too, because she’s learned that her needs can and will be met, and that with certain accommodations she can be very successful. During the parade, noise-cancelling headphones were exactly what she needed.
Last week, sociologist Andrew Whitehead published an article in the Washington Post entitled, “Kids with Disabilities Face Many Challenges. Church Shouldn’t be One of Them.” (Despite the title, we can almost certainly recognize our Jewish places of worship in the narrative.) Whitehead — a parent of two children with disabilities — recently completed a study on disability and religion and found, in part, that “the odds of children on the autism spectrum never attending religious services are almost double what they are for children without a chronic health condition. The odds of never attending religious services for children with depression, or a developmental delay or learning disability, are also higher (1.7 and 1.4 times greater, respectively).” He further explained that many parents report that their children with disabilities have been unable to participate because of lack of support, and said their congregations had never asked how to best include their children.
Why don’t they ask? Probably for the same reason parents don’t immediately disclose their children’s challenges. They don’t know what the response will be. On the synagogues’ side, perhaps they’re concerned that “what the child needs” will be beyond their institutional capacity. On the parents’ side, they fear that their spiritual home will quickly become one more on the long list of places their children are not welcome. And that is too painful to bear.
Individuals with disabilities, and parents of children with disabilities, are not going to feel comfortable asking for what they need until they see people who “look like them” within the congregation. And synagogues, for their part, need to recognize that being a “welcoming congregation” means asking questions that you don’t already know the answers to, and being willing to start with “yes.” It means demonstrating your desire to be inclusive with the words you say, the accommodations you offer, and the attitudes you foster within your own congregations. The people who don’t need the modifications likely won’t notice; but for those who do, it will send a clear signal that you have proactively planned for their arrival, and you are happy they are there.
As parents, we can make sure we support these efforts, and each other, by sharing in the responsibility to make sure everyone is included. Whether or not your own child requires additional supports, you can thank the leadership for making sure everyone can feel welcome and successful. You can have conversations with your children as they grow that different people need different things, and how great it is when everyone can participate together. You can reach out to other parents who seem to be struggling (we all are at one point or another!) and ask if there’s anything they would like you to do to help in that moment. Every single one of us can play a vital role in making sure our Jewish communities are inclusive.
The solution will not always be as clear cut and as simple as noise-canceling headphones. But because people with disabilities saw the Muppet, Julia, getting her needs met in what otherwise would have been an untenable situation for her, they recognized themselves in her success. How blessed we will all be when our synagogues, schools, youth groups and other Jewish programs allow every person to see themselves as an integral part of what makes the Jewish community complete.