February 6, 2012
A few weeks ago, I had the evening news on while preparing dinner, and I perked up when I heard Brian Williams introduce a story about a six-year-old New Jersey boy.
Ryan Langston - blond-haired, wide-eyed, and infectiously energetic – takes time from school and playing with his brother and friends to model the latest kids wear for some of the biggest retailers around, Target and Nordstrom among them.
Whether showing off this season’s bomber jacket, or a new line of hoodies, his good looks, poise and boyishness are striking as he poses with other kids in national ad campaigns.
So what, right?
Well, Ryan has Down syndrome. But glancing at the ads, that fact seems no more noticeable or relevant or important than the girl next to him having black hair, or the boy to the far right being Asian.
The school is one of 13 Jewish day schools in the Boston area at which Gateways supports inclusion of students with special learning needs and ensures that they receive a Jewish education.
Or ten-year-old Mira Weisskopf, a beautiful girl with cerebral palsy who attends Zervas Elementary School in Newton during the week, and a Gateways Jewish education program each Sunday.
Just like Ryan in the ads, each of them is part of the fabric of their schools and communities, adding to the richness and diversity within them, bringing a dose of individual potential to the mix.
Our culture, discourse and sensitivities are driven to a considerably extent by what is reflected in television shows, movies or advertisements.
So it is heartening to me that major companies such as Nordstrom, Target and Proctor and Gamble – all purveyors of the national dialogue through their ad campaigns – have quietly but boldly chosen to include those with special needs.
Gateways believes that only through such exposures will the greater population come to know that these individuals, like all of us, come packaged with strengths and weaknesses, but that we all have our contributions to make and should be allowed the opportunity to offer them.
That brings me to the fact it is February, and that means we are marking Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
One of the operative words here is “awareness,” because as we recognize that all of those among us – like Ryan or Mira or Binny – are part of the collective tapestry, we are obliged to open every avenue for them to reach full potential, whatever that may be.
For the Gateways family, that entails swinging open the gates of Jewish community to our children and youth with special needs, allowing them to become full and participating members of our synagogues and schools, and empowering them to become agents of Jewish continuity.
But it all starts with awareness – of those with special needs and their positive place in the collective whole. And not just this month, while the Jewish community pays special attention and then moves on. No, this is imperative every month.
Now… how I’d love to see Mira or Binny in one of those Target ads.
P.S. Check out Jay Ruderman’s blog Zeh Lezeh. In A Model of Inclusion: Now Put It to Work, guest blogger Jo Ann Simons writes about how her son was featured in a clothing catalog in the 1980’s. She challenges companies to not only photograph people with disabilities, but hire them.
Category: Reflections & Perspectives
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