In recent years, there has been a growing consensus within the Jewish community that our schools and youth programs must welcome learners with disabilities. At the same time, many schools have found it difficult to put this into practice. Why is that, and what can we do about it?

One reason inclusion is hard is that we have inherited a long legacy of discrimination against learners with disabilities. Prior to the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, American public schools were not required to accept students with disabilities.[1]  Exclusion went beyond school. Two generations ago, children born with disabilities were routinely taken away from their communities and placed into institutions. In the period during which institutionalization was widely accepted, two leading Orthodox halakhic authorities, Rabbis Tzitz Eliezer and Moshe Feinstein ruled that it was permissible to leave Jews with disabilities in institutions in which they were fed non-kosher food.[2] This discriminatory practice has led to the absence of learners with disabilities in both Jewish and secular settings, and to major gaps in our understanding of pedagogy. This is a systemic problem, and not the fault of individual teachers who are struggling.

Since learners with all kinds of disabilities have largely been excluded from schools, our pedagogies have been developed with the assumption that no one in the room has a significant disability. In both Jewish and secular contexts, our existing approaches implicitly assume a population far less diverse than the actual groups of learners we are responsible for teaching. Our methods of instruction in Jewish schools need revision to account for all the learners in the room, including those with disabilities. In order to truly build inclusive Jewish schools, we need to build inclusion into our pedagogies. This is easier said than done, but every step we take in that direction will make life better for all of our students.

Progressive instructional methodologies are not inherently inclusive. For example:

  • Facilitated discussions or “think, pair, share” exercises can exclude learners with cognitive or communication disabilities. Those who process information more slowly may not be able to follow the conversation and those with speech disabilities may not be heard.
  • Big paper activities depend on the ability to read and write on big paper. Without inclusive planning, students with impaired motor skills, visual impairments, or social anxiety may not be able to participate.
  • Arts and crafts activities may be difficult or impossible for students who struggle to understand the instructions or do the physical tasks involved.
  • Variation and novelty in modalities can in and of itself be a problem for learners with disabilities. Some learners may find it disorienting; others may find that every novel activity brings with it a novel access barrier.

As we revise methods to account for the presence of learners with disabilities, it is critical to take both individual uniqueness and minority commonalities seriously. Learners with disabilities almost always have something in common with at least some other learners with disabilities. This is similar to developmentally appropriate practice: all children are unique, but children who are the same age generally have certain things in common. Instructional design is much more effective when we are aware of both probable commonalities and individual differences. Being mindful of similarities allows us to use methods created for one person in one learning environment with others learners and/or environments. Being mindful of uniqueness allows us to avoid the rigidity of stereotypes and relate to our learners as real people.

In addition to general inclusion, we need to revise our pedagogical content knowledge for Jewish subjects. Inclusive PCK takes into account the ways that disability can affect prior knowledge, perspectives, conceptions, preconceptions, and misconceptions. Disability, by definition, affects a person’s body or mind in a significant way. Their disability is part of who they are all the time and it affects their life experiences in both direct and indirect ways. Both the physical differences themselves and the social meanings of those differences have an impact. Since students with disabilities have different experiences, they often have different knowledge sets, and the questions they ask may sometimes have a different range of connotations.

For example, in text study, when discussing the words of Moses, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exod. 4:10), and “Do not insult the deaf; do not lay a stumbling block before the blind” (Exod. 19:14), learners without disabilities tend to read allusions to disability as metaphors. Learners who have the relevant disabilities may read these texts and other with similar language as a literal reference to bodies like theirs.[3] Inclusive PCK allows educators to respond appropriately to both kinds of responses.

Similarly, young learners may understand allusions to death differently. Most typically developing children think of death as something that happens to old people. Children with disabilities are often much more aware of both their own mortality and the fact that children sometimes die.[4][5] Inclusive PCK for Holocaust education, Torah stories that involve death, and High Holy Days liturgy takes into account the possibility that some learners may understand mortality differently and more potently as a result of their own life experience.

In order to develop the inclusive Jewish pedagogical content knowledge that we need, here are four sets of questions we should be asking in every context:

1. Are learners with disabilities present and participating? Who is missing? For instance, do discriminatory policies exclude learners with disabilities or are they allowed to attend? Are learners with disabilities able to physically enter the building and remain there safely? Are they in the same spaces and programs as nondisabled peers? Once they are in the building, do learners with disabilities have things to do there?

2. Do learners with disabilities have meaningful access to the same content that others are learning? How do you know?

For instance, are modifications made for students with disabilities merely enabling them to perform superficially similar tasks or are they enabling them to understand the content?

3. Are learners with disabilities included in shared experiences that define group membership?

For instance, are learners with disabilities welcome and accommodated in field trips, Israel trips, and other special activities valued by their peer group? When typically-developing learners routinely break rules together, are learners with disabilities allowed to get away with breaking the same rules, or are they held to standards that separate them from the group? When there is a tzedakah project, are learners with disabilities seen as having a contribution to make?

4. Are learners with and without disabilities treated equally?

For instance, are learners with disabilities seen as having the right to be there, or is their presence treated as an experiment? Are learners with disabilities welcome in all activities, or is their participation restricted to a special program? When learners with disabilities contribute to class discussions, do others take what they say seriously? Is disability a taboo topic or are learners with disabilities welcome to reference it?

When we say “learners,” we must include learners with disabilities, every time. A curriculum can’t be regarded as finished if it was written without inclusive PCK in mind, including accessibility and differentiated instruction considerations. When we evaluate a theory of education, we must ask how it takes into account the presences of learners with disabilities. Every education course must be designed to prepare educators to include learners with disabilities in every pedagogical skill they are learning.  If we shift our expectations towards inclusion, we have the power to change the world.

Rabbi Ruti Regan (RS ’17) is the rabbinic disability scholar in residence at Matan, a nonprofit organization that facilitates inclusion of children with disabilities in Jewish educational settings. In this capacity, Rabbi Regan researches Jewish disability issues and creates educational resources, including a free monthly webinar. Rabbi Regan was ordained by JTS in 2017, is a disabled disability activist, and the author of realsocialskills.org. Follow Matan on Twitter and/or Facebook @mataninc.


[1] https://educationonline.ku.edu/community/idea-timeline

[2] Tzitz Eliezer, 14:69, 1946

[3]For an example of a literal reading informed by disability experience, see Rabbi Lauren Tuchman’s “Pokeakh Ivrim: Opening our Minds to New Forms of Inclusion”

[4] Bluebond-Langner, Myra. The Private Worlds of Dying Children. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978.

[5] Johnson, Harriet McBryde. “Too Late to Die Young.” In Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life, Reprint edition. New York: Picador, 2006.

 “This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.”