Prior to my first visit to Shutaf’s afterschool program I was warned that most of the kids would speak little to no English, however with two months of ulpan under my belt, I was confident that I would be able to communicate with at least some of them. Boy was I wrong! When I arrived at the program, the kids were all very warm and welcoming, but once they started talking, I seemed to have forgotten all of the Hebrew that I had learned! A young girl immediately approached me to investigate who I was and what I was doing at Shutaf. A staff member not only had to translate for me, but also respond on my behalf. I was not as fortunate other times that afternoon and often found myself frantically searching for help when a child attempted to communicate with me. I was dependent entirely on the English-speaking staff. Not being able to communicate with the kids made me feel useless and completely isolated from the very people I was there to interact with.
As the afternoon progressed, many of the kids seemed to pick up on my limitation or special need, if you will. One boy took my hand and brought me over to where lunch was being served and merely pointed to the items that he wanted and required my help getting. Another girl, who insisted that we work on her art piece together, simply communicated by passing me a crayon and pointing at her drawing. I knew I correctly interpreted her actions when a huge grin spread across her face after I began adding a little jewelry to the ladies in her drawing! She clearly had not yet learned that every woman is in need of a little bling and I was happy to share such an important life lesson with her! After our artwork was complete, another group of kids gestured for me to join them on the floor for a card game that I was unfamiliar with. They demonstrated first how to play and then handed me the cards so that I could have a turn. They were patient when I didn’t catch on to some of the rules immediately and persistent in trying to find alternative ways to explain something when I didn’t understand their hand mimes the first time. Similar instances occurred throughout the remainder of the afternoon and, by the end of the program, I was baffled as to where the time went!
I had never thought of myself as being a person who has a disability, but reflecting back on my first visit to Shutaf, I now see that I was. Yes, it was only temporary and, in the realm of disabilities, doesn’t even begin to compare, but it did give me a quick glimpse into what many of these kids experience on a daily basis and may continue to throughout their lives. The initial feelings of isolation, exclusion, frustration, and purposelessness that endured when I arrived at Shutaf are typical for a person who has a disability. Although adjusting to this new environment and impairment of mine was difficult and uncomfortable at first, having the kids at Shutaf accept and include me despite my differences, made a huge impact and had me leaving with a sense of purpose. This outcome, I believe, can be attributed to the amazing, inclusive environment that the Shutaf staff has cultivated.
Above all else, Shutaf has taught me to value people’s differences by understanding that everyone has something worth contributing. I was lucky enough to be in an environment with kids who are thoughtful, tolerant, kind, and patient, and also embrace this very notion. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. It is important to remember that although you may not know now what it feels like to be a person who has a disability, likely, at some point in your life, you will (World Health Organization). Keep this in mind before you decide to brush off someone who might be a little bit different from you, or even before you choose to park on the sidewalk, making it virtually impossible for someone in a wheelchair to get somewhere they need to be, instead of spending the extra ten minutes it takes to find a parking spot, or before you opt to not make your business, classroom, program, or whatever else, accessible for everyone because it requires a little extra work on your end or might cost a bit more.
A huge thank you to all of the Shutaf staff and Shutaf participants for the invaluable lessons you have taught me over the last year! I will be sure to share those lessons and I hope you and everyone reading will do the same!
By Jenn Smith, Shutaf Intern