Yachad member Zev Diamond, who is in his twenties, marched proudly in the Israel Day Parade this past summer. But he didn’t have to wait for the next Yachad event to share his excitement; he had Facebook.
Those with developmental and other disabilities are eagerly logging onto social media sites, welcoming this easy ticket out of isolation. But while some advocates for the developmentally disabled see social media as a boost for Inclusion, others view it as a possible deterrent to forming real relationships. One thing is clear, however: this window to connection isn’t closing anytime soon.
“It’s the trend of society and we want to give Yachad members the tools to open more doors socially,” says Rebecca Schrag, program director for senior Yachad.
Yachad/NJCD (National Jewish Council for Disabilities) is an OU program dedicated to enhancing the life opportunities of individuals with disabilities and ensuring their participation in the full spectrum of Jewish life. “A Yachad member from Florida and another from New Jersey could now stay in touch; they could share pictures on Facebook from our Shabbatons. Also, members with speech impediments are able to articulate their thoughts more clearly. Over the Internet, they are able to open up and see how capable they actually are.”
And for the Jewish deaf, social media effectively break through the sound barrier. “The deaf and hard-of-hearing have a difficult time with typical modes of communication,” says Batya Jacob, Yachad program director of educational services. “Twitter and sites like iChat and Facebook have been instrumental in fostering relationships for our members. We have members all over the world—Australia, England and Israel—who are now able to communicate with each other.”
Both the Yachad and Our Way Facebook pages offer their members a common space to post about upcoming events and to relive them afterward. They also generate new membership. “In the last month, seven new deaf Jews requested joining Our Way,” says Jacob. “We had no idea they were out there.”
Professionals working with individuals with developmental disabilities acknowledge the advantages of social media while expressing serious concerns. “People are being shown a whole world out there where they can say, do and see whatever they please,” says Schrag. “We spend so much time teaching our members social skills, but the need to respect privacy goes out the window when everything’s accessible.”
Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, national director of Yachad/NJCD, agrees. “People think they have 700 friends on Facebook; that’s so misleading,” he says. “A Yachad member can think he has all these friends but he really doesn’t. They’ll also connect in sometimes inappropriate ways—by disclosing inappropriate personal information, for example.”
In light of these challenges, Yachad plans to include a “How to Use Facebook” component in its Relationship Building Course (RBC) curriculum. The RBC, offered to developmentally disabled teenagers and adults throughout the country, has traditionally covered topics such as listening, initiating and continuing conversations, decision making, exercising self-control and recognizing and dealing with unsafe situations. RBC participants will now also learn about online safety and etiquette, such as what constitutes an appropriate posting versus a posting that is invasive or socially out of bounds.
“While social media can play a significant role in reducing isolation and can be used well if our members are taught how to use it appropriately,” Dr. Lichtman says, “it’s only a tool, not a panacea toward Inclusion. With all this buzz and chatter [about social media], I would argue that we are actually less connected in the most real and meaningful ways. Social media do not, cannot and should not substitute for real-time, real-person social contact. Nothing replaces the power of face-to-face human interaction.”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.