Walking In Someone Elses’s Shoes, and Perhaps My Own

07 May 2013

By Batya Rosner

Batya Rosner is Assistant Director of Public Relations for the Orthodox Union

One morning I experienced autism, attention deficit and hyper-activity disorder (ADHD), writing challenges, executive function challenges, fine motor challenges, hearing loss, gross motor challenges, difficulty articulating sounds correctly, difficulty in word retrieval, blindness, and dyslexia. Then I walked back to my desk and resumed my regular work.

As I sat down and began my projects, it occurred to me that while I am fortunate enough not to have the afore-mentioned disabilities, I possess traits that allow me to relate to these disabilities more than I would have imagined.

Yachad recently allowed me and my fellow able-bodied OU staff members, to briefly experience inclusion within the world of a person with special needs, when we participated in one of its signature programs, “Sensitizing your Students to the Learning Challenges of Their Peers”—a series of workshops that build awareness and sensitivity toward peer and student challenges.

Yachad is the Orthodox Union’s agency dedicated to promoting the Inclusion of individuals with physical and developmental disabilities within the broad Jewish community.

Since the workshops’ inception two years ago, more than 5,000 students in schools, camps and community organizations across North America have participated in this program, which can also be called, “Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes.” Another thousand students in 30 schools nationally will participate this year, according to Batya Jacob, director of educational support services for Yachad, and one of the workshop creators. The curriculum was developed by The International Jewish Resource Center for Inclusion and Special Education, a division of Yachad.

Yachad staff at the workshop provided simulations of the various challenges listed above. As we broke into small groups, each disability experience was presented at a different table; dialogue with questions was led by the Yachad experts to assist in creating the mindset of walking in someone else’s shoes.

To simulate autism with sensory overstimulation, Yachad social work intern Yael Bindiger, a graduate student at Fordham University, asked me to build whatever I wanted with Lego, as my colleagues used household items to bombard my senses. A bright flashlight was shined into my eyes; garlic pepper and oregano were wafted under my nose; my hand was rubbed by a nail file; and I was fed chocolate pudding, as they all spoke to me.

As I attempt to build a house with legos, my colleagues bombarded my senses to better help understand autism challenges.

“We wanted to provide this opportunity for our colleagues at the OU—not just to sensitize them to the work Yachad does, but to the life affecting situations that Yachad deals with in its work,” shared Batya Jacob.

It was mentally exhausting to stay on task, and I quickly found myself wanting to be left alone. In my desire to make the sensory overload stop, I found myself unable to sit still while becoming agitated because I couldn’t articulate my thoughts as well I wanted to, especially when spoonfuls of pudding interrupted my speech. My peers, who were creating this environment around me, simply could not understand what I was experiencing, until each had his or her own turn.

OU Synagogue Services Associate Director Yehuda Friedman is assisted by Yachad Assistant Director Eli Hagler as Yehuda experiences writing challenges.

In an exercise on executive functioning challenges—basically, the brain’s difficulty in following one step directly after another—two colleagues and I were asked by Deborah Berman, psychotherapist and director of social work at Yachad, to listen as she read a series of directions, and to take turns carrying out the tasks. Deborah instructed us to pick up a ball, bounce it, get up and walk, throw the ball into the air and catch it, sit down and place the ball in a bowl; somehow, we each heard different tasks. Deborah informed us that executive functioning challenges are very common. We probed further, to know how this affects a child in school, or an adult in the work place. What treatments are there for a five-year-old and a fifty-year-old?

“‘Disability’ is not a blanket statement… Disabilities are unique,” Deborah replied. “How disability manifests for one person is very different from how it manifests for somebody else. You can’t treat and approach people in terms of a diagnosis; you have to approach clients and treat clients as individuals. Also, how someone perceives their disability is a very personal thing, and it cannot be a blanket assumption for everyone.”

Throughout the program, I envisioned putting myself in someone else’s shoes. This became more plausible as I realized how the traits associated with the disabilities demonstrated at each table may, to a certain degree, be tendencies I now know that I already possess. It could happen to anyone. And while I may be able-bodied at the moment, there is no guarantee in life that I will always be so.

OU Kosher employee Chana Raizel Segal attempts to jump rope using a walker to simulate gross motor challenges.

Yachad emphasizes inclusion of those with special needs within the mainstream Jewish community. Now, with the help of a little education, I feel included within the world of those with special needs. I took the questions posed to me by the Yachad experts and easily found myself translating them into my everyday life: difficulty staying on task; misunderstanding what I’ve heard; visual challenges.

Batya Jacob began the workshop session with two spelling tests, with separate recordings of each word—one using deaf speech, one using normal speech. It was significantly harder to understand the recording of deaf speech, as much of the auditory information was missing. I’m reminded how back at my desk, which is in a bustling part of the office, the phone often rings with reporters calling. Without missing a beat, I take their contact information and write it down; it’s not uncommon for me to call a reporter back to clarify that I heard them correctly.

During an exercise on ADHD, I was asked, “How might my ability to perform tasks become affected when it is difficult to concentrate on an assigned task?” This wasn’t new to me. On a given day, I’ll be been given an assignment that seems simple enough. But as soon as I sit down to focus, the phone rings or a colleague nearby at her desk is talking on the phone, or other colleagues are discussing a project that interests me, or people walk past my desk. There is so much commotion at the office. In what feels like a blink of an eye, my supervisor calls me—is it ready?

Becca Zebovitz of Yachad (in blue) leads an exercise on visual acuity challenges, for which participants where blindfolded and required to sort a variety of coins into the cups.

Even after experiencing these scenarios, I realized that while they are quite realistic, I could walk away from the experience and resume as an able-bodied individual. But what if I could not simply walk away from a physical or mental challenge?

By physically trying to walk in someone else’s shoes, I was given a deeper appreciation of what it means to live with a disability. I was humbled by the experiences that led me to see these tendencies in myself. We are all created with strengths and weaknesses. We all learn differently. Most importantly, we all have abilities and to some degree disability. I will take these lessons with me wherever, and however, I walk.