Redefining Potential: The Wisdom of the Special Needs Community 

Redefining Potential: The Wisdom of the Special Needs Community 

Thursday, February 11th, 2016


The Jewish Press / By Zahava Altshul
At my high school graduation, the faculty encouraged us to go out into the world and strive to reach our “fullest potentials.”  For my class, the endeavor entailed an extended process of identifying our abilities, strengths, and interests, and then harnessing our innate passions to find our niches within the worlds of medicine, law and education.

This, of course, is the norm.  When discussing our potentials, we continually focus on long-term self-actualization goals like finding a rewarding career and reaching for our ideal levels of physical and mental health.  But I have always wondered if we are missing something, if perhaps by prescribing to this definition of fulfillment, we obscure the bigger picture.

Working as a special education teacher at ALEH, Israel’s largest network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, I tend to focus on a different kind of potential when working with my students.  For example, while most 6 years olds are occupied with the challenge of learning to read, ALEH students in the same age group work diligently towards the goals of holding a spoon and recognizing their own names.

The spring months, the height of “Bar/Bat Mitzvah” season, always brings to mind the most poignant example.  Year after year, we group together students who are celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for a beautiful joint ceremony.  While the standard procedure is to teach young men and women at this stage of life how to read from the Torah or help them prepare an impressive speech, our goals are very different: we simply want to make sure that our students with disabilities recognize that they are the ones being celebrated.

To achieve this goal, we create a sensory prayer book complete with bright colors and varied textures that allows each child to interact with and, quite literally, feel the blessings.  Because these children can’t walk or talk, we had to redefine their Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience as a platform for engagement and recognition. Like all other young men and women marking this special milestone, they are successful in reaching their fullest potentials.  That potential and the method to get there is just very different.

Often, when I share such stories, the weight of this reality brings the mood way down.  But I immediately remind my audience of another important truth: those who struggle with meeting more “basic” milestones tend to smile a lot more than the average person.

Caught up in the whirlwind of life, we are confronted with our daily struggles. But even when we succeed, we appear unfulfilled, stressed, and worn out.  By comparison, a disabled child who is struggling to walk tends to have a contented smile on his face throughout the arduous process.

The question, of course, is why the disparity is so great.  What does the special needs community continually intuit that we can’t ever seem to see?

Perhaps the answer is that those who struggle with physical and cognitive disabilities possess a heightened ability to perceive a real miracle when they see (or accomplish) one.  It’s as though their inborn “restrictions” and “barriers” are actually a framework for amplified blessing recognition.  The rest of us, however, are busy looking so far beyond ourselves, that we fail to see that which we already have, the blessings within us.

As we take to the streets to advocate for our brothers and sisters with special needs during Jewish Disabilities Awareness & Inclusion Month (February), we would be wise to also spend some time on serious introspection.  Though the promotion of the integration and acceptance of disabled individuals within our society is paramount, the most impactful acknowledgement of the special needs population would be the internalization and dissemination of their unspoken wisdom.
The rat race will fall away and the walls of societal division will come tumbling down once we replace our obsession with the destination with a grand celebration of the fulfillment of each step along the way.


Zahava Altshul is a special education teacher at ALEH (www.ALEH.org), Israel’s largest and most advanced network of residential facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities.  A native of Silver Spring, MD, Zahava now lives in Modi’in with her husband and three children.