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No Longer Hidden Away

No Longer Hidden Away

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After more than 60 years, I still have a strong image of the phantom classroom in the basement of my Boro Park public school. I don’t recall how I knew that this classroom existed. I never really saw the students. I just knew that they were there.

One day, when my peers and I were playing in the basement lunchroom, I asked who had left food wrappers on the table. Someone replied that it must have been those “strange kids” from the basement classroom.

Someone pointed out their classroom as we walked by. I tried to see who was in the room, but the door was closed. It was always closed each time that I passed it. In the seven years that I went to P.S. 131, I never did see any of those “strange kids.”

But I always wondered who they were, and why they were hidden away.

Fast forward about 25 years. A dear friend asked me to drive her to visit her daughter in upstate New York. She explained that at a young age her daughter had a very high fever. After that, her daughter was never able to function beyond the level of a three-year-old. When she reached age 15, her parents were unable to deal with her violent outbursts, and placed her in an institution.

Tall mountains and lush forests surrounded the institution, tucked away in the Catskill Mountains. Arriving at the institution filled me with sorrow. Four or five large buildings surrounded a small playground. There were bars on many of the windows. Very little grass, trees or flowers grew.

Despite the beautiful summer day, no one was outside, except a young man who just seemed to be wandering around aimlessly.

My friend pointed out a small building in the distance: it was the schoolhouse.

I recalled the phantom classroom at P.S. 131.

I brought my friend to see her daughter each summer for several years. I never went inside, but instead dropped her off at the door of one of the largest buildings. Each year, as I drove around the area, I wondered why I never saw anyone outside. It was very eerie.

One year, my friend asked me if I wanted to meet her daughter. I was afraid of what I might see inside, but I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that. “Of course I do,” I responded as enthusiastically as I could. The sorrow and dismay that I felt when I walked inside is indescribable.

The place was clean, and there were some pictures on the wall. The room we walked into was exceptionally quiet, even with approximately 50 people in it. As I looked around, I realized why it was so quiet.

People were sitting in chairs and wheelchairs around the perimeter of the room. Some sat quietly, staring into space. Some mumbled quietly to themselves. Others walked around the room as if in a daze. A television was on, but no one was watching it.

Walking back to my car, I again thought about the class of children in the basement of my school. They were no longer phantoms to me. They were real people. How many of the adults that I had just seen had been in similar classrooms? Would their lives have been much different if there had been the idea of inclusion all those many years ago?

The answer is a resounding “yes!” Today, children and adults with disabilities are integral members of our society. Children attend neighborhood schools, camps and social activities; adults are employed in the workforce and are included in a wide variety of social events. We have learned that when people with and without disabilities live and interact together, everyone benefits.

Elaine Rubinoff, M.A., M.S. Spec. Ed., has spent 50 years working with students of all ages, in regular and special educational settings. Her passion is providing teachers with the necessary skills and techniques to enable their students to reach their full potential.
The Ruderman-Chabad Inclusion Initiative (RCII) is dedicated to building on the philosophy and mission of Chabad-Lubavitch by providing Chabad communities around the globe the education and resources they need to advance inclusion of people with disabilities. RCII engages Chabad’s network of human and educational resources to create a Culture of Inclusion so that all Jews feel welcomed, supported and valued throughout their entire lifecycle.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Widew of Bob. Oregon February 3, 2016

What a beautiful article.
I want to support the notion of inclusion of people with special needs by telling the following experience: every day, on the way home from work, my husband used to pass a home for adults with special needs. This was in the era when such people had just been released from institutions like the one you described. He told me that at the beginning, many sat on chairs on the front porch without moving, just as you described. He would smile and wave at them, as he did to all he passed as he walked. This was a fairly small town and it's what you did. As time went on he noticed a change among the residents. Eventually, they would smile and wave and even call out, "Hello!" Reply

Andy England February 2, 2016

It's a good article Elaine. Reply

Chani February 2, 2016

Thank you Thank you for sharing your wisdom and most inspiring message.
We have come a long way, thank G-d. As you put it--
"We have learned that when people with and without disabilities live and interact together, everyone benefits." Absolutely!
May Hashem grant you continued mazal and success in your important work! Reply