The following is a guest blog by Michelle K. Wolf, a special needs parent activist and non-profit professional who has worked in the governmental and non-profit sectors for the past 26 years. She blogs weekly at www.jewishjournal.com/jews_and_special_needs. You can also follow her on Twitter @SpecialNeedsIma
When we talk about opening the tent to Jews with special needs, we must go beyond welcoming them in and nurturing their involvement with synagogue life. Part of leading a “normal life” also involves falling in love. As Michelle discusses here, the Jewish community can support these needs, as well.
It’s almost summertime, and as the weather gets warmer and flowers are budding, thoughts of romance are everywhere. But for adults with developmental disabilities, moving from thought to action is tough to do. Although they may be working in paid employment, providing volunteer hours at a local Meals-on-Wheels program, or playing basketball at the Jewish Community Center, figuring out the complicated rules of dating and romance is often a black hole.
Most of these young adults aren’t at college with access to Hillels or other Jewish young adult programming. Even in the most observant portion of the Orthodox world, making a match using a shadchan (matchmaker) for a young adult with developmental disabilities is still a challenge, although less so for a young woman than a young man.
Should they start talking to the cute stranger at the mall? How will the objects of their affection respond to their overtures? Are parents or other family members ready and/or willing to help facilitate these types of relationships? And then there’s the whole issue of birth control.
“My 26-year old son really wants a girlfriend,” one mother said at a recent family meeting I attended, “but just doesn’t know where to start.” Another parent there who had a daughter close in age jokingly said that perhaps they should fix the two of them up. We lightly tossed around the idea of starting a paid, on-line dating service for adults with disabilities to help pay for on-going support services.
In Israel, there’s a wonderful program called the “Significant Others” Project which fills this void. Participants in this project, run by Shalheveth in Jerusalem, learn how to have romantic relationships through workshops and one-on-one counseling by both a social worker and a personal coach. In addition, Romantic Interludes, a short documentary film about the project, is airing on Israeli TV, raising awareness of — and sensitivity to — the needs of people with disabilities and their capacity for love and companionship.
The best story I’ve heard about this subject was told by a mom at a recent Autism conference in Los Angeles talking about creating new housing options for adults with Autism. When her autistic son was 14 years old, she inherited a sum of money that she used as a down payment for a nearby two-bedroom condo.
At the time, she told her son that the second bedroom could be used for an aide, or perhaps a roommate. Then the parents rented out the condo, and waited for the son to be ready to move out. When he turned 21, he wasn’t ready and needed to learn more independent living skills such as shopping, cooking, and doing laundry. Year by year, he learned more and at age 26, finally moved out. “The second bedroom is now an office,” she said, keeping us all in suspense. “And in the first bedroom, there’s my son with his girlfriend”. The audience roared with approval while she blushed.
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