The religious perspective

According to the Social Work Forum Journal (Winter 2006) of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, there is a marked dearth of published literature on the attitudes of orthodox Jews toward disability. Within biblical and talmudic texts, there are similarly threaded attitudes toward the mentally ill, mentally retarded, physically disabled, deaf, blind, and other disabled people: They are generally seen as "blemished" and lacking the ability to communicate. No doubt, there is still a huge stigma within orthodox Jewish life regarding challenged children. And yet, there are vast differences in a family's ability to accept and relate to their challenged member, which goes way beyond adherence to the six hundred and thirteen mitzvot. According to Goldie Marans, director of training at Shalva (The Association of Mentally & Physically Challenged Children in Israel,) the prevalent attitudes surrounding the birth of a challenged child fall into three categories: In the first scenario, the family says that this is a nefesh tahor (pure soul) and a gift from God. These same people are able to rapidly accept the unexpected news. There is no embarrassment because, after all, how can one be embarrassed by God's handiwork? There is nothing to hide. The second group is comprised of those who believe that the birth of a special-needs baby is a punishment. According to Marans, in these cases therapists must exercise caution and be certain to acknowledge the expression of grief. "Their outlook is too different and, in fact, for them tales of light are merely 'blinding.'" She explains that much of the negative attitude has to do with who they were before the event, and how they coped with other disappointments in the past. "One grandmother stood in the hospital corridor and shouted that the hospital had made a mistake. That 'this couldn't happen in our family.'" The third common attitude surrounding the arrival of a special-needs infant is immediate acceptance of God's trust. This is markedly different than the first example of accepting his will. The parents here see their situation as a matter of a heavenly challenge to be met. Upon being asked by their young children, "Why did this happen to us?" the answer of this family would, most likely be, "Would you give your favorite toy to just anyone?" It is important to note that there are many non-religious couples who know beforehand that the fetus they are carrying is imperfect and decidedly choose not to abort. Those interviewed for this article preferred to avoid discussions of God or religiosity but, instead, confidently stated that their decisions were based on ethics and a deep love of humanity. I heard more than once: "We were seeking a child to love - not perfection."