Are we placing stumbling blocks before the disabled?

“You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind”

Some time ago, I wrote about the many varieties of Jewish life within our communities, ending with a take on the motto, e pluribus unum, out of the many, one.

For Jews, I argued, it should be: “Out of the one, many.” The “many” include children and adults with special needs.

Is it true, as recent billboards have it, that “I have a career because someone could see my ability”? Or, too often, is it a turning away from people whose abilities no one can see? These individuals may be invisible. That is, we see them – but we don’t. Whether the issue is a mental illness, delayed development, autism spectrum or other disabling manifestations, they often melt into the woodwork.


The love Jewish parents show their children cannot be measured. Parents link us to the past, children point toward the future. Children have always been the precious jewels of the community.

But children with special needs, whether physical or developmental challenges or mental illness, often find short shrift. They may be denied a Jewish education, or their parents may be continually exhausted by the search for treatment, not to mention compassion and understanding.

Of course, adults with special needs started out as children, usually with the same issues. And while we have made some strides forward in accommodating children in day and supplementary Hebrew schools, we may forget about them when they reach adulthood.

They become the clients of an agency – or not. Maybe one agency has a staff position finding jobs for immigrants – but not for those who have grown up in the community. Sorry, no help here. Try the government job bank.

What is the numerical estimate of Jews with special needs? We got some estimates from local federation sources. These “guesstimates” are for British Columbia, so I assume that similar percentages apply to other communities.

There are approximately 27,000 Jews in B.C. Estimates are that mental illness affects 10 (maybe 15) per cent of the general population at any time. Thus 2,700 Jews in B.C. have chronic or episodic mental illness. Those with a developmental disability or on the autism spectrum cannot be accurately counted. What is known (Vancouver’s federation produced a 2014 study of services for the mentally challenged) is that services provided through Jewish community agencies are woefully under-resourced, and over-worked.

Some – repeat some – assistance can come from government. (An example: according to the federation study, professionals agree that the pitiful monies provided by British Columbia are useless, and some people come to the end of their tether, if not their lives, never having received a dime.)

The main challenge for families is finding considerate and constant help. Here is where Jewish community services are vital.

One example of community awareness is a program of our local Jewish community centre, which serves up to 40 adults and 10 youths through social programs, training and employment, and parent education. Given the number of Jews with needs, it is small, and funding, staff say, is a big hurdle. The Jewish Family Service Agency provides some counselling, referral services, employment and housing assistance. But in the face of increasing demand, it is frustrating for staff to come up short in the assistance they can provide.


In the book of Exodus, which we are now reading in synagogue, there is a lot of seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing, not listening, not really understanding.

There can be a deafness overtaking communities when they face the scope of need. If you have never had a family member with special needs, you may not hear, may not understand the despair that overtakes those seeking help.

Maybe we are not physically placing stumbling blocks in front of blind people. But as a community we should see and hear the need and be able to respond.