Special Needs Redefined; The Rebbe’s View

Watch: The Rebbe’s had a ground-breaking approach on Jewish inclusion and how we should relate to individuals with special needs or a handicap.

When meeting a child with Down Syndrome or someone in a wheelchair, the first thing we tend to notice is their limitations and what sets them apart from the rest of society.

In the 70s, Dr. Robert Wilkes, a renowned psychologist, consulted with the Rebbe about the Jewish perspective on individuals with disabilities. The Rebbe rejected the label “retarded” which was commonly used at the time to define special needs and handicapped individuals. Instead, the Rebbe chose to use the title “special.”

If Hashem created a person with a specific limitation, then He also granted them extraordinary capabilities in other aspects of their nature. The Rebbe suggested that if proper aptitude tests would be performed on special children, they would score very high in certain areas. 

In another conversation with parents of an autistic child, the Rebbe stressed the unique relationship that their son has with Hashem. While their child seems to be in his own world, he can relate to Hashem as much, if not more, than anyone else.

In a letter, the Rebbe described how doctors and nurses saw this in front of their eyes. Patients who were ranked depressed, senile, or oblivious to the world displayed interest and joy at the sight of a Lulav and Esrog.  A mitzvah is a tangible connection between a special individual and the world around him. Every Jew can and should be included in the Jewish experience.

The Rebbe’s approach also empowered those with physical disabilities. In a sicha addressing a group of disabled Israeli veterans, the Rebbe suggested that the term “disabled” be replaced with “metzuyanim beyisroel” — the exceptional of Israel. The Rebbe clarified that this is not just a name change, but expresses the reality as it is.

The Rebbe created a paradigm shift in the definition of special needs and handicapped individuals. Their strengths and unique capabilities should be their defining factor.

What will you think about the next time you meet a child with Down Syndrome or someone in a wheelchair?


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