“At the Sabes Jewish Community Center (JCC) we welcome people of all ages and abilities to our inclusive community.” Until recently, this statement appeared on each page of the JCC website, though their “inclusion programs“(Special Olympics, a “special needs” cafe, “friendship seminars”) confuse inclusion with side-streaming.
I believed these bold words until our son was traumatized by the dreadful attitude, poor practices and inadequate planning of the JCC’s “inclusion director.” He participated as a tween in day camp, but after he entered puberty, the inclusion director’s attitude changed abruptly. Whenever our son tried to interact with any female friend from camp, the inclusion director intervened instantly and separated them. Our son to this day has no adolescent-type interest in girls. His main interests are Buzz Lightyear and other Pixar/Disney characters, The Wizard of Oz, pirates, soccer and Boy Scouts.
In July 2012, the inclusion director threw our son out of a “Wizard of Oz” summer theater program for 5th-12th graders, in which he was participating with the aid of his personal care attendant, who is an actor. Why? He asked a girl he knew from previous camps, and who also had (unknown to us) special needs, “Please, may I stand next to you?” She said yes—he did; the girl became uncomfortable and, instead of letting the children’s PCAs address the problem, the inclusion director ordered our son’s PCA to remove him. The PCA refused, knowing this would escalate the problem. We were later told this girl often says “yes” when she means “no”.
The inclusion director called to say our son had “harassed another camper” and could not return. I stated that was inclusion director decision; I would not be the hatchet man. When our son and the PCA returned to the JCC, the inclusion director met them at the door accompanied by a large and frightening male—to our 4 foot, 10 inch, 80 pound son—and said “You are not allowed in.” Our son was so upset it took nearly six hours for his PCA to calm him enough to safely transport him home. JCC staff told us that he could go to “any other program” that summer—the hitch being there were no appropriate programs, and, most importantly, he was terrified of entering the building.
Because he feared entering the building, he even refused to use the restroom there before leaving for a Scout trip. He had 24-48 hours of panic attacks prior to every indoor Scout meeting there. We sought counseling for the panic; part of the diagnosis was PTSD. We met with the JCC Board chair, executive and program directors. We presented the JCC with possible remedial actions, recommended by the therapist, to help our son be comfortable in their facility again. They have refused to act on any of them.
Before the theater debacle, our son was happily involved in a Boy Scout troop meeting at the JCC. He enjoyed attending day camp programs and taking swimming lessons there. Before and since, he participated in Minneapolis Park programs without a PCA, and with a PCA, programs at: Three Rivers Parks (overnight and day), Leonardo’s Basement, ArtStart, and of course Boy Scout overnight camp, all without any concerns about “harassment.” He even attended a soccer camp at the JCC this year successfully; though he was only willing to go after being informed that the inclusion director was on vacation.
We bring this issue to the disability community for several reasons. Our family needs closure and has gotten no help within our own Jewish community. This situation has implications for the entire disability community. A training requirement is needed for any inclusion director. When an inclusion director thinks side-stream programs constitute “inclusion” because they are in shared space, and has no knowledge of the literal thought processes that accompany autism (“You can’t come in” means “You can never come back in”) no amount of saying an organization is inclusive will make it so. With this woeful lack of knowledge of a prevalent disability, one cannot assume knowledge of other disabilities.
The Strauss family lives in Minneapolis.