Meeting the Needs of Visually Impaired Jewish Students

by Lisa Friedman

At Temple Beth-El, we are very fortunate to have a student in our program who is blind. Braille is one of the coolest things I have ever seen (no pun intended), and Hebrew Braille is even cooler. (Note: The Jewish Braille Institute, JBI, will put all of your materials, including textbooks, into Braille for free. They rock!) Facilitating this student’s Jewish education enables me to revisit both my personal and our congregation’s commitment to inclusion over and over again… and I couldn’t appreciate it more!”

More than anything else, I have learned that simply accommodating a student’s needs is not inclusion. Don’t get me wrong: Making appropriate accommodations is an essential strategy in working with all students who have special learning needs. But there’s more to inclusion. Let me give you an example:

A class of students is going to break into chevruta (partner) groups to study a Jewish text. A written copy of the text is given to each student. The teacher decides that because this is a discussion-based activity, the text can be read aloud to the student that is blind and he/she can still fully participate.

What’s wrong with this?

Put yourself in the scenario. Are you typically the one who says (when something is read aloud), “Let me see that, I missed half of what you said”? If so, you are probably a visual learner. (For more about discovering your own learning style, visit this site) This is how Braille can function for a student that is blind; it’s her way of “seeing” the text for herself.

Having the text read aloud is a reasonable accommodation, but it is not fully inclusive.

Here is another example:

Students will be working in groups to explore leadership and community building. The activity is almost entirely visual, based on students observing one another as they engage in the task. Adding a listening role to the group with the student who is blind is a reasonable accommodation, but adding that same role to every group is inclusive.

Inclusion isn’t always easy. Sometimes it takes trial and error – and it takes both intentionality and planning. But as we learn from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (2:16).

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. This position includes overseeing an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School with programs designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. In addition, Lisa’s works with families, staff and clergy to ensure a smooth transition for special needs students from Religious School through the b’nei mitzvah process and beyond. 

Originally posted at Jewish Special Needs