The keynote speaker for last week’s conference on special needs called for inclusiveness to serve the families of special needs individuals and the individuals themselves.
Dr. Laura Marshak addressed the April 27 Special Needs Conference for the Community at Rodef Shalom Congregation on the subject, “Enhancing the Quality of Life for Families.”
But in response to a series of questions emailed to her by the Chronicle prior to the event, Marshak said enhancing the quality of life means many different things to the special needs families.
“Part of the key to supporting families is working to make the community more genuinely inclusive,” Marshak said. “We often assume that the struggles of parents are related to their feelings about their children’s disabilities. We often overlook the fact that parents are worn down by struggles to have others include their children.”
She noted the need for programs like those through Jewish Residential Services that support families of grown children “who continue to face disability related obstacles.”
And she mentioned the need for “high-quality respite services” and programs for siblings of special needs children.
“I would also like to see more outreach to fathers of children with disabilities,” Marshak said. “They tend to be overlooked and are less likely to seek help or support for themselves.”
Turning to how the community defines special needs, she added, “The definition is a double-edged sword. It needs to exist so that individuals with disabilities receive the services and accommodations they need to have full access to to participate fully in life. Often these are only available if the legal standards for disability are met.
“Yet, the labeling of individuals has also created and perpetuated the greatest barriers — social exclusion,” Marshak continued. “By labeling people we often stigmatize them and set them apart. Also, once a person gets labeled, it is easy to see that as a single defining characteristic and lose sight of the person’s many strengths.”
As an advisor to Friendship Circle, Marshak added, “I felt strongly that there is no labeling. We simply have members.”
The April 27 conference was co-sponsored by the Agency for Jewish Learning, Friendship Circle, Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Residential Services and Rodef Shalom Congregation.
In addition to Marshak’s keynote address, the conference included four breakout sessions.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)