As the UK prepares to gradually exit lockdown, Jewish charities have urged the public to ensure those with learning disabilities are not left behind.
Speaking to Jewish News, three charities described the challenges sparked by the pandemic as the sector marks Learning Disability Week 2020, which runs from 15 to 21 June and is inspired this year by the theme of friendships during lockdown.
To combat isolation, Norwood has “ramped up volunteer engagement through Zoom”, explained the charity’s chief executive Dr Beverley Jacobson on Tuesday. “We’ve managed to keep relationships that were ongoing, which has been really good for everybody.”
“I think what this has highlighted for everybody is our need for community and our need for social inclusion,” she said, adding that it was her wish that people with learning difficulties are seen as “ordinary members of society and offered the same opportunities to feel included and to contribute as active members in the community.”
While isolation has affected vast swathes of people, its effects can be more pronounced among those with learning disabilities, as they are “already marginalised” and tend to have smaller friendship circles, according to Hadassa Kessler, director of operations and development at Kisharon.
“But what I’ve been really happy about is how well many people we support have been able to embrace technology,” Kessler said. “Even people who have limited verbal communication skills generally were able to use video calls and social media to communicate with people in different ways.”
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Kisharon is set to run joint events for service users with the Hendon-based Alei Tzion Synagogue in an initiative launching later this summer. “We are especially delighted because it fits in with the way we have been looking at different ways people with disabilities are being recognised as valued contributors in their communities, rather than just recipients of chesed,” she said.
But for those with learning disabilities set to return to work in the coming weeks, there could remain additional barriers, she warned. “If you can’t drive, if public transport is something really enjoyable for you where you feel you can have a degree of autonomy and independence, what happens if public transport isn’t safe? What happens if you have a learning disability and have a valid exemption from wearing a face mask, you may be anxious about the reactions of other people,” she asked.
Gerald Lebrett is the headteacher of the special needs school Side by Side, which is now physically open to a majority of its pupils. “Besides a few children who have underlying medical needs, who aren’t coming in and with whom we’re maintaining contact, the rest are coming in for a session either in the morning or in the afternoon,” he revealed.
Explaining the concept of social distancing has been challenging, but the school has also seen “really positive changes”, he said.
Pupils, he added, have “settled quite well to the new norm, which is praise for the teachers and support staff who’ve worked so hard to create the environment that the children are at ease and feel that coming back to some normality even if it’s slightly different, as well as parents.”
Lebrett called on the community to ensure children with special needs have access to opportunities to succeed. “Communities are measured by how we can support all children, not just those academic high fliers but it’s also the ones who are challenged,” he said.
“We should celebrate that, use it as a launch for more enabling to give them those opportunities at their level and things that they want to do and be part of the Jewish community and wider community as active members,” he added.