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I recently heard about a beautiful woman who was known for, well, being beautiful. She was accustomed to being stared at and was repeatedly told, by strangers and loved ones alike, just how beautiful she was. While flattering, this constant focus on her appearance left her feeling judged solely on her looks, with no one seeing past her beauty to learn about her intelligence, her experiences, or her other contributions to society.
As the woman grew older, she continued to receive acknowledgments of her beauty, but they were less frequent and less intrusive – until she developed ALS and was confined to a wheelchair. As in her youth, people stared at her – and as in her youth, it didn’t feel good. No one saw past her disability to learn about her intelligence, her experiences, or her true contributions to society.
With some disabilities, visibility can, at times, be valuable as a means to increase awareness and prompt important discussions about disabilities and inclusion. However, we have to be able to see past the disability to learn about the person behind it. We must learn to see disabilities as just one part of an individual’s identity without letting the disability define who she is or what she can do.
As a year-round, full-time staff member at the URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, PA, I am constantly reminded of this lesson. The camp’s open, safe community – a true k’hilah kedosha (holy community) – is a place that, perhaps more than any other, can have a positive effect on children, both those with and without disabilities. The camp’s professional team – including counselors, camper care specialists, and other leaders, including a special “inclusion coordinator,” who will join the staff this summer – works closely with parents to anticipate, recognize, and effectively deal with the challenges that may crop up while their kids are in our care.
This level of understanding and partnership enables us to support our campers in creative ways, ensuring that everyone can be their best self at camp. For example, some campers – whether or not they have disabilities – transition to camp with ease, while others struggle to acclimate to being away from home. Sometimes, we wait for campers to adjust to camp on their own; other times, we step in to provide individualized care, especially for those who face physical disabilities or emotional, social, or behavioral challenges.
At URJ Camp Harlam, everyone is valued and everyone is part of our k’hilah kedosha. We understand the virtue of middah lev tov (a good heart), and we have a lot of “good hearts” in our midst. Although we live in a society that often only sees disabilities through the lens of what someone can’t do, at camp, we strive to see past disabilities, and to be intentional about creating programs that focus on what people can do.
Cori Miller is the Camper Care and Enrollment Manager at URJ Camp Harlam and a member of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA.