Six hundred is a nice round number. Coincidentally, I began working as project manager for Young Adults in Transition at Jewish Residential Services (JRS) 600 days ago. With a background in medical social work and good intentions, I came to JRS with almost no experience with individuals or families with disabilities. 600 days later, it seems impossible to me that there was a “before” period where I did not see disabilities in my world.
Shortly into my early days at JRS, a distant childhood memory found its way to the front of my mind. As a child, my family had a Friday night dinner with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. My grandparents had a big 3 story house where they lived with my (spinster) aunt Pauline and my uncle Willy. Every time we ate dinner at my grandparents’ home, my aunt Pauline joined us at the table and my uncle Willy went up to his room to wait for a dinner tray later in the evening. As a child, I remember wondering why Uncle Willy never dined with us. I recall that Uncle Willy often came home after we had arrived at my grandparents’ house and my grandmother would quickly shush him and send him up to his room on the 3rd floor, never letting a word be exchanged between Uncle Willy and the rest of the family. These fleeting sightings of Uncle Willy led me to (wrongfully) assume that he was a bad or dangerous person, who was not fit to be with his family. I remember the few times I would ask about Uncle Willy, I got vague responses, and they explained that he was “not right in the head”. Years later I learned that he likely had intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. Unfortunately, my family did not have the vocabulary, resources, and (I hate to say) will to have Uncle Willy participate in our meals and celebrations. While my secret uncle in the attic was not unusual for families of that generation, it is horrifying to me that a family member of mine was treated this way.
Since it was founded, JRS has worked to bring “Uncle Willy”s out of the attic and into the fabric of the community. JRS works to support individuals with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities and helps them to live, learn, work, and socialize as valued members of the community. JRS intentionally has its programs in Squirrel Hill, the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community so that JRS participants are integrated into the community.
I was quite naïve when I started my job a year and half ago and had a myopic world view. Looking back, I cringe to think how I never gave disability a thought. At JRS, I have become familiar with the fortitude and struggles of families of individuals with disabilities who have fought for their children to have a Bar Mitzvah, meaningful employment, social opportunities, and more. The preconceived notions of an intellectual or psychiatric disability are blown away each time I talk with a Howard Levin Clubhouse member, Goldberg House, or Residential Support participant.
Now that I am a parent and we have Friday night dinners with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, I hope that our table is big enough to include family members of all abilities.
This post brought to you by Alison Karabin of Jewish Residential Services