Growing up, Rachel Dunn participated in an all-Jewish Girl Scout troop and even went to day school. But the Jewish high school she wanted to attend wouldn't accept her, the Rhawnhurst 18-year-old said, because she couldn't read Hebrew without vowel symbols.
"I honestly still can't," Dunn said, adding that dyslexia, dysgraphia and Asperger's Syndrome might prevent her from ever mastering that skill.
Speaking before an attentive audience at a third annual citywide inclusion conference, Dunn described how she instead found her place at the Jewish Community Hebrew High School of Gratz College, where teachers allowed her to take exams out loud during breaks.
One by one, five other disabled adults shared their successes and disappointments during a kick-off panel to "Opening the Gates of Torah: Including People With Disabilities in the Jewish Community," held Sunday at Adath Israel in Merion Station.
"Could you ever hear enough of their stories?" asked Debbie Gettes, program director for special needs initiatives at Jewish Learning Venture. "Everyone always tells them what to do or gives guidance, but when do we ever let them talk?"
It was the largest conference turnout to date, drawing about 220 parents, disabled adults, educators, clergy and social service professionals from all over the region and as far as western Pennsylvania and New York, said Gettes, who put together the conference with the help of a consortium of special needs advocates from 15 local organizations.
Following the panel, attendees split up into classrooms to learn about everything from assistive technology to experimental job training programs in other states. They listened, shared stories and took notes. And in between all of that, the parents commiserated, and in some cases, flat-out griped, about the arduous process of finding services for their children, the dearth of suitable jobs, the lack of sessions that applied to their particular situation and so on.
But they also networked. Gettes said she heard about several attendees connecting with someone who directed them to a potential resource or contact. One of the panelists even set up an appointment with an attorney who focuses on special needs to discuss an issue at his college.
"People are so excited because they're all there," Gettes said. "When do you ever get a group of people together like that?"
Whether participants get inspired to replicate an initiative they heard about or simply seek out more information about a particular topic, the important thing is "keeping the conversation going," Gettes continued.
"If no one's talking about it, it becomes a non-issue."
As for Dunn, she hopes that those who want to help the special needs community will take the time to listen to the people who have disabilities.
"When people look at me, they see parts of me," Dunn said, keeping her eyes trained on the table, her face half-hidden by a baseball cap. "What I want people to see is both the kid who wants to fit in and stand out."