Growing up with Cerebral palsy, I was angry. I asked, “Why am I disabled? Why is the kid next door Reform and healthy and my family is so religious and I am disabled?” I thought He was supposed to love us, but it seemed He was punishing me.
I was told He loves me. If He loves me, why do I go to special schools and why am I so alone and the kids all make fun of me?
Now I feel the opposite. As a grown-up I’ve learned more. I’m not alone anymore. I have a lot of friends who look up to me.
What astounds me is that these young kids from religious backgrounds tell me, “Your faith is so real, so deep. We say berachos and stuff because we’ve been taught for so long.”
For the last 10-15 years, I’ve been educated in my faith. Berachos really matter to me. I put thought into them. People really think it’s so amazing.
My friends say that I am amazing. They say I know something very special.
My friends accept me, so maybe Hashem accepts me.
There was a time in the 1960s that I was a resident in a non-Jewish school, Eastern State Residential, and ate treif food. I saw Mom once a week. These were the hardest two years. I was with challenged kids, one of whom hit me. I thought Hashem had abandoned me. But then I found a Jewish teacher there, Gertrude Cohen, and a Jewish speech therapist, Jackie Harmon. I now see that Hashem sent them to me.
Mrs. Cohen was a special-ed teacher. Based on an article she had read, she thought music therapy could help me. Jackie Harmon also helped very much. Because they and I were Jewish, they took a heightened interest in me. They were very nice and wonderful. The music helped me. I was very scared and shy and sat in the corner. The music brought me out.
This led them to the idea of a homemade record. They played Tom Jones and Frankie Valli. I was asked if I’d like to sing a voice-over – my voice over theirs. It was wonderful to hear it played back. The psychiatrist heard it and asked, “Is that Phyllis?” All they knew was the shy, timid person.
A change in schools:
The Right to Education Law mandates that if the public school couldn’t meet your needs, the government was obligated to help financially for admission to a private school. My parents found a wonderful private school: Delta. The only sad part about leaving the terrible place I attended was that I thought I would never see Mrs. Cohen and Mrs. Harmon again.
At my new school, Delta, my teacher was Michael Swanson. It was his first teaching job, and he was very dedicated. He was like the teacher from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” He was a very enthusiastic real-life comedian – and a bit of a ham.
I was the only one who got his jokes. He told my parents, “Phyllis doesn’t really belong in my class. She’s too smart.” But I wouldn’t be able to physically keep up with an advanced class.
Mr. Swanson raised my self-esteem. It was the first time anyone ever told me I was smart. Because I was deficient in reading and writing, people thought I was retarded. This teacher said, “No, you’re not.”
For those with neurological and learning challenges, not too many people in the 70s knew how to deal with it. They didn’t know how to label me. They didn’t know how I was to be classified. This person – Mr. Swanson – didn’t care how I was labeled. I was just a person, a kid with special needs.
He knew I liked game shows. Instead of a spelling test he used “Jeopardy” to create a test.
If I saw him today, I would thank him for being the best teacher I had. He told me I was smart, something no one had ever told me before. When I first arrived in his class, I wouldn’t raise my hand. By the end of my stay there, I knew the answers to the questions.
A sweet reunion:
Six months to a year after leaving Eastern State, and while in Delta, I received a phone call from a woman who said, “Do you remember me? I’m Gertrude Cohen.” My mom took the phone and said, “You were wonderful to Phyllis. Of course I remember you.”
Mrs. Cohen said, “I love Phyllis. I care about her and didn’t get to say goodbye.” Since she lived a few blocks from us, we arranged a visit – and I had a very good time. That led to a longstanding friendship.
On sick leave after getting hurt, Mrs. Cohen took me in for about a month when my mom got sick with lung cancer. My mom had wanted me to stay with an aunt and uncle in New York, but I didn’t want to leave Philadelphia. I didn’t want to be away from Mom. I had separation anxiety.
My psychologist agreed with me, saying it would be too stressful for me to be far from Mom.
So Mrs. Cohen said I could live with her and that she would drive me to Fox Chase Cancer Center to visit Mom. And she drove me there a lot.
I’m very grateful to Mrs. Cohen for her love and care.
Meeting all kinds of people:
Due to my situation, I’ve met all kinds of people outside my religion. I’ve learned that there are good and bad people in every group, that beauty is only skin deep, and that a person doesn’t decide what the color of his or her skin will be.
My mom used to say, “Prejudice is another way to be disabled.” It’s not a good thing, and if all you see is the color of someone’s skin, you’re disabled. The aides and other staff members at Ateret Avot, where I live, are my good friends, as are the yeshiva girls who come to visit. The owners of Ateret Avot, Mr. and Mrs. Scharf, have been very good to me, taking me in when I was in my early 40s, far below the average age there.
I’m very proud of being Jewish, and glad that the Jewish religious community finally accepts me.
On making so many good friends:
I’m thankful that Hashem has sent me all of these friends, permitting me to feel that I’m not alone in the world. When Mom died, I thought I was alone in the world – but He sent me so many friends.
My friends admire those with my kinds of challenges for their interest in Yiddishkeit and for their faith in it. They say, “We mutter a berachah. For our whole lives we’ve been saying it and we don’t even think about what we’re saying.” I want to say my berachos the right way. I want Hashem to be pleased with me.
I inspired a male worker at Ateret Avot to say berachos – and he no longer needs to read them from my paper. I’m proud of both of us – myself for inspiring him, and him for caring enough to learn the berachos.
Overall, increasing awareness of the struggles of being both Jewish and disabled means a lot to me.
Looking back I can see past the hard times, as the guiding hand of Hashem was there for me.Phyllis Lit
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