The bar or bat mitzvah of a young person with a disability demonstrates vividly what Judaism is, or should be, about. The ultimate success of such a ceremony is a triumph, not only for the individuals involved, but for the entire Jewish community. The challenges are not insurmountable; it only takes flexibility, creativity, and the willingness to plan ahead.
In this way, we can truly "educate each child according to his or her ability" (Proverbs 22:6) and fulfill our obligation to provide a Jewish education for every child.
• Recognize that many people with disabilities have emotional ties to the Jewish people and therefore wish to become a participant in the community.
• Provide the child with the opportunity to declare his or her value and dignity before God and the community.
• Understand that those with disabilities may not reach the same level of learning of a child without disabilities.
• Modify the conventional training, as well as the actual service.
• Become acquainted with the learning challenges and styles of the student.
• As educators, recognize your learning challenge, which is to be open, nonjudgmental, creative and compassionate.
• Meet with the student and his or her family and discuss goals and what they hope to get out of the ritual.
• Incorporate the learner in a conventional classroom with additional assistance, such as an aide.
• Provide a resource room that the student may learn in during part of the day, allowing for some individualized education.
• Around 4-6 months prior to the b’nai mitzvah, meet with the student and asses the student’s progress, then begin sketching out the day and the accommodations needed. Take into consideration the following:
o Has this child ever performed in front of an audience before, such as at a dance or choral recital or in school plays)?
o How long can the child be expected to stay on the bimah or even in the sanctuary?
o Will the child follow directions to participate in various portions of the service?
o If the child can verbalize portions of the service, how much should he or she be expected to do on that day (lead the congregation in prayers, read Torah and Haftarah, deliver a d’var Torah)?
o If the child is nonverbal, what is an alternative way for him or her to have an active part in the service (such as accepting and putting on a tallit, opening the ark, and/or carrying a small Torah)?
o Can the child (with adult assistance) prepare a small speech to express what this event means to him or her? If not in words, can the child draw a picture or make another artistic rendering of his or her experience?
o What makes this child happy? Even a child with the most severe limitations may take joy in tapping on a tambourine as the cantor sings or holding the Kiddush cup while the blessings are spoken by another person.
• Record the b’nai mitzvah student’s speech or even the some of the blessing before the service.
• At the service, family members may speak on behalf of the student, connecting the b’nai mitzvah to the family/friend.