When GoofBoy came home from his first summer at Camp Ramah several years ago, one of the very first things he told us about was meeting and getting to know the kids in the special needs program. He relished his time with them. Many had limited vocabularies, but he appreciated how funny they could be given their limited tools to communicate.
Each year GoofBoy was a "buddy" to one kid. He took walks with him on Shabbat and visited with him regularly throughout his time at the camp. One year his buddy was there for eight weeks, but GoofBoy was only there for four. He was disconsolate when he learned GoofBoy was leaving. But GoofBoy introduced him to some of his friends who would be there all eight weeks and could keep him company.
GoofGirl also spent time with the kids in the special needs program. She mentioned visiting them to play games and to dance. She said not every kid in her bunk went out of their way to spend time with the special needs kids, but no one was mean to them - all the kids treated them with respect.
But this inclusive attitude wasn't learned at camp, just encouraged. The little Goofs brought it with them and, as always, I am very proud and touched by their deep kindness. (They are also great about visiting sick, elderly relatives and friends - no easy thing for children, or adults for that matter.)
One day during carpool we saw a social services bus in front of a house. A wheelchair-bound young man who we know from synagogue was being taken to the van. GoofBoy and Carpool Buddy enthusiastically exclaimed, "We know him from shul! So that's where he lives!"
Another time we were sitting at Panera's having lunch. A man sitting near us we gesticulating (a little) and muttering. Out of the corner of my eye I diagnosed him as having Tourette syndrome. In the car on the way home I asked if they had noticed him. They hadn't. I asked if it might have bothered them.
The boys answered in chorus, "No way! Why would it? There was a guy with Tourette on American Idol. He was awesome!"
As it happens, I have a pair of developmentally disabled cousins. They are in their 60s now. One is in a group home near us and comes to our synagogue. The little Goofs are always nice to them and happy to see them. They mention them proudly. My cousins have been told they are "uncles" and are very pleased with this.
This is all very different from when I was a kid. I don't remember us being particularly interested in special needs kids, and almost certainly not particularly nice or respectful.
This is different and different can be wonderful.
People with special needs face enormous challenges to living full lives. But the distances they have come have been enormous and the changing attitudes of today's kids hold promise for an even more inclusive future.