On November 9, 1938, the Third Reich unleashed the beginning of the Final Solution to the Jewish question. It began with a nationwide riot in Germany directed against Jewish businesses, houses of worship and persons. It was the beginning of the largest genocide in history. The day has been named Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass. It was given this name because so many windows were broken that the moonlight reflecting off the broken glass lit up the night sky as if it were day. Now what does this have to do with autism? Let me tell you.
The Nazis philosophy was one of racial superiority. Persons they considered less than human were targeted for expulsion, ghettoization and ultimately for death. The reason that this resonates for me so personally is that while the Jewish people were nearly wiped out in Europe, the Nazis began their campaign of racial evil by eliminating the disabled. I suppose then for me this is a twice important day of remembrance. Being the parent of Jewish children lends itself to one kind of acknowledgement especially in the age of Holocaust denial, growth in virulent anti-semitism, and new or threatened genocides, but as the parent of two autistic children, today lends itself to another journey. The journey of remembering that throughout history the disabled have been viewed as less than human, less than important, less than worthy of support, education, or even life.
While I have been on this journey with my children, we have come across all of these attitudes. I remember the woman who said my children were not entitled to a public education because they would not go to college.(Little did she know) I remember the people who referred to our children with a derogatory name when they brought them back in district to attend class as inclusion students. I remember the parents who made excuses that they couldn’t have play dates with my children, or just kept making up excuses to change the dates until I gave up. I remember that my children were never invited to birthday parties. I remember that my children were picked on in school and no peer stood up for them. I remember the rabbis who refused to bar mitzvah my children. I remember the religious schools that would not educate them. I remember the special education teacher who told my son he could never be an actor because of his autism. I remember the college Dean who continued with that stupidity. I remember many things. I remember ignorance and hatred and man’s great ability for harm.
But then I remember, the special education director who set collegeman on the right path. I remember the special education teachers who worked with both boys day in and day out to make sure they learn. I remember the therapists, and psychologists who worked year in and year out with them. I remember the sports coaches who helped them with their agility and gait. I remember the children who decided to help the boys and were kind to them. I remember the rabbis who changed the rules so my boys could enter Jewish adulthood. I remember the disability director at the college who made sure that collegeman received the support he needed to be successful. I remember the phone call about the bowling team so highschoolboy could find something positive in a very hard year in school. I remember those that take pride in the boy’s successes and wish them well. I remember that right now at this moment my children are growing, developing, changing and progressing. I remember that nothing can stand in their way.
But I also remember that most people do not understand autism. (It’s why the boys’ names are never used in this blog) I remember that most people are uneducated about any kind of disability. I remember that in hard economic times it is persons with disabilities who suffer more than most. I remember it is the disabled who have a higher rate of unemployment or underemployment. I remember that Princeton University is fighting a lawsuit brought by a student who wanted extended time on tests, saying that extended time dilutes the value of a Princeton degree. I remember the defense’s position in a murder trial saying that the victim because he was disabled had less of a right to life. I remember that the laws in place for educating people with disabilities do not apply to post-secondary education. I remember that insurance companies can deny your healthy child coverage because they have autism. I remember a little boy with autism in Florida voted out of a classroom and the school board that reinstated the instigating teacher. I remember that despite laws protecting persons with disabilities we still have a long way to go.
Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht. But it is also the anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall. One anniversary is to remember the greatest evil. The other is to remember the march of freedom, democracy and the belief in human rights and the humanity of all persons. The great irony is that these events happened to have occurred in the same place just decades apart. I submit that if the German people could overcome the legacy of Kristallnacht and to have ended up in the forefront of the fight for human rights, than we, the people of the world, have no excuse to not forge ahead. We the people of the world need to remember that the fight for the rights of the disabled is the fight for the rights of all humankind. We need to remember that history judges societies not by its wealth but how it treats its weakest members.
So today we remember. We remember those that died because of who their ancestors were or because they were not born perfect. We remember those that died in the march towards freedom and the respect for human dignity. We remember and give the faceless a monument and a name (Yad Vshem). We remember so we can fight on. We remember to fight the fights that are worth fighting. We remember because our job is far from done. We remember because our children are counting on us.
Until next time,