Remember how Dustin Hoffman’s Kmart-underwear-seeking, card-counting character in the 1988 film “Rain Man” used to be the face of autism? A blessing and a curse, he raised awareness of the developmental disorder while playing it for a few laughs.
One thing was clear: He was different; a sometimes bewildering social misfit who drove his brother, played by Tom Cruise, crazy. (Oh, and he was “an excellent driver,” too.)
Compare that with the images in the calendar that landed on my desk the other day. It came from OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, an East Coast nonprofit that merged in September with the North Hollywood-based Etta Israel.
Each month on the 2013 calendar (available for free at ohelfamily.org/calendar) features a photograph of siblings, one of whom has a disability. For January, two young boys squeeze each other tightly while grinning. October’s calendar girls are a cute threesome, arms wrapped around one another as they stare out with beautiful, wide eyes.
“We are sisters,” it says above the girls. “We will always be sisters. Our differences may never go away, but neither, for me, will our song.”
What’s striking — aside from the warm, loving relationships so clearly evident — is that in many of the photos it’s impossible to know which sibling is the one who is “different.” They just look like kids, and happy ones at that.
There’s a lesson in this that I might not have appreciated as I was growing up. People with special needs were generally separated from the rest of the student body at my schools, accentuating their differences and never teaching the rest of us to make them part of our world.
Back then, I was uneasy in their presence. In junior high, I regularly rode the bus with a boy named Dan, who had a developmental disorder. I’ll never forget how he sang the “Fifty Nifty United States” song day after day, over and over again. I loved that song — I still sing it today to prove I know all of the states in alphabetical order — but I never joined in with him, no matter how enthusiastically he sang.
If only I had seen the OHEL calendar then.
Our differences may never go away, but neither, for me, will our song.
No doubt many challenges remain and much progress still must be made, including in the Jewish world, when it comes to accepting the differences of others. The OHEL calendar, to me, represents the proper response. It focuses on humanity’s similarities and on the power of building loving, personal relationships.
This month’s edition of TRIBE is full of people who have a range of special needs — physical and developmental — but whose lives are best described merely as special.
Consider Lorri Bernson, pictured on the cover with her guide dog, Carter. She may have become legally blind in her 30s, but you wouldn’t know it by the way she lives her life — or by the way she once threw out the opening pitch at a Dodgers game. (She got it to the catcher on one hop.)
Or there’s Seth Shulman, who was in special-education classes through high school and now is employed by Inclusion Films, the practical film workshop for adults with developmental disabilities that was started by Joey Travolta, older brother of actor John Travolta.
They sound like people I’d like to get to know. Even better, they sound like people who would make for a great calendar.
Photos courtesy of OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services