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Let’s start a conversation about arranging matches for people with disabilities

During Autism Acceptance Month, it’s time for us as a community to take the next giant leap and have a very open conversation about marriage.

The placing of the wedding ring. Credit: Petar Milošević via Wikimedia Commons.
The placing of the wedding ring. Credit: Petar Milošević via Wikimedia Commons.
Avrohom (“Avromie”) Adler. Credit: Courtesy.
Avrohom (“Avromie”) Adler
Avrohom (“Avromie”) Adler, LCSW, is the international director of Yachad (a division of the Orthodox Union), an organization that helps individuals with disabilities develop a sense of belonging within the Jewish community and the broader society.  

There are many variations to this conversation, but inevitably it starts something like this:

“Our son is 28 years old and is on the ‘spectrum.’ He has seen his two brothers and sisters get married, and he would like to get married as well. While he may need some support, he is very independent; he travels by himself, holds down a job, and mostly manages his own finances. My husband and I support his wish to get married and need your help to make this a reality.”

Barely a week goes by that I or my colleagues have not gotten requests to help someone with a disability find their “better half.” While we don’t have formal statistics, we know anecdotally that there are more Jewish married couples with intellectual and developmental disabilities than in years past. We have wonderful organizations that have supportive apartment programs designed specifically for married couples with disabilities, and there are shadchanim (“matchmakers”) who have helped individuals with disabilities navigate this sometimes complicated process. While this is a great start, this piecemeal approach is not going to meet the wants and needs of these individuals in our communities.

Our community has grown by leaps and bounds in how we understand and interact with individuals with disabilities and their families. Our synagogues are more accommodating and inclusive than ever; our youth are engaged with myriad organizations that support individuals with disabilities; and there are more social, educational, and employment opportunities than ever before. Of course, there is still more to do in each of these areas, and while we as a community cannot be complacent, we should stop for a moment and appreciate how far we have come.

This month is Autism Acceptance Month. Originally dubbed Autism Awareness Month in 1970, organizations and disability rights advocates started moving away from “awareness” and towards “acceptance” in 2011, to signify that although society is now aware of autism, there is still room for increased acceptance, unfortunately.

I believe it is time for us as a community to take the next giant leap and have a very open conversation about arranging marriages (shidduchim), and the prospect of marriage for individuals with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

It is time because I believe we as a community are ready to have this conversation. We want every Jew in our community to feel like they belong. Yachad and other organizations have created educational, employment, and social opportunities for individuals with autism and other disabilities for that express purpose. An initiative to help with shidduchim would be another way to assist these individuals and their families.

It is time because we are seeing that this has become the number one issue on the minds of young adults with disabilities and their families, and we are seeing that the need is only growing.

It is time because according to the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States. Based on recent data, roughly 1 in 36 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Ten years ago, that number was 1 in 68, and 20 years ago that number was 1 in 150.

So, what is stopping us from creating a global shidduch initiative for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities?

The simple answer is that this topic is still taboo for many members and leaders of our communities. Oftentimes, it feels as if this is somehow a “third rail” and not something to be discussed publicly. My sense is that this comes either from a fear of the unknown or that because it is a complicated subject, some might worry that it has the potential to create strife within communities.

I obviously don’t see this as a third rail, or I wouldn’t be opening up such a public discussion. Yes, there are many questions, and there are many “what ifs” that no doubt need to be addressed, such as:

Can the prospective couple live independently? If not, where will they live? Who will support them financially? What if there are children involved? Should there be children involved? What if the child is born with a disability? Without a disability? What is the relevant halachah (“Jewish law”) to be mindful of? Just to name a few.

These questions should not be the starting point to a discussion. They are the details and the important questions that would be needed to guide such an initiative. Rabbinic and clinical advisors from across the community would need to be involved and engaged to help develop clear guidelines and protocols, and to support this initiative. However, the first and main step is getting to a place of agreement that such an initiative is acceptable, valued and needed.

Our community places a strong emphasis on the value of marriage and family, and our youth see and feel this. Our youth includes those with autism and other disabilities, so it is no wonder that they feel the need to pursue the values that they see in their parents and siblings. Similar to how we as a community view the neurotypical population that is not married at a certain age as part of a shidduch crisis, shouldn’t we do more for individuals with disabilities? Shouldn’t those who have the capability and capacity to be married be granted that opportunity?

It is my hope that we get to the point where there will not be a need for Autism Acceptance Month, as people will accept those with autism every day. However, while it exists, let us use the opportunity to brainstorm how we can support individuals with disabilities in the most meaningful ways.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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