My neighbors have a child with disabilities; he is wheelchair-bound and non-verbal, although he does smile and sometimes responds in his own way to people when they speak to him. I know his family wants to feel included in the community, which of course means Shabbos meal invitations. I really want to invite them, but I honestly don’t know how to act, what to say, and how to not be weird overall. Complicating matters is that I have a couple of young children, and I’m afraid they’re going to say all kinds of awkward, offensive things if we do have this family over. I feel so guilty that I haven’t invited them in the year that we’ve been neighbors. Any advice?
Inviting this family over may well feel daunting, and it may also be embarrassing if your kids say insensitive things. However, it is a huge, giant mitzvah from which, if you are able to be a little brave, I bet you and your family can gain some valuable education and understanding.
I rolled up my sleeves and did some research on this topic to better respond to your question, and I found that parents of kids with special needs have a lot of overlap in what they want people to know about them. You are correct that these parents and their kids generally want to be invited over and given opportunities to feel included in the wider community.
“We need friends, too,” writes Ashley Owens on themighty.com. “Parenting kids with disabilities can be isolating; it can be a lonely world. We need friends. Include us. We all want that feeling of belonging. When you can, include people with disabilities in neighborhood play dates, parties, etc.”
One mother gives the following insights on bellybelly.com: “A child with severe physical special needs can very likely hear or sense when someone is speaking about her. A non-verbal child can very likely understand what you’re saying, even if he can’t respond in a way you’ll understand. Acknowledge their presence and don’t act as if they weren’t there.”
“Perhaps the child didn’t hear you, but he might have seen your kind smile and loved that you acknowledged him. Be kind, be respectful, and acknowledge everyone around you, even if they aren’t able to respond in a way you understand,” she writes.
Let’s recap: It’s very likely that your neighbors want to be invited, may need some friends, and their child may be able to understand you 100 percent even if it doesn’t seem like it.
First, talk to your kids about the situation. For example, “You know our neighbor Chaim? I’d like to invite his family for a Shabbos meal. What do you think?” Then let your children talk about how they feel. Here is where you can do some stellar parenting. You can say things like, “Hashem made us all b’tzelem Elokim, in His image, and loves us all. That includes special neshamos (souls), like Chaim.” Or, “Let’s practice things to say or do when we have them over.” And then actually practice (“Good Shabbos, Chaim” and “How are you Chaim?” — the standard openers you would use with anyone).
You can also ask the child’s parents some questions that will help you prepare and enter the visit with more confidence, like “Is Chaim able to eat anything I can make? Is there anything I should know or can do before you come to make you feel comfortable?”
It’s possible — no, probable — that someone at that meal may feel awkward or say or do something inappropriate. But, it’s my guess that this family will be happy to be invited, included, and seen, and may be more than a little forgiving. They know that it can be awkward for people who don’t have much experience interacting with people who have disabilities to step out of their comfort zone. But if you open the door for them, they will most likely open the door for you, too.
There’s no magic bullet here, but being kind and including people who don’t always get included, even in small ways, never hurt anyone. I admire your willingness to work through your concerns and do a very important mitzvah. Let me know how it goes!
All the best,