What “The King’s Speech” Can Teach Us About Disabilities and Leadership

Written by Matan Executive Director Dori Frumin Kirshner, this article was originally published in the New Jersey Jewish Standard.

If you havDori Kirschnere not yet seen the film “The King’s Speech,” don’t wait any longer. I think it should be a requirement. Without divulging more details than necessary, “The King’s Speech” depicts the real life experience of King George VI, who struggled with a significant speech impediment during the time before he became king. His wife finds him a speech therapist who labors with the future King for years. The film succeeds in bringing to the screen the tremendous conflict between this potential personal agony and his predestined duty.

Before viewing the film, I was not aware that any of Britain’s Royalty had struggled with anything more than infidelity. It makes perfect sense, though, that some percentage of a dynasty would face certain challenges. The Learning Disabilities Association of America reports that at least 15% of the population has some form of a learning disability. The CDC’s research tells us that 1 in 110 individuals – and 1 in 70 boys – is diagnosed with Autism.

ADHD, dyslexia, and Asperger’s, all part of our 21st Century lexicon, have been part of the human story long before we had terms with which to label them. Early on in the Book of Shemot (Exodus), God tells Moses that he is charged with leading the Jewish people out of Egypt. In turn, Moses (loosely translated) responds, “God, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t speak so well. I have a stutter and being a public figure might not be the right job for me.” God tells Moses, “Yes, I am aware of that because I created you this way.”  In other words, God was remarking, “I see all that you are capable of, not simply the things you struggle with.” Because God recognized Moses’ unique abilities and did not define him by his disability, that is how the Jewish people came to view him as well.

Moses and King George VI demonstrate that learning differences and challenges need not be obstacles to achievement and success. But what was it that allowed these two great leaders in history to overcome their struggles? As it turns out, their formula for success is neither complicated nor expensive and can be summed up by 3 main components. Each leader required:

  1. the unconditional support of his family
  2. an adept champion or therapist who was ready and able to intervene
  3. his own willingness to accept his imperfections without permanently diminishing his determination.  Even royal and Biblical icons are not  perfect.  None of us is.

And yet, all too often in Jewish education, we turn away children – and potential future leaders – because of learning differences. What would our history be if Moses had been denied his role or King George had not reigned because of an impediment? What kind of community are we if children who learn differently are met with rejection or indifference? If at least 15% of people struggle with some sort of learning issue, can the Jewish community afford the price of apathy? What will become of these 150,000 American Jewish school-age children and their families?

Every time we fail to meet these students and families with the integrity, professionalism and support necessary, we’re essentially saying, “You’re not worthy of a Jewish education.”  In fact, it is our failure, not theirs. And, it is indefensible.

To be sure, this kind of inclusion demands support – financial, human, educational, and more. Yet, those are mere details once the greatest impediment to change is no longer an issue – that of attitude. In the world of special education, and religious special education in particular, the keys to success are built on creating an environment where parents, teachers, counselors and clergy embrace all learners with support and encouragement.  Qualified and compassionate educators who are sensitized to different learning styles will create unique curricula and develop unbreakable bonds with children while meeting individual needs. If we actually truly believe we are all created in the image of God, this should not be so hard to implement.

Whether the story is told by Spinoza or Spielberg, on the pulpit or the Big Screen, about leaders of religions or nations, Jewish or gentile, every person has the right to learn. Our job is to ensure that even those who learn differently can do just that.  If it necessitates removing obstacles or building bridges, changing curricula or sensitizing teachers, our past models and frankly demands that we provide opportunities to learn – math and holidays, Hebrew and English, piano and Bar Mitzvah – for all people. With the proper support, determination and belief, individuals with special needs will surpass your expectations. The real question is, can we surpass theirs?

February is the month where Oscar nominations are announced and Jewish Disabilities Awareness is addressed. While I am not a movie critic, “The King’s Speech” gets two thumbs up and is worthy of an Oscar nod. One for being a great movie, the second for reminding us that education is not only for the “typical” and elite – but for ALL who want it.