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BY Dov

What We Can And Can’t Learn From The Chilean Miners

The world has watched with fascination as 33 miners were pulled to safety yesterday. 1,500 journalists from 39 countries camped out in the desert to cover this story live.  Go to the internet news site of your choice and you could have watched it live.  Leaders the world over sent messages of congratulations. President Barack Obama held a press conference and said, “The miners’ survival was an inspiration to all.”

Focusing on the world of special needs I wondered what the parallels are between life trapped underground and someone who has a disability.

The miners were trapped underground with no ability to help themselves. With no help it would be a matter of time before they perished. This is where the outside world came to help. You had the professionals and specialists who knew how to deal with the crisis. They immediately sprang into action: the best place to drill, the emergency rescue plan, building a capsule and so on. You had the doctors and psychologists giving advice on what condition the miners would be in below ground, during the ride up and after they were freed, finally you had the whole world showing support and cheering every time a milestone was reached and a miner was freed.

Looking at an individual who has autism or any cognitive disability they also seem trapped. They desperately want to communicate with you and the outside world but they can’t. With the lack of communication comes lack of control. Not being able to express feelings makes a person withdraw from others. This is where the outside world comes to help. You have the professionals and therapists who give treatments, the medications, the tips and tricks to enter into this individual’s world. You try and slowly draw him or her out from their protective shell. The family works day and night going to speech therapy, OT, PT, changing diets all in an effort to “rescue” this person. And of course all the friends, family and indeed the whole world rallies around yours efforts in support.

And that is where the parallel ends.
Digging deeper into the story of the miners, their job was to mine for gold and copper. A successful day on the job was a day in which gold and copper where flowing up and out of the mine. Once they were trapped the mission became obviously different. The miners could no longer do the job that they were supposed to do. Instead the job was to get them out of the mine safely (In many ways this story is similar to the Apollo 13 mission to the moon that Astronaut James Lovell called a “successful failure”). With the mission being changed to a rescue operation the miners would no longer be able to complete the tasks of mining for copper and gold (they are already being called celebrity miners with book deals and feature films on the way). In summary, the miners “failed” (through no fault of their own) to accomplish their tasks and where rescued from the mine.

Contrast this with an individual who has special needs.  Yes, we take our children to therapists, and we look for any way to help an individual who has special needs. But the purpose is not to “save” them or to cure them. Rather to help them be who they are, to understand them and to help them understand you. G-d gave everyone and everything in this world a purpose and a reason for existing.  To say that we need to save or cure them would be saying that someone with special needs is failing and that something needs to be changed. Rather, when we help someone and support them in their mission in life then we are fulfilling a mission in our life.

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Written on October 14, 2010 by:

Rabbi Dov Stein is the Director of Academic Programming at the Michigan Jewish Institute and the Director of Adult Education at the Shul. He enjoys running, Twitter, and debating. You can follow him at @dovstein

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