The suburbs are known for their greenery; open lawns uniformly face the streets - and it is by design, as strict codes ensure that alterations to this status quo pass the approval of homeowner associations, village trustees, or town boards. Last week in Port Washington, one family learned that good fences do not make good neighbors.
“The safety is huge, and the fence is vital to giving her a childhood,” Stevie Bovis told CBS News in regard to a four-foot brown picket fence that she installed so that her daughter Stella, 4, could play in the yard without running out into traffic. “We are one house away from Port Washington Boulevard.”
Stella is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and could easily run away. Like any child, she must learn to spend more time outside, observing and identifying people, pets, vehicles, and other things that pass by. Stevie and her husband Angelo looked up the law and noted that the Americans With Disabilities Act accommodates their daughter’s need for a fence. After constructing it, they appeared before the Town of North Hempstead board to receive a variance, so that the fence would have legal recognition by local authorities. That’s when things went sour.
“We were a bit surprised that after we explained everything to our neighbors, our reasons for putting up the fence, our plan of working with the town, that a few of them got together in secret and kind of ganged up on us,” Angelo said.
A total of 17 neighbors on Derby Road signed a petition opposing the fence for not “following proper procedure,” being “so high and dark,” and asking why the backyard couldn’t be used instead. When the reporter tried to speak to them, one neighbor shouted that “no one wants to speak” on camera and that “no one wants it here.” They requested that the town find a compromise on the Bovis’ request for the fence.
CBS reported that the fence is likely to receive its variance based on its purpose of ensuring security for Stella. But in this effort, the family feels isolated and alienated by the neighbors. Is the visual uniformity of a block more important than giving a child with special needs a measure of normal life? Sure, she can play in the backyard, out of sight to the neighbors, and unable to interact with postal workers, dogs, neighbors, and other children.
I watched this video news story over and over and thought of my own interactions with special needs neighbors. When we lived in the Electchester co-ops, our next-door neighbors had an autistic child who was very noisy. In the bigger scheme of things, the involuntary shouting on the other side of the wall did not bother us as much as the airplanes overhead, sirens from parked cars reacting to the revs of a passing motorcycle, or vulgar lyrics from hip-hop music blaring from across the street.
At the time, we owned a house in West Hempstead that we rented to a family with a severely disabled teenager. Like Stella Bovis, he benefited from spending time outdoors, but without supervision, James could run away far from home. Our tenants built a white picket gate on the driveway to accommodate their son. The gate did not require any permits, but when there was a need to write a reference letter for the son and his mother, I did not hesitate to note that they were good tenants and neighbors.
Throughout my life, I’ve been accustomed to the needs of our more vulnerable neighbors. My first example was Rabbi Manfred Gans zt”l of Forest Hills, who founded the Otsar organization, which provides for the needs of his youngest son Chaim, who has Down syndrome. In his shul, Congregation Machane Chodosh, Chaim was treated with respect by all members, and he felt comfortable to speak to them about his work, interests, and goals. I recognized that Stella, James, and Chaim were placed among us by Hashem to see how we would interact with them.
That is how I explain it to my children when they ask me about a child who looks or acts “weird” or “unusual.” From a young age, they are taught to play with, and try to understand, children whose mental and physical abilities are not on their level. It isn’t easy or comfortable, but it is rewarding when my children recognize the differences and find ways to get along.
On the communal level, there are organizations, schools, and camps that serve special needs children, but what they really deserve is to be welcomed by their peers. The sharing of space by SINAI with YCQ, and the CAHAL kindergarten with HANC, enables for interaction. Summer camps and Shabbos play groups are enriched by special needs children interacting with their peers, as a shadow or a therapist stands on the side, stepping in when needed.
Teaching children acceptance, however, is not enough. Sometimes, adults also need a refresher course to recognize their priorities as neighbors.
By Sergey Kadinsky