For many hours of my day disability inclusion issues are front and center on my mind. Every week, I read and edit submissions for The Jewish Week’s New Normal blog focusing on the intersection of disability and Jewish life. I’ve met so many incredible contributors this way—self-advocates with disabilities, clergy working to create inclusive communities, creative educators working to make Jewish schools more supportive to students with learning disabilities and many professionals within the disability field working on housing, employment, therapeutic and other vital supports. In Philadelphia, I direct an initiative called Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture that focuses on providing supports for parents, for synagogues and schools across our Jewish community.

The author and her son. Courtesy of Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

As a writer and educator, I wasn’t always so tuned into issues of support and inclusion. My journey really began when my son was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and ½–that moment in time marks a distinctive “before” and “after” in my life.

In my newly released ELI Talk, I have the opportunity to share my journey—as a community member who looked aside at families raising a child with special needs to becoming that parent and feeling what it’s like to feel other and excluded in many communal and social situations.

Acceptance and understanding of my son’s autism was a process—and as a parent and advocate I’ve learned how to explain to friends and family, educators and rabbis–about our son’s needs—and about the needs of our family.

In my ELI Talk, I share simple ways that we can all be present, show compassion and reach out—even when we’re not sure that we have the right words to say. Sometimes eye contact and a smile from someone at a grocery store, playground or synagogue makes an enormous difference in whether I’m feeling alone or supported–a simple gesture that we all can do.

I invite you to check out my talk and share with your community. As I say, each one of us individually and as a community has the opportunity for growth and the holiness that comes through valuing all human experiences.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal” and for WHYY’s newsworks. Her latest book The Little Gate Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections.