The concept of inclusion seems important to most people. On a gut level, most people would agree strongly that “it’s the right thing to do.” With that said, are we ready to change our behavior to ensure inclusion can be a reality?

Last September, my MATAN colleague Lisa Friedman wrote: “Inclusion is not a program. And inclusion is not something that we do for people with disabilities. Rather, inclusion is a mindset, an attitude, a way of thinking that opens doors to opportunities for meaningful engagement, contribution and belonging.”

As educators and community leaders, we work hard to create inclusive environments, but it’s up to all the other individuals in that environment to set the tone. This is true of synagogues, schools, camps, grocery stores, parks, recreational facilities, family gatherings, private homes — any place at all.

While that seems obvious, I think it is important to reflect on our behaviors and make sure we’re not inadvertently undermining the goal of inclusion by asking:
• How do we react when we see a child — with or without special needs — having a tantrum in public?
• At family events or other social gatherings, do we offer help to individuals who seem to be struggling?
• Do we stare? Make snide comments? Judge?

If we are honest, we’ll admit that there’s room for improvement. After consulting several individuals with special needs and parents of children who have special needs, I’ve compiled a few tips we can all follow to make our world a more inclusive place:

1. When you see a person who is different, a smile or friendly greeting can go a long way toward making that individual and their family welcome.

2. If it is a family member, friend, or community member, let them know that their presence is important to you. If they are not able to participate in some function (services, Shabbat dinner, a family picnic, etc.) because of their special circumstance, ask how you can accommodate them and adjust accordingly.

3. When you speak to a family member of a person with special needs, don’t avoid the topic. Ask about that person, not just about the rest of the family.

4. When you’re at a family or social gathering, in synagogue or anywhere else, and you see someone struggling — don’t stare. Offer a smile, a compassionate glance, and even a helping hand. They may not need help with their special needs child — and you might feel hesitant to get involved — but they might need some support for their other children at the moment.

5. Be a friend. Let the individual set the tone and follow their cues. Listen patiently and be supportive. Let them know you are there for them.

6. Don’t judge. We all have our own battles to fight and everyone is doing their best.
As parents of a 14-year-old boy with autism, my husband and I have experienced many different reactions over the years. We’ve been in situations where people greet us warmly but ignore our son. We’ve dealt with very public meltdowns where bystanders look away or worse, reprimand us. At the same time, we’ve been blessed with family and friends who love our son unconditionally, care about us, and often take the initiative and help us before we even know what we need.

We’ve also encountered complete strangers who “get it.” People who engage with our son and help us when we need an extra set of hands, even though they’ve never met us before. We’ve felt and seen firsthand how that extra smile and kind gesture make a world of difference for us and our other children.

We need more people like that in the world. So if you think inclusion is “the right thing to do,” it’s time to step up and make it happen.

Michelle Steinhart has been working in Jewish Education and Jewish Special Education for over 20 years, teaching in day schools and synagogue schools, serving as a counselor in summer camps, and as an advisor in youth groups. She has been at Temple Israel Center of White Plains since 1998 and has been the Director of Special Student Services (now Director of Inclusion) since 2000. Michelle graduated Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women with a B.A. Degree in Education and an Associate’s Degree in Judaic Studies. Michelle went on to earn her M.A. degree in Special Education at Hunter College. Michelle leads professional development sessions, is a MATAN mentor and is a 2002 recipient of the Grinspoon Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Michelle and her husband Yaakov live in Rockland County with their four children, Avi, Shaina, Shael and Shaya. Michelle's oldest child, Avi has an autism spectrum disorder.