Across America many of the 148 Jewish Federations and Network communities are expanding their success significantly by including people with disabilities equally in their mission, impact and communities. At RespectAbility, we are very fortunate to work closely with several such Federations. For example, last week our director of public and practices, Philip Kahn-Pauli, spoke to dozens of leaders at UJA Federation of NY. The audience included numerous Jewish agencies and synagogue professionals who meet regularly on disability issues. We are working together to overcome numerous challenges, including the facts that only 43 percent of students with disabilities in NYC graduate high school, and that only 1-in-3 who are of working age have a job.
We have been thrilled to see coordination and collaboration happening through HaMercaz in Los Angeles, MetroWest New Jersey and Jewish Family Services in Houston, Texas. Each of these communities demonstrates how leaders and organizations are stronger and better when they work together.
In our own backyard, our team continues to work closely with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington (JFGW). From their mission statement to the language on their website and everything that they do, Inclusion of People of All Abilities is clearly a priority. They are doing terrific work. JFGW has a full-time community inclusion specialist, a robust disability inclusion committee and, for the third year, an intern from the local JFGH’s MOST program (a post high-school program for individuals with disabilities transitioning into the adult community). They also had a summer intern who was part of their local Jewish Social Service Agency’s specialized employment pre-employment program designed to enable high school students with disabilities to have real work experiences.
JFGW intentionally plans programs to be inclusive, including a system for individuals to request accommodations. All event flyers and materials include a welcoming message on inclusion and the community calendar can be searched to identify accessible venues.
The Federation of Greater Washington’s Disability Inclusion Committee (of which I and others from our team are members) consists of both lay and professional leaders, individuals with disabilities (almost 20 percent), parents and siblings of individuals with disabilities, and teens with and without disabilities. The committee currently is working on projects to help area congregations and agencies advance inclusion, promote employment of individuals with disabilities and explore ways to increase inclusion within our schools. The committee also helps maintain an online community-sourced resource guide to provide information about services, programs and materials for individuals with disabilities and to advance inclusion. This committee recently updated its Disability Inclusion Toolkit by adding discussion guides. These discussion guides, along with the Toolkit’s self-assessment activities, are being utilized by more than 50 congregations and agencies from around the country and were recently featured in a global and accessible webinar hosted by RespectAbility.
The JFGW’s building and policies go well beyond basic ADA requirements. They have an audio loop system to assist those with hearing disabilities and the Federation professional team has internalized the need for inclusivity throughout their work. As an example, at a recent all-staff monthly meeting, they announced that the policy is to use a microphone at every meeting, and for the speaker at the front of the room to repeat back questions/comments from the audience so that everyone can hear and participate in the conversation. In addition to asking participants about their need for accommodations, there are clear examples of how the staff has made this standard operating procedure. As part of the Federation’s JTeen Philanthropy program, staff met with a parent of a teen with disabilities ahead of time to learn how to best welcome and accommodate the teen, and followed through to meet those needs.
This year at ROUTES: A Day of Jewish Learning, in addition to the sign language interpreters and volunteers who assisted people with mobility needs, the Federation provided personalized transportation for two individuals with disabilities. Furthermore, in addition to hiring a consulting firm to do a formal accessibility audit of the Federation’s websites, and consistently working to improve the accessibility and usability of the website, the Federation has invited feedback from a member of their inclusion committee who uses a screen reader.
Culture change requires thought followed by action. I am delighted that Jewish Federations of North America is hosting an advocacy day on these issues on Capitol Hill in February. Spaces are still available and you can sign up HERE. I am proud that my Federation is talking the talking and walking (rolling) the walk.
Is your community doing the same? I encourage everyone who donates to any organization, including Federations, to think about how to advance disability inclusion. A key first step is just to ask them where they are on the journey toward inclusion. You can find examples of questions to ask HERE. You can also find numerous free resources on how to do inclusion HERE.
Jewish Federations and Network communities raise money and bring talent to literally hundreds of partner agencies, and the tens of thousands of people they serve every day in affiliated hospitals, senior and community centers, family and children’s service agencies, vocational programs and more. To a large extent, Federations are the glue that helps the Jewish community not only survive but to thrive. When they are inclusive, they live up to our moral values and expand and improve their impact across the board. One in five individuals have a disability, and including everyone strengthens us a community. All of us, including those with disabilities, are equal in G-d’s eyes.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is president of www.RespectAbility.org, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She is also co-founder & director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Fund. You can reach her at JenniferM@RespectAbility.org and follow her on Twitter at @JLMizrahi.