I recently visited a synagogue that had a special guest speaker who had been brought in for JDAIM – Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, which is marked in February. The very well-meaning speaker represented a national disabilities organization, but his talk objectified individuals with disabilities, saying their existence on this earth is to be a light for us “normal” people. Regrettably, he also described a girl with disabilities as having an “affliction.”
While his stories brought many in the congregation to tears, as I watched people crying I questioned whether his tales were helping move the needle towards greater inclusion in our Jewish communal infrastructure. I think not. Constantly framing people with disabilities as a rachmonis, a tragedy, does not help. I believe this attitude ultimately perpetuates a stereotype that prevents full inclusion. Yes, it may help influence people to give more tzedakah to organizations that work with the disabled, but people with disabilities want a hand up and a welcome in, not a hand out.
JDAIM, which began in 2008, draws attention to the lack of inclusion that exists in our Jewish communal institutions such as synagogues, schools, summer camps and Jewish organizations. Eight years have passed, and as awareness has increased the question begs to be asked: How much more inclusive have our communities really become? Can we look at our Jewish day schools and congregational schools and summer camps and say that the children with some form of disability are properly represented? Does every fifth person who is part of our synagogues or Jewish organizations have some form of disability?
In the marketing world there is an acronym that describes the process of affecting attitudes: A-I-D-A, standing for Awareness, which leads to Interest, which leads to Decision, which leads to Action. This is the eighth year of the awareness process. At this rate it will take another 20 years until we have serious commitment to action. Frankly, the awareness piece seems to be happening at a slow and steady trickle, but I want more and I think the close to 20 percent of the Jewish people who have some form of physical, developmental or learning disability are ready for more.
To see people with disabilities as “the other” enables principals and boards of directors to reject Jewish children with disabilities from our day schools and preschools. It allows synagogues and Jewish summer camps to remain inaccessible to those with physical disabilities by hiding behind the American Disabilities Act (ADA) that was written in 1992 with the intention of not causing an undue financial burden to religious institutions. Our Jewish infrastructure uses the law as an excuse to claim they can’t afford to become accessible. The time has come for our Jewish institutions to understand that being accessible is simply part of being truly Jewish and a cost of doing business.
Yes, new and expanded programming is taking place in the synagogue world through the efforts of UJA-Federation and in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements. Yet in a day and age of pervasive idea exchange and rapid change and adaptation, inclusion for those living with disabilities is still progressing at a snail’s pace.
The desires of people with disabilities and their family members with disabilities are the same as those of people without disabilities: To feel included and as an integral part of the fabric of the community. I see many institutions in all Jewish denominations grappling with being proactive about the inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Why aren’t our communities grappling in the same way to include those with disabilities?
The time has come for the “A” in JDAIM to stand for “Action.” Each of us needs to look at the Jewish organizations with which we are involved — day schools, yeshivas, synagogues and camps — and push them to make the decision to include the fifth of the Jewish people who have some form of physical, mental developmental or learning disability. We must take a stand to include people in this segment of our population if we want them, and their families, to remain part of the Jewish people. Instead of waiting a year until next February to become more “Aware,” let’s make the decision to take “Action” in our own communities to include Jews with disabilities, every day and every month.
Shelley Cohen is founder and director of The Jewish Inclusion Project.