Ever gone on a long car trip with your children when one of them breaks the tedium of the road by piping up, “Are we there yet?”
The adorableness of this tyke wears off after they have asked the question three or four times. Your first response, “No honey bug, we’re not,” quickly morphs to a teeth clenching “No!” before you realize that little ones can’t read road maps or the GPS, and really, they are bored, tired of being in the car and maybe a little excited about getting to the destination.
Since February 2009, the first time the Jewish Special Education International Consortium members planned the first Jewish Disability Awareness Month, an increasing number of Jewish organizations and communities have hit the road, raising awareness about the way Jews with disabilities and those who love them have been practically invisible in Jewish life.
As advocates and service providers, we members of the Consortium knew that Jewish organizations could do better than give lip service to inclusion.
This is how Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) was born. A handful of Consortium members embraced the opportunity to put inclusion of people with disabilities on their community agendas. They partnered with community organizations to hold events in February including special “inclusion” services and dinners that welcomed people with disabilities and families. Community-wide events featured screening of the iconic inclusion film, “Praying with Lior.”
We were nowhere near to being there yet. We were barely out of the garage! And yet, we realized that JDAM could be a unifying factor to promote attitudinal change on a broad scale.
I took the wheel for JDAM because I am so passionate about people having access to all of the riches of Jewish life in personally meaningful ways. If we wanted to unite Jewish communities we had to give them the resources to join the movement.
And that is what JDAM inspired.
Every year the number of organizations and communities participating in JDAM has increased across North America, in Great Britain and Israel. The logo, a Magen David made of blue and gold ribbons, inspires us to think about how inclusion is woven into all of the activities of our organizations. The number of people who were vaguely aware that Jews with disabilities have been largely marginalized in communal organizations are better informed about Jewish values that support inclusion through numerous blogs, community events, and most important of all, relationships with people with disabilities in the very institutions that once made them invisible.
Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism stand at the forefront of advocating for the civil rights of people with disabilities. Together they are hosting the fifth Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill on February 25. Foundations such as the Ruderman Family Foundation and non-profits such as Respectability USA advocate for meaningful and appropriate employment opportunities for a highly unemployed segment of the American public. New affordable housing initiatives such as Jewish Family Services of Milwaukee Bradley Crossing recognize that people with disabilities can be supported when they live in the community.
As we begin the seventh JDAM, we are tempted to ask, “Are we there yet?”
How would you answer that question?
We will arrive at our destination when every person who has a disability and those who love them are engaged in the activities offered in synagogues, agencies and organizations — just like anyone else with the supports in place that they need to participate. They will have employment and housing opportunities just like anyone else, and most significantly, people with and without disabilities form friendships based on common interests.
If we only take our journeys in February it will take so long to reach our destination. Like our children on long car trips, our patience runs thin.
February allows us to evaluate our commitment to inclusion, determine how close we are to our destination and make the course corrections that will get us there faster. Then the rest of the year we live that commitment to inclusion, working together to reach our destination.
Shelly Christensen, MA literally wrote the book on inclusion of people with disabilities, the Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Her award-winning work as Program Manager of the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities.at Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis led her to co-found Jewish Disability Awareness Month with the Jewish Special Education International Consortium in 2009.
Shelly’s work as founder and Executive Director of Inclusion Innovations, where she provides training, organizational and community development, and strategic planning so Jewish organizations and communities around the world can become more welcoming and inclusive, is the standard in the field of sacred community inclusion. She is co-founder of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. Shelly and her husband Rick are the parents of three children, one of whom has a disability.