Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Fall, 2014 issue of The Journal of Jewish Communal Service, and is disseminated with the permission of its publisher, JPRO Network. Subscriptions at JPRO.org. We are sharing this primer in three parts; to see part one click here.
Do a Self-Assessment on Inclusion. This is the first step in developing a comprehensive approach to serving people with disabilities. Here are some key questions to ask about your organization, inspired by material developed by the JE & ZB Butler and Ruderman Family Foundations.
- Does your organization have policies and/or programs that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels? Are they prominent on your website and materials?
- Does it have a disability advisory committee/inclusion committee, and if so, are Jews with disabilities themselves and their family members on the committee?
- Will all people with any kind of disability be welcomed to participate? If not, why not? If so, how do you plan to identify, reach, and welcome them?
- Do you serve Jews with disabilities in an inclusive way (welcoming them inside the full community), or are they forced into segregated “special needs programs” that are inherently unequal?
- Has someone who uses a wheelchair personally checked the physical accessibility of your offices and programs for people who use wheelchairs?
- Has a person who is blind and who uses adaptive computer technology checked your website and facilities for accessibility?
- Do the videos you use have captions? Do you have a way to communicate with people who are deaf or use other adaptive supports?
- Do you employ individuals who have disabilities? If so, what are their jobs? Do they receive the same compensation and benefits as all other employees in like positions?
- How do you educate your staff, board of directors, trustees, and other key people about serving and partnering with people with disabilities?
Leadership at the Top Needs to Buy in and Share That Vision. Academic studies show that for inclusion of people with disabilities to be truly successful there must be buy-in from top leadership. The CEO and lay leadership must communicate the message that all people are of equal value and must be respected and heard fairly. They are responsible for the implementation of the vision, mission, and tone of the agency, which must be embedded in its policies, budget, and staffing.
One prominent agency in which top leadership has set a course toward a focus on inclusion is the national umbrella organization, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). It has implemented a smart, holistic strategic planning process that includes budgeting and training to ensure that all its member camps in North America are on board. Jewish overnight camps, such as Ramapo for Children and HASC, have been serving children with disabilities (albeit in segregated institutions) for years. This year, Howard Blas and the Tikvah program at Ramah Camps won well-deserved recognition from the Covenant Foundation for their work in inclusive camping where children with and without disabilities are welcomed as equals. The FJC is only beginning the journey to full inclusion by serving children of ALL abilities, but because it is being done strategically from the top, this effort is an example of what more Jewish day schools, synagogues, and Federations could and should be doing.
Among the federations, Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and the UJA-Federation of New York are making important efforts to build support for inclusion. In addition, The Associated in Baltimore has created a user-friendly website where Jewish parents of children with disabilities can easily find agencies that will welcome and serve their children. Some individual Jewish Community Centers have had successful inclusion programs. The Reform movement, which has long benefited from the able work of Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, now has the added voice of its top leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs. Yachad, a youth inclusion program through the Orthodox Union, and Friendship Circle, both of which bring together teenage volunteers and children with special needs, have provided quality access and dignity to Jewish children with disabilities for years. Vocal and visible leadership from the top matters tremendously.
Nothing About Us Without Us. People with disabilities need a seat at the table and must be involved in decision making: organizations must work with people with disabilities, not for them. If currently there are no Jews with disabilities participating in your decision-making process, then bring them in. Value their experiences and opinions. Remember that even people who cannot physically speak have opinions that must be shared and heard.
Use “People-First” Language. Take the time to learn “people-first language,” which respects human beings and their right to be appreciated for the strengths they have and which does not define them by their disabilities. For example, using people-first language, you would call a child with Down syndrome by his or her name, not “the kid with Down Syndrome” or, worse yet, the “Down syndrome kid.” A person who uses a wheelchair is a person first, and that wheelchair is a tool of liberation: he or sheis not “wheelchair bound.” The focus is on “people with disabilities,” not the “handicapped” or the “disabled.”
Walk the Walk. It is one thing to announce big goals and a plan. Implementation is another. Last year, NJY Camps, which has nine camps under its umbrella, decided to merge its Round Lake Camp for children with disabilities with three of its other camps to make the entire organization more inclusive. As a result, children with disabilities were no longer in a completely segregated institution, and children without disabilities benefited from being exposed in a Jewish context to the diversity of Jewish people that God put on this earth. Every segregated Jewish institution should look closely at how this change was implemented because it took significant training and preparation, and it worked. It was a true example of walking the walk in a big way!
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She is dyslexic and as a proud parent knows what it means for her child to be denied access to Jewish institutions due solely to disabilities. Meagan Buren is the Vice President of RespectAbilityUSA.org and is also the President of Buren Research and Communications. She is an expert in public opinion research and strategic communications. Free resources from RespectabilityUSA are available here.