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 parts one and two,click here.
Budget the Time and Money That It Will Take to Do It Right. Inclusion is a lot less expensive than most people think, but it takes the right team with the right training to do it effectively. To ensure success and to develop an accurate budget, camps/schools/synagogues need to know how much funds are needed to have the right staff in place, give them the training needed to make them effective, and make the needed accommodations to the physical plant.
Registration Forms and Intake Process Can Establish Trust. Trust is vital—and it comes before you even meet face to face with children with a disability or their parents. Every sign-up form for every program must ask what accommodations are needed for people to participate fully in what you are offering.
When participants indicate that they need an accommodation, their form must go straight to the inclusion director/coordinator so he or she can ensure that their needs can be met. Parents can be your best assets because they are already experts in meeting the needs of their child and can help you serve them successfully as well.
It is fine to indicate that you need advance notice of any disabilities so that you can offer needed accommodations or special services at your events. For example, tracking down a good sign-language interpreter or making a “behavior plan” takes time. Have a ready list of providers or volunteers you can call to meet key needs.
Every Organization Needs an Experienced Inclusion Director/Coordinator. An expert inclusion director/coordinator can ensure that you are ready to meet the needs of Jews with disabilities. This person does not need to work full time, but does need to be available as needed. Some institutions use highly qualified volunteers. For others this is a paid position. There are many special educators/therapists/social workers who work in public schools or other institutions who are available on a part-time basis. Click here to see a sample job description from the URJ camps that can easily be adapted for Jewish schools or synagogues.
Training Seminars and Manuals. When the Foundation for Jewish Camp asked its member camps in 2013 what was the “most significant challenge to serving campers or more campers with disabilities/special needs,” the most frequent answer was that they were “only able to accept a certain level of disability and can’t have campers with more severe issues.” The next most frequent response was “we don’t have enough properly trained staff for it.” Parents also cited the cost of camp programs and the need for staff trained to assist children in developing peer relationships and building social skills, as well as to help other campers learn to respect and accept campers with disabilities. Professional training sessions and materials are vital and the following topics must be covered for all Jewish institutions:
*Participant assessment/intake process
*Inclusion support staff
* Preparing non-disabled peers
*Facilitating peer interactions/aid and fade
* On-site technical support
* Program evaluation
All groups need a staff training manual on inclusion. MATAN, which focuses on professional development and mentorship of current of future Jewish leaders, has good materials on its website, and other groups have helpful resources as well. A manual of best practices would be a welcome addition to the field. Here are three excellent training manuals.
Promote “Expected Behaviors” to Reduce Tantrums/Meltdowns. One of the main reasons that Jewish institutions deny access to children withdisabilities is that they do not yet understand how to promote “expected behaviors” (the PC way of referring to reducing tantrums and meltdowns by children with disabilities). Thus, they are afraid of classroom disruption. To expand your capacity to serve participants with more involved disabilities (note they are not called “crippling” or “severe”), staff members need professional training so they can understand the difference between “can’t” and “won’t,” and they need to be given the tools to promote expected behaviors. Simple tools like effective methods for handling transition between activities can eliminate tantrums and keep a group together as a team. Training can make all the difference!
Marketing: Getting the Word Out. One of the hardest things for families challenged by disabilities is finding what is available in their communities, and websites can be important tools for letting people know what you offer. Part of the challenge is that in many cases the current state of play is “accidental inclusion” instead of “intentional inclusion.” In other words, many Jewish institutions serve who they serve because they were approached by a person with a disability and correctly made accommodations to include them. This effort should be applauded, but it should not stop there. Intentional inclusion should be the goal, and it should be celebrated and shared widely. If you already have inclusion programs, put your diversity policy on your website stating that you are open to all, regardless of ability. Work to make your website easy to navigate and accessible to people who are blind and deaf.
What Parents Want for their Children: Social Skills and Peer Relationships
As mentioned earlier in the context of camp, parents of children with disabilities want professionals to be trained in assisting their children to develop peer relationships and build social skills and to help other children learn to respect and accept those with disabilities. In many Jewish institutions the one-to-one CIT/counselor/paraeducators who provide support to children with more involved disabilities mistakenly think their job is to be the child’s big brother/big sister/friend. But the best practices role should be to aid and fade.
A key purpose of inclusion is to enable children with disabilities to make friends and have experiences with their “typical” peers. The job of a staff member or counselor is not to fix every problem or to constantly hover over participants; it is to help children discover solutions on their own. There will be times when a counselor will need to assist them, either physically or in a conversation, in meeting their needs.
Once the immediate need is met, however, it is then important that children are given the space to be as independent as possible. Their support person needs to step away slowly, allowing more freedom and the space for real friendships to happen.
Doing so is difficult because it requires typical campers and students to make an effort to be friends with a child who may have limited social skills. But that hard work pays off. While many children do not yet understand why these peer relationships are so important, their parents do. Nothing is more important to families than enabling a young person with a disability to be able to self-advocate and to become independent. After all, parents eventually will die. They want their child with a disability to have people who will care about them and vice versa, and who are not paid to do so.
Aid and Fade is especially important with older campers/students. However, in our telephone interviews with camp directors we heard over and over that it is far easier to provide one-to-one support when the camper is young.
With older campers, it is more obvious to the other campers in the cabin that the child with disability has that support. Yet, some of that difficulty would be eliminated if the support person had the experience and training to understand that he or she should be a helper to the whole peer group, and should aid and fade the one-to-one support as needed.
Many groups hire young people to be counselors or aides who have been to camp or religious school for many years and have an affinity for helping kids with disabilities, but have no educational background or practical experience in working with people with disabilities. Is this a best practice? At a minimum they need intensive training before camp begins. At best, they could benefit from a program similar to CLASSP (Consortia of Learning and Service to Special Populations) and College CLASSP, year-long programs in more than 20 UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Centers and day camps. Both provide hands-on training and academic learning, provided by Ramapo for Children’s Training Institute, to high school and college students who work in their afterschool and weekend programs and in their summer day camps. Participants earn a stipend and college credits.
Many subsequently are hired to help staff agency programs, bringing their rich experience and skill and enabling the agencies to enhance their programming for youngsters with disabilities. Their CLASSP experiences have led many students to choose professions directly related to disabilities. Moreover, as a result of this rich experience, they are more compassionate individuals who often act as strong advocates for people with disabilities in their daily lives.
An added benefit of these peer relationships was pointed out by Rabbi Steven Weil, in Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union, about his son’s participation in Yad B’Yad, Yachad’s inclusive travel program in Israel: by teaching kids and teens about inclusion,we educate the parents as well.
Hire People With Disabilities and encourage others to do so as well
According to congressional testimony, fully 70 percent of working-aged Americans with disabilities do not participate in the workforce (compared with 28 percent of people without disabilities). It is therefore important for Jewish communal agencies not only to develop programs for people with disabilities but also to use them. They should be a model for hiring people with disabilities, and, if they are running job fairs, should only include employers that hire individuals with disabilities. Congregations can encourage their members to offer internships to young Jews with disabilities or serve as “job coaches” so that Jewish teens with disabilities can be put on track to a life of independence and success.
Well-trained, skilled, and sensitive staff and volunteers who are experienced in working with Jews with disabilities are in short supply, and a job bank should be created of such talented people. It would be extremely helpful to have a central database/file of good resumes of professionals who could serve as inclusion directors as well as being one-to-one supports. Because mental health problems, learning challenges, and Autism Spectrum Disorders disproportionally affect males (4:1), men are especially needed in the field to serve as role models.
Provide Scholarships to Jewish Children With Disabilities and Their Families
Disabilities can impoverish people. Paying for treatments, therapies, equipment, and services that help some people with disabilities adapt to daily life places extraordinary financial burdens on families because these services are not fully covered by insurance or public funds (though we may see some improvement with full implementation of the Affordable Care Act). Taking advantage of financial assistance is often the only way people with disabilitiescan participate in programs. When developing programming, it is important to consider scholarship options for families wishing to participate in camps, schools, or synagogues. When doing intakes, make it comfortable for people to ask about financial assistance.
Creating a Home Away From Home: Mental Health Support or Affinity Groups
Support groups for people with disabilities and their family members provide emotional support to people grappling with issues they face. They can empower parents who can then become active volunteers, which helps ensure that the programming will be well attended and successful. These support groups do not need to be facilitated by social workers; existing synagogue and day school staff can be trained to lead them. It is a known fact that families will move to those communities that offer them the most services and are welcoming. We need to reach out to families and help them plan for the future, ensuring that their children will be welcomed and as independent as possible when their parents are gone. We need to provide support to siblings of people with disabilities as well.
The bottom line: Open our doors to Jews with disabilities and we will be enriched by their abilities. Every person with a disability has strengths, purpose, equal value and a place in the Jewish community. Let’s open our tent!
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.