In the Jewish community, February is known as JDAIM — Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance & Inclusion Month, a national initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.
Since JDAIM was established in 2009, Jewish communities have made a number of advances in welcoming, supporting and integrating people with disabilities and their family members. The following are examples of the strides made in the last 11 years — while acknowledging that challenges persist.
A generation ago, many Jewish formal and informal education programs lacked the resources and training to adequately welcome and educate children and teens with learning, cognitive and/or physical disabilities. Today, Jewish schools sense that inclusion is essential.
“In my work as a consultant who leads training workshops for educational staff and madrichim [teachers], conversations have shifted away from, ‘Can you help my staff understand why inclusion is important?’ to ‘My staff understands that disability inclusion is important, they need the skills to be able to manage this effectively in their classrooms,’” says Lisa Friedman, an educator who leads disability awareness training in the Jewish community.
Students with disabilities are not only welcomed into Jewish schools but are also commonly becoming bar/bat mitzvah in services that may be adapted or modified to meet the child’s needs and highlight their strengths.
Over the last decade, awareness has grown about accessibility and inclusion related to our physical buildings — and also as it relates to our online presence. More synagogues and organizations are integrating accessibility features into their web design.
“I encourage my clients who create websites, applications and mobile apps to tackle accessibility in bite-size chunks to prevent becoming overwhelmed,” explains accessibility professional Sharon Rosenblatt. Adding alternative text for images and writing synchronized captions for videos are simple steps that she recommends every organization start with.
One significant next step in the disability inclusion realm is the cultivatation of leaders with disabilities. In a 2018 survey, RespectAbility, a nonprofit focused on disability advocacy in the Jewish community and beyond, discovered that less than 15 percent of Jews could identify a single Jewish community leader with a disability.
In response, RespectAbility recently started a new leadership initiative headed by Matan Koch, a lawyer and wheelchair-user who is working to train Jewish leaders with disabilities in the Los Angeles area.
“What is encouraging to me is that 20 years ago I would have received outright incredulity from many Jewish leaders if I tried to convince them that Jews with disabilities could be leaders,” Koch says.
While the idea of “inclusion” has been the focus of JDAIM, disability advocate Shelly Christensen, author of the 2018 book “From Longing to Belonging: A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities in Your Faith Community,” is pushing communities to look beyond simply including people with disabilities — and ask them to consider how they can make sure that everyone in our communities feels a sense of belonging.
Christensen, one of the original founders of JDAIM, describes the importance of belonging. “When you gather together at services, learning sessions, Torah study, staff, board and committee meetings and at all JDAIM-related programs, ask people what belonging to the Jewish community means to them. Really listen to what people say.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer edits The Jewish Week’s disability blog, The New Normal.