Over the past 10 years, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) has evolved from a grassroots campaign into an international movement that has played a significant role in driving progress toward disability inclusion in Jewish spaces.
“Previously, organizations were working on inclusion, but there were no cohesive efforts. The idea was to unite everyone to make it much more powerful,” said Lenore Layman, director of educational support services at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. In 2008, while working at the Board of Jewish Education, Layman called Shelly Christensen — who managed Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis's innovative inclusion program at the time — to discuss coordinating their respective inclusion efforts into a cohesive campaign.
“Shelly took it and ran with it in an amazing way,” Layman said, and Jewish Disability Awareness Month was born (the name was amended in 2015 to incorporate the word "inclusion").
Jewish Disability Advocacy Day 2018
One of the local highlights of JDAIM is Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), the day includes briefings from policy experts on issues relating to disability and inclusion, training on how to be an effective advocate, lunch with members of Congress, and the opportunity to meet with individual members of Congress and their staffs to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Approximately 230 people joined the eighth annual JDAD on Feb. 6, participating in a total of 50 meetings with representatives from 20 states.
“As someone who has been a lifelong self-advocate, JDAD is really meaningful to me because it demonstrates the Jewish community’s commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities,” said Aaron Kaufman, senior legislative associate at JFNA. Kaufman acknowledged partnering organization RAC as well as JDAD’s 60 sponsors — including 13 Federations and numerous synagogues, Jewish agencies, JCCs, and fraternal organizations (including one sorority) — for their role in the day’s success.
Michael Halpern, a graduate of Café Sunflower’s Employment Training Program, participated in JDAD for the second time this year. “I wanted to speak about my experiences since last Advocacy Day, about the transformative experiences I’ve had working at the café,” he explained. Even with his personal success at Café Sunflower, Halpern valued the opportunity to “express my concerns about inclusion in the workforce.”
The Congressional panels were the best part for Sharon Rosenblatt, director of communications at Accessibility Partners, LLC. “I love that disability advocacy, for the most part, is a bipartisan issue. Also, representatives of different faiths really reach out and learn about Jewish values and how it intersects with their faiths,” she said. “I like how [JDAD] embodies the idea of k’lal Yisrael (the Jewish people), because disability is truly an area where all denominations agree on full community integration.”
This year, JDAD’s agenda focused on two specific issues: protecting Medicaid and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Full Funding Act (H.R. 2902). The IDEA Full Funding Act aims to increase federal funding for special education programs, but it only applies to public schools; Jewish schools must take their own initiative to establish and maintain an inclusive educational environment.
Fostering Inclusion in Jewish Education
Yachad, The National Jewish Council for Disabilities hosts educational conferences in multiple cities to facilitate inclusion in educational settings. Last week, Yachad hosted a pair of events in Baltimore featuring Dr. Ross Greene, a clinical child psychologist and the originator of the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) approach for helping behaviorally challenged children.
This was the third year Yachad hosted an educational conference in Baltimore, and the event garnered so much interest that it was moved from the originally scheduled venue of the Park Heights JCC to the Talmudic Academy to accommodate a larger crowd. Two hundred fifteen Jewish educators participated in the conference.
The focus was on providing resources to help teachers in typical classrooms create more inclusive environments. While special education resources and guidelines for inclusion in general studies classrooms abound, “there aren’t a lot of resources out there for [Judaic studies]," said Batya Jacob, director of educational support services for Yachad. Therefore, the conference was “very specifically looking to help Judaic studies teachers and teachers in day schools to be able to better include all of the different students in their classrooms.”
Resources for Employment Inclusion
Inclusion in schools helps create a foundation for people with disabilities to succeed later, but that does not mean inclusion efforts can end with graduation. “What happens when the students grow up and become teens and adults? Where is the community?” asked Christensen, who organizes JDAIM. The Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia (JCCNV) and The Washington Group Special Care Planning Team’s recent workshop sought to address this need.
The “Employment Opportunities for Individuals with Special Needs Workshop,” held at JCCNV on Feb. 15, promoted resources for inclusion in the workplace. Approximately 65 participants and 12 vendors attended the workshop, part of an ongoing series of events highlighting community resources for people with disabilities. The event was open to anyone interested, regardless of current career level.
“The disabilities community has one of the highest unemployment rates in America, yet offers a large pool of qualified individuals for employment,” pointed out Jerry Hulick, senior planner at The Washington Group Special Care Planning Team. “These workshops help provide resources and information for employment opportunities and possibilities.”
Take the Next Step: Make Purim More Inclusive
“The goal of JDAIM is lifelong inclusion, from ‘birth to earth,’” said Christensen. Just as inclusion cannot stop at a particular age, the Jewish community’s focus on inclusion should not be limited to the month of JDAIM. "JDAIM is focused on getting the information out there and raising awareness with the expectation that when JDAIM is over, you don’t rest on your successes in February — you build on them to support people with disabilities and mental health conditions to actively engage with and participate in Jewish life. The promise of JDAIM is to create a richer community for all members."
This year, the last day of JDAIM coincides with the beginning of Purim. Yachad offers a free resource to help synagogues make Purim a more inclusive experience; all that’s needed is a laptop, a projector, and a screen (or a white sheet). The Purim PowerPoint presentation allows synagogues to project the full text of the megillah — in Hebrew and English, side-by-side — on a screen, and use the mouse to follow along as it is read aloud. Originally designed for the Deaf community, the PowerPoint is useful for other populations as well: the large text helps people with low vision follow along, the side-by-side translation aids people who do not speak Hebrew, and the graphics keep children with attention challenges engaged.
“It’s a very simple idea that blew up into this massive thing,” said Jacob. That’s an important lesson about the ripple effects of inclusion: changes made to accommodate a specific type of disability often end up having benefits for a much larger swath of the population.
As Jacob put it, the Purim PowerPoint is “a perfect segue from JDAIM toward continuing inclusion.”
By Malka Goldberg
Malka Goldberg is the Community News editor for Kol HaBirah.