Discussions about how to include Jews with disabilities in community life often turn to the hardware of inclusion: the need for building ramps and automatic doors, retrofitting classrooms, employing American Sign Language interpreters and special-needs teachers. But there is also a software of inclusion – in the words of disability-rights advocate Shelly Cristensen, “the mind-set and atmosphere where everyone knows they belong.”
That’s why Jewish Disability Awareness Month, which Jewish organizations and communities will observe in February, is so important. It challenges us to adopt the mind-set that regardless of a person’s differences, everyone deserves to be included in Jewish life.
Christensen and a group of professionals dealing with Jewish special-education services organized the first awareness month in 2009. Since then, it has been adopted by a growing number of organizations. Great strides have been mind, but practically every member of the greater Jewish community knows of a family who struggles to find help and acceptance.
To be sure, the Washington area has an impressive array of programs and services aimed to answer the challenge of Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Many are sponsored by the Jewish Social Service Agency, such as the Center for Autism through the Lifespan. Others are offered by area JCCs, where children with disabilities are included in day camp. SULAM offers children with diverse learning needs a comprehensive education in a Jewish day school. The Jewish Foundation for Group Homes provides nonsectarian support with residential, transitioning youth and social programs.
All these services, and many more, are to be applauded. There is more to do, however. Jewish Disability Awareness Month invites us to explore new ideas and innovations underway in other communities. In suburban Detroit, for instance, Chabad’s Friendship Circle operates LifeTown, which includes a life-size mock-up of a town square. In LifeTown, children can learn and practice how to do everyday activities, such as banking, scheduling and keeping appointments, following traffic signals and buying movie tickets. LifeTown’s hope is that those whose special needs currently impede their daily functioning are able to achieve a level of self-sufficiency.
The gamut of disabilities and the range of their impact are so large that no one program will answer all of the challenges. But the overarching goal must be to create an atmosphere where everyone knows that he or she belongs.