The goal of National Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month is to initiate discussion and promote inclusion for everyone in all aspects of Jewish life, regardless of his or her physical or mental ability.
But “the discussion shouldn’t be about deciding things for people with disabilities but should include people with disabilities in the discussion,” says Shelly Christensen, founder and executive director of Inclusion Innovations and a co-founder of JDAM.
Although disability awareness and accessible programming exists throughout the year, the Greater Washington area will join the nationwide effort by highlighting a month of educational programs and events in February to raise awareness, particularly in the Jewish community, about creating accessibility and inclusion.
The aim, advocates say, is to ensure that Jewish organizations are committed to taking needed steps so that everyone can participate in all aspects of Jewish life.
“When we think of inclusion, we think of things such as building ramps, installing automatic doors and retrofitting restrooms,” said Christensen. “While it’s important to address those things, the most important thing is to create the mind-set and atmosphere where everyone knows they belong.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO and president of RespectAbilityUSA.org in Washington, sees a Jewish disability awareness month as a necessity, given demographic realities.
“Jews typically wait to get married later in life than other populations,” she said. “So [Jews] have a lot more people over the age of 35 who are trying to have kids than other populations. Autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and Down syndrome are all linked to age of parents. So for Jews, we’re more at risk.”
Surveying the landscape of Jewish organizations, Mizrahi gives high marks for the camping movement in general but singles out day schools for particular criticism. Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, she notes, “is the largest Jewish day school in the country, but yet a Jewish child who has a more involved disability cannot go there. That’s why you need an awareness month. That just should not happen.”
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, Charles E. Smith’s head of school, acknowledges that “Jewish day schools in general have not fully addressed this issue,” but that many schools, including his, “have made significant strides to be more accessible to a wider range of learners.”
“Our school has a director of educational support services and nine full-time faculty members who work in this area,” he pointed out. “In addition, we have done faculty-wide training on differentiation within the classroom. Our school is currently engaged in the strategic planning process, and we hope to further address this issue as we move to the next step of our school’s development.”
Mizrahi’s organization will present a webinar on Feb. 18 with information on how to make a business or organization more inclusive. Other Washington-area events include a talk by Lise Hamlin, director of public policy at the Hearing Loss Association of America, at Temple Micah on Feb. 21.
For information on events throughout the month and to download a resource guide, visit jewishfederations.org.
Melissa Gerr is senior reporter for WJW’s sister publication, Baltimore Jewish Times.
See also: Disability activists lobby Congress