Inclusion specialist speaks on pandemic, disability awareness

Rinat Kisin
Rinat Kisin (Photo courtesy of Rinat Kisin)

Since 2009, February is designated as Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, or JDAIM. In January, Rinat Kisin started work as inclusion and belonging specialist at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She spoke to WJW about JDAIM and on disability awareness in general.

How does the pandemic affect people with disabilities?

People with disabilities are the largest minority in the country, at 20 percent of the population. There are specific challenges for them that are either new or [have been made] even harder.

For example, we know that there are people with disabilities that are more likely to have a medical condition that can put them in increased risk to COVID. So they have to be extra careful, more than anyone else. Mainly, we’re talking about those with [a] chronic disease.

Another layer is more people experiencing mental health challenges. And now with social distancing, and all the anxiety around the pandemic, that’s adding another layer.

Another challenge is communication. So many people with vision, hearing, learning or cognitive disabilities may not be able to get the information that others can because it’s not accessible. Websites might not be accessible. In news, there’s not a sign language interpreter for real-time information, urgent or not. It might not be accessible for them, so they can feel left out. They can feel they don’t really know what’s going on.

What does it mean to be inclusive?

Inclusion is how we acknowledge the fact that there are differences. But we create opportunities for everyone, despite the differences, to be part of what we’re doing.

I use the metaphor of a table. You invite people to sit around the table. But being inclusive means not just having people sit next to you at the table, but also giving them a voice and letting them speak.

What is the importance of JDAIM?

The importance of this is just really taking the disabilities and putting them on the map. All month long, people will have events about that. They will share what their communities are doing. They will learn from each other. They will invite people with disabilities to share their stories.

So by taking this topic and putting it on the map, it starts the awareness that some communities maybe don’t have fully.

What are some examples of how local Jews can spread awareness, acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities?

I think the first part is creating awareness and the cultural shift that every organization would need to do if they haven’t done it already, which means understanding the importance of inclusion, understanding that disability inclusion is part of social justice, understanding why it is important for communities to include every person, especially when we’re talking about the Jewish community and the values of Jewish communities.

The next step would be, OK, now that we are aware, what do we do about it? And there are so many ways you can go about it. One would be just to work with agencies and leaders and volunteers and self-advocates, and just identify the needs, what is missing and how we can support each other and help each other and create new initiatives and solutions. That would be step two.

The third thing is to make sure that every program and event is accessible. That every person would be able to attend like any other person and offer accommodations. Everything is virtual today, right? The technology is there. The best practices are there. We just need to implement that.

What is something people often overlook when it comes to disabilities?

If you don’t know something, you should ask. Sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t know, right? Lack of experience. Lack of exposure. Whatever the reason might be. Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. And be open minded to learn, to ask and to make changes.

Tell us about what your job entails.

Part of my job is to collaborate with agencies, with organizations, lay leaders, volunteers and people from the larger Jewish community to make sure that we create a culture of inclusion and belonging.

There’s a lot of stigma associated with disabilities that we want to shatter. How do we do that? By working together. By creating programs. By talking about it. But, really, what we want to do is make sure that The Federation and those who work with us are able to advance opportunities for people with disabilities to fully participate in all aspects of Jewish life.

There’s quite the spectrum of disabilities. Is it possible for an organization to truly be inclusive?

Absolutely. And you mentioned something that is right. Within the disability community, there are so many disabilities. Each has its own needs and different accommodations. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and you shouldn’t do what is needed to accommodate every person. Again, we know what we need to do. The best practices are there. The technology is here. And if you don’t know, you ask, right? So you learn a lot from the people themselves.

Last question. What motivates you?

I believe in giving people the opportunity to succeed. I think disability inclusion is and should be part of the human rights conversation. So as someone who believes in human rights and social justice, and is really passionate about that, I just think that this is what motivates me. I know there are barriers and I know there are solutions to those barriers. We just need to implement them. We just need to use them. We need to learn how to do better.

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