Since 2009, February has been designated Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, or JDAIM. Jessica Tischler is the director of inclusion and disability services at the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.
It’s a role that Tischler, 38, has filled for 11 years. She said she builds social, recreational and educational programming for people with disabilities and promotes inclusion throughout the JCC.
Tischler, who has a master’s degree in recreation therapy from Temple University, has also written two children’s books promoting acceptance and inclusion, “Judy Made a Doody” and “We Can All Color.” The latter was illustrated by her husband, Shy Ashkenazi, the Pozez JCC’s former shaliach, or Israeli emissary.
What has changed since you first entered the inclusion field?
Organizations are now looking at how they can be more inclusive as a staff as well, hiring more people with disabilities and making accommodations as needed. I’ve seen more understanding and more acceptance over the years.
What do you love about your job?
My favorite part is the combination of building opportunities for people and seeing the growth and development for people over the years. I also love building relationships with people and getting to know them.
What is the significance of having a month dedicated to Jewish disability awareness, acceptance and inclusion?
The importance of JDAIM is to raise awareness and provide education on inclusion of people with disabilities. It’s wonderful because it’s a unified initiative across Jewish organizations. Although it’s celebrated in the month of February, it’s important that the efforts for awareness and acceptance last year round.
What is your agency, the Pozez JCC, doing to be more inclusive and raise awareness of people with disabilities?
We are trying to hire more people with disabilities, for employment, and working to make sure that programs are accessible to people and sensory-friendly. Understanding that people with disabilities are one of the most unemployed populations but they’re the most employable. They’re hard-working and dedicated.
What is something people often overlook when it comes to inclusion?
They think it’s a difficult thing to do, but it’s actually a mindset. I think people find it difficult to build something with inclusion in mind, either because they aren’t used to it or are scared they aren’t doing it right. It doesn’t cost anything to be inclusive.
How can people be sure they’re doing it right?
Be open and welcoming to everyone, ask people what they want or need, and don’t make assumptions about what people need or what they can or cannot do.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your job?
I think helping people understand that inclusion should be at the forefront of their thinking and programming. That it has to be built for the person most in need and everyone benefits from that. Changing people’s mindsets can be difficult sometimes because people are used to doing what they’ve been doing for a long time.
If you could give the Jewish community one piece of advice in terms of disability awareness and inclusion, what would that be?
I think that all organizations should have inclusion as part of their mission and vision. It really should come from the top of the organization. People should be taking initiative to be more inclusive across the board. ■