Jewish Disability Awareness Month is a Call to Action
by Shelly Christensen
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) which was founded in 2008 by the Jewish Special Education Consortium. The Union for Reform Judaism actively supports JDAM and encourages congregations to raise awareness and continue to navigate the journey of inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the year.
We used to believe that building a ramp to the bimah would invite people who use mobility devices to come to services. But ramps do not take the place of real engagement and belonging. How important is a ramp to the bimah if those ascending it have never learned the rituals and blessings associated with Torah?
Jewish Disability Awareness Month provides us the opportunity to think about our own attitudes and the barriers to participation that these cause. Attitudinal barriers are the most challenging to address because they require that we look deeply inside ourselves and our organizations to discover our own beliefs about differences and abilities.
During JDAM we have opportunities to talk about our own assumptions about disabilities and become aware of how our own attitudes might shape the actual practice of inclusion in our congregations and institutions. These discussions can be held in staff meetings or staff development, board meetings or retreats, in our religious schools, Torah study sessions and services. Several ideas include:
- Base discussion on the Resolution in Support of Access to Lifelong Jewish Learning for Jewsh with Disabilities that was approved at the 71st Biennial in December. The resolution addresses participation for people with disabilities through access to lifelong learning in all aspects of Jewish communal life, affirms individual choice, eases isolation and promotes person-centered thinking through the suggestion of person-first language (“person with a disability”, not “disabled person” or person who has autism, not “the autistic”).
- Learn how your organization has progressed in its attitudes toward welcoming people with disabilities. Discuss how these changes impact your organization. Consider how Torah and other texts inform inclusion and elimination of barriers to participation. Talk about where people with disabilities are included in the organization starting with this very group.
- Read the JDAM Reads! inaugural New York Times bestselling novel, The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon. This compelling novel is set over a 40 year period beginning in 1968 and weaves the lives of four individuals together: retired schoolteacher Martha; two escapees from the Institution for the Feebleminded and Incurable, Lynnie, a young Jewish woman with developmental disabilities and Homan, an African American man who is deaf, and Julia, Lynnie’s newborn daughter. Rachel Simon, Sandy Block (of Congregation Emanu El in Houston TX) and I developed a Jewish values based discussion guide. The free download is available online.
Finally, as leaders, it is up to each one of us to nurture a culture where all people are valued. This is ultimately what JDAM teaches us to do.
Shelly Christensen is a board member of Bet Shalom Congregation, Minnetonka, MN and co-chairs the Access to Lifelong Jewish Education Task Force. She is a national speaker, consultant and author of The Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities.