Advancing Disability Inclusion Though Creativity and Innovation

Written by Lisa Handelman on . Posted in Op-Ed

This February marks the 10th anniversary of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Since its inception, JDAIM has grown into an international movement where organizations, communities, and congregations find creative ways to take steps toward becoming more inclusive. Many of our local Greater Washington congregations plan special Shabbat services that include individuals with disabilities as guest speakers. From a strong local involvement at the annual Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, to MC LIVE, a night of comedy benefitting organizations in our local Jewish community that directly support individuals with disabilities, JDAIM programing has become part of February’s landscape. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington proudly joins the celebration each year, hosting a dedicated JDAIM page that lists programing ideas along with a running list of events planned.

While the initial goal of JDAIM was to raise communal awareness, this social justice issue requires year-long action. Individuals with disabilities and their families need to feel welcomed and included at all times. Jewish children have a right to a quality Jewish education, our agencies and organizations should provide volunteer and employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities, and all of our congregations should be accessible. As much as JDAIM is a time for special programming, it is also a reminder that we need to make programs accessible to all of our community members.

Achieving this seemingly lofty goal begins with an intentional shift in how programs are planned. A reflective look at Federation’s Imagine Israel program can illustrate some of the ways a community can start to implement this shift. Programming should be intentionally planned to expand our perspective and challenge stigma.

For instance, Federation’s Feb. 9, 2017 “Imagine Israel” podcast featured Avner Stepak, former CEO of Israel’s second-largest investment house, who is revolutionizing Israel’s corporate world by helping change people’s views of hiring people with disabilities. On the podcast, Stepak talked about the right to be employed as “something very basic.” “It’s really an issue of human rights. It’s not an issue of charity,” he said.

In May 2017, Imagine Israel Changemaker Oren Helman shared his experience as a key creator of the Equal Rights for Persons With Disabilities Bill, passed by the Israeli Knesset in August 2016.

While it is important to highlight disability inclusion issues through our programming topics, it is perhaps even more important to create programs with disability inclusion embedded throughout. Federation’s “Imagine Israel” podcasts all include transcripts, and all of our videos include closed captions. Registration forms clearly state that all are welcome at our events and can inquire about any necessary guest accommodations. Information about Imagine Israel is hosted on the Federation’s website, which strives to be fully accessible for those who use accessibility-enhancing technology like screen readers.

JDAIM can be a springboard for advancing disability inclusion. Our local ReelAbilities festival provides an example of this. This festival is presented by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Northern Virginia’s cultural arts department. It is significant that this festival resides with the cultural arts department, and not the special needs department. For JDAIM, there are pre-festival materials so congregations can access quality films “dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with different abilities.” The pre-festival material also includes a discussion guide to frame the films through a Jewish lens. The closing program this year will be the showing of “Ain’t No Mountain,” an Israeli film about an expedition of climbers with disabilities who have chosen to attempt to reach the peak of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Emissaries from Federation’s Congregational Shlichim Program will be leading a panel discussion after the film.

Individuals with disabilities, through their inherently different life experiences, enrich the texture and vibrancy of our community. We know that an inclusive community is a stronger community. The 10th anniversary of JDAIM encourages us to pause and reevaluate what more we can do flourish together, as we work to ensure all are welcome in Jewish Greater Washington.

By Lisa Handelman

 Lisa Handelman is the community disabilities inclusion specialist for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Atzma'im coordinator for Capital Camps and Retreat Center. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband, and is the proud mom of four wonderful children who all grew up at camp.