Elevating Awareness, Sparking Discussion
The goal of the National Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month is to initiate discussion and promote inclusion for everyone in all aspects of Jewish life, regardless of their 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,” said 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 Baltimore/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, say advocates, 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 mindset and atmosphere where everyone knows they belong.”
Christensen is facilitating a daylong conference, Inclusion Works: Guiding the Way to an Inclusive Community, at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC on Feb. 4. Stan Goldman, director at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation who has been a central figure in securing many disabilities grants in the United States and Israel, will be the featured speaker. Christensen will be featured at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation during Shabbat services on Feb. 7 and Feb. 8.
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 to the camping movement in general but singles out day schools for particular criticism. Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, she noted, “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 facultywide 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. Baltimore-specific events include a film presented by the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance and Shemesh called “Rethinking Dyslexia: The Big Picture,” with a discussion following, at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC on Feb. 9. The Center for Jewish
Education is hosting JDAM Reads, a book club focusing on titles chosen
by the Jewish Special Education International Consortium, on Feb. 12.
On Feb. 6, advocates from both Baltimore and Washington will join their counterparts from across the country for Jewish Disability Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill. Speakers will include Allison Wohl, executive director of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination, and David Morrissey, executive director of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities.
Janet Livingston of Owings Mills, a national co-chair of the Jewish Federations of North America’s disability committee, has a 21-year-old son with autism.
“Things have changed for the better in many aspects in the general and Jewish communities in the past 10 years,” she said, citing more resources and assistance for her son, Sam, at Jewish organizations. “That has had an impact. He has a better sense of self-esteem.”
For more information on events throughout February and to download a resource guide, visit jewishfederations.org.