Beyond Inclusion – The Case for Belonging

By Dr. Shana Erenberg

Promoting inclusion is one of the most significant advancements in the field of disabilities in recent years. Today, many synagogues and organizations are making efforts to create inclusive programs and activities. In years past, this would not have been a consideration, let alone a priority. It is a point of pride for a Jewish community building organization to offer inclusive programs. There are policies and procedures in place that actively promote equal access to education, employment, social services, recreational activities, transportation, and/or health care. The organization also provides opportunities for individuals with disabilities to join its inclusive activities, which have been thoughtfully designed to reduce or eliminate physical and other barriers to participation. These activities represent a significantly positive shift in the attitudes and actions of the community building organizations who are providing inclusion opportunities; however, individuals with disabilities have by and large been relegated to the role of passive recipients. While the efforts to provide inclusive programs is an unquestionably important first step, it is simply not enough. By this definition, inclusion is an output, driven by an organization’s programs and activities. Success is measured by the number of programs offered and the number and diversity of the participants.

So what is the problem with this equation?

This type of data collection, while easy and straightforward, provides reporting numbers on outputs while failing to inform and improve outcomes. As Jewish organizations, we must reach beyond this concept of inclusion to create authentic behavioral and attitudinal transformations for our participants with special needs. At Libenu, provide services and programming for children, young adults, and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. For our young-adult and adult clients, we offer community-based housing, vocational training, social and recreational programs. Libenu is predicated on a philosophy of inclusion; however, we believe that inclusion is a means to an end. The real impact of inclusion is to foster a true sense of community and belonging for individuals with disabilities and their families. Inclusion is an output – belonging is an outcome.

How do we move from inclusion to belonging?

First, we must try to understand what it means to belong in the Jewish community. Belonging means that one has a sense of comfort, security, and familiarity in the community. It means that one feels valued, appreciated, respected and accepted. For our residential clients, young men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities aged 25-40, to belong is to have authentic friendships and relationships that extend beyond structured events, such as having Shabbat dinner with new friends; being invited over for the holidays; and being missed if you aren’t there. The most important aspect of inclusion is the intentionality to foster belonging.

Next, we must consider the means by which we can measure “belonging.” At Libenu, we measure the above-mentioned criteria of belonging through a variety of person-centered tools, including “contentment with life” surveys, self-reports, observation, meaningful discussions with stakeholders, and the clinical impressions of our network of experts. Most importantly, we use a technique that renowned author and speaker Randy Lewis describes as ATP – Ask the Person. Through their words, communication devices, signs, and actions Libenu clients express their sense of true belonging in their Jewish communities.

Finally, community building organizations that host inclusive programs must do so with a mindset of belonging. Include individuals with disabilities on the planning committee (ATP!) and create person-centered activities designed to make participants feel welcome. Establish ambassadors of belonging within your organization and event participants. Have the planning committee meet in advance with a group of participants to help shift attitudes and preconceptions. Discuss appropriate language and strategies to initiate and maintain friendships with individuals who have disabilities (while considering the importance of respectful boundaries). Remember that inclusion doesn’t end at 9PM. Follow up with attendees who have disabilities, get their feedback, and value their input. Plan the next steps for their continued engagement, in both structured and spontaneous settings.

At Libenu, we believe that each individual is like a jewel in the crown of our community. Although the jewels differ in size, shape, and color, each one is integral to the beauty of the crown. If even one jewel is lost, the entire crown is diminished in value. So it is with the Jewish people. Each one of us is an essential member of the community, regardless of ability. If even one person feels excluded, disconnected, or isolated, the entire community is diminished. Fostering a sense of belonging is a Jewish imperative.

Dr. Shana Erenberg is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Libenu. She is also the Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Education and a professor at the Blitstein Institute of Hebrew Theological College/Touro University in Chicago. Dr. Erenberg maintains a private practice for the diagnostic evaluation, remediation, and advocacy of children and adults with disabilities. In addition, Dr. Erenberg serves as a consultant and provides professional development throughout the United States.