Effecting Change by Asking the Right Questions

“The expectation that grantees be inclusive of people with disabilities
is not unreasonable.”
Shelly Christensen

by Frayda Leibtag

February was chosen as Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month (JDAM) because of an injunction included in the Torah portion usually read during these weeks: “Do not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus, 22:20). The creators of JDAM understood ‘strangers’ to mean anyone who stands out from the crowd because they are different. They chose February as a month to focus on raising disability awareness and supporting efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.

According to Shelly Christensen, co-founder of JDAM and author of the Jewish Community Inclusion Guide for People with Disabilities, approximately 20% of Jews have some kind of disability. Despite this fact, most philanthropic efforts related to disability are being carried out by funders with a direct and personal connection to the issue of disability. Activists such as Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President of Laszlo Strategies and Co-Founder and Director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust, are at the forefront of the battle being waged to make Jewish programs and institutions inclusive of people of all abilities. Laszlo Mizrahi is dyslexic and could barely read or write until she was 12. She also knows first-hand the joys and challenges of raising a Jewish child with disabilities. The question remains: what role can funders in all areas play in helping to raise awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and increasing inclusiveness in Jewish programs and institutions.

In an article published in eJP last year, Ruthie Rotenberg, Director of Peer Networks and Strategic Relationships at the Jewish Funders Network, offered suggestions to funders – “especially those who don’t focus their funding on disability-related programs”- on how to make their communities more inclusive. Rotenberg proposed that asking the right questions in the grant process can make all the difference. “When grant-seekers consistently see and need to respond to questions about the accessibility and inclusiveness of their programs, it will influence how they design their programs,” wrote Rotenberg.

Rotenberg’s idea is already being implemented by some funders. Grant applications to the J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation include questions such as “Do other programs in your organization include people with disabilities?; Are your offices handicap accessible?; Do you employ individuals who have a disability? If so, what are their jobs and do they receive the same compensation and benefits as all other employees in like positions?” According to Pat Goldman, Vice President of the Foundation, these questions “have prompted programs that do not serve [people with disabilities] to take a closer look at their programs and see how they could become inclusive… The questions on our application have made people think outside their box which makes a better world for all by providing more opportunities to people of all abilities.”

Going one step further than asking questions, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation requires of all its grantees to commit to in their agreements, “This organization will not discriminate on the basis of age, color, disability, sex, race/ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.”

In March 2013 a session at the upcoming Jewish Funders Network conference will focus on inclusive funding for LGBT, gender and disability groups and how they can work together to help increase inclusiveness for all parties involved.

Change is taking place in some places. At the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, lectures are transcribed by a typist and projected onto a screen in the lecture hall so that deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals can fully participate. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington recently published a survey on congregational inclusion. Shelly Cohen founded the Jewish Inclusion Project, which is training rabbis on how to create synagogues, schools and summer camps that are welcoming for people with disabilities and their families.

Despite these steps, not all Jewish day schools are accessible and people with disabilities are not fully integrated into most Jewish frameworks. More importantly, many people are not even aware of or sensitive to inclusiveness for people with disabilities. This lack of awareness is an overpowering issue that should demand the attention of philanthropists. By asking the right questions and forcing grantees to answer these questions, funders can improve the efficiency and inclusiveness of organizations that they fund. Simply asking ‘Is the conference being held in a wheelchair-accessible venue?’ or ‘Does your staff receive inclusion training?’ on a grant application can motivate grantees to make their programs more inclusive.

“The expectation that grantees be inclusive of people with disabilities is not unreasonable,” said Christensen, who is also the founder of Inclusion Innovations. “As Jews we care for our own people with compassion, loving kindness, honor and respect… We certainly can do more to work together to bring all corners of Jewish organizational life together.”

This potential for improvement needs to harnessed and adopted by funders for real change to take place. “When we Jews make something a priority, we do it,” said Laszlo Mizrahi. “We need to learn from our real Jewish tradition. Our greatest leader was Moses who had a disability in being slow of speech. Providing services for Jews with disabilities can’t just be a side program. It needs to be a practice.”