Lived experience

Going beyond disability awareness to inclusion

In Short

Making spaces accessible is not the hard part. We already have the technology. We know how to make physical spaces and websites accessible. The hard part is changing mindsets, resetting long-held ideas and even unintentional biases.

February is well behind us, which means Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is also behind us. Many of us, myself included, participated in, attended and helped plan JDAIM programs and panels or wrote articles. Assumptions were challenged, implied bias discussed, awareness created and calls to action were made.

Now what?

If you were one of those who attended a program, webinar or event for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month through an organization, synagogue or school, that’s great! If you left one of those events, programs or webinars with questions and wanted to learn more, or if you looked around at the culture, accessibility or policies practiced by your business, school, synagogue or organization and thought about reevaluating, even better!  

But if you left those places satisfied that you now have a clear understanding of the challenges disabled individuals face, well, that’s not so good.  Here’s why:

If the only person you heard from during JDAIM was an able-bodied person who provides services to disabled people, or if the speaker was a parent or sibling of someone who was disabled, then you definitely didn’t get the whole story.  

Certainly, there are able-bodied experts in the field who definitely “get it”: They have studied and interacted with disabled people, are strong advocates and have good information to impart. They may have told you about accessibility, programs that support individuals with disabilities and raised the issue of inclusion and other issues that confront our population. But they haven’t lived the experience.

Programs that don’t include the voices of those with the lived experience of disability are missing their heart and soul, and the audiences of these programs are being short-changed. Many of these kinds of programs perpetuate the misconception that we, disabled people, need to be taken care of — or worse, that our voices don’t matter.

Our voices make an impact! Hearing from me and from others who are disabled how lack of accessibility impacts our lives at work, school, or in other arenas of life is the only authentic information, and at the very least should be included alongside the non-disabled professionals or family members. Otherwise, it’s like hearing from a man who watched the birth of his child trying to describe labor pains.

When you plan your JDAIM program next year, include a disabled person in the entire process — planning, implementation and execution.  The result will be a richer, more impactful and relevant presentation that may not only raise awareness, but inspire your audience to act.

The goal of JDAIM is “to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities.”

From my perspective, this goal is at once too broad and oversimplified and does not go far enough. 

We have to get beyond awareness, beyond “fostering” inclusion.

Of course, starting with awareness allows us then to challenge and influence assumptions. But the end goal must be actual inclusion and belonging for people with disabilities. We must get to the point where people with disabilities experience equity and are included as a matter of course in all aspects of society.

Let me be clear about something: It is not my blindness that disables me. It is, in fact, society that disables me. It is people’s attitudes and assumptions. It is the perception that being disabled is something bad, abnormal, to be feared or pitied rather than just another part of the human experience.  It is the challenge of attitudes, stigmas and access that disables me and other people with disabilities. 

In order to promote access, we must have a societal mind shift. We must stop seeing disability as a deficit to overcome. We must acknowledge people with disabilities as equal members of society with the rights and options to participate in all aspects of it.

Making spaces accessible is not the hard part. We already have the technology. We know how to make physical spaces and websites accessible.

The hard part is changing mindsets, resetting long-held ideas and even unintentional biases. We must change attitudes, eliminate stigmas and see that a moral and just society creates equity for all its members.  

This is a journey for society: Some people start with basic awareness and progress by means of informal education and experience; they may need only help and encouragement. Others need real persuasion and formal education. It is not only non-disabled people who must take this journey or people who don’t have a family member or loved one who is disabled. Even disabled people need to take this journey to realize their own voices and participation in the process.

Individuals should look at their spaces: Do you see disabled people in your spaces? Are they represented at tables of power and influence? Do they help establish employment practices and participate in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion? What can you, as an individual, do to welcome people with disabilities as your friends, co-workers, neighbors?  

Let’s examine the culture of our communities, our businesses, schools, synagogues, and organizations. Let’s change our attitudes. Let’s create access that makes all of life’s spaces welcoming ones that value all participants. Let’s listen to the actual voices of disability, include us in all the conversations, decision-making and opportunities for ways to shape the future. Including all people creates value. 

Let’s create an inclusive, equitable, valuable society together.  Let’s go beyond disability awareness, and let’s get to real inclusion!

Michelle Friedman is the board chair of Keshet in Chicago, a member of Disability lead, speaker, author and disability advocate.