How inclusive are we when planning Jewish Disability awareness and inclusion month?

By Michelle Friedman

Established in 2009 and Observed every February, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is a worldwide effort among Jewish organizations to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities.

JDAIM’S mission is “to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be accepted and included in all aspects of Jewish life like anyone else.”

The purpose of a whole month designated to Jewish disability awareness and inclusion as I understand it is to:

  • Raise awareness of how people with disabilities have been thought of and treated by Jewish and secular society, and how that impacts our own actions.
  • Educate people on the importance of choosing an individual and independent life path and Jewish journey.
  • Encourage Jewish people around the world to become genuinely more inclusive of people with disabilities in all aspects of life.
  • Advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.
  • Support the rights of people with disabilities to make their own decisions about how they want to belong in their Jewish and secular communities.

As a woman who has been disabled for a little over 50 years (I am blind), I have experienced the world pre-ADA, before the special education movement, and certainly before any intentional movement toward inclusion. I have served in leadership roles over the last 30 plus years in my Jewish community and have been a staunch disability rights advocate for even longer, and so I applaud and welcome JDAIM. I have no issue with the concept or intention.

It is how some synagogues, schools and organizations implement JDAIM that I continually find frustrating in its missing the mark. For example, I recently saw an email from a synagogue in my community to three people who are considered experts in efforts of inclusion for people with disabilities. Each of the three are knowledgeable well-respected individuals locally and nationally in programs around education, recreation, camping, and independent living for people with disabilities. The request from the synagogue was for them as experts to plan and serve on a panel around the subject of Jewish inclusion. Again, I know two of the people asked to participate and I have the utmost respect and admiration for them. I agree they are experts in creating, and implementing programming that fosters inclusivity for people with disabilities, as well as creating and facilitating staff training for educators, camp counselors, and other professionals. My issue is this: in my opinion, there are two types of experts when talking about disability awareness and inclusion- Jewish or otherwise. The first type of expert is the person who is a professional associated in one way or another with organizations, programs, or camps that promotes inclusion; this person is often non-disabled as is the case of each of these aforementioned individuals. The second type is the expert whose expertise is borne from life experiences as a disabled person, or those of us who live our lives every day as disabled people.

I find that all too often, well-meaning synagogues, schools, and organizations look to the professional experts and leave out the real-life experts who are living with a disability in the planning of meaningful programming around Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, not to mention other disability related initiatives.

I am in no way suggesting that a panel on the topic of inclusion should exclude non-disabled experts in the field. I am advocating for the inclusion of the experts in disability who live it every day, who know firsthand the physical and emotional barriers that preclude us from being included. As a disabled person, it is troubling to have only the non-disabled experts at the table talking about the disabled community as people look inside to our worldview.

If those of us living with a disability have our voices excluded from the conversation, we are being silenced, and the implication is that our voices do not matter. There is an underlying message that other people know what is best for us. That is certainly what it feels like to me.

Kol hakavod to every synagogue, school, and organization who commits to programming in February that will advance Jewish awareness and inclusion. All I ask is that if there is a conversation about inclusion taking place that we are invited to the table to contribute to that conversation. That if we are talking about inclusion and advocating for people with disabilities, we should be inclusive in our own communities. If we truly want to understand the challenges of people with disabilities, those same people need to have a seat at the table.

I hold a firm belief in the motto, “nothing about us, without us”, and I know my non-disabled counterparts in the field agree. “Nothing about us, without us” must include all conversations, educational opportunities, and policy-making decisions. And I hope moving forward that the planning and implementation of programming for JDAIM will include people with disabilities in the conversation.

Michelle Friedman is the vice chair of the board of Keshet in Chicago, a member of ADA 25 and a disability advocate.