Inclusion is Not a Program

By Lisa Friedman

In a recent eJP article entitled, “Thinking Inclusion: First Steps to Launching a Successful Inclusion Program,” I read about the wonderful efforts of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA) to increase their efforts around disability inclusion in their summer camp.

As a long-time Jewish disability inclusion expert, this article had me at “thinking inclusion.” Unfortunately, I wish it had just stopped there.

Why? I don’t think I can say this loudly enough or often enough: INCLUSION IS NOT A PROGRAM.

Inclusion is a mindset. It is the way we treat others and the way they treat us. Inclusion is the opportunity to learn together and from one another.

Do we need structures to support inclusion? Absolutely! The steps the author shares about how they do this successfully in their setting are certainly sound. I have written similar pieces that detail the steps to increasing inclusion within a congregation. Read: “Ten Steps to Make Your Congregation Inclusive.”

It’s just that, after being deeply involved in the work of Jewish disability inclusion for nearly 20 years, and despite the significant uptick in understanding and resources around disability inclusion in the past five years, I find myself pushing harder and harder to help Jewish professionals understand this universal notion; inclusion is not a program.

Inclusion is about who we are and who we want to be. Inclusion is about the language we use and the way we interact. Inclusion is a mindset, one that embraces the intrinsic value that each and every person brings to our communities. Inclusion is about belonging.

When we continue to use the language of offering “inclusion programs,” we run the risk of teaching that inclusion only happens at certain times, in certain places, and when certain people are present. We also run the risk of perpetuating the stereotype that we “do” inclusion “for” people with disabilities. Rather, to be truly inclusive, we should be looking at and figuring out how everything, every single thing, we organize can be fully accessible and inclusive of people of varying abilities.

An example of social action can help to illustrate this:

Social action stems from the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. There is no doubt that we all need to work together to bring real and lasting change to our world, no less so around disability inclusion. Unfortunately, it is common in congregational life to “put” inclusion under the social action umbrella, likely because it is the term we use to describe the “projects” that benefit others. Again, we do not “do” inclusion “for” others; we should be working to make our communities fully inclusive because it is who we want to be. So when you host a bake sale to raise money for Special Olympics, that is social action, but when a group from your congregation attends the Special Olympics to cheer for another member of your congregation, that is NOT social action.

Recognize the difference?

There was a great piece written by my friend and colleague, Pamela Schuller, entitled “I’m Not Your Mitzvah Project.” She shares her belief that it is not a mitzvah to open the doors of your community to people with disabilities, but rather is something that should be happening because it is right and just. She writes, “It means … instilling in the community a mindset that being inclusive is everyone’s role, not just those who have it in their job description. It’s using preferred gender pronouns and celebrating families of all shapes and sizes. It’s making sure we are constantly reevaluating our communal offerings, so we never become complacent.”

Inclusion is a process. Inclusion is a way of becoming who we are meant to be as a Jewish community. Inclusion is NOT a program.

Lisa Friedman is a widely recognized expert in Jewish Disability Inclusion, blogging about disabilities and inclusion at Removing the Stumbling Block. She is an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey and is the Project Manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. Lisa consults with congregations, schools, camps, and other organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy and families through dialogue, interactive workshops, and awareness training.