Jewish disability advocates aim to expand their work as they kick off a month of programming

An increasing number of Jewish organizations have participated in Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month since it launched in 2009.

As February starts, Pamela Schuller is in high demand. After growing up with severe Tourette’s syndrome, Schuller developed a blend of comedy and disability and mental health advocacy that shifted her perspective on her own ability and helped her reach more than 100,000 kids, teens and adults nationally and in six countries. 

“Do I wish that I could sometimes switch the symptoms of Tourette’s?” Schuller asked during an appearance at UpStart’s Collaboratory conference in 2018, about the neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable body movements, or tics. “Absolutely. Like right now I’m winking and barking a lot. Wouldn’t it be great if tomorrow morning I woke up with uncontrollable jazz hands? Somebody would be like, ‘is that Pam’s Tourette’s?’ And people would say ‘no, she’s just fabulous.’”

This month she is performing for nine Jewish communities around the country — colleges, high school programs, congregations and JCCs, with some events virtual and others in person. This intense schedule comes courtesy of  Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (most often pronounced “J-Dame” and written JDAIM). Organizations across the country are launching research projects, programs and other initiatives in support of Jewish people with disabilities. 

Shelly Christensen and her colleagues in a group called the Jewish Special Education Consortium launched JDAIM in February 2009 with the goal of uniting Jewish communities to focus on including people with disabilities in communal life. Institutions in eight Jewish communities participated that year, most of them screening “Praying with Lior,” a 2008 film about a teenager with Down syndrome preparing for his bar mitzvah. 

“It was designed to be a grassroots kind of thing,” Christensen, now senior director of faith inclusion and belonging at RespectAbility, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “Synagogues did events or programs, they had speakers, they had ‘inclusion Shabbat.’ Like, isn’t every Shabbat Inclusion Shabbat? That is the hope!”

Christensen added that the events “really brought our community together.” In 2010, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based Reform organization, held the first Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) in February on Capitol Hill, a now-annual program that encourages legislators to enact policies that benefit people with disabilities. Christensen added that all Jewish denominations have embraced JDAIM in some way.

JDAIM events often feature speakers who discuss living with a disability, like Schuller’s program, “What Makes Me Tic: Comedy & Storytelling with a Message,” which she is performing in multiple spaces, including Kerem Shalom, a progressive community in Concord, Mass. Sharoni Sibony, a Jewish disabled artist, is speaking for the JCC Association of North America on “Inclusion and Intentionality through Art.” And Asha Chai-Chang is speaking at The Branch in Pittsburgh, a Jewish organization that supports people with disabilities, on “The Intersection of Race, Disability and Religion: A First-Person Experience.” 

Organizers of JDAIM events also work to ensure that the events themselves are accessible. For instance, Kerem Shalom’s event will have an ASL interpreter and be available online for those who cannot attend in person. 

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and former CEO of RespectAbility, asks organizations she supports financially to disclose their level of disability access and inclusion, providing the groups with a checklist of 12 ways they can assess their accessibility. The list includes serving and employing people with disabilities, availability of special accommodations and physical accessibility. 

“The fact is that even the Jewish disability groups are not nearly as accessible as they should be,” Mizrahi said. “That means that people with disabilities are being denied access even to the very organizations that are set up to serve them, and that these groups are losing out on the talents of these people with disabilities who could bring great energy, ideas and solutions to their nonprofits.” 

Christensen used to run JDAIM herself, but when she started working at RespectAbility, she realized that basing JDAIM at the organization would provide the effort with staff support that could expand reach and grow the initiative. For instance, the effort has no data on how many communities participate in JDAIM in a given year, she said, because she never had the bandwidth to create and manage a registration system. 

Christensen said that individual communities, synagogues or organizations find local support to fund their JDAIM programs. Some organizations may have designated funds for disability inclusion and use funds to pay for speakers, which can be a significant program cost. Christensen said that she often gets calls about ASL interpretation and real-time captioning, which can get expensive. 

Funders should meet with people with disabilities and “really get into the weeds of the things that are needed,” Christensen said. “Funders can do a great service by incorporating the voices of people with disabilities, when they look at opportunities to support an organization.” 

Making events and programs accessible, said Mizrahi, is especially easy, “as with AI [artificial intelligence], groups can make a major difference by doing simple things that are free, such as turning on captions for all their Zoom meetings.”

Advocates said that when it comes to including people with disabilities, it’s not one-size-fits-all: different people require different accommodations to feel like they belong.

“We want people to feel comfortable advocating for what they need,” Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founder and head of school at the Shefa School, a Manhattan-based Jewish day school for students with language-based disabilities, told eJP. “Whether that’s ‘I need a ramp’ or ‘I need a little bit of extra time’ or ‘I need you to give me the article before so that I have more time to read it…’ Whatever those things are, so that people feel comfortable in their skin being who they are. I want the rest of the world to really try to accommodate, not out of pity, but because our world is actually better when they’re around our table.”

The Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies (NJHSA) offers a guide on best practices around disability, and runs Project EM, a national network funded primarily by the Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation that provides job seekers — including people with disabilities — assistance, resources and tools that will help them find employment. The Weinberg Foundation supported the network with a two-year grant of $1.75 million to launch Project EM, to support the organization’s Best Practice Study in Disability Employment as well as its Center for Innovation and Research. NJHSA currently has an annual operating budget of $4.9 million.

“The move in general around diversity, equity and inclusion work that’s going on more and more across our country and in workplaces and in schools, it’s all part of saying we celebrate differences and we value that different people have different strengths,” Sarah Welch, vice president of workforce development services at NJHSA, told eJP. Because February is also Black History Month, the network’s efforts include ensuring that its “mission and stories align with acknowledging the needs of those two communities and the overlap of those two communities,” she said.

JDAIM has changed over the years, Christensen said. She feels that it has set the Jewish community “on a better path to understand people just want to belong like anyone else. A person is a person. It’s not predicated on what a person can and cannot do.”

Schuller hopes that JDAIM acts as a “reset button” for Jewish communities.

“We should be focused on inclusion and accessibility all year,” she said. “But February is a great opportunity to really do a deep dive, figure out areas for improvement, set goals and set up the full year to do the work.”

Christensen said that one approach, moving forward, would be to stop talking about “inclusion” and start thinking in terms of “belonging.”

“Every person wants to belong,” Christensen said. “By looking through the lens of belonging, all of us take the time then to engage with each other, to have conversations, to get to know each other and build relationships. That really is where we want to be.”