New National Web Model for Individuals With Disabilities

Image from homepage of BJAA Website
Image from homepage of BJAA website

By Renée Dain

During the past decade, the Jewish community has made tremendous strides in addressing the needs of Jews with disabilities. We’ve changed the narrative by participating in initiatives such as Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their families. We’ve introduced programming in our schools and in our social service agencies to help those with disabilities gain necessary skills to become active participants in our communities.

Yet, unfortunately we know that many individuals with disabilities and their families still feel isolated at times. We hear stories from parents who don’t know where to begin to get the resources and support they need to navigate for their children.

In 2010, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore conducted its Community Study. Surprisingly, we found that a large percentage of our community (21 percent of households with children) sought assistance for their child’s learning disability. Meanwhile, eight percent of all Jewish households had someone with a physical or developmental disability.

It was those startling numbers which led to the creation of a The Associated’s Disabilities Task Force to look at how to better serve this population. Through these conversations and focus groups, we identified the need for an online road map for individuals with disabilities and their families. The end results: the creation of Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance (BJAA), designed by people with disabilities, family members, skilled professionals and advocates.

The BJAA website is 508 compliant, making the entire website accessible to those with hearing and visual impairments. It is also an innovative network that aggregates the endless resources available over the internet into one dedicated website. While there are numerous other websites offering similar services for parents of children with special needs, the BJAA is not only comprehensive – we made sure we included information from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources – but is specifically designed to ensure users don‘t have to navigate through an endless maze of referrals.

Unlike other resources, which focus solely on one age group or disability, the BJAA covers a range of disabilities throughout a life span. There are sections devoted to Early Diagnosis, the School Years, the Transition Years, and Adulthood. Each category features a full gamut of information, from general information to resources. The site also includes a full calendar of community events. For example, those who are looking to transition a child to adulthood would find everything from links to state and federal resources along with links to organizations which can provide housing or employment. There also is general information on a host of topics, including financial and guardianship options.

But the BJAA is not merely a website. In Baltimore, we opted to hire a dedicated professional at the JCC of Greater Baltimore who would provide “concierge-type” service, be available to answer questions, track down information, develop topical workshops and, most importantly manage the BJAA’s Parent to Parent Network, connecting parents with other parents who faced similar issues and could serve as support.

During the past two years, the BJAA has proven extraordinarily important in the lives of those with disabilities and their families. We knew there was a need for such information, but never imagined how strong that need was. Since going live in 2012, the BJAA website has received over 332,100 page views from 76,610 users.

Since the BJAA was launched, there have been several inquiries from Jewish communities around the country interested in replicating this initiative. In response to this interest, The Associated hired a national JAA Website Coordinator to work with communities that want to establish a local JAA site. Jewishabilities.org will build on Baltimore’s experience developing the BJAA. The JAA site will use the current URL and provide direct links to the local sites in participating communities.

Beginning this spring the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta will launch their local site that integrates the JAA’s global content with unique, local resources, laws, events and more. Working collaboratively, we have ensured that content will not be duplicative and will flow seamlessly.

Moving forward, we see this website as a model for inclusion in many Jewish communities across the country. Through the collaborative process we can provide updated, vetted information that serves our disability community so much better. And we can offer support in developing local product, and, if interested, consult on the model for professional “concierge-type” programming along with parent-to-parent networks.

As the Talmud says, “No two human beings are alike. We are different physically and mentally.” All of us are part of the Jewish fabric of our communities, and, as such, make invaluable contributions to its success.

Renée Dain is the Director of Community Services at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. Renée manages The Associated’s domestic agenda, including its Caring Commission which works to ensure that the social and human service needs of the Baltimore Jewish community are met. Renée has Master Degrees in Social Work, Jewish Communal Service, and Aging Services.