Strengthening the Collective Us: Celebrating JDAIM

Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

By Lisa Handelman

This February marks the 9th annual Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). This global campaign to advance disability inclusion is, at its core, a movement for cultural change. It is a paradigm shift from a focus on kindness to a demand for justice; from the idea that inclusion is about helping others to the knowledge that it is about strengthening the collective us; from creating particular programs to making all opportunities accessible. Change can be a gradual “two steps forward, one step back” journey. It requires recognizing progress and constant reflection on what still needs to be accomplished.

At The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, we proudly celebrate JDAIM with the knowledge that inclusion is among our main areas of focus year-round. Our policies, practices and programs incorporate The Jewish Federation’s commitment to include individuals with disabilities, setting a standard for the ways in which individuals are invited and encouraged to participate in Jewish life.

Recognizing the need for further advancement in the area of inclusion, Federation’s Disability Inclusion Committee works to tackle the ever-evolving question, “How do we inspire the cultural shift we need to advance disability inclusion within our community?” We have come to the conclusion that change will arise, not from a single organization, not a sole community and not a solitary action, but a universal adjustment in attitude through structured, sustained action. And now, following two years of brainstorming, planning, designing, piloting and revising, Federation is proud to introduce the Inclusion Planning Tool, an online self-assessment system to guide organizations striving to progress their inclusive ideals. Built around 6 areas of focus with a series of questions in each area, the tool provides customized guidelines for all organizations, at every stage of the process.

We spent a lot of time intently examining the universal, ever-evolving language of inclusion, and identified three broad and interdependent stages applicable to all organizations. We define the first phase of the journey as the welcoming stage, which includes attitudinal changes and the desire to be inclusive with a willingness to listen closely to those with disabilities. The second stage we call accommodating, which involves building the infrastructure, changing procedures and providing physical accommodations. Stage three is inclusive and is only achieved when those with and without disabilities are fully and equally engaged and involved. These stages outline the comprehensive process that every organization can utilize on their own unique journey towards becoming more inclusive.

As Rabbi Tarfon teaches (Pirkei Avot 2:21), “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

Every stage, from welcoming to accommodating to inclusive, is applied to six areas of focus where we felt change was necessary. Within each area, we developed a set of questions to encourage self-reflection and spark conversation within organizations. After the questions are answered in each section, the tool produces a list of accomplishments and generates suggestions for next steps, broken down into actionable categories. The suggestions are linked to Federation’s growing database of resources that we recommend organizations utilize in their journey to building an inclusive community.

We recognize that while each organization may be at a different stage of this journey, progressing towards full inclusion strengthens our entire community. For this reason, the tool is designed to be used as a fluid, developmental guide to assist organizations through every stage and area of their inclusion journey.

There is no one correct way to use this tool, nor is it something an organization only does once. For example, during the pilot phase, one congregation answered the questions collaboratively with their departments, while another discovered that different stakeholders came up with different answers. Both situations achieve the intended purpose, which is to spark conversations and discuss plans for change. Organizations are encouraged to review their answers, discuss progressive steps and retake sections as needed.

Our mission with this tool is to inspire an ever-changing, collaborative environment around the topic of inclusion. We understand that the journey to full inclusion is not an easy one, but fear should not halt the path to positive change. Through a collective, accessible and steadfast approach, together we can create a substantial societal shift towards full inclusion. In our devoted efforts to build a strong and vibrant Jewish community, it is essential that we continue to question, reflect and strive toward the seemingly elusive goal of full inclusion for all individuals.

If you’re interested in leading your organization towards full inclusion, we encourage you to explore Federation’s Inclusion Planning Tool at www.shalomdc.org/inclusionplanningtool. We welcome your thoughts and feedback!

Lisa Handelman is the Community Disability Inclusion Specialist at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.