By Shira Ruderman
A few weeks ago, our partners at the Feuerstein Institute told us that Mor and Yuval had gotten engaged. I’d never met either one of them, but I was thoroughly overjoyed and moved, not just because love is a beautiful thing, but because Mor and Yuval both are people with disabilities and had been participants in the Feuerstein-Ruderman Hazon Partnership and Marriage Preparation Course. To some of you, especially the younger readers, the significance of this may not be obvious. Only twelve years ago, when we began our work of disability inclusion in Israel and the U.S., it was very common to look at people with disabilities as unmarriageable. The view was that they may not be able to form a typical family and so society excluded them from marriage altogether. But, as we could see with the engagement announcement, this was now changing thanks to the work we had been doing all over Israel.
This shift toward greater inclusion is not confined to just Israel. Here in the U.S., where we have been working with Jewish communities directly and been doing advocacy beyond the Jewish community, I am seeing more and more inclusive events, employment opportunities, housing programs, inclusive synagogues, higher education initiatives and even outreach from various organizations trying to actively include the 20% of the population who have disabilities. It is a wonderful feeling to witness this slow, but steady transformation in public attitudes and behaviors. I could not be more proud of the work we and our partners are doing, but it is important to remember that this work did not arise spontaneously. It was the result of a strategic, philanthropic approach and persistence.
In the beginning, when we approached possible partners with the idea of disability inclusion, we were met with a lot of resistance. People thought that the issue wasn’t sexy and that not enough people cared about it. We would get replies like, “I’m focused more on revamping higher education, not on disability inclusion.” I could hardly believe my ears back then. What better way to revamp higher education than to fully include all of the high-risk students who had a disability? But we persisted. We insisted that we needed to have a holistic approach that took into account the entire human lifespan, from birth to death. We knew that we had to balance a focus on our programs with a focus on raising awareness so that society would begin changing its attitudes toward this pressing human rights issue.
And ultimately thanks to balanced strategies like these, I believe our society has changed. For example, I’ve noticed that in the area of philanthropy, more and more organizations are focusing their giving on disability inclusion as a cause. When it comes to disability within organizations, I’ve noticed that more and more Jewish companies in the U.S. and Israel have disability inclusion in their mission statements. But maybe most importantly, I’ve noticed that people are simply talking more about inclusion. It is on their minds and their vocabularies and ultimately in their actions.
I believe it’s important to celebrate all this progress, but it is also imperative not to rest on our laurels. We have to stay entrepreneurial if we want to continue seeing change. Here at the Ruderman Family Foundation, we have always taken the stand that it’s essential to identify a community’s needs and identify leadership vacuums, and then to focus our energies there. We’ve pushed the envelope by challenging our partners and colleagues to come up with new technology, new social businesses and new investments in the name of inclusion. And our partners and colleagues have stepped up to the plate with remarkable strength, endurance and innovation. It is this kind of collaboration, where we push each other to always do better that has transformed the arena of disability inclusion in the last twelve years.
I hope that in another twelve years, we at the Ruderman Foundation will be out of business. I wish that we won’t need to speak of inclusion because we will be an integrated society in everything we do. I hope inclusion will be a state of mind that our kids will grow up with. I hope that I will witness more and more couples with disabilities getting engaged and getting married and that it will no longer be considered revolutionary and unusual. I wish to see the social justice movement fight for people with disabilities like it has fought for other minorities and marginalized people.
I believe such a future is possible. And I believe that the Jewish community and the state of Israel – given the changes we have already effected in our midst through persistence and strategic philanthropy – need to lead the world to such a future.
Shira Ruderman is Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities into society.
This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation that coincides with Jewish Disability Awareness Month.