This month is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. There are so many differences that are part of life and we strive to be accepting of all. Creating inclusive environments for people with disabilities requires us first to recognize that everyone belongs. Lisa Friedman from “Removing the Stumbling Block” says: “Inclusion is a philosophy that embraces the idea that everyone has something of value to contribute and that everyone has a right to belong.” Inclusion is a mindset — not just “fixing” our facility to make it easier to navigate.
For years, I have been teaching and guiding children, staff, teachers, seniors, families and everyone who will listen to me that Jewish values guide our lives. We must find those values that resonate more with us and then put them foremost in our daily lives. Fortunately, there are so many Jewish values to choose from. Of course, the English words are most familiar to us but Hebrew has a depth of meaning that lets us explore the words and lessons. The challenge is not just to say, for example, honesty is most important to me, but how does honesty look and what if there are times when it is best to be not so honest. The goal is to use the values that you believe in to measure your actions and live by them even when it’s hard.
JCC Association of North America has developed “Eight Guiding Principles for Inclusion” and there are values that were new to me. But to start, the key guiding principle for including all people is “b’tselem Elohim — in the image of G-d.” This value speaks to respecting the inherent dignity and worth of each person — we all have something to contribute. We must believe this about others and about ourselves. Here are a few key values that give us words to work with on our journey toward more disability awareness:
Shlemut — Wholeness: Disability is a part of human diversity and we should see people with disabilities as whole persons who do not need to be fixed.
Arevut — Interdependence: We are all dependent on others, in one way or another, and that is a positive.
Al pi darko — Teach children according to their way (Proverbs 22:6): Inclusive education is for everyone — we all learn differently!
Kavanah — Act with intention: The goal is not to wait to be asked but to plan with accessibility in mind. The guiding principle of “Nothing About Us Without Us” is to reach out to those directly impacted to be a part of the process.
Every person and organization says they are welcoming and all want to be — let us look deeper into how our hopes are actually implemented. By welcoming everyone, we all gain. Every person has something to learn, something to teach and something to contribute.
Laura Seymour is Jewish Experiential Learning director and Camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.