Learn more about this exciting new platform, where Reform congregational leaders connect with colleagues and peers who have similar concerns, interests and responsibilities.
With the start of February, so too begins Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Of course, there is nothing uniquely Jewish about disabilities, nor is there a greater need for inclusion in February than in any other month. So why observe Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month this February?
We encourage Reform congregations to observe and participate in this important community-wide initiative because it is Jewish to cherish each and every life and to support every struggle for dignity and justice; it is Jewish to work directly with each person and each family to find out what they need to be able to learn, pray, find friends, feel a sense of belonging, and contribute to the shaping and sustaining of community; it is Jewish to dispel prejudices and misconceptions that contribute to isolation, underemployment, and lack of human rights.
When Reform congregations observe Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month together in February, we join with other Jews across North America to make February a month to rededicate ourselves to creating a truly inclusive Jewish community.
In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, we offer a few suggestions to help congregations adopt further awareness and understanding of disabilities. Please adapt these ideas in ways that fit the needs and culture of your own community – and let us know what your congregation does that might be missing from our list!
Invite people with disabilities to be involved and to participate as leaders in every conversation, program, and plan related to disabilities inclusion. Just as we shouldn’t and couldn’t develop efforts to combat racism without the guidance and leadership of people of color, we will be most successful and respectful when we acknowledge the expertise of people with disabilities in combating ableism (discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities) and in developing strategies that actually address the true needs and wishes of people with disabilities.
Visit the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center to discover ways to advance inclusion offered by disabilities experts and congregational leaders. Register to have your synagogue listed as one of the many Reform congregations committed to expanding their inclusion efforts, working up to becoming an Exemplar Congregation, one whose inclusion efforts make their congregations open and welcoming for all people.
You may also wish to contact our Exemplar congregations to ask questions and learn which approaches and principles have made their efforts successful; each of these congregations has provided a contact person who is happy to help and mentor other congregations.
Learn about “identity and disability pride” and “people-first” language and explain why you use either or both in synagogue communications, including spoken, printed, and online resources.
Some in the disabilities community prefer people-first language, which reflects that a disability does not define a person – i.e. “a child with autism,” not “an autistic child,” or “a person who stutters” rather than “a stutterer.”
Note, however, that positive identities are often said first, i.e. “a Jewish person,” “a kind person,” and so many people in the disabilities community prefer to identify proudly as “a deaf person” or “an autistic person,” for example to indicate that their disability is a difference but not a negative.
The most important part of being inclusive is getting to know the needs and preferences of individuals with disabilities – and so, on an individual level, it’s best to simply inquire about how people with disabilities wish to be identified.
Everyone has something to contribute and every person wants to be a valued and needed member of the community. Invite congregants, including those with disabilities, to participate in committees, worship, and volunteer opportunities. Consider people with disabilities for employment in every area of congregational life, and make it possible for people with disabilities to participate in leadership opportunities.
Consider the following examples:
Ask congregants or guest speakers with disabilities to discuss and demonstrate the ways accommodations make it possible for them to live full lives. Such programs should focus on their achievements and contributions, avoiding simulation-centric programs meant to increase empathy. Some ideas:
Stay away from programming meant to show people how difficult it would be live with a disability, such as by using blindfolds, tying legs together, reading garbled texts, etc. These programs, with their emphasis on what people with disabilities cannot do, inadvertently create a diminished impression of the capacities possessed by people with disabilities.
Create a task force to look into ways of working with congregational members and community organizations to arrange and fund these important events. Though you may not be able to schedule such an event in February, you can start the planning process this month.
All signs in your building should clearly indicate accommodations such as elevators, wheelchair-accessible restrooms, parking spaces and seating, large-print and audible materials, and loop and other assistive technologies for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Let people know that your congregation is welcoming and inclusive by sharing news of existing accommodations and programs and by indicating your wish to work with people with disabilities to find ways to make participation possible.
Include such information prominently in your newsletter, website, and application materials. Demonstrate that your congregation lives by these principles in your employment practices, in who is chosen for lay leadership and in the images of people of all ages with visible disabilities on your Facebook page, website, photo displays within the building, and other mentions.
Make sure chairs and tables are available at your oneg, Kiddush, and other gatherings. This allows for the participation of people who use wheelchairs, people of short stature, and others for whom standing for long periods of time may be difficult. Make space for people using wheelchairs throughout the sanctuary, in meeting rooms, and in classrooms so as not to inadvertently segregate people with disabilities.
Make large-print copies of prayerbooks available at all services, and consider making available an enlarged, electronic version on an iPad for individuals for whom the large-print version is not sufficient. Similarly, make available digital versions of all printed materials used in educational, social, and worship programs.
How is your congregation putting into action its commitment to inclusion? Tell us on socila media or in The Tent. Visit the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center for more tips, ideas, resources, and contacts.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. For important resources created by top disability experts, visit the Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center, created by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation.