Accommodating Isn't the Same as Inclusion

accommodating isn't inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

Working with students of all different abilities to ensure that they have access to a meaningful Jewish education enables me to revisit my own personal commitment to inclusion over and over again. Over the years I have learned amazing strategies and techniques in adapting curriculum, shaping lessons and accommodating individual students' needs.

But the most significant thing that I have learned is that simply accommodating a student’s needs is not inclusion. Don’t get me wrong, making appropriate accommodations is an essential strategy in working with all students who have unique learning needs. But there’s more to inclusion. 

Let me give you an example:

A class of students is going to break into chevruta (partner) groups to study a Jewish text. A written copy of the text is given to each student. The teacher decides that since this is a discussion-based activity, the text can be read aloud to a student that is blind and she can still fully participate.

What’s wrong with this? 

Put yourself in the scenario. Are you typically the one who says (when something is read aloud), “Let me see that, I missed half of what you said.”?  If so, you are probably a visual learner. (Read more about learning styles.) This is how Braille can function for a student that is blind; it’s her way of “seeing” the text for herself.

accommodating isn't inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block
Here is another example:

Students will be working in groups to explore leadership and community building. The activity relies on students' ability to observe one another as they engage in the task. Adding a listening role to the group for a student who is blind is a reasonable accommodation, but adding that same role to every group is inclusive.

One more:

Making sure there is a chair available for a student who has a physical disability is a reasonable accommodation, but reshaping the activity so that most or even all of the students will sit is inclusive.

Inclusion isn't always easy. Sometimes it takes trial and error. And it takes both intentionality and planning.  But as we learn from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it." (2:16) 

Celebrating Our Mistakes

Is this inclusive? Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the things I most often discuss when training teachers to be more inclusive is the importance of reframing. We discuss reframing attitudes and reframing language, notions that tend to be easy to understand, even if difficult to apply.

It's when we get to reframing lesson plans that it can get tricky. Even when teachers have the right intentions, they can find it challenging to consistently design lessons with an eye toward inclusion.

There is a lot that good teachers take for granted, especially in successful classrooms. I am guilty of this, too. When we have activities and strategies that have been successful, why would we think about changing them? Because to be truly inclusive is to look at every lesson, every activity, every strategy and ask ourselves, "is this inclusive?"

Accommodation isn't inclusion illustrates this concept. It might be "fine" to adapt an activity or add a component to it to make it more successful for specific students, but it is truly inclusive when we reframe the entire activity in a way that makes this addition a seamless part of the whole.

Celebrating Our Mistakes 
With thanks to Michelle Steinhart of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY for this excellent idea!

As teachers set up their classrooms - organizing, labeling and decorating - many are also thinking about systems of behavior management. Most are reading student files and will reach out to begin getting to know their students before the school year even begins. Teachers may learn that a particular student is a "perfectionist", one who struggles to let work go when she thinks she has possibly made a mistake or who will have a meltdown when she does something "wrong". A typical system of behavior management (I am NOT a fan!) would likely have this student earning tickets or stars each time she is able to hand in an assignment with only one revision.

Reframe the system:

Celebrating Our Mistakes; Removing the Stumbling Block


Begin with a classroom discussion of making mistakes and failing as a part of the learning process. Create a system where each student gets to put a marble in the jar when he or she has made a mistake. Just as in other, more traditional systems, the class will earn a reward when the jar is full.

What's different? 
  • First, students are taught that mistakes are a part of the process of learning and growing. 
  • Next, the student who struggles to let work go or has a meltdown when he has made a mistake is no longer singled out. Rather, he is celebrated and comes to learn that he has something valuable to contribute to the classroom community. 
  • Finally, this is a system that celebrates diversity rather than penalizing students for not conforming to an arbitrary set of ideals.

How will you reframe your teaching to make your classroom more inclusive?

Making Inclusion Seamless



To feel confident enough in inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

A few years ago I was approached by the parent of a teen from my congregation who wanted her son to get involved in our local region of NFTY (The North American Federation of Temple Youth). We encourage all of our teens to participate in the various events each year, so it should not have really been a question of “could he” but rather just a statement of fact. But her son has autism, and so she was wondering if and how it might work.

As an inclusive congregation we realize that there are other congregations and organizations that are not yet as inclusive as we are, but we typically hope to raise their bar by demonstrating what we do successfully and offering the support necessary to make it happen. We are never certain what the response will be, but we are always optimistic and hopeful.

In this case, I wasn’t really worried. My call was to Pamela Schuller, the Regional Director of Youth Engagement for NFTY-GER, and I knew she would figure out how to make it possible for this young man to join the region. And she did. From hiring one-on-one support to managing medication to adapting programs as necessary, Pam confidently and seamlessly did what was necessary to be sure this teen could be included. So much so that after four years in NFTY-GER, this teen traveled with me and others from our congregation to Atlanta, Georgia this past February for the NFTY National Convention. And Pam made sure that was seamless, too.

This isn’t just one story; it was the same for a student of our congregation with emotional and anxiety issues and one with learning disabilities and so many others. Pam’s philosophy of “Yes, And” is one I share, and it is deeply rooted in the notion that each one of these kids makes our community stronger. It’s never about what has to change for them. It’s always about how their presence will enrich the experience for everyone (knowing that support is always necessary). Pam is an amazing partner and I’ve begun to take it a little bit for granted that all of our kids will be included. And that’s a good thing. To feel confident enough to assume that inclusion will happen is truly a blessing.

About a week ago the following video went viral:

I Am Here, Hear Me Bark: Comedy, Disability and the Inclusive Synagogue

Pam gets it. She truly gets it. The parent of the teen in this story said it perfectly: “Knew she was great and incredible for [my son]. Had no idea how awesome she is period!”


Celebrating ADA and Creating an Inclusive Jewish Community - We Are Not There Yet

Inclusion is the right thing to do; Removing the Stumbling Block

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) thousands of people around the country are both celebrating accomplishments and sharing thoughts about the work that still lies ahead.  The ADA Legacy Project launched the "Because of the ADA I..." campaign, which offers a collection of inspirational quotes and stories only possible because of this groundbreaking legislation. There is absolutely progress to celebrate, but much more work still to be done.

This significant anniversary is an excellent opportunity to share a post that ran earlier this year on the blog of The Ruderman Family Foundation:

When I conduct professional workshops and trainings for Jewish leaders seeking to become more inclusive, I typically begin by asking them to share their definition of inclusion. (There are fun & catchy ways to do this, and most recently I have been using the prompt define inclusion in three words or less.) The reason for this set-induction is two-fold; first, it focuses participants on the task at hand and second, it helps participants to recognize, up front, that there is no universal definition of inclusion.

You may be wondering why that matters. No universal definition or standard of inclusion means that individual organizations and school districts must figure out for themselves what inclusion means and how it might best be accomplished in their setting. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services and to participate in State and local government programs and services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities. Both of these laws prohibit discrimination. Both laws describe appropriate accommodations. But neither actually defines or explains what it means to be inclusive. As a result, there is tremendous variation from state to state and district to district.

It gets even more complicated for us in the Jewish world. As private, religious institutions we are not bound by the ADA or IDEA. There are no legal mandates requiring us to make accommodations for and/or offer inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities and their families. Advocates of an inclusive Jewish world know that the inclusion of Jews of all abilities is the right, moral and just thing to do. We know that we must look past legal mandates and turn, instead, to our own Jewish teachings and sensibilities to guide us to do what is right. But without laws or specific mandates, Jewish leaders find themselves without the proper support and guidance to make inclusion a reality.

How do we start? What do we do? Must we focus on our structures or on our people? How can we seek to bring more people into our community if we can’t accommodate their needs once they are there? Why is it that some people feel inclusion means everyone all together all the time while others prefer a balance of separate and inclusive opportunities? How do we choose what is right and what is really inclusive?

I find myself helping to guide people to an understanding of inclusion by focusing first on what inclusion is NOT. Jewish leaders can begin to make strides toward a more inclusive culture when they avoid common pitfalls and assumptions:

Inclusion is NOT saying that you welcome everyone – plastering it on websites and brochures - and then having meetings, programs or events where the same core group attends and sticks together while others are left outside that “inner circle”.

Inclusion is NOT an event or a program where you invite people with disabilities to share their experiences. (That can be a really meaningful experience for everyone, by the way – it’s just not inclusion in and of itself.)
Inclusion is NOT social action; Removing the Stumbling Block
Inclusion is NOT a favor you do for someone.

Inclusion is NOT a social action project or something your social action committee is “in charge of handling”. Inclusion, when it is part of the culture of a community, offers everyone an opportunity to participate in a wide variety of meaningful experiences.

Inclusion is NOT a place or a person – it’s not a classroom, a quiet room, the inclusion teacher, the inclusion specialist. Inclusion is who we are and what we do. It can’t be an after-thought or a last minute accommodation when someone with a disability “shows up”.

Inclusion is NOT accidentally sending the message to be thankful that you are “whole”. This is the “I’m so lucky I don’t have (fill-in-the-blank)” message. This conveys a message of pity rather than a celebration of the gifts each person has to offer.

In the end, the message is clear: inclusion matters, legal mandates or not. It is incumbent upon each organization to develop an understanding of inclusion and work toward creating a vibrant community that includes and supports everyone.

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