Inclusion is a State of Mind

When we embrace inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

There’s a significant uptick of energy in the Jewish Disability World right now. People are talking about this issue in ways they never have before - and organizations are (finally!) making commitments to change. 

At Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey we are not perfect, but I am so proud to be an integral part of a community that is committed to this ideal and is continually striving to improve.

We have always done this work because it is the right thing to do. We have made commitments of both time and money because no one should be left on the outside of congregational life. Ever. We do not do this work for the fanfare and certainly not because we owe it to someone. We do it because we owe it to EVERYONE. We all benefit when our communities are truly inclusive. It really is exciting to go to work every day and think about what we do well, while helping to discover ways that we can do it even better.

Temple Beth-El Exemplar Congregation; Removing the Stumbling BlockBut even though we don't do this work for the praise or recognition, there is no question that kavod (respect) for hard work and commitment is significant. I genuinely appreciate that our congregation had the opportunity to be honored at the recent URJ Biennial as an Exemplar Congregation is Disability Inclusion. It was a joy to celebrate our accomplishments and it was special to be surrounded by others committed to this holy work. At TBE we will use this honor as a springboard to continue to move forward, finding ever more ways to widen our reach and welcome everyone.

Inclusion matters. It's not a favor we do. It's not a program or a classroom or a social action project. Inclusion is a state of mind.
Because, quite frankly, what still stands in the way of inclusion in most communities is attitude:

"The biggest barrier to creating an inclusive program is not the lack of resources, knowledge, or accessible facilities. The biggest barrier is actually one of attitude...we must understand that inclusion is first and foremost a philosophy. It is a mindset and a belief that everyone has value and something to contribute. It is a willingness to see the ability in everyone and match skill with challenge. It is an understanding that what our programs really provide at their heart is the opportunity to build relationships, learn who we are, and develop skills. It is being committed to the process of making our programs accessible — not only in the physical sense, but also by ensuring that each person’s participation is meaningful….Once we understand that inclusion is not a place, a program, or a time-limited opportunity, and that it is a state of being and a way of operating that says “all are welcome,” we can overcome the practical barriers of resources, knowledge, and accessible facilities." ~ ACA (American Camping Association)

When we embrace that inclusion is who we are and who we want to be, we can always figure out how to make it happen. 

Is Julia Really the Only Muppet With a Disability?

When news hit the airways that Sesame Street was introducing it's first character to have Autism, Julia, people started talking. Not surprisingly, people have a lot to say.
Julia, is she really the only muppet with a disability? Removing the Syumbling Block

In Jewish education and synagogue life we have understood for a long time that it is impossible to please everyone. It doesn't mean that we don't have a vision and work toward it; rather we do exactly that by living and acting according to our values. But it does mean that sometimes we have to recognize that there are those we will not please.

So, too, is it with an initiatives like this one. Sesame Street has a vision to help the world celebrate the uniqueness in each and every child, and they have launched a project built on years of research whose goal is to highlight the commonalities among children, not their differences. They want to build empathy, compassion and work to reduce the epidemic of bullying our children face. They did their homework, focused on their target audience, and made thoughtful choices.

Are there critics? Of course there are. Just read the comment threads from any of the various articles and blog posts that have been posted. For as many people who applaud the effort there are equally as many who bash it.

I'm on the applaud-side of the fence, if you were wondering. But I don't think this is the first permanent Sesame Street character with a disability. In fact, I think there have been characters with disabilities woven into children's television for a very long time.

I suppose you could say inclusion is the lens through which I view the world. That may be true. But I think we all have that lens, we just might not always call it that. And so, if we are talking about identifying a character from children's television as having a specific disability, I have already been doing this for a long time. For as long as I can remember, I have been identifying the character in each show my children watch as the one with a disability:

We have long recognized Cookie Monster as a character who displays impulsive behavior.

We have chatted about Oscar's anger management struggles.

We have acknowledged that Ferb, of Phineas and Ferb fame, could possibly be selectively mute.

We have discussed Patrick Star's (SpongeBob's best friend) learning issues.

And there's Fozzie Bear, who interprets figurative language as literal, is not good at taking social cues, doesn’t read a room well, and tends to repeat himself long after the need has passed. Autism?

I believe there is such a character in every children's show. I have capitalized on this and used it to help me teach my children to be accepting of disabilities. Is such a character named and classified? Definitely not. But do they exist? For sure.

It is, as this author deftly calls it, the Fozzie Conundrum. By far the most astute of all the articles I have read about the new Sesame Street initiative, she hits the nail on the head when she says, "We’ve known Fozzie for years and never needed anyone to explain away his eccentricities. In fact, we’ve loved his quirks and have never seen him as anything but Fozzie."

The Fozzie Conundrum. "Would knowing Fozzie had autism have changed the way we looked at him? Maybe." And that would be a shame. Because when we think about Fozzie we think about a character who is lovable, funny and a little bit quirky. 

The Fozzie Conundrum. "Would knowing Fozzie had autism have made it easier for his parents and friends to understand his behaviors as he grew into himself? Also maybe." It's a challenge.

We need to be aware that each of us is different; Removing the Stumbling Block

There's always a balance to be struck. Do we need better representation of disabilities on television and in mainstream media? Yes! But do we need to call attention to every difference among us and label it? Certainly not. We need to figure out how to land somewhere in the middle. 

We need to be aware that each one of us is different with gifts to offer the world and challenges to navigate. And this is exactly where Sesame Street gets it right. We need to celebrate the uniqueness that each and every child brings to the world.

Target Makes it Look Easy – Disability in Advertising

When we are truly and inclusive society; Removing the Stumbling Block
I have said, on more than one occasion, that when inclusion is “done right” it just is – there’s no need for fanfare, no reason for an advocate to point it out, no need for celebration.

When we are truly an inclusive society; everyone participates, everyone belongs.

When we are truly an inclusive society we won’t have to share our collective frustrations about schools that exclude a child, faith organizations that exclude families, or television and advertising that exclude people with disabilities.

When we are truly an inclusive society; all will really mean all.

But we aren’t there yet.

So when I stumble across something like this, I know it must be mentioned so that others can learn.

Check out this recent Target television ad:

Target made it look easy, right? And it wasn’t accompanied by some grandiose statement of inclusivity; they just ran the ad.

That’s inclusion done right.

Target makes it look easy, Removing the Stumbling Block

What Does Inclusion Mean to You?

Inclusion is opening doors; Removing the Stumbling Block

I frequently have opportunities to engage in a conversations about inclusion with my colleagues. Sometimes these conversations are Jewish, sometimes they aren't. Either way, the driving force behind such discussions is one of increasing the ways that individuals with disabilities are included in schools and community.

Often, inclusion can be controversial, and it typically stirs up a lot of emotion. That's good; where there is passion there can be change.

So, when asked how I define inclusion, I explain that to me, inclusion is opening the doors that would have otherwise remained closed. I realize that my practice of inclusion is not always about “Inclusion”, the noun with a capital “I”. Rather, my vision is one in which I consistently strive to create inclusive experiences, especially within the Jewish world. I am, quite frankly, less concerned about holding myself, my school or my community to a hard and fast definition of “Inclusion”. Rather, I work to stay true to the belief that everyone is entitled to a Jewish education and that each experience increases the potential of living a meaningful Jewish life.

In a Jewish supplemental school I believe that inclusion should mean offering a wide array of options to meet the needs of every student. Which is exactly what should exist for very student, disabilities or not. Rather than being exclusive, such options can open the doors that might have otherwise remained closed. Too many synagogue schools continue to try to find ways to "fit" students with disabilities into their "typical" school models, often frustrating teachers and alienating students, and in some cases pushing families away.  

“Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah – whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, chapter 10) 

Inclusion must offer every child the chance to learn and experience the rich beauty of their heritage in a way that ensures success.    

What does inclusion mean to you?
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