Why Do People On The Same Team Argue Over Semantics?

I like words. I always have. I take pride in the use of proper grammar. And I know that words matter. I have experienced them used as both tools and weapons.

So I find myself wondering why I rarely see anything that stirs debate more readily than semantics in disability discourse.

I can completely understand why people take issue with ignorance and blatant discrimination. When words are used in a derogatory way, when their intent is to belittle, denigrate or express malice ... I get it and obviously take issue with it, too. 

Doesn’t there seem to be a need for a standardization of language so we can get on with the business of inclusion? Removing the Stumbling Block
But I find myself puzzled when people who are supposed to be on the "same team" argue over semantics. If our goal is to increase awareness and foster inclusion, don't we weaken the cause when those who work with, advocate for, love and are themselves individuals with disabilities can't seem to agree? And what’s more frustrating is that we ostensibly agree on the value of inclusion. So why don’t we agree on which words will help advance that cause? Are we somehow undermining ourselves?

There are so many phrases: special needs vs. disabilities; disabled, non-disabled, differently-abled. Inclusion and reverse inclusion. Are some of these terms "better" than others? Should some be used in certain settings but not in others? Doesn’t there seem to be a need for a standardization of language so we can get on with the business of inclusion?

I have to admit, I’m a little anxious to have everybody weigh in. As I’ve said, I know this issue makes people feel defensive. However, I am also really intrigued by the potential for a dialogue that is both constructive and productive. So, shall we start the conversation?

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Affording Inclusion - Part 2

changing attitudes is free; Removing the Stumbling Block

In my previous post, Affording Inclusion – Part 1, I began to explore the necessity of financially supporting inclusion in religious schools and synagogues.

Affording Inclusion; Removng the Stumbling BlockI shared that the most commonly asked question when I lead a presentation is: “How do you afford it?”  My standard reply?  “How can we afford NOT to support inclusion?”

Isn’t it essential that we make inclusion a reality regardless of our means?

So if we agree…if we all say, YES, and truly mean it; then let’s get down to business.
Here are some practical, inexpensive and realistic ways to begin to make inclusion an affordable reality for your congregation:

A huge part of inclusion is attitude; and changing attitudes is free. 

It’s hard work. It takes genuine commitment. But it is free. Start small. Learn about person-first language. Change the way you speak, change the way your teachers, madrichim (teen teaching assistants) and clergy speak. Change the wording on all your forms, letters, and school and synagogue communications. Make this one conscious change and see it through. Then reflect on what this change has brought to your community.

Invest in professional development opportunities for your teachers and madrichim.

This is where I think you can get your biggest bang for your buck. Almost every religious school I know has some budget for professional development. Bring someone in to lead a full-day or a half-day workshop for teachers and madrichim. Extend the learning by gathering to discuss student case studies and apply what you have learned. Meet more frequently with teen assistants to support them. Maintain the learning with in-person or virtual check-in opportunities throughout the year. 

Use your synagogue’s existing tools and structure to promote inclusion.

Make inclusion a synagogue-wide priority. Encourage clergy to offer sermons about the value of inclusion. Select texts to study together at weekly Torah study, in committee meetings or at special programs. Write about inclusion in your weekly newsletter and highlight success stories in your monthly newsletter. Incorporate lessons on disability awareness, tolerance and acceptance in religious school classes and at youth group events. Form an Inclusion Committee to delve into the issue more deeply.

Pirkei Avot; Removing the Stumbling Block

Do one thing and you are one step closer to inclusion.  

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Affording Inclusion - Part 1

Affording Inclusion, a two-part series; Removing the Stumbling Block

I am often contacted by colleagues at other synagogues looking to become more inclusive. One in particular shared that a member of her community is interested in endowing a special education program for their religious school and she hoped that I might be willing to dream with them a little. So she asked me, “What would you do with $30,000? With $50,000?”  Wow!

First and foremost, just as every child with a disability is unique, so is every synagogue community that seeks to include them.  Therefore, my answer to the question will vary depending upon a number of factors:

  1. Do you have an existing program to expand or is this start-up?
  2. Do you have identified students in your community that you seek to serve, or do you hope to build a program that will attract students and families to your synagogue?
  3. What is your school’s vision? What is it you hope/want for each student when he/she completes your program? And how do you get them there?
But then I found myself thinking, as is often the case, about the bigger picture. Why do conversations like this only happen when significant money comes into the picture? Why aren’t we, as synagogues, making inclusion a priority and FINDING the money?

Isn't inclusion too important to wait for an angel? Removing the Stumbling Block

Why is the most common question asked when I give a presentation or lead a workshop: “How do you afford it?”

(Disclaimer: The synagogue I spoke with already has great partnerships in disability work and are now fortunate to be receiving this gift to build upon what they have started.) 

Let’s go back, for a moment, to question number three above.  Vision. Shouldn’t EVERY school’s vision incorporate inclusion? We talk often about adaptations, modifications, and accommodations; and they are essential. However, I'm not sure we talk often enough of vision. True inclusion is figuring out how to ensure that your vision is not compromised for the sake of providing special services. Rather, you must provide the supports each student needs so that the school’s vision can be a reality for every student.

I get it, trust me. I live in the real world of synagogue life; the world of declining membership, financial struggles, and tough choices. Sure, there are angels out there…but isn’t inclusion too important to wait for an “angel”?

Isn’t it essential that we make inclusion a reality regardless of our means?

Click here to read Affording Inclusion - Part 2

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From Autism Awareness to Acceptance...for one, it's really about Tolerance!

Significant things can happen when passionate, like-minded individuals come together for a common purpose; Removing the Stumbling Block

On the one hand, I'm one of those people who think it is a little ridiculous that we have a "month" for virtually everything. I mean, awareness, when it needs to be raised, should happen all the time. And the things we appreciate, we should always appreciate; not just for a month or a day each year, but all year long (yeah, I know, Hallmark loves me...).  Honestly, do we really need a "National Pet Month" (it's May, if you are wondering) or a "Dance Appreciation Month" (July)?

But then I think about the significant things that can happen when passionate, like-minded individuals come together for a common purpose, and I can see the value in having a dedicated day or even a month. It can renew our sense of enthusiasm, help us to raise funds along with awareness and provide opportunities to both teach and learn. It's why I continue to support Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month each February, and it's why I am writing this post in honor of Autism Awareness Month, which many (including me) prefer to call Autism Acceptance Month. To be even more specific, I am writing this post in honor of a couple of amazing people.

A few years ago I had the good fortune to learn about Sam Gelfand, who was then about to become bar mitzvah, as he had developed a unique Mitzvah Project (Many synagogues ask their b'nei mitzvah to develop a project to demonstrate their commitment to performing mitzvot (commandments) in addition to preparing to read Torah). Often, these projects become simple collections of money or stuff, to be donated to great causes.  But Sam was doing something significant.  You see, Sam has Asperger's Syndrome, and he decided that it was important to teach others what it was like to live with Asperger's, in the hope that people could learn to be more tolerant of others.

What began as a B'nei Mitzvah Project soon mushroomed into a multi-state speaking tour! And now, years later, Sam is still presenting his story to audiences of all ages. His message is delivered with passion and humor, engaging those who listen in a way that is real and current.  He speaks of the years that he was bullied, of the many obstacles he has overcome and of his plans for the future, all while reinforcing his message of tolerance and acceptance of others.

But Sam is not the whole story.  While he is amazing in his own right, the minute you meet his mother, Allison Craigie, you realize that she is they key to Sam's success. She is the epitome of what we hope we can each be as a parent; supportive, committed, determined. In Helping Parents Find Their Way, I reference those parents who become strong advocates for their children. Allison is the true embodiment of this vision.  I am honored to have gotten to know her and to call her my friend. And I am really proud to share that she is featured in the book "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum".

If you have the opportunity, bring Sam in to speak to your community, Jewish or secular. And while he's there, ask Allison to lead a conversation with, or a workshop for, parents.