Rethinking Disability Simulations - Part II

Why we MUST rethink disability simulations; Removing the Stumbling Block

In Rethinking Disability Simulations - Part I, I shared with you one self-advocate’s view that disability simulation activities do not work to change long-term attitudes about disabilities. I took this to heart and have begun to rethink my own practice. So, what are some alternatives to disability simulations for teaching disability awareness?  

1. Watch a few Public Service Announcement (PSA) videos as a class.  Here are some suggestions:


Discuss the message of each PSA and the collective message with students. Connect the message to Jewish text.  Give students an opportunity to create their own PSA.

2. Read a number of children’s books where the main character has a disability.  

Cakes and Miracles: A Purim Story


Joey Pigza (any of the books, really)

Leah's Voice

Discuss the message of each story with students, connecting the message to Jewish values. Give students the opportunity to create their own children’s books and share them with younger students.

3. Give students the opportunity to assess the synagogue for accessibility. Provide them with a checklist or survey from sites such as or

Do you have other suggestions?

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Rethinking Disability Simulations - Part I

I recently read an important article by Emily Ladau. (You remember Emily, right? She was my first guest blogger and wrote The Birthright Israel Foundation: “No Limits” on the Jewish Disability Community).

Emily’s article called “I Won’t Pretend That Disability Simulation Works” struck a nerve; but I didn't really want to confront it. You see, I have led disability simulations and have believed them to be effective, so this article put me in the position of needing to reflect and potentially rethink my practice.   

That’s a good thing! I have written often about the importance of reflection in improving our inclusive practice. It would be hypocritical if this didn’t apply to me, too.

Hebrew School Inclusion for Children with Special Needs Is Possible, Here's How

In my role as an Education Director of a synagogue's religious school, I have the good fortune of being able to use my skills to enable students of all abilities to learn and thrive. As an advocate of inclusion, I help guide my community to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to participate and find meaning in all aspects of synagogue life. Yet, not all synagogue have a professional who advocates for inclusion. What can parents of children with disabilities do to ensure their children are fully included in religious school?

First and foremost, open and supportive communication is essential for a successful Jewish Hebrew school experience for any child, but especially those with special learning needs. Be forthcoming about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Do not assume that the school will turn you away or will not be able to accommodate your child’s needs. Share your child’s IEP, successful strategies from home and other information that will make it easier for your child to be successful. I am not suggesting that this is a magic bullet. There may be bumps and disappointments along the way. But without the willingness to have the conversations, you will never know what is possible.  

Reforming Jewish Professional Development - Part II

I believe that we need discussions about disabilities to become mainstream, we need keynote addresses by people with disabilities and we need the vision and goals for every professional development workshop or conference to reflect a commitment to inclusion.

#JDAMblogs - A Different Look at Noah's Ark

The following is an excerpt from a stunning sermon written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Rachel Ackerman, Associate Rabbi and Director of Education at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Although written for the Torah portion Noach, I am proud to share it here in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, as its message of inclusion is timeless. Rachel is willing to share the full sermon with anyone interested.

I offer this sermon to you as a teaching – as a conversation – as an opportunity for us to reflect.

It’s a different look at the classic tale of Noah and the ark.

There are a lot of questions we can ask about the animals on Noah’s ark.
How many types of animals were there? How did they all fit? Did they come on by twosies-twosies or by sevens? What did they all eat? How did they all get along?
One question most of us have never asked is, “How did the animals physically get onto the ark?”

Perhaps we don’t ask this question because the answer is obvious. There must have been a ramp.

In nearly every picture of Noah’s ark, every Noah’s ark children’s toy and every image of the ark engrained in our minds, there is a ramp. But, the text never tells us there was a ramp, and the commentaries I’ve sifted through don’t mention anything about it. All we know is that the animals came through an opening and got onto the ark.

Yet, it’s obvious. Without a ramp, it would be challenging for the animals to get on the ark. For some, stairs would be quite difficult, and for those without opposable thumbs, the rope ladder I saw in one picture seemed like a fairly ridiculous option.

The animals needed a ramp to enter the ark.

And many people need ramps to enter our synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions. It’s obvious.

We’d like to imagine that all of our institutions are completely accessible, but we know this isn’t the case. As Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale wrote, “A photograph in my office says it all. It is of a man sitting in his wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of steps, leading up to the entrance of the synagogue. Over its door, is emblazoned the sentence [from Psalms], “Open the gates of righteousness for me, I will enter through them.” The man sits with his back to the doors, unable to enter. As a Jewish community we have failed him…”

When we don’t have ramps, we fail members of our community. The ark needed a ramp. Every Jewish institution needs a ramp. People need ramps to get onto the bimah. They need lifts to get into a mikveh and elevators to access the floor where they have a meeting or class.

And, over the years, we have become better about installing physical ramps.

Stairs, however, are not the only stumbling blocks.

There are Jews with physical, developmental, and learning disabilities; Jews with hearing, speech, language, health, and visual impairments; there are Jews with traumatic brain injuries.

Thinking about the variety of opportunities that our synagogues and other institutions provide: worship, camping, religious school, how many people still sit with their backs to our doors, unable to enter?

As a Jewish community, how many Jews are we failing?


As Jews, particularly Reform Jews, we sometimes look out the windows more often than we illuminate what’s going on inside our institutions.

We look out windows, see injustice, and we leave the walls of the synagogue to engage in tikkun olam.

We look out the windows to people we don’t know, people who will never walk through the walls of our institutions, and we are, rightfully, called to action…But, we also need to shine the light inward to see the people inside our institutions. We need to see the absence of those individuals too afraid to come inside and unable to access Jewish life.

If we shine the light inward we will see the man who stopped coming to services because he was shushed for his uncontrollable ticks.

If we shine the light inward we will see the camper with Asperger’s Syndrome who was spit on by the other kids in the cabin when her counselors left the room.

If we shine the light inward we will see a rabbinical student with a learning disability who, listening to the advice of rabbis on the field based on their personal experiences, did not document this disability on her rabbinical school application. And if we continue to shine the light inward we will see her advising other prospective rabbinical students to do the same.


How long will it be before we build ramps, physical and metaphorical, that allow every person, regardless of ability, to access Judaism?

How long will it be before we shine the light inward so that 100% of our community can look out the window together and engage in tikkun olam?

It is our responsibility to teach everyone according to his or her needs.
It is our responsibility to remove stumbling blocks.
It is our responsibility to make sure that OUR houses of prayer ARE houses of prayer for ALL people.

We need to acknowledge our fear and discomfort, and then allow ourselves to become vulnerable to what we feel ill-equipped to handle; we need to be vulnerable and admit the failures of our community so that we can become more accessible. 

If we shine the light and face what we fear, we can begin to engage in the work of repair. Then, when we shine the light, we have the potential to see:

Camp counselors and teachers who are trained to work with children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Rabbis, cantors, and lay leaders who employ modalities of service leading and Torah study that are accessible to those with learning disabilities.

A teenager with Autism who leads his congregation in acts of social justice.

Children and adults who have learned that the values of compassion, relationship, and friendship far outweigh the initial discomfort experienced in getting accustomed to symptoms of disabilities.

We need to shine the light inward. 

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There is No Room for Exclusion

Jewish Disability Awareness Month is a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.

   Image courtesy of

     This really pretty much sums it up, doesn't it?

#JDAMblogs - When Will We...

Inclusion is not a program or a classroom or a place. Inclusion isn't social action or something nice we do for other people. Inclusion is an attitude; it's the way we treat people and it reflects the way each of us wants to be treated. Inclusion is belonging.

Inclusion is belonging; Removing the Stumbling Block
And yet….

#JDAMblogs - JDAM Reads! Live Twitter Chat #JDAMreads14

As you may know, one of the national events planned for Jewish Disability Awareness Month is JDAM Reads!  For the past few years, there have been both child and adult book choices.
The adult selection this year is “Hope Will Find You” by Rabbi Naomi Levy. In this novel she shares her journey as a parent of a daughter diagnosed with a potentially life threatening disability. Please join me THIS Thursday, Feb. 13 at 9pm EST for a live Twitter chat to discuss the book using #JDAMreads14.  A Twitter chat is a unique way to share thoughts and reflections and I hope that many of you will participate. If you have never participated in Twitter chat before, here is a goodresource to get started. If you are still feeling hesitant, please feel free to reach out and I will be happy to guide you through the process.

In addition to this chat, Rabbi Levy will conduct a live webinar to discuss her novel, sponsored by The Jewish Journal, on Thursday February 20, 2014 at 2pm EST, 1pm CST, noon MST, 11am PST.

A Powerful Example of Inclusion

A Powerful Example of Inclusion; Removng the Stumbling Block

There is an ad for Guinness beer that made the rounds a while back. It’s not your typical splashy display of barely clad women and flashy cars. Rather, a group of men are shown playing a game of wheelchair basketball. At the game’s end, all but one of the men leaves his chair, and together they go out for a beer.  Have you seen it?

#JDAMblogs - A Completely Unremarkable Story

A few weeks ago I attended our synagogue’s Kabbalat Shabbat service. This once-a-month service has an earlier start time than our traditional service and is followed by a congregational potluck dinner. This shorter service is ideal for many; our youngest children who aren’t ready to be out past bedtime, teens who want to go out with friends later in the evening and adult members who don’t want to be out past their bedtimes (come on, be honest, 9:30pm feels late after a full week of work!). Our Kabbalat Shabbat is also a wonderful fit for an adult member of our congregation with developmental disabilities.

I have been thinking about writing this story for some time now. Sharing this man’s story would seem logical and meaningful on this blog. But quite honestly, it’s pretty unremarkable. 

I mean, he’s a really nice guy, but so are a lot of our members. 

He lives in a local group home and another member of our congregation picks him up each month, but he’s not the only congregant who needs a ride. 

Nonetheless, I’ve kept an eye out for something remarkable to share. I’ve watched his level of comfort increase, but that’s true of all of us as we spend more & more time somewhere. The melodies of the prayers have become more familiar to him, but that’s also true for each of us over time. I’ve also noticed how other congregants have come to recognize him, but that, too, is characteristic of people in general. 

So I have been trying, for sake of this blog, to find the right angle. 

I’ve been looking for that aha moment to share. But he’s been a member of our congregation for the better part of four years now, and I have yet to find just the right hook to demonstrate the value of inclusion. I’m sorry, it’s just a pretty unremarkable story.

And that’s the point.

#JDAMblogs - A Review of Jewish Disability Advocacy Day

I’m thrilled to have participated in Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) in Washington DC on February 6.  It was exciting to learn how much this program has grown in just four short years.  What began with a small group of twenty now boasts participation of more than 70!  Hats off to Dave Feinman the Senior Legislative Associate of the Jewish Federations of North America and Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, Senior Adviser on Disability Issues for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for not only coordinating but inspiring such vast and meaningful participation.  

There were two components to the advocacy efforts of JDAD: 
  • Asking Members and Senators to sponsor the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which encourages saving private funds for the purpose of supporting individuals with disabilities
  • Asking Senators to support ratification of the Disabilities Treaty, which promotes the rights of people with disabilities across the globe based on the standard set by the Americans with Disabilities Act
In her d'var torah, Rabbi Landsberg taught that as a Jew, she looks forward to Shabbat. It is an opportunity to rest; to do less than she did all week. However, as an individual with a disability, she recognizes that there are far too many individuals with disabilities who do nothing all week long as they are unable to find suitable employment.  The joy of Shabbat is an opportunity to rest, but we must never mistake rest with doing nothing!

Allison Wohl, the Executive Director of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination, briefed us on the ABLE Act. In her remarks, she shared her very personal journey of raising a child with Down Syndrome. She shared that after watching the stunning film Praying With Lior (if you haven’t seen it, you must!) her view of congregational life changed. In one of her most compelling statements she remarked that Lior taught her that she wanted to find a congregation that would celebrate her family, not simply accept them.

What a profound way to shape the culture of a synagogue community! 

We also heard from David Morrissey, Executive Director of the US International Council on Disabilities, in a briefing about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He works to remove social discrimination and its barriers, suggesting that what our society must do is move away from the “medical model of disability,” a view of disability as something that can and should be healed. 

Finally, Rachel Laser, Deputy Director of the Religious Action Center, quoted Leviticus 19:14 where we are commanded, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind,” and taught that we, as advocates for individuals with disabilities, must not allow the stumbling blocks to get in OUR way of advancing the work of inclusion.

As I mentioned, this opportunity pushed me to stretch outside my comfort zone. Political advocacy is not my typical “wheelhouse,” but I am so pleased that I actively participated in this day.

#JDAMblogs - Jewish Special Education Mythbusters, Part 2

In Jewish Special Education MythBusters, Part 1 I discussed some commonly held stereotypes about learning differences and special education in Jewish education.  In this edition I will explore some commonly held social-emotional and economic myths.

Myth #4:  One student’s negative behavior can ruin a whole class.
This is a big one in Jewish education classrooms.  And the honest answer is: negative behavior can “ruin” a class dynamic only if you (the teacher) let it.  Teachers have a responsibility to manage student behavior in a way that provides all students with a warm, supportive and meaningful environment.  If a child’s behavior is challenging, find another way to meet his needs.  This is not meant as an oversimplification, but rather as a call to teachers to employ a wide variety of management techniques to enable students to find success. Suggestions for how to do this can be found here. And if those techniques aren’t working, find others. Do not give up on your students.

Myth #5:  Tailoring a bar/bat mitzvah for a child with disabilities isn’t fair to all the other students
Individualizing expectations does not take anything away from capable students.  Rather, it demonstrates flexibility and a willingness to embrace a wide variety of needs within a synagogue community.  Children may question why another student “did less” than he/she did, but it is up to us, as teachers, parents and clergy, to explain to our children how to welcome differences and to be proud of what he/she accomplishes without comparison to what everyone else is doing.  

Myth #6:  Inclusion costs a lot more money
Not so. While making a facility full accessible is certainly an investment, there are many inexpensive ways to be sure that a community is inclusive.  Invest in professional development for teachers, lay leaders, clergy and other synagogue staff.  A full-day of learning that brings all of these stakeholders together is a huge opportunity for both learning and leading by example. Training everyone to welcome, accept and embrace diversity will transform your community. I offer additional low-cost solutions, in Affording Inclusion.

Myths are perpetuated by a lack of understanding.  When Adam and Jamie conduct an experiment on MythBusters, they help us to see, experience and understand what is flawed within our current way of thinking.  Their method of presentation is fun and engaging, and we never feel “put down” or insulted for our lack of knowledge.  Rather, we dive in, learn eagerly and believe what they show us because they make the learning real.  And so it is with inclusion.  When we join in conversation with real-life examples and hands-on experiences, attitudes can change, myths can be eliminated and everyone wins.

This post was reprinted with the permission of the Ruderman Family Foundation blog.

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Jewish Special Education Mythbusters

Jewish Special Education 3 Common Myths; Removing the Stumbling Block

Have you ever seen MythBusters, that science experiment show on the Discovery Channel? It’s the one where the show's hosts, special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, test the validity of commonly held notions and myths from movie scenes, adages, Internet videos, and news stories.  My family loves this show.  There is just something really cool about watching some long-held idea debunked right before your eyes.

Well, I may not be a scientist or a special effects expert, but I am a Jewish Special Educator.  And there are many myths about special education. So here is my version of Jewish Special Education MythBusters.

Myth #1:  Students with special needs and disabilities can’t learn Hebrew.

It is a misconception that all students with learning challenges struggle enough learning to read English and should not even try to learn Hebrew.  While it is true that children who have difficulty with their primary language may encounter similar struggles when learning a second language, some children have a natural propensity toward language acquisition, even if they have a learning disability.  Hebrew, in many situations, is taught traditionally.  Read & repeat exercises that require children to sit still and wait their turn are common.  Employing multi-sensory strategies that cater to a wide variety of learning styles can enable all students to learn Hebrew in ways that meet their individual needs.

Myth #2:  Special Education (or inclusion) holds back the “other” students

A classroom rich with activities to meet students at their current level of functioning maximizes all students’ potential for success.  It is a misnomer that having different expectations for different students within in the same classroom isn't fair.  This is just wrong.  Students should not be compared to one another or to an arbitrary level of expectation.  All students should be working toward progress from their current level of functioning.  When this is done successfully, no student is “held back” or exposed to less challenging content that he or she is capable of encountering.

Myth #3:  Special Education is just a watered down curriculum.
The strength of special education is in individualizing instruction, which is not a watered down curriculum.  Modifying teaching strategies and offering multi-sensory activities does not compromise the content.  Rather, it is a way to ensure that all students can be exposed to and grapple with the same content in a way that is both meaningful and productive.  

Part 2 of Jewish Special Education MythBusters.

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#JDAMblogs - Jewish Disability Advocacy Day

Tomorrow (February 6) is Jewish Disability Advocacy Day (JDAD) in Washington DC. It is coordinated by The Jewish Disability Network; a network of national Jewish organizations engaging in advocacy on disability issues. Co-chaired by The Jewish Federations of North America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, this is an exciting opportunity to learn about legislative issues of importance to individuals with disabilities and their families. The advocacy efforts will focus on two key issues:  

  • Asking Members and Senators to sponsor the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which encourages saving private funds for the purpose of supporting individuals with disabilities 
  • Asking Senators to support ratification of the Disabilities Treaty, which promotes the rights of people with disabilities across the globe based on the standard set by the Americans with Disabilities Act
I anticipate that this will be a little bit like a mini L’Taken Seminar for Social Justice for grown-ups! 

I’m looking forward to meeting quite a few people that I only know online or by their Twitter handles. I intend to tweet throughout the day, so feel free to follow me at @JewishSpecialEd and keep an eye on #JDAM14

Finally, this will be an opportunity to stretch outside my comfort zone since political advocacy is not my typical “wheelhouse”. I think that it is genuinely significant for us to embrace such opportunities as educators and leaders. I have written in the past about leading by example, and recognize the importance of practicing what I preach.

I Believe in Inclusion

I believe in inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

I believe in inclusion. 

I believe that inclusion is possible in every congregation, in every religious school, in every day school, in every Jewish organization.

I believe that we can work together to ensure that every child, every adult, every Jewish person has the opportunity to learn Torah.

I believe that it is the responsibility of every teacher and every school leader to learn the strategies necessary to make inclusive education possible. And it is possible.

I believe in inclusion. 

I believe that each of us is created b’tzelem elohim (in the image of God).

I believe that all Jews have the right to live a meaningful Jewish life and that no one can determine what meaningful is for anyone else.

I believe in inclusion.

I believe that every person has a gift to offer to society.

I believe that it is incumbent upon us as human beings to help each person with and without disabilities bring this gift forward.

I believe that we must do as our sages implored, “Al tistakel b’kankan ela b’mah sheyesh bo – do not look at the container but at what is inside.”

I believe in inclusion.

#JDAMblogs – Blogging to Honor Jewish Disability Awareness Month

Today marks the first day of February and the official start of the sixth annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month. JDAM is designed to be a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.

But I have to be honest. I struggle with the concept of disability awareness. When we look around us we can readily notice that people come in all shapes and sizes, each one of us different than every other. I really do not think that we need people to become more aware of disabilities, but rather to learn how to be genuinely accepting of one another's differences. And I am not alone. I recently read a great post by self-advocate Emily Ladau in which she writes, “My deepest passion as a disability rights advocate lies not in the act of “raising awareness,” but in promoting acceptance…Dr. (Martin Luther) King did not want to achieve “black awareness,” and I can guarantee that if anyone tried to campaign for black awareness, there would be more (rightfully) angry and offended people than you’ve ever seen in your life. Why doesn’t the same logic apply for disabilities? Just as being black is part of a person’s identity, so too is disability a part of a person’s identity.”

And yet, we have entered Jewish Disability Awareness Month. For me, the key distinction is that we work to raise awareness that, yes, there are Jews with disabilities; but more importantly, many of those Jews with disabilities are not yet meaningfully included in synagogue and Jewish organizational life. The value of this month lies in raising the awareness that there is so much more we can and should be doing to include those with disabilities in our Jewish communities. (The JDAM tagline: from awareness to inclusion, supports this notion.)

I will be blogging each day during the month of February in honor of JDAM.  You can read more here about this initiative. I am excited to share my thoughts, and to read yours. I hope to hear many new voices.

At the bottom of this post you will find a place to link up your blogs. This will allow readers to find one another’s posts, spread the word about their own and generally serve as an online gathering space for JDAM blogging efforts. Feel free to come back often and link each of your #JDAMblogs posts.

Tag every post with #JDAMblogs. The purpose of the hashtag is to help us to find and share one another’s posts via social media. I encourage you to tweet at me and tag me on Facebook so that I can share your content. (#JDAM14 is the other hashtag being used for general JDAM information, resources and events.)

As a Jewish Special Educator, I realize that the vague nature of “join me in blogging” might be overwhelming for some. While you are free to blog on anything that relates to disability, accessibility, inclusion, etc., some may appreciate prompts to get their creative juices flowing:
  • Week 1: Personal/professional stories or experiences of Jewish disability inclusion
  • Week 2: The value of inclusion, the meaning of inclusion, the importance of inclusion
  • Week 3: Barriers to inclusion, challenges to overcome, frustrations, goals yet to be met
  • Week 4: Success stories
And if writing is “not your thing”, share a photo or artwork or a quote or a video. Honor your own expressive style and do what is most comfortable and most accessible for you.  Don’t shy away from sharing your voice!

Together our voices will be loud and we can move the Jewish world from awareness to inclusion! 

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