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 30th anniversary of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) we can joyfully celebrate the many accomplishments to date as we think deeply about the work that still lies ahead. A moving resource is the ADA Legacy Project's "Because of the ADA I..." campaign, which offers a collection of inspirational quotes and stories made possible by this groundbreaking legislation. 

When I conduct professional workshops and training sessions 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 including 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 privately run 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, many Jewish leaders find themselves without the proper support and guidance to make inclusion a reality.

Questions I am frequently asked include: How do we start? What do we do? 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?

A powerful exercise to move the conversation forward can be to explore what inclusion is NOT. Jewish leaders can 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 a favor you do for someone.

shaded image of footsteps with the words Inclusion is NOT social action
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)” concept which conveys a message of pity rather than a celebration of the gifts each person has to offer.

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. I'd love to help your community on its journey.

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Parents as Partners

purple background with the words Fostering relationships leads us to build community and enables us to open our congregations, our schools and our hearts so that all will be welcome; Removing the Stumbling Block

Updated May 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, we find ourselves increasingly challenged in ways we never expected just a few short months ago. Our lives as parents look dramatically different as we juggle our own work responsibilities, childcare, household management, financial strain, and issues of mental health & well-being. This is hard.

Educationally we have experienced a rapid shift to online learning experiences. There is tremendous variation in the quality and effectiveness of such instruction around the country. Even where an individual teacher's online instruction is highly effective, this layer of educating from a distance in the midst of a pandemic has introduced a complicated layer of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.

Irregardless of the effectiveness online instruction, one of the most notable byproducts of distance learning has been the recognition among many more parents of just how hard and nuanced it truly is to be an educator. This recognition offers us an opportunity that we should not waste.

Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to forge partnerships between home and school, parents and educators. Right now, at this critical moment in time, parents need more support than they ever did before, and I expect most would welcome the expertise and guidance of caring, thoughtful educators.

Open and supportive communication with parents is essential for a successful school experience for any child, especially for successful distance learning. 

Here are key points that I feel can help to build the foundation for meaningful, supportive, and productive relationships with parents:

It’s all about relationships:
Strong relationships are built on trust. Parents need to trust that we are really here to support their children and that we really want to take this journey with them. All the more so for families of children with disabilities. The work that we do in synagogues (and all faith communities) and synagogue schools (really, all schools) is relationship-based. Building strong, lasting relationships is the key to successful experiences across all experiences and all platforms. That does not change when we cannot be together in person; and in many ways it becomes even more important. 

piece of lined paper with the word YES, a smiley face, and a gold pen; Removing the Stumbling Block
Say YES:
Parents of children with disabilities can spend many hours of their days in “battle”.  They often struggle with doctors, insurance agents, therapists, and so on. When joining a faith community, what I believe families most want is to find a place where they don’t have to fight, where they can be accepted as they are, and where their family can find respite and rejuvenation. It seems logical that they should be able find this in a synagogue community. The most significant thing that synagogue professionals can say to parents and family members of those with special needs or disabilities is, “Yes, we can meet “Jonah’s” needs…now help me understand how to do that.”  Or “Yes, of course your family can worship here and be a part of our community…please help me understand how we can make that possible for you.” I am not suggesting that every request can and will be met with “yes”, but we have to start by opening the conversation and building the relationship, so that if there are things that are not possible, we can speak about them openly and honestly. When we start with yes, we rely on our trusting relationships to guide us.

Parents of children with disabilities need to grieve:
When parents learn of a child’s disability, they need to grieve…not for the child, but for the idea of what they thought parenting would be. They process through the grief of what they may not be able to have, while coming to terms and learning to celebrate the new reality of what they can have. This is not easy. 

But isn’t this the very nature of the work of a religious community? Aren’t we in the business of pastoral care? When a child significantly struggles in religious school, parents may be pushed back into the grief cycle, this time wondering if they will have to give up on their idea of bar/bat mitzvah (or any other significant life cycle event). 

When educators focus on a student’s limitations, they may inadvertently put a family back into a stance of defensiveness. I am not suggesting that we don’t discuss a child’s limitations, but rather that we need to do this in the context of supporting relationships that begin with “yes”. When we honor the process for each individual child and family, we develop the trusting and lasting relationships that will help to guide us.  

Distance is learning is not easy. We can find our way through this challenging time by working as partners, parents and teachers together.

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Three Key Tips for Adapting your Traditional Way of Teaching to Online Classrooms

young girl writing with her head leaning on one hand and the words Three Key Tips for Adapting your Traditional Way of Teaching to Online Classrooms; Removing the Stumbling Block

I was recently invited to be one of 24 Educators asked to share a response to the following question: What are the three key tips for adapting your traditional way of teaching to online classrooms? (Click here to read the full article)

Inclusion Still Matters - Why I Continue to go to the Supermarket Once a Week During a Pandemic

grocery store aisle with the words Inclusion Still Matters, Why I Continue to go to the Supermarket Once a Week During a Pandemic; Removing the Stumbling Block

Let me be clear: Never in my adult life did I expect that going to the supermarket would become the most stressful part of my week.

Amidst the international crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, the simple, mundane tasks many of us take for granted have changed drastically. Even before the pandemic, weekly grocery shopping was a chore, and certainly not something I looked forward to doing. But, admittedly, I took it for granted. I would try to find some coupons, and would read the weekly sale circular, yet I bought whatever I wanted, knowing there would be a multitude of choices. Occasionally a sale item sold out, but that was pretty rare, and finding what I wanted was never hard. The most stressful part of my grocery store was the narrow aisles and the other shoppers who had little to no regard for those around them.

I’d go back to that level of stress in a heartbeat.

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