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Embracing Transformative Change: Beyond Awareness to Belonging

As I gear up for Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) this February, the call for substantive change resonates louder than ever for me. While JDAIM has played a role in raising awareness, the time has come to shift our commitment beyond symbolic gestures to foster genuine belonging. Inclusion and belonging are not synonymous; inclusion is the means to achieve the real goal for those of us with a disability, which is belonging. Belonging, a fundamental human need desired by all individuals, takes center stage in creating a true community.

The essence of creating a true community of belonging involves educating our educators, camp and recreational professionals, employers, Rabbis, healthcare workers, civic, and organizational leaders about the challenges, needs, desires, and values of individuals with disabilities. It's crucial to draw on the lived experiences of those with disabilities to create lasting change. The mission of JDAIM, with its emphasis on acceptance and inclusion for all Jews, including those with disabilities, is commendable. However, achieving these goals requires more than occasional events and temporary engagement. It demands substantive educational programs that delve into the real struggles and challenges faced by disabled individuals in our society.

While I am not particularly a fan of these commemorative months, I do understand their value (especially when done properly), but perhaps renaming JDAIM to "Jewish Disability Awareness and Belonging Month", underscores the importance of moving beyond mere awareness and fostering a sense of belonging. This shift calls for substantive change, highlighting the need for education that is both meaningful and impactful.

While specially designated months may have some value, the emphasis should be on ongoing education, awareness, and actionable plans. Rather than confining our efforts to a specific timeframe, let's focus on implementing educational programs that provide authentic insights into the daily lives of those living with disabilities. These programs must include both planning and implementation with disabled individuals, ensuring a firsthand perspective that goes beyond theoretical understanding.

To measure the success of JDAIM, we must move beyond event attendance and assess the genuine impact on our communities 12 months of the year. Proposing substantive educational experiences during this month is crucial. Empowering disabled individuals to be active agents in their own narratives not only educates the community about the challenges of disability but also fosters an understanding of the strengths and value of people with disabilities as well.

Substantive educational programs should address both physical and attitudinal barriers. The focus should extend beyond superficial gestures, delving into the complexities of the disabled experience. By engaging in meaningful conversations and actions, we can create a society that actively works towards dismantling barriers and fostering true inclusion and belonging. Moreover, these programs should include a call to action and built-in accountability measures. It's not enough to raise awareness without a tangible commitment to change. By incorporating actionable steps and holding organizations accountable for their inclusion efforts, we can ensure that the education provided during JDAIM leads to tangible, lasting improvements in our communities. Creating substantive educational experiences requires a collective effort. The aim is to create spaces that genuinely welcome and include everyone. When education becomes a catalyst for change, we move beyond awareness and take strides towards building a society where disability is viewed as a

natural part of the human experience.

We should be using JDAIM as an opportunity to shift our focus from symbolic gestures, such as inviting disabled kids to join an art class or Hebrew school activity with their non-disabled peers once or twice in the month of February, to substantive education. By proposing and implementing meaningful programs led by disabled individuals, with a call to action and accountability built in, we can create a lasting impact that goes beyond a designated month. It's time for our community to engage in real, transformative education that fosters genuine understanding and leads to tangible change.

-Michelle Friedman

Michelle Friedman is the board chair of Keshet in Chicago, a member of Disability Lead and has been a disability advocate for 40 years. She has written two children’s books and is a frequent speaker for elementary and high school-age students.

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