I’ve been rather quiet this past month and have not posted anything. My quietude is not because I have run out of things to write about, but rather I have so many things to write about I start writing and I can’t focus on one topic or idea.
So, since the month of February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month I’ve decided to reprint this article that was published in 2021. It’s timely and my thoughts and feelings remain the same so while I work on focusing my thoughts I share this reprint of my article On JDAIM with you.
Established in 2009 and observed every February, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) is a worldwide effort among Jewish organizations to raise awareness of and foster inclusion for people with disabilities.
As we approach the month of February, organizations, schools and synagogues are planning programs and activities to mark the month and educate the community on inclusion best practices, disability awareness and advocacy.
I have previously written about who should be involved in the general planning of these programs and how to ensure disabled representation in the implementation of JDAIM programs and activities. But as February nears, I have begun to think about a different question: what about the other 11 months of the year?
I take no issue with the concept of a month designated to raise awareness, educate and foster the inclusion of people with disabilities in our communities. I personally have appreciated the opportunity to participate, speak to students and sit on panels to discuss my own personal experience as a woman who is blind. But what is the larger goal of JDAIM if the day after February ends, these organizations go right back to business as usual, with inclusion as an opt-in feature instead of a consistently intentional effort?
JDAIM’S mission is “to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be accepted and included in all aspects of Jewish life like anyone else.” If I had been involved in the writing of this mission (not that anyone asked me!), I may have revised it to say JDAIM’S mission is “to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be accepted and belong in all aspects of Jewish life.” Period, hard stop. Including the phrase “like anyone else,” for me, somehow implies that in some way I am different from all Jews; I am not different from all Jews, but like all Jews, I am different.
The JDAIM moniker also gives me pause. Perhaps Jewish Disability Awareness and Belonging Month would be more appropriate for what really is the ultimate goal of this designated month. (Doesn’t have the same ring to it, I guess?) The desire to belong is not a “special need.” In fact, belonging is a most basic need shared by all human beings, disabled and non-disabled alike.
“Inclusion,” by contrast, is a call to action and a cycle of actions that follow. It is not an end goal but a means to an end. Inclusion is a pathway that leads us toward a true sense of belonging. But if inclusion leads us to a goal, how will we know if our efforts during JDAIM have been successful and made a difference? Outcome graphics, benchmark measurements and matrix charts do not easily show that progress.
If an organization’s goal is to establish one inclusive month on an annual basis, I think they have missed the point. If a synagogue decides to “invite” people with disabilities to a special Shabbat service one month out of the year, they have missed the point. If we haven’t created a culture in our organizations that sends a loud and consistently clear message that we value and welcome people who are disabled, we have sadly missed the mark on what it means to be inclusive.
If an organization’s goal is to establish one inclusive month on an annual basis, I think they have missed the point.
How will we know if JDAIM has been successful? What will change in our communal spaces? Simply put, when every organization in our community has created a culture of belonging for people with disabilities, we will know that JDAIM has made a lasting impact.
There are two categories of barriers to belonging: physical barriers and attitudinal barriers. Physical barriers, such as inaccessible spaces, are a deterrent to belonging — it is hard to belong if you cannot even access the space. It is challenging to feel welcome when websites, invitations and announcements do not work with text-to-speech software to help people with visual disabilities. It is impossible for a person who has an audio disability to feel included in classes virtually or in person when there is no sign-language interpreter or closed captioning. See a pattern?
Attitudinal barriers — stigmas about certain disabilities and lack of awareness about the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities — also contribute to the barriers faced by disabled people. But when we educate, create awareness and advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities, we will break down attitudinal barriers and we will begin to see the value of including people with disabilities in all aspects of communal life — truly allowing us to get to a culture of belonging.
If we truly want to encourage all people to take part in our communities, we must consider making changes to our communal spaces, both physical and attitudinal. Let’s be proactive in making these changes and offer them as an opportunity to welcome people with a disability, not as a response to someone who has to ask for the change that did not exist.
Personally, what makes me feel welcome and brings me a sense of belonging is having access to information that others do, too. Website accessibility with social media posts and photos that all offer text description — that sends me a message you want me to participate.
When the CEO of the organization whose board I sit on reaches out to me and says, “I want you to know what our new logo looks like before the meeting — can I describe it to you,” or when an organization has their platform videos audio described or closed-captioned and sign language interpreted — that’s what feels inclusive to me. When you offer these accommodations from the very start, before you know that I will be attending, you are sending a message of welcome.
I challenge you to make these changes, especially the ones that take long-term effort, for more than just one month out of the year. I want a seat at whichever table I’d choose to sit at — be that virtual or physical — and I challenge you to create that space for people like me, who have much to offer, want to be included and, more importantly, want to belong.
- Michelle Friedman is the vice chair of the board of Keshet in Chicago, a member of ADA 25Advancing Leadership and the Development chair of The Institute for Therapy Through the Arts.
Friedman, M. (2021). Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month — and the 11 Other Months of the Year. Jewish Journal, https://jewishjournal.com