Best practices and expectations in the disability world have moved from serving people with a disability separately to inclusion of all people, of all abilities, in everything. How does inclusion work in practice?
Today we learn from Dori Frumin Kirshner, executive director of Matan, about steps we can take now to make a difference. Matan's mission is to educate Jewish leaders, educators and communities, empowering them to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs, through training Institutes and consultations across North America.
“If you will it, it is no dream.”
- Theodor Herzl
Whether in your Facebook feed, the newspapers you read, the emails in your inbox, or the television that you watch, you likely are coming across the idea of “disability inclusion” more than you ever have in the past. While this movement is certainly not new (inclusion laws have been in effect in the public sector since the 1970s), Jewish institutional leaders, in recent years have taken this call to action more seriously. At Matan, our job is no longer to convince Jewish organizations that inclusion is a critical issue for Jewish continuity (after all, can we really afford to lose the 1 in 5 families affected by disability?); rather, we have reached the “tipping point” where the Jewish community is ready to hear how to ensure that all families, regardless of ability or disability, can meaningfully and successfully be included.
At Matan, we like to say that “special education is just really good education.” The truth is, what is effective for diverse learners/participants also creates a more successful environment for everyone. How then, can we create successful inclusive environments in our communities?
1. Raise awareness and shift attitudes
At Matan, we are fortunate that inclusion is our daily work; the entire foundation of our mandate as an organization. We understand, though, that a Federation has many competing priorities. As deeply as we believe in inclusion, we know that that others feel just as strongly about other profoundly important issues affecting the community. As a result, our job is to help everyone understand that inclusion can be a part of these other priorities – not instead of them. Shifting attitudes and raising awareness is not as complicated as it may seem. What follows is a list of low/no-cost things to consider, as well as a few things that require some (but not a lot of) financial resources.
- Are people with disabilities reflected in your visual marketing? Do they appear in photographs as participants in your (and your communal agencies’) programs?
- How can written materials connote that inclusion of people with disabilities is a priority and that everyone will be welcomed and supported?
- Does that written communication include a contact name and number/email to call with questions and concerns, or to request accommodations?
- Does your community convene an inclusion committee or task force?
- Are local communal resources easy to find (listed on the Federation’s website, or elsewhere)?
- Who in your local eco-system can help (graduate students, seasoned educators or related professionals, etc.)?
- Are there people involved in your planning and allocations processes who are tuned into the notion of inclusion?
- Has the community invested in a speaker series that highlights inclusion as a communal priority?
- Has the community shown a film that depicts disabilities (ReelAbilities Film Festival)?
2. Train professionals
A truly inclusive community begins as a shift in mindset and evolves into an intentional model that sets everyone up for success. During Matan’s 18 years, and particularly in the past six years, which almost entirely have focused on training, we have heard educators tell us that their directors decided to “become inclusive” but that nothing else changed. Teachers possessed the same credentials, received the same (minimal) level of support and held the same content and identity-building expectations; yet now their classes had multiple children with special learning needs. That does not lay the foundation for successful and meaningful inclusion for the educators or the students! Whether we are talking about schools, adult programming, camps or other Jewish experiences, several strata of people in your community need ongoing professional development in inclusion:
- Directors of Jewish education programs, who will set the tone and are often the catalysts for culture change.
- Educators/teachers in classroom based and experiential Jewish education programs
- Specialists who are hired to augment Jewish educational experiences – song leaders, art teachers, Israeli dance instructors, etc.
- Administrative staffers who often are the ones to first answer a phone call or email – how they respond sets the tone!
- Anyone who is involved in planning, implementing and supporting the wide range of Jewish experiences that fall under Federations’ auspices.
3. Involve local Jewish leadership
As with any work, disability inclusion cannot happen in a vacuum and certainly cannot rest on any one person’s shoulders. Inclusion is not just about one part of our system – it must be included throughout the organization. Otherwise, we run the risk of modeling a system in which inclusion is something separate and apart from all of Federation’s other initiatives rather than demonstrating that it is essential in everything we hope to accomplish.
To do that, we need to begin by convening Jewish organizational leaders and community stakeholders. In addition, we need to hear from Jewish community members who may not be as involved. Oftentimes, disability has been a barrier to participation; feedback from people who have experienced that barrier is invaluable. Key players include:
- Directors of Jewish education programs (congregational schools, nursery schools, day schools, camps)
- Clergy (rabbis and cantors)
- Directors/leadership of local Jewish organizations
- Lay leaders
- Parents of children with special needs and parents of children without special needs
- Individuals with disabilities
Through these various meetings, you will likely collect a lot of information, varying opinions and a cross-section of priorities. An overview of this data will help you decide where to begin. Attempting to address everything all at once would be overwhelming, but it is critical to take a first step.
Many years ago, a Matan board member explained how having a Jewish child with a disability felt to her family: “It’s like having our noses pressed up against the window of a beautiful restaurant, but never being able to walk through the door and taste the delicious food.” As a community, we must aim to open up those doors and sit side by side with that family at the table. It is these efforts that will produce ripple effects that benefit the entire Jewish community.