Each February, we mark Jewish Disability Awareness Month. This year, the decision was made to add “inclusion” to the equation, and it is now called Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). This addition may seem insignificant, but actually marks a movement toward action. Building awareness around an issue means that people come together to learn about and discuss it. It doesn’t imply next steps for taking action. “Inclusion” is a much bolder statement, calling on Jewish organizations to take action and include people with disabilities.
But what does inclusion mean? By definition, it means “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.” If we apply this to the context of people with disabilities in the Jewish community, the definition still leaves space for wide interpretation for implementation.
The Gateways: Access to Jewish Education organization grapples with this challenge on a daily basis. As Greater Boston’s regional agency for Jewish students with special learning needs, we are cognizant that inclusion has to be about choice. Because every family and every student has their own priorities, we as a community have to ensure that quality educational programming and the capacity to meet the needs of students with a range of abilities is available across multiple settings.
This means that we partner with Jewish day schools so that they are able to support students with special learning needs so they can flourish. Schools are able to include students in their structure by providing onsite speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and specialized learning support during the school day. Gateways provides professional development and consultation to the staff so that they are able to successfully support students with diverse learning needs in the class. With funding from the Ruderman Family Foundation, we bring disability awareness programs like Understanding Our Differences to all students so that they can better understand and accept classmates—and all people—with differences.
This also means that families who choose to send their children to Jewish preschools and community Hebrew schools also have options for inclusion. We partner with local congregations and community supplementary programs to provide professional development, communities of practice, and training of madrichim (teen classroom aides) to enable programs to expand their capacity and include students with a wide range of needs.
As another choice, we offer programs specifically for students with disabilities, including a Sunday program and a b’nei mitzvah program. This may seem counterintuitive to the idea of inclusion, but inclusion should be about choice. For some students, the optimal way to be included in Jewish education is to participate in a program that is designed specifically for students with disabilities.
Read more at JNS.