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. 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 on-site 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’nai 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.
From a personal perspective, imagine three students, Jacob, Emma and Avi, all of whom are in third grade and have similar learning needs. For Jacob’s family, the top priority is that he be physically included in the same congregational school as his siblings, even if the educational structure and curriculum supports that are in place are not ideal.
Emma’s family is less concerned with participation in a congregational school, and instead chooses to send her to the Gateways Sunday program, which has the curriculum, supports, teachers and teen volunteers in place to enable her to maximally access a Jewish education.
Meanwhile, it is very important to Avi’s family that he attend Jewish day school like his siblings. Avi needs additional supports from both the school and Gateways to be successful, and his family is committed to those supports because it is important to them that he be successful in the day school.
Families each have their own definition of what inclusion means for them and their family; it is our responsibility to honor that and to help make it possible.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2006-2008, ranging from mild disabilities to serious developmental disabilities. Currently, about 1 in 68 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder alone.
Imagine the impact this has on our Jewish community. We need to find ways to incorporate all these children into the fabric of our community – and this starts with options in Jewish education. Jewish communities should think about this when creating programming for people with disabilities. By offering a rich ecosystem of opportunities, we make inclusion in the Jewish community possible for as many families as possible – and we do it on their terms. Choice – that is what inclusion should be about.
Arlene Remz is the executive director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, a Boston-area agency for Jewish students with special learning needs.