Inclusion of people With disabilities is a rare shared value

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Americans may not agree on very much these days but there is one issue that is widely supported across racial, economic and party lines: the desirability of including people with disabilities in our communities. In an April 2016 survey conducted by the Association of University Centers on Disability (AUCD) by Lake Research Partners, 90 percent of those surveyed said they support a key provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) that states: “Public places like restaurants, hotels, theaters, stores, and museums may not discriminate against customers on the basis of disability.” In general, there is wide approval of the ADA, with support from 93 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of Independents, according to the survey.

Likewise, in our own Jewish community, there is now a broad consensus among all religious movements and political views on the positive impact of including Jews of all abilities in our synagogues, camps and Jewish Community Centers (alas, not so much with day schools, but that is another article). In the 21 years since our son, Danny, was first diagnosed with developmental delays, I’ve witnessed the profound changes here in Los Angeles from limited tolerance, to acceptance and now inclusion. Back then, the only two Jewish special needs programs were the Shaare Tikvah Religious School at Valley Beth Shalom (still going strong, now part of a much broader Our Space program) and ETTA, where Danny is now part of its adult community day program.

For example, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Special Needs Jewish Engagement Task Force partners with Jewish Family Service of  Los Angeles (JFSLA) on a Community Inclusion Project, now in its third year. Current organizations receiving consultations and resources are Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, the Zimmer Children’s Museum, Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, the Westside JCC and Hillel 818 (which serves the campuses of Cal State Northridge, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College).

“We provide a very customized approach with each agency, first doing a focused needs assessment on what they need to do to be more inclusive for participants with special needs, and then helping to meet those needs, such as providing staff training,” said Sarah Blitzstein, JFSLA’s program coordinator for HaMercaz, a one-stop resource for kids with special needs and their families.

The term “inclusion” can mean different things to many people, but I like to use the words of Shelley Christensen, co-creator of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, or JDAIM (more on that in just a minute), and the author of “The Jewish Community Guide to the Inclusion of People with Disabilities,” when she says: “Inclusion is the opportunity for every person to participate in a meaningful way in the life of the Jewish community. … We do not do things for people with disabilities. We do things with people with disabilities.”

Inclusion also means a two-way relationship between those with disabilities and those without, and it is often the case that those participants without disabilities have more to gain from that encounter.

Inclusion also means a two-way relationship between those with disabilities and those without, and it is often the case that those participants without disabilities have more to gain from that encounter. The volunteers from Friendship Circle Los Angeles (a Chabad program serving children with special needs and their families) who have spent time with our son and other children and teens with special needs have shared with us that, after their volunteer stint, they have discovered greater patience and openness to people who may appear “different.” In some cases, teenage and young adult counselors who have been assigned to work with the campers with special needs have found that they are really drawn to that work, and later pursued professional careers as special education teaches or occupational therapists.

In celebration of the shared value of special needs inclusion, there is now a global initiative, JDAIM, every February, now in its 10th year. As the Facebook page says, JDAIM invites Jews in North America, Israel and around the world to “Join a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.”

Groups as diverse as the Union of Reform Judaism and Chabad all participate in JDAIM, along with hundreds of community agencies and synagogues, including the Jewish Federations of North America and, closer to home, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Miriam Maya, the director of Caring for Jews in Need and the Los Angeles Jewish Abilities Center (LAJAC) at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said, “Our Federation and our partners make JDAIM a reality in many ways: We create inclusive environments and programs; we ensure each person feels valued and has a voice; we provide support and resources for making cultural shifts within organizations so that inclusion is part of their norm. Inclusivity is not just a word or program; it is a mindset that is embedded into our beliefs and actions.”

For the third year in a row, the 19 local organizations that make up the HaMercaz-LAJAC Partners group have come together to hold a Jewish Community Inclusion Festival in celebration of JDAIM, and families and persons of all abilities are invited to join in the fun. There will be arts and crafts, karaoke, gymnastics, Israeli dancing, farm activities, sensory-friendly activities, sports, musical performances, a photo boothand DJ Danny Wolf (yes, there’s a relation) will be spinning tunes. Kosher food will be available for purchase from Rosie’s and Holy Frijoles food trucks.

The event will be held Feb. 26, from noon to 3 (rain or shine), at Vista del Mar, 3200 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets are $ 10 for entire families or $ 5 a person.

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