Inclusivity goes beyond making spaces physically accessible to everyone – other people’s attitudes sometimes pose the greatest barriers to those with disabilities, says Liviya Mendelsohn, manager of accessibility and inclusion at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC).
This is one of a host of issues that will be addressed during Toronto’s inaugural Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), to be held throughout February.
The program – spearheaded by the MNJCC in partnership with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s inclusion initiative, Itanu Toronto – will feature dozens of events, including panel discussions, gallery shows, film screenings, recreational activities and workshops.
“THE TORAH TEACHES ABOUT THE HUMANITY AND DIGNITY OF ALL PEOPLE. THAT’S WHAT THIS MONTH IS ALL ABOUT”
The purpose is to raise awareness about different types of disabilities and “to get the community focused on identifying and removing barriers, doing outreach and making our community more welcoming to everyone – not just in synagogues but in the arts, culture…[in] every facet of our community,” Mendelsohn said.
First launched in 2009 in Minneapolis, JDAIM has been running for several years in dozens of American cities, plus on a smaller scale in Vancouver and Calgary, with an aim to make accessibility a top priority in the Jewish community.
JDAIM Toronto will raise awareness about “visible and invisible disabilities,” meaning those that affect people physically and those related to vision, hearing, mental health or intellectual development.
It will also highlight the connection between Jewish values and promoting attitudes that embrace diversity.
“Everyone who wants to be part of Jewish life should be a part of Jewish life. The Torah teaches about the humanity and dignity of all people. That’s what this month is all about,” Mendelsohn said.
The program’s Toronto debut comes at a moment when the community here has begun to make real strides on the inclusivity front, Mendelsohn said.
The existence of her role at the MNJCC, for example – established last year to improve the accessibility of the centre’s facilities, programs and services – is a marker of progress, as is Mendelsohn’s new part-time position as inclusion specialist at Itanu Toronto, whose revitalization effort she was hired to lead.
So far, an outgrowth of this is the Inclusive Synagogue Working Group, which was formed following an inclusion conference the MNJCC and Itanu ran last spring for rabbis, educators, social service organizations and Jewish community workers.
Comprising representatives from about 17 Toronto shuls, the group meets monthly to explore initiatives such as building renovations to enhance accessibility, bringing in large-print or Braille prayer books and hiring ASL interpreters for hearing-impaired congregants.
JDAIM’s organizers have partnered with a number of organizations, including JVS Toronto, Dani Toronto, Reena, the Toronto Jewish Film Society and the Toronto Public Library, and events are happening around the city.
In keeping with the notion of inclusivity, activities are diverse, including things such as wheel dance – a mixed abilities dance class – accessible yoga, a cooking class, a job search workshop and a session on making organization’s websites more accessible.
Larger events include a summit on affordable housing for people with disabilities and a film shown in partnership with the Toronto Jewish Film Festival about the state of disability rights in Israel.
Also, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 24, the MNJCC gallery will feature Voicing Perspective, an exhibit featuring photographs and paintings done by international artists with intellectual and other disabilities.
Mendelsohn emphasized that the Itanu committee and MNJCC’s community advisory committee include people with disabilities, who helped to advise on programming.
“Disability touches almost every family in our community. It’s not a separate issue but one that includes everyone,” she said.