Over the past month, Jewish communities around the world have been marking Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). Since 2009, February has been designated as “inclusion” month, billed as an “opportunity to celebrate our commitment to removing barriers, celebrating diversity and connecting with our Jewish values.” It is a time when Jewish communities are challenged to be more inclusive – there are lectures on disability, for example, and local synagogues are encouraged to invite disabled members of the community to celebrate Shabbat at shul.
But as the parent of a severely disabled child, I must confess I do not see any evidence supporting the contention that JDIAM influences inclusion. While many good-intentioned individuals may participate in one-off events that make them feel good about inclusion, I wonder how these sorts of programs actually benefit the disabled persons in our community.
The problem with designating one month a year for inclusion is that there are 12 months in the calendar. For parents and other caregivers of disabled family members, every day of our lives is an inclusion day. We have to navigate an able-bodied world on behalf of our loved ones. We struggle day in and day out with where they are welcome. And we are constantly made aware of how excluded they (and we) are from so many of the activities and events of normal family and community life.
I can’t shake the feeling that many of the community’s initiatives are little more than one-off, feel-good experiences designed for the non-disabled persons who participate. Many in the special needs parenting community are tired of our children being used as some kind of social justice prop, with all the expected PR that entails, including photos in brochures and social media campaigns (sometimes even without our permission).
If that is what inclusion month is really all about, then we might need to consider a different strategy, one that is focussed on making a difference in the lives of single, disabled individuals and single families with disabled members. For many special needs families, a few hours of safe, meaningful and Jewish respite is a far more significant gesture than any mass-organized inclusion event.
So my challenge to the Jewish community is to think smaller, not bigger. That means, for example, thinking about whether or not the disabled individual can even actually get to the synagogue for inclusion Shabbat. Can their wheelchair make it through the snow? Real inclusion means figuring out how to make the experience meaningful for them, after all, not just as a kind of virtue-signaling for the rest of the congregation.
When the Torah details the contributions each member of the community contributed to build the Tabernacle, it explicitly states that, whether rich or poor, the contribution was the same: one half-shekel. The implication is that in order to be a whole Jewish person, we must unite with our fellow Jews. They are half and we are half.
This is precisely the approach our community should take with respect to the disabled. We are halves of the same whole Jewish body.
The fact that we have a designated inclusion month should not be celebrated. Our disabled loved ones should have a place at the Shabbat table, a place at our synagogues and in our community organizations every single day of the year. After all, there are plenty of real gestures and actions that can be implemented on a smaller and more personal scale that would be much more meaningful to disabled and their families than the larger, more grand programming of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.
As for me and my son, we will as usual not be celebrating inclusion month. When inclusion is just a regular part of our communal life, and nothing remotely remarkable or noteworthy – that’s when I will celebrate.