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Inclusion 101

Basic Inclusion Tips

People with disabilities bring a lot to the table. However, they must actually be invited and have ways to get there! Here are some tips on how to include people with disabilities in your services, religious schools, or other related Jewish events and organizations:

  • Ensure people with disabilities are part of the solution. People with disabilities are ready to contribute their lived experiences to problem-solving and deserve a seat at decision-making tables. Research shows that giving them that seat is a key component to doing better on disability issues across the board. People with disabilities have valuable insights and experience to share as it pertains to disability inclusion (as well as to every other issue apart from disability). This is similar to when organizations take on issues that affect people of different racial, ethnic, or other backgrounds.
  • Recognize the talents of people with disabilities. Major studies have found that the public largely views people with disabilities as warm and kind, but not necessarily competent. Indeed, people with disabilities are largely viewed through the lens of what they CANNOT do, instead of what they can achieve. However, people with disabilities can be exceptionally talented. After all, actress Marlee Matlin, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and disability rights activist Judith Heumann are all recognized as top talents in the Jewish disability and wider communities. Entrepreneur Elon Musk, poet Amanda Gorman, climate activist Greta Thunberg, and gymnast Simone Biles are all at the top of their professions – and all have disabilities. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, every organization needs people who are experts in resiliency and innovation. People with disabilities fit the bill!
  • Open hearts and minds to see ableism all around us. When you enter a building that does not have a doorway or bathroom accessible to someone who uses a wheelchair, do you recognize it and take actions to correct it? When a virtual public meeting is happening on Zoom without free instant captioning turned on – so people who are Deaf and/or Hard of Hearing can participate – do you ask them to stop and click on the button to enable accessibility? When organizations post photos of large groups at events without a single person with a visible disability, do you ask why not? Once you look for ableism, you will realize it is everywhere. Recognizing it is the first step to stopping it.
  • Use accessible facilities and/or update facilities to make them more welcoming to people with disabilities. Facilities should accommodate people with disabilities. Important action items include adding ramps, widening doorways, ensuring accessible bathrooms, and adding automatic openers to main office doors. If you are renting a facility, some landlords will install accessible features, such as electronic door openers and accessible bathrooms, for free or low cost. Events should only be held in accessible locations.
  • Create an inclusion committee and bring in experts on disability access and inclusion. It is critical that disabled people are on your access and inclusion team. At the same time, avoid tokenism. Invite people to participate who have expertise in the area. A point person should ensure that when disability inclusion and access standards are set, they are truly met. Outside experts could include trainers for lunch-and-learns on Disability 101 and specialists who can conduct an inclusion audit and help you create a go-forward plan to ensure access and inclusion. RespectAbility offers a wide range of Jewish speakers with disabilities who you can find at our website. You can also reach out to other organizations, such as your regional ADA center and other disability groups.
  • Add disability to all demographic tracking and performance metrics. Not everyone realizes what counts as a disability. Thus, all tracking should start by clearly stating what a disability is so that people can properly answer. We suggest the following question: “A disability can be a physical, cognitive, sensory, mental health, chronic pain or another condition that is a substantial barrier to everyday living. In describing your connection to disability, please check all that apply:
    • I have a disability
    • I have a close friend or family member with a disability
    • I do not have a disability
    • I prefer not to disclose.

Once you have that data, you can see if people with and without disabilities are experiencing Jewish life and community in the same ways. Studies so far have found that more Jews with disabilities are being included to some extent in the Jewish community, but they are still treated like second class citizens and are experiencing Judaism very differently due to multiple barriers that this guide – and hopefully your future actions – will help address. Through data collection, you can track if disabled people are participating in your work. Use feedback loops to gauge how they feel about the experience compared to others without a disability. This will identify any challenges that need solving. For example, a recent major study by Leading Edge showed that there are more than 800 employees with disabilities in Jewish organizations. Many of them are young and relatively new to working in Jewish organizations. They are ready to take on more challenges and increase their impact. On the other hand, the same study shows us that there is room for growth in equipping them to shine at these organizations. It is very important to understand these opportunities at your own organization to assess whether people feel that they can be accepted and respected if they bring their authentic full selves to work. In some cases, that means they need to have disability accommodations. The national data is below:

Question Disabled Respondents All Respondents Difference
Our systems and processes generally support us in getting our work done effectively (feel free to leave specific examples and suggestions in the comments) 52% 62% -10%
Workloads are divided fairly within my team/department 52% 61% -9%
I have the resources that I need to do my job effectively 68% 76% -9%
I believe my workload is reasonable for my role 59% 68% -9%
Most days I feel that I am making progress with my work 70% 78% -8%
I have access to the information that I need to do my job effectively 78% 84% -6%
I have enough autonomy to do my job effectively 84% 88% -4%
My organization provides the necessary disability accommodations that allow me to succeed in my work 54% 53% 1%

This shows that in order to achieve your best successes in accessing the talents of people with disabilities, it is important to have a clear and transparent process and procedure for access and accommodations. Further, one must track the impacts of workplace policies on employees with disabilities to ensure appropriate respect, empowerment, and support.

  • Conduct a formal audit of your disability equity, access, and inclusion practices. This includes a review of:
    • Your facilities and events – using only accessible spaces and practices and promoting universal design
    • Your online presence – ensuring websites and social media comply with the Web Accessibility Initiative’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelinesso people with disabilities can benefit and participate in your work and success
    • Your employment and volunteer practices – encompassing but not limited to accommodations, talent recruitment, and retention policies
    • Your grantmaking and other processes and systems, both for external (grantee) and internal (staff) users – ensure they are fully accessible. For example, Jewish Federations and funders can put into their grant agreements that all their grantees should report on disability data and have a specific and measurable plan and budget to ensure that they are accessible to people with disabilities.
    • Your decision-making processes – ensure that people with disabilities are centered when addressing issues that impact them.
  • Set S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) disability access and inclusion goals. Key goals can include using free accessibility tools and practices to ensure online events are screen reader accessible and have captions. An easy-to-meet goal is ensuring that all in-person events are held in fully accessible facilities, noting that in the invitation and inviting participants to request accommodations. It is also important to enable virtual work and offer health care and wellness programs.
  • Celebrate and Share Best Practices and Self-Advocates: Form an employee resource groups for people with disabilities and their families​. Make sure that people in your community know what accommodations are and how to request and receive them. Create a PR campaign around successful lay leaders/volunteers and staff with disabilities to lift up role models​.

Using the Appropriate Lexicon

We all know of the power of words, and we probably realize that the use of certain words or phrases, regardless of intent, can express bias. The pointers below will help you ensure that you do not inadvertently express bias that you do not actually feel.

  • Person First Language Versus Identity First Language: Ask the Person. While many professionals within the disability community push person-first language (person with a disability, or a person who uses a wheelchair), some individuals with disabilities prefer identity-first (disabled person, or Autistic). Ask the person what language they prefer and abide by their wishes.
  • Think about other language that you use. What is considered acceptable language regarding disabilities has changed over time. Many terms that were once widely used are now considered offensive. Some of these terms are taken to imply inferiority or have other negative connotations. Others are outdated medical or colloquial terms. Avoid terms like “wheelchair-bound” and “suffers from.” “Accessible bathrooms and parking spaces” should not be referred to as “handicap bathrooms and parking spaces.” People with disabilities do not want to be referred to as “victims” or with other negative terms.
  • People with disabilities should not be described as “inspirational” or “courageous” just because they have a disability. Inspiration porn is when people with disabilities are called inspirational or brave for doing something as simple as exercising or being invited to a prom. Inspiration porn assumes that anyone with a disability is inherently worse off than nondisabled people, which further stigmatizes people with disabilities.
  • Use the word “disability.” Terms like “physically challenged,” “special” and “differently-abled” can be seen as patronizing. Saying “differently-abled” or “special,” for instance, may seem on the surface to convey that someone with a disability has positive qualities about him, her, or them. However, terms like these tend to be euphemistic, and frequently are not used by the people to whom they refer. Many people with disabilities have taken on the word “disability” as a label of pride. In addition, people with disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. People with “special needs” are not.
  • People without disabilities are not “normal.” Saying “normal” implies that people with disabilities are “abnormal.” While people without disabilities often are referred to as “able-bodied,” some members of the disability community oppose its use because it implies that all people living with disabilities lack “able bodies.” Instead, use the term “nondisabled,” “does not have a disability” or “is not living with a disability.”

Avoiding Pitfalls When Interacting with People with Disabilities

Before you read about some common mistakes people make when interacting with disabled people, we direct you to a humorous video, less than four minutes long, from the D.C. Office of Disability Rights, which entertains while making several important points. Here are a few key ones to remember:

  • People with disabilities are human. Acknowledge disabled individuals’ differences as you would acknowledge anyone else’s uniqueness and treat them as you would treat anyone else. Do not talk down to them. Interact with them in the same way you would interact with anyone else. Please resist the temptation to ask “curious” questions about the disability; they may not be appropriate.
  • Speak directly to a person with a disability, not to their companion or sign language interpreter. A lack of immediate response does not indicate that the person can’t or won’t respond. It is important to make eye contact with the individual when speaking to them, not their personal assistant/attendant, interpreter, or people around them.
  • Adults with disabilities are adults and deserve to be treated and spoken to as adults. Do not make decisions for adults with disabilities. Do not tell people what to do or use baby talk. Provide individuals with disabilities every option you provide those without disabilities. If the option they choose presents a difficulty concerning their disability, discuss ways things could be modified, or adapt the choice.
  • When in doubt, ask! Just because someone has a disability, do not assume they need help. Do not give assistance without asking first if they want it. Respect someone’s choice even if it looks like they’re struggling. If there is a dangerous situation, help just as you would help someone without a disability.
  • A person’s mobility equipment, such as a wheelchair, scooter, or cane, is part of his or her personal space. Do not touch or move the mobility devices of a person with a disability, even if the person puts it down or chooses to leave it somewhere. Leaning on someone’s wheelchair is like leaning on their shoulder. Putting something in someone’s carry basket is like putting something in their backpack. It is vital that an individual with a disability knows where their equipment is at all times.
  • Listen attentively when you are talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for an individual to finish speaking, rather than correcting or speaking for that person. If necessary, ask short or close-ended questions that require short answers, a nod, or shake of the head. Never pretend to understand an individual if there is difficulty understanding what was said. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond.
  • There are visible disabilities as well as nonvisible disabilities, meaning not all disabilities are apparent. A person may make a request or act in a way that seems different than what someone may be used to. That request or behavior may be disability related. For example, someone may give seemingly direct verbal directions to an individual, but the person with a disability may ask for the information to be written down. They may have a learning disability that makes written communication easier. Even though these disabilities are not visible, they are real.
  • People who are neurodivergent and/or have psychiatric disabilities may have varying personalities and different ways of coping with their disability. Some may have trouble picking up on social cues; others may be highly sensitive. One person may be very high energy, while someone else may appear sluggish. Treat each person as the individual they are. Ask what will make him, her, or them most comfortable and respect his, her, or their needs to the maximum extent possible.
  • Please note it is considered highly offensive to pretend to have a disability, and disability simulation experiences should be done for design/navigational purposes only. Pretending to have a disability is highly offensive to those who navigate life with disabilities every day.

Learn more by reading the United Spinal Association’s Disability Etiquette booklet:

Resources on Jewish Values

Jewish values have a strong emphasis on inclusion, especially those of Kehillah (community), Kavod (respect), and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). The sources below can help you explore how these, and other Jewish values, play out in the disability sphere:

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