This month marks the eighth year that an ever increasing number of Jewish communities recognize Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (#JDAIM). Members of the Jewish Special Education Consortium, of which I’m a member, recognized that people with disabilities across the lifespan were missing from Jewish life. We wanted to raise awareness collectively and chose February, a month where the major Jewish holidays were either far behind or far before us so we could have time to plan coordinated efforts with each other in our communities.
As I look back on the last eight years the definition of who falls into the realm of disabilities has broadened. No longer thinking that inclusion is just for children and teens, institutions are starting to appreciate that support must extend toward older adults, including the vast number of baby boomers as well as their parents.
Statistics skew high toward older adults among the nearly 20 percent of the population that has a disability diagnosis. According to a University of New Hampshire 2014 Disability Statistics Annual Report, rates of disability increase with age. In 2013, in the population under 5 years old, less than one percent of the population had a disability. For the population ages 5-17, the rate was 5.4 percent. For ages 18- 64, the rate was 10.5 percent. For people age 65 and older, 36.6 percent had a disability.
The field of sacred community disability inclusion is growing, but the supports for older adults are lagging behind that of other age groups. Many congregations now stream services and life cycle events for people who are unable to attend in person. When my own synagogue held the installation service for our new senior rabbi, the service was steamed to over 300 people. Three hundred more people attended in person. Combined, that’s a turnout any synagogue would love for a Friday night service!
I wondered how many viewers were older adults didn’t have transportation to services. How many were reluctant to request an accommodation in order to participate in person because they didn’t know accommodations were available or how to make a request.
Viewing a service online is very different than being in the sanctuary surrounded by other worshippers engaged in the live experience of community. We know that older adults are more likely to live in isolation. The elemental mandate of inclusion, belonging, is not accomplished through the internet where presumably, one is observing a live event, but most likely, sitting alone, unable to experience the joy of communal prayer and participation.
Congregations must work toward in person participation. Letting people know that they can stream a service is a passive form of communication that does not replace or replicate that phone call offering a ride to services or events. The invitation lets people know that they belong.
A phone call or an email inviting someone and offering a means to participate in person goes a long way to diminish isolation and marginalization. It is a simple and most effective way to foster inclusion.
Shelly Christensen, MA FAAIDD, is the co-founder of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Shelly literally wrote the book on inclusion, Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities. She is on the faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion, and is on the Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative core team. Shelly is a frequent speaker and consults with Jewish and other faith communities. She and her husband have three sons, one of whom lives with Asperger syndrome, two grandsons and a Deaf Sheltie named Penina.