February is in full swing, and with it comes Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, which some view as a chance for the Jewish community to live up to the values it holds dear.
“All individuals should be accepted and included, no matter their background, ability or disability,” said Jamie Leboe, a career coach at Jewish Community Services. “I would say especially in the Jewish religion, because it goes with our Jewish values to accept everyone.”
JDAIM was started in 2009 by the Jewish Special Education International Consortium, said Rachel Delman Turniansky, the director of disability and inclusion services at the Macks Center for Jewish Education. She noted that CJE had been a part of the consortium back when it was still an active organization.
“In 2009, the group came together and decided that we really wanted to create a month that was dedicated to celebrating and kind of kicking off a whole year of focusing on making the Jewish community as inclusive as possible,” said Turniansky, a resident of Pikesville and member of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim. Like many other “special months,” the idea was to start a conversation that would continue throughout the year, rather than one that would be forgotten by the month’s end.
To help mark JDAIM, CJE has started holding a number of different related programs through February. For starters, CJE’s monthly Read with Karma Dogs program, in which shy or reluctant readers are able to read over Zoom to friendly, nonjudgmental dogs, had a special emphasis on therapy dogs in early February, Turniansky said.
In addition, on Feb. 7, CJE began holding a weekly introductory class on American Sign Language for the month.
“It’s really aimed at just raising awareness of the need for inclusion of people who are deaf and use sign language, and the idea of deaf culture, and really to whet the appetite, to hopefully go on and continue to learn more,” Turniansky said.
And, of course, the class is also meant to provide attendees with some basic communication and conversation skills, Turniansky said. This way, if attendees come in contact with someone who is deaf, they can at least introduce themselves with a few words, get to know the other person a little better and start building a connection.
“So this is an introductory class, with hopefully students being inspired to continue and, also, to learn just some basic conversational skills that they can then use with individuals that they might already know,” Turniansky said. “Maybe people that they work with, or people that they know from the community.”
Also, CJE is partnering with the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance for a Feb. 22 virtual speaker event featuring Judy Heumann, an author and civil rights disability advocate and activist.
Meanwhile, JCS has also scheduled programs, such as Fishing Rod: Helping Adults with Disabilities Increase Independence on Feb. 10.
“It was created to offer resource[s] and support to parents of individuals with disabilities, to help parents to learn how to provide independence for their children,” said Leboe, a resident of Owings Mills and member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
Leboe explained that it can be difficult for parents of children with disabilities, including those with adult children, to give them that independence.
“Because while your child is getting older chronologically, in age and in size, they’re growing up physically, you may still feel like they’re the same baby or toddler or younger child that they were, and still may feel the need to care for them in the same way,” Leboe said. “But it’s important for your child to learn to get along in the community, and work, and perhaps drive, and maybe live independently or with a roommate.”
This event covered the resources JCS can provide to the parents of those with disabilities, Leboe said. This included resources like employment support services or residential programming, where JCS assists individuals with living in group homes or assisted living units.
It also honed in on the subject of rights, and how adults with disabilities have the same inherent rights as any other adults, Leboe said.
“Keep in mind that they have the same rights, so not to overpower their rights,” Leboe said, “and give them the ability to speak for themselves.”
When asked what she hoped the community would take away from JDAIM, Jacki Ashkin, JCS’s director of community connections, urged the community to take in the month’s message with true earnestness.
“Take to heart what the purpose and the meaning of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month is,” said Ashkin, a resident of Reisterstown and member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “That’s really the true message of [JDAIM], is to focus on people’s abilities, not their disabilities.”