Finding Joy - One Word 365

Joy - One Word 365; Removing the Stumbling Block

As a blogger, sometimes I need a little inspiration. It’s not that I don’t have a lot to say, but there are times when it feels as though I have already said it, multiple times, in post after post. I guess that’s what they call writer’s block.

So, a couple of years ago, in searching for some inspiration, I stumbled across a project. The concept is pretty simple: Rather than making a long list of New Year’s Resolutions, you choose one word as your focus for the year. This concept feels far more real to me than resolutions. Quite frankly, I think most resolutions become wishful thinking pretty quickly.


There are many different ways to bring this project to life, but for most it is a way to sharpen their focus, attend to what really matters and bring a new level of intention to their writing and to their lives.

I let my choice for 2015 be guided by my commitment to inclusion. (My word for 2015 was intention.) I think I could have just as easily chosen the word reflection. I spent much time over the past year thinking deeply about my own personal practice of inclusion and seeking ways to merge that which permeates my professional life with my personal life. I feel proud of what I have accomplished.

Now, looking ahead to 2016, what jumps out at me is to focus on joy. I want to bring it into my life and my work with greater intention (I’m not leaving 2015 behind so quickly). I want to find the joy in the every day and I want to truly savor those joyous moments.

My “one word” for 2016 is JOY. What’s yours?

Teaching Fairness vs. Equality – A Classroom Activity

Teaching fairness vs. equality; Removing the Stumbling Block

The most popular posts on this blog are Fair Isn’t Equal and Teaching the Difference Between Fairness and Equality. With good reason. These are challenging concepts for children (and let’s face it, many adults) to fully wrap their brains around. Even when we understand the difference between these concepts, many find ourselves reverting back to the age-old whine, “It’s not fair.”

To review:

Fairness means that each person gets what he or she needs to be successful.

Equality is giving each person the exact same thing.

Further, fairness continues to be one of the most commonly used arguments against inclusion. “It’s not fair to hold some students back to prevent others from falling behind,” is just one of many myths that continues to be perpetuated by those who do not fully understand the concept of fairness. Therefore, for a classroom (or a school or an organization) to be truly inclusive, it is critical that the difference between fairness and equality be both understood and embraced.

A Classroom Activity:

  1. Place two rewards high up on a shelf, so high that only the tallest student/participant can reach them (even if it takes some stretching or a little jumping).
  2. Ask for volunteers. Say, “Anyone who can reach one can have it, no strings attached.” When the hands go up, choose the tallest person first.
  3. Ask for a second volunteer. Ignore the hands and select the shortest person in the room. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he will often go for a chair or table. Say, “You may not use a chair; that would be unfair. So and so did it under her own steam. You must do the same.” Participants will likely complain: “That’s not fair! He can’t help that he’s small.”
  4. Ponder their argument and say, “Okay, give me your best reasons for allowing him to use a chair or any other kind of assistance in reaching the reward when so and so had no help. How can that be fair?!?”
  5. Listen to participants argue their case, relent (which is what you were going to do anyway) and let the student use the chair to grab the reward.
If it is even necessary, refer back to this demonstration to explain why you do certain things in your differentiated, inclusive classroom with different students at different times in order to help each of them find success. They will get it. Fair isn’t always equal.

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Walking the Walk - Make Inclusion a Reality

Inclusion isn't always hard; Removing the Stumbling Block

Last week, in preparation for a four-day seminar on social justice for teens, I spent an hour and a half with one of the thirty students I would be bringing to Washington DC for what I knew would be an amazing experience. This is a student with dyslexia, so I wanted to ensure that she felt prepared to encounter the content and would not feel overwhelmed by the pace of the program and the often chaotic nature of the various activities.

I didn’t think twice about it, really; at least not until she reminded me. She told another member of our staff who popped in to say hello that I was “so great” for “giving up” my time to make sure she was ready. Gave up? Trust me. I gave up nothing.

What a gift to watch her eyes light up when I explained that one of the goals of this weekend was to teach teens to advocate. “You know,” I said, “like the way you tell someone that you need them to go slower or read something again because you have dyslexia. You advocate for yourself all the time.” I explained that our weekend would be focused on learning all about what it means to advocate for those we care about and for those who may not be able to advocate for themselves. “So you will be in a place surrounded by people who will be proud of you for speaking up for yourself,” I reassured her. She glowed.

you will be in a place surrounded by people who will be proud of you for speaking up for yourself; Removing the Stumbling Block

While I realize that this kind of work doesn’t come naturally to everyone, I often take my own efforts for granted. I am always surprised when I hear stories like this one: The program director and I were chatting on the first morning and he shared that another congregation sent a student, who is typically provided with an aide for support at regional youth events, to this program without support. Why? It wasn’t in their budget. And they didn’t share this with the program staff in advance (who would have readily offered financial support) but rather mentioned it as an aside once the program was under way when it was clear that the student needed additional support.

I was again reminded of the significance of our inclusive approach when a friend and staff member shared something she had said about me: “Lisa doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk. She spent an hour an a half with one student to prep just days before she had to be “on” for four days straight with thirty of them.” Ok, it’s lovely to receive such a compliment. But more importantly it’s just so critical to me that others know that inclusion isn’t always hard. We just have to do it. We just need to have the conversations, ask the questions and try our best to anticipate the “what ifs”.

I believe deeply in inclusion, so I make it a priority. You can make inclusion a priority, too.

Top Five Strategies For Your Inclusive Classroom

Flexibilty is a skill to make a teacher stand out; Removing the Stumbling Block
Structuring a successful inclusive classroom takes a lot of work and planning. You will quickly learn that flexibility is the greatest asset of any teacher, because as soon as you think you have it right, the needs of your students change and you will have to adapt and plan again. Thoughtful planning and intentional design will benefit all of your learners.

Top Five Strategies for Structuring an Inclusive Classroom Environment:

1.  A multi-sensory approach to learning 
This is exactly what it sounds like; an approach to education that engages all of the senses. Some of us learn best by listening, some through reading. Some of us need to write something down to commit it to memory. Others won’t remember unless they repeat it back out loud. Still others need to touch, taste or even smell to fully grasp a new concept. Consistent use of different instructional approaches increases the likelihood that learning will be meaningful, relevant and lasting.

All students should be working toward progress from their own current level of functioning; Removing the Stumbling Block

2.  Individualized expectations
Individualizing expectations are as fair for gifted students as they are for those with unique learning needs and anyone in between. It's a misnomer to believe that having different expectations for different students in the same classroom is unfair. Comparing students to one another is arbitrary. All students should be working toward progress from their own current level of functioning. Individualizing doesn’t “dumb down” the curriculum or hold students back. Instead, it allows students to develop and succeed according to their own individual needs.

3.  Station activities and centers
Learning centers; Removing the Stumbling BlockCenters are areas of the room that are dedicated to learning a specific topic or developing a specific skill and provide students with the opportunity to learn at their own pace. All students benefit as centers enable the delivery of instruction to be differentiated according to individual students’ needs. There are many different ways to structure centers within a classroom, and curricular choices will need to be made based on skill level, students’ ability to work independently and the number of staff available in the classroom.

4.  Clear of rules and expectations
Behavior management is critical to a successful learning environment. When students act out or are unable to focus, significant learning can not take place. Such behavior is indicative that needs are not being appropriately met. Create a classroom environment that reinforces positive behavior, stimulates attention and imagination and makes expectations clear.

5.  Be flexible!
A teacher’s ability to adapt and change plans when necessary is critical to the success of an inclusive classroom. Seasoned teachers know how to “read the room”. This means that they are in tune with their students’ needs and abilities and know when something isn’t going as planned. The flexibility to scrap a lesson altogether when it isn’t working, or even to capture an amazing moment and run with it instead of the planned lesson is a skill that makes a teacher truly stand out.

Please be in touch if you wish to schedule teacher training workshops that focus specifically on Jewish settings and supplemental schools to learn more about adapting these strategies to a religious school setting.

Inclusion is a State of Mind

When we embrace inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

There’s a significant uptick of energy in the Jewish Disability World right now. People are talking about this issue in ways they never have before - and organizations are (finally!) making commitments to change. 

At Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey we are not perfect, but I am so proud to be an integral part of a community that is committed to this ideal and is continually striving to improve.

We have always done this work because it is the right thing to do. We have made commitments of both time and money because no one should be left on the outside of congregational life. Ever. We do not do this work for the fanfare and certainly not because we owe it to someone. We do it because we owe it to EVERYONE. We all benefit when our communities are truly inclusive. It really is exciting to go to work every day and think about what we do well, while helping to discover ways that we can do it even better.

Temple Beth-El Exemplar Congregation; Removing the Stumbling BlockBut even though we don't do this work for the praise or recognition, there is no question that kavod (respect) for hard work and commitment is significant. I genuinely appreciate that our congregation had the opportunity to be honored at the recent URJ Biennial as an Exemplar Congregation is Disability Inclusion. It was a joy to celebrate our accomplishments and it was special to be surrounded by others committed to this holy work. At TBE we will use this honor as a springboard to continue to move forward, finding ever more ways to widen our reach and welcome everyone.

Inclusion matters. It's not a favor we do. It's not a program or a classroom or a social action project. Inclusion is a state of mind.
Because, quite frankly, what still stands in the way of inclusion in most communities is attitude:

"The biggest barrier to creating an inclusive program is not the lack of resources, knowledge, or accessible facilities. The biggest barrier is actually one of attitude...we must understand that inclusion is first and foremost a philosophy. It is a mindset and a belief that everyone has value and something to contribute. It is a willingness to see the ability in everyone and match skill with challenge. It is an understanding that what our programs really provide at their heart is the opportunity to build relationships, learn who we are, and develop skills. It is being committed to the process of making our programs accessible — not only in the physical sense, but also by ensuring that each person’s participation is meaningful….Once we understand that inclusion is not a place, a program, or a time-limited opportunity, and that it is a state of being and a way of operating that says “all are welcome,” we can overcome the practical barriers of resources, knowledge, and accessible facilities." ~ ACA (American Camping Association)

When we embrace that inclusion is who we are and who we want to be, we can always figure out how to make it happen. 

Is Julia Really the Only Muppet With a Disability?

When news hit the airways that Sesame Street was introducing it's first character to have Autism, Julia, people started talking. Not surprisingly, people have a lot to say.
Julia, is she really the only muppet with a disability? Removing the Syumbling Block

In Jewish education and synagogue life we have understood for a long time that it is impossible to please everyone. It doesn't mean that we don't have a vision and work toward it; rather we do exactly that by living and acting according to our values. But it does mean that sometimes we have to recognize that there are those we will not please.

So, too, is it with an initiatives like this one. Sesame Street has a vision to help the world celebrate the uniqueness in each and every child, and they have launched a project built on years of research whose goal is to highlight the commonalities among children, not their differences. They want to build empathy, compassion and work to reduce the epidemic of bullying our children face. They did their homework, focused on their target audience, and made thoughtful choices.

Are there critics? Of course there are. Just read the comment threads from any of the various articles and blog posts that have been posted. For as many people who applaud the effort there are equally as many who bash it.

I'm on the applaud-side of the fence, if you were wondering. But I don't think this is the first permanent Sesame Street character with a disability. In fact, I think there have been characters with disabilities woven into children's television for a very long time.

I suppose you could say inclusion is the lens through which I view the world. That may be true. But I think we all have that lens, we just might not always call it that. And so, if we are talking about identifying a character from children's television as having a specific disability, I have already been doing this for a long time. For as long as I can remember, I have been identifying the character in each show my children watch as the one with a disability:

We have long recognized Cookie Monster as a character who displays impulsive behavior.

We have chatted about Oscar's anger management struggles.

We have acknowledged that Ferb, of Phineas and Ferb fame, could possibly be selectively mute.

We have discussed Patrick Star's (SpongeBob's best friend) learning issues.

And there's Fozzie Bear, who interprets figurative language as literal, is not good at taking social cues, doesn’t read a room well, and tends to repeat himself long after the need has passed. Autism?

I believe there is such a character in every children's show. I have used this notion to help me teach my children to be accepting of disabilities. Is such a character named and classified? Definitely not. But do they exist? For sure. And I think this is far more inclusive, by the way.

It is, as this author deftly calls it, the Fozzie Conundrum. By far the most astute of all the articles I have read about the new Sesame Street initiative, she hits the nail on the head when she says, "We’ve known Fozzie for years and never needed anyone to explain away his eccentricities. In fact, we’ve loved his quirks and have never seen him as anything but Fozzie."

The Fozzie Conundrum. "Would knowing Fozzie had autism have changed the way we looked at him? Maybe." And that would be a shame. Because when we think about Fozzie we think about a character who is lovable, funny and a little bit quirky. 

The Fozzie Conundrum. "Would knowing Fozzie had autism have made it easier for his parents and friends to understand his behaviors as he grew into himself? Also maybe." It's a challenge.

We need to be aware that each of us is different; Removing the Stumbling Block

There's always a balance to be struck. Do we need better representation of disabilities on television and in mainstream media? Yes! But do we need to call attention to every difference among us and label it? Certainly not. We need to figure out how to land somewhere in the middle. 

We need to be aware that each one of us is different with gifts to offer the world and challenges to navigate. And this is exactly where Sesame Street gets it right. We need to celebrate the uniqueness that each and every child brings to the world.

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Target Makes it Look Easy – Disability in Advertising

When we are truly and inclusive society; Removing the Stumbling Block
I have said, on more than one occasion, that when inclusion is “done right” it just is – there’s no need for fanfare, no reason for an advocate to point it out, no need for celebration.

When we are truly an inclusive society; everyone participates, everyone belongs.

When we are truly an inclusive society we won’t have to share our collective frustrations about schools that exclude a child, faith organizations that exclude families, or television and advertising that exclude people with disabilities.

When we are truly an inclusive society; all will really mean all.

But we aren’t there yet.

What Does Inclusion Mean to You?

Inclusion is opening the doors that would otherwise remain closed; Removing the Stumbling Block

I frequently have opportunities to engage in a conversations about inclusion with my colleagues. Sometimes these conversations are Jewish, sometimes they aren't. Either way, the driving force behind such discussions is one of increasing the ways that individuals with disabilities are included in our schools and communities.

Often, inclusion can become controversial, and it typically stirs up a lot of emotion. It's not the existence or lack of inclusion that gets people fired up, per se. Rather, it's how inclusion itself is defined that causes debate and often, disagreement. That's good; where there is passion there can be change.

So, when asked how I define inclusion, I explain that to me, inclusion is opening the doors that would have otherwise remained closed. I realize that my practice of inclusion is not always about “Inclusion”, the noun with a capital “I”. Rather, my vision is one in which I consistently strive to create inclusive experiences, especially within the Jewish world. I am, quite frankly, less concerned about holding myself, my school or my community to a hard and fast definition of “Inclusion”. Rather, I work to stay true to the belief that everyone is entitled to a Jewish education and that each experience increases the potential of living a meaningful Jewish life.

In a Jewish supplemental school I believe that inclusion should mean offering a wide array of options to meet the needs of every student. Which is exactly what should exist for very student, disabilities or not. Rather than being exclusive, such options can open the doors that might have otherwise remained closed. Too many synagogue schools continue to try to find ways to "fit" students with disabilities into their "typical" school models, often frustrating teachers and alienating students, and in some cases pushing families away.  

“Every member of the people of Israel is obligated to study Torah – whether one is rich or poor, physically able or with physical disability.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, chapter 10).    
Inclusion must offer every child the chance to learn and experience the rich beauty of their heritage in a way that ensures success.    

What does inclusion mean to you?

We Can Do Better

Reflection can lead us to "we can do better"; Removing the Stumbling Block

Thinking about returning conjures images of going back - to what we have done, to what we once knew or to what we may have previously said. 

There are times when this is worthwhile. Memories are powerful, with the ability to ground us in the relationships that make us whole. 

And yet, all too often, we allow ourselves to fall back on what was, what we have always done. Maybe because it's comfortable, easier. “Because we have always done it that way,” can be a dangerous phrase when it is used as an explanation rather than investing the time to do more. We are all guilty of this. We must challenge ourselves to grow. 

When we truly do the hard work of introspection we will be ready for more.  Reflection can lead us from “it’s good enough,” to “we can do better.” 

L'shana tova; Removing the Stumbling BlockAnd we can. We can make the Jewish world a place where everyone is welcome. We can help more of our synagogues to become inclusive. We can build the relationships and shape the programs that reach those we have yet to reach. We can do this. We must do this.

Are you ready?
L’shana tova u’metukah – a good and sweet year to all!

Let Me Give You Some Advice...

I’m in the advice-giving business. 

find partners; Removing the Stumbling Block

Take any of the many hats that I wear and at some point every day I will offer advice. Educator, Jewish professional, Inclusion Specialist, teacher trainer, blog author, supervisor, mentor, parent, friend… each one of these roles has some advice-giving inherently built in.

And lest you read any negativity here, it is not implied. Giving advice often gets a bad rap, but it’s not the advice itself that’s really at issue. At issue is the way the advice is given; the issue is often the advice GIVER. 

Case in point: We run the risk of “becoming the wallpaper” when we are the ONLY voice consistently sharing a specific message. We need partners. Otherwise we help advice get its bad name, as each of us alone could veer too close to nagging, hassling or badgering.

Please don’t misunderstand – I am not suggesting that we stop offering advice or stop sharing our message. Rather, I am suggesting that we need to consistently vary the ways in which that message is delivered. 

A perfect example:

Sometimes all is takes is a simple shift to another point of view. Or maybe it's as simple as using a different modality to amplify your message.  

So let me give you a little advice...

Accommodating Isn't the Same as Inclusion

accommodating isn't inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

Working with students of all different abilities to ensure that they have access to a meaningful Jewish education enables me to revisit my own personal commitment to inclusion over and over again. Over the years I have learned amazing strategies and techniques in adapting curriculum, shaping lessons and accommodating individual students' needs.

But the most significant thing that I have learned is that simply accommodating a student’s needs is not inclusion. Don’t get me wrong, making appropriate accommodations is an essential strategy in working with all students who have unique learning needs. But there’s more to inclusion. 

Let me give you an example:

A class of students is going to break into chevruta (partner groups) to study a Jewish text. A written copy of the text is given to each student. The teacher decides that since this is a discussion-based activity, the text can be read aloud to a student that is blind and she can still fully participate.

What’s wrong with this? 

Put yourself in the scenario. Are you typically the one who says (when something is read aloud), “Let me see that, I missed half of what you said.”?  If so, you are probably a visual learner. (Read more about learning styles.) This is how Braille can function for a student that is blind; it’s her way of “seeing” the text for herself.

accommodating isn't inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block
Here is another example:

Students will be working in groups to explore leadership and community building. The activity relies on students' ability to observe one another as they engage in the task. Adding a listening role to the group for a student who is blind is a reasonable accommodation, but adding that same role to every group is inclusive.

One more:

Making sure there is a chair available for a student who has a physical disability is a reasonable accommodation, but reshaping the activity so that most or even all of the students will sit is inclusive.

Inclusion isn't always easy. Sometimes it takes trial and error. And it takes both intentionality and planning. But as we learn from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it." (2:16)  

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Celebrating Our Mistakes

Is this inclusive? Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the things I most often discuss when training teachers to be more inclusive is the importance of reframing. We discuss reframing attitudes and reframing language, notions that tend to be easy to understand, even if difficult to apply.

It's when we get to reframing lesson plans that it can get tricky. Even when teachers have the right intentions, they can find it challenging to consistently design lessons with an eye toward inclusion.

There is a lot that good teachers take for granted, especially in successful classrooms. I am guilty of this, too. When we have activities and strategies that have been successful, why would we think about changing them? Because to be truly inclusive is to look at every lesson, every activity, every strategy and ask ourselves, "is this inclusive?"

Accommodation isn't inclusion illustrates this concept. It might be "fine" to adapt an activity or add a component to it to make it more successful for specific students, but it is truly inclusive when we reframe the entire activity in a way that makes this addition a seamless part of the whole.

Celebrating Our Mistakes 
With thanks to Michelle Steinhart of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY for this excellent idea!

As teachers set up their classrooms - organizing, labeling and decorating - many are also thinking about systems of behavior management. Most are reading student files and will reach out to begin getting to know their students before the school year even begins. Teachers may learn that a particular student is a "perfectionist", one who struggles to let work go when she thinks she has possibly made a mistake or who will have a meltdown when she does something "wrong". A typical system of behavior management (I am NOT a fan!) would likely have this student earning tickets or stars each time she is able to hand in an assignment with only one revision.

Reframe the system:

Celebrating Our Mistakes; Removing the Stumbling Block

Begin with a classroom discussion of making mistakes and failing as a part of the learning process. Create a system where each student gets to put a marble in the jar when he or she has made a mistake. Just as in other, more traditional systems, the class will earn a reward when the jar is full.

What's different? 
  • First, students are taught that mistakes are a part of the process of learning and growing. 
  • Next, the student who struggles to let work go or has a meltdown when he has made a mistake is no longer singled out. Rather, he is celebrated and comes to learn that he has something valuable to contribute to the classroom community. 
  • Finally, this is a system that celebrates diversity rather than penalizing students for not conforming to an arbitrary set of ideals.

How will you reframe your teaching to make your classroom more inclusive?

Making Inclusion Seamless

To feel confident enough in inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

A few years ago I was approached by the parent of a teen from my congregation who wanted her son to get involved in our local region of NFTY (The North American Federation of Temple Youth). We encourage all of our teens to participate in the various events each year, so it should not have really been a question of “could he” but rather just a statement of fact. But her son has autism, and so she was wondering if and how it might work.

As an inclusive congregation we realize that there are other congregations and organizations that are not yet as inclusive as we are, but we typically hope to raise their bar by demonstrating what we do successfully and offering the support necessary to make it happen. We are never certain what the response will be, but we are always optimistic and hopeful.

In this case, I wasn’t really worried. My call was to Pamela Schuller, the Regional Director of Youth Engagement for NFTY-GER, and I knew she would figure out how to make it possible for this young man to join the region. And she did. From hiring one-on-one support to managing medication to adapting programs as necessary, Pam confidently and seamlessly did what was necessary to be sure this teen could be included. So much so that after four years in NFTY-GER, this teen traveled with me and others from our congregation to Atlanta, Georgia this past February for the NFTY National Convention. And Pam made sure that was seamless, too.

This isn’t just one story; it was the same for a student of our congregation with emotional and anxiety issues and one with learning disabilities and so many others. Pam’s philosophy of “Yes, And” is one I share, and it is deeply rooted in the notion that each one of these kids makes our community stronger. It’s never about what has to change for them. It’s always about how their presence will enrich the experience for everyone (knowing that support is always necessary). Pam is an amazing partner and I’ve begun to take it a little bit for granted that all of our kids will be included. And that’s a good thing. To feel confident enough to assume that inclusion will happen is truly a blessing.

About a week ago the following video went viral:

I Am Here, Hear Me Bark: Comedy, Disability and the Inclusive Synagogue

Pam gets it. She truly gets it. The parent of the teen in this story said it perfectly: “Knew she was great and incredible for [my son]. Had no idea how awesome she is period!”

Celebrating ADA and Creating an Inclusive Jewish Community - We Are Not There Yet

Inclusion is the right thing to do; Removing the Stumbling Block

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) thousands of people around the country are both celebrating accomplishments and sharing thoughts about the work that still lies ahead.  The ADA Legacy Project launched the "Because of the ADA I..." campaign, which offers a collection of inspirational quotes and stories only possible because of this groundbreaking legislation. There is absolutely progress to celebrate, but much more work still to be done.

This significant anniversary is an excellent opportunity to share a post that ran earlier this year on the blog of The Ruderman Family Foundation:

When I conduct professional workshops and trainings for Jewish leaders seeking to become more inclusive, I typically begin by asking them to share their definition of inclusion. (There are fun & catchy ways to do this, and most recently I have been using the prompt define inclusion in three words or less.) The reason for this set-induction is two-fold; first, it focuses participants on the task at hand and second, it helps participants to recognize, up front, that there is no universal definition of inclusion.

You may be wondering why that matters. No universal definition or standard of inclusion means that individual organizations and school districts must figure out for themselves what inclusion means and how it might best be accomplished in their setting. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services and to participate in State and local government programs and services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities. Both of these laws prohibit discrimination. Both laws describe appropriate accommodations. But neither actually defines or explains what it means to be inclusive. As a result, there is tremendous variation from state to state and district to district.

It gets even more complicated for us in the Jewish world. As private, religious institutions we are not bound by the ADA or IDEA. There are no legal mandates requiring us to make accommodations for and/or offer inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities and their families. Advocates of an inclusive Jewish world know that the inclusion of Jews of all abilities is the right, moral and just thing to do. We know that we must look past legal mandates and turn, instead, to our own Jewish teachings and sensibilities to guide us to do what is right. But without laws or specific mandates, Jewish leaders find themselves without the proper support and guidance to make inclusion a reality.

How do we start? What do we do? Must we focus on our structures or on our people? How can we seek to bring more people into our community if we can’t accommodate their needs once they are there? Why is it that some people feel inclusion means everyone all together all the time while others prefer a balance of separate and inclusive opportunities? How do we choose what is right and what is really inclusive?

I find myself helping to guide people to an understanding of inclusion by focusing first on what inclusion is NOT. Jewish leaders can begin to make strides toward a more inclusive culture when they avoid common pitfalls and assumptions:

Inclusion is NOT saying that you welcome everyone – plastering it on websites and brochures - and then having meetings, programs or events where the same core group attends and sticks together while others are left outside that “inner circle”.

Inclusion is NOT an event or a program where you invite people with disabilities to share their experiences. (That can be a really meaningful experience for everyone, by the way – it’s just not inclusion in and of itself.)
Inclusion is NOT social action; Removing the Stumbling Block
Inclusion is NOT a favor you do for someone.

Inclusion is NOT a social action project or something your social action committee is “in charge of handling”. Inclusion, when it is part of the culture of a community, offers everyone an opportunity to participate in a wide variety of meaningful experiences.

Inclusion is NOT a place or a person – it’s not a classroom, a quiet room, the inclusion teacher, the inclusion specialist. Inclusion is who we are and what we do. It can’t be an after-thought or a last minute accommodation when someone with a disability “shows up”.

Inclusion is NOT accidentally sending the message to be thankful that you are “whole”. This is the “I’m so lucky I don’t have (fill-in-the-blank)” message. This conveys a message of pity rather than a celebration of the gifts each person has to offer.

In the end, the message is clear: inclusion matters, legal mandates or not. It is incumbent upon each organization to develop an understanding of inclusion and work toward creating a vibrant community that includes and supports everyone.

Prove That Every Student Counts

Removing the Stumbling Block - Prove Every Student Counts

See the child. 

It should really be that simple, right?

I think that for so many in the field of education, this seems like an obvious statement. See the child. Of course; that’s what educators are charged with after all, isn’t it? And yet, is it really happening? How many teachers develop preconceived notions about a student before they even meet based on a classification, a file or a teacher-to-teacher report? How many times do we allow ourselves to judge one another based on stereotypes, misconceptions or assumptions?

Some thoughts from my own behavior and practice:

Do not allow for preconceived notions.
In our school, I ensure that teachers have the information necessary to keep our children safe when school opens, but I intentionally wait a few sessions before sharing specific strategies and teacher-to-teacher information about classified students. Why? Because first impressions matter. No student should be underestimated based on his struggles from the year before. We shouldn't expect a student to behave poorly simply because she has had behavior issues in the past. See the child; not her disability, not his limitations.

When you encounter a child with a disability, speak directly to the child.
When you speak to a child’s caregiver, you automatically imply that the child is invisible. If you say hello to a child and she does not answer, it is likely that her parent or caregiver will step in to help facilitate the conversation. But it is on their terms. Ever say hello to a shy toddler? When she grips an adult’s leg, the adult typically says, “she’s shy”. This is the same concept. See the child; not her disability, not his limitations.

Involve children in appropriate decisions.
Just as you would involve neurotypical children in their own decision-making when it becomes developmentally appropriate, do the same for children with disabilities. Ask them to be involved in increasingly more mature decisions such as what they might like to wear or eat, what interests them and what they believe their strengths and weaknesses might be. See the child; not her disability, not his limitations.

Avoid assumptions.
Children with disabilities are unique. All children are unique! A child may have a classification of autism, cerebral palsy, ADHD or a learning disability; but that doesn’t mean he will demonstrate the same behaviors and competencies as someone else with the same diagnosis. See the child; not her disability, not his limitations.

Every child counts. It really can be that simple.

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