In both his career as a lawyer and as “a student of human nature,” inclusion specialist Matan Koch has learned “we always do a little bit better when we realize what the benefit could be for us and our community, rather than framing it in terms of what we're doing for them, for those people, the ones that don't have access.”
In celebration of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month and Jewish Disability Advocacy Month, Koch, director of RespectAbility California and Jewish Leadership at RespectAbility, joined representatives of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Jewish Residential Services for a virtual conversation on Feb. 24.
Koch said he did not intend to provide all the answers during the program. Rather, his aim was to begin a conversation about Pittsburgh’s inclusivity.
“If I leave you all with one idea at the end of this talk, I want you wondering who you are not getting the benefit from precisely because they didn't have the access to join you,” said Koch.
After brief introductory remarks from Matthew Keller, chair of Federation’s Aging and Human Needs Commission; Gerri Sperling, president of Jewish Residential Services; and a d’var Torah from Rabbi Danny Schiff, Federation’s foundation scholar, Koch discussed local inclusion.
“A truly inclusive community is one where we acknowledge certain facts,” he said. “We acknowledge that everyone might encounter barriers to feeling fully included in our community. Those barriers might be familial or socioeconomic or geographic, or they could be disability-related. And in either case, building an inclusive community is about finding out how to lower those barriers so that people can join.”
Koch suggested organizations and congregations provide constituents with “low-hanging fruit,” including captioned videos and websites that are screen-reader accessible. Other tactics can be learned by visiting respectability.org, “where we give you seven hours of what I’ll call the easy stuff,” added Koch.
Each February, Jewish organizations worldwide mark Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. Since JDAIM’s founding in 2009 by the Jewish Special Education International Consortium, advocacy, empathy and allyship have increased. Likewise, since the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, nationwide progress has been made in inclusion.
Even with these advances, considerable work remains, explained Koch.
“Even if we're 10 times better than we were 10 years ago, now is not the moment to stop and pat ourselves on the back,” Koch said. “In terms of measurement, to me there's only one measure that actually matters: How many Jews, with how many different disabilities, are participating in a meaningful way in our community? If we are anywhere less than everyone who wants to be participating to the degree that they want to, then we haven't done enough. And the closer that we get to that aspiration, the closer that we are to where we want to be.”
Keller encouraged attendees to pursue inclusivity-related activism and shape the community’s future by participating in a Federation research project on young adults with disabilities.
As a follow-up to the 2017 Pittsburgh Jewish Community study, Federation is working with the University of Pittsburgh, Jewish Residential Services, Jewish Family and Community Services and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh on efforts to lower communal entry barriers. “The results,” said Keller, “will be informative in shaping the future of inclusion in our community moving forward.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.