February is Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Which prompts the question: What is disability inclusion?
Is it not “inclusion” when a program is organized for people with disabilities around the time of the Jewish holidays so they can learn about their heritage. But it is “inclusion” when a mitzvah program is developed in which teens of all abilities come together for discussions and learn about philanthropy and social action through fundraising, grant writing and giving of their time. And it is inclusion at a summer camp where teens of all abilities work together to help someone else.
Inclusion, in other words, is when people with disabilities are encouraged to participate just like everyone else. It is when the person with a disability is not the mitzvah project.
That may be the most important takeaway from this year’s disability awareness effort. Inclusion activist Pamela Rae Schuller elucidates the point well in an op-ed making its way through social media. “Sometimes I hear people talking about how much of a ‘mitzvah’ they are doing by opening their doors to people with special needs in their community,” writes Schuller, whose Tourette syndrome was particularly disabling in her adolescence. “Maybe they allowed a child with autism in their youth group or religious school or hosted an ‘inclusion’ service.
“But here is the thing: It is not a mitzvah to let me in the door. It’s not. Opening your door to those with disabilities is not enough,” she continues. “Because there is a critical difference between tolerance and full inclusion. If we are practicing full inclusion, our communities should be celebrating each person and what they bring to the community, not just what they demand of it.”
There’s a political element as well. Many disabled people need caregivers to help them navigate through daily life. Last week, advocates went to Washington to support two bills that would ensure fair treatment of all people living with disabilities and their caretakers. The Transition to Independence Act (S.1604) promotes fair wages and opportunity by supporting integrated employment programs. The Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 3913) funds essential respite care programs that provide needed services to caretakers and their loved ones.
The Jewish community has made progress in some areas toward disability inclusion over the past year. We hope we can report even more progress a year from now. But above all, we know that if we are going to create lasting change, it will only be when we treat everyone as equals.
And when you think about it, that’s the real mitzvah.