By Maayan Jaffe
From the time that Daniel was born in Baltimore, he was a happy and engaged child. But around the age of 2, his parents started to notice that he was developing slower than other children and struggling with social idiosyncrasies. After a difficult process, they learned their child was on the autism spectrum-but they were able to find resources within their own community to help keep Daniel enrolled at his Jewish preschool.
According to advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities, Daniel’s story is less common than the Jewish community might like to admit. As the U.S. marks North American Inclusion Month in February, there are still many synagogues that are not accessible to those with physical challenges and have no programs that address people with differing developmental needs. Most Jewish day schools have limited, if any, provisions for students with different learning needs, and too few inclusive Jewish summer camps exist for children with any significant disabilities, according to a report by the Jewish Inclusion Project.
“I don’t think Jewish leaders see people with disabilities as part of their future,” Jay Ruderman- president of the Boston and Israel-based Ruderman Family Foundation, which promotes the Jewish communal inclusion of people with disabilities-tells JNS.org. “Every time I think we make progress, I also know how far we have to go.”
In addition to the broader designation of North American Inclusion Month, February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month.
“I am consumed with this [issue of inclusion] most of my waking hours. There just isn’t a magic bullet,” says Ruderman.
At least one Jewish community took a first step toward greater inclusion a few years ago, resulting in national exposure and an opportunity to prompt other Jewish communities to follow suit. And that is exactly what’s happening.
The Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance (BJAA) was founded in 2012, shortly after data from the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study showed that 8 percent of Jewish households include someone with a physical or developmental disability, and that as many as 21 percent of Baltimore’s Jewish children had a learning disability.
BJAA is a free in-person concierge/support service, website, and parent-to-parent network that provides a user-friendly gateway to resources in the Jewish and general community for people with disabilities and their families. It was created by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and was the brainchild of the federation’s former Disabilities Task Force, which included people with disabilities, their advocates, their parents, and professional support providers.
“The task force reviewed existing programs and services, developing a list of gaps and strengths that existed. We had different work groups, each focused on a different topic: early interventions; transitions from youth to adulthood; and connections, access, and awareness,” says Renee Dain, the Baltimore Jewish federation’s director of community services, who oversaw the task force.
Dain says the task force consistently found that many services for people with disabilities existed, but were difficult to locate and/or navigate, and that parents of children with disabilities were the greatest resource for moving toward a more accessible community-yet their energy and passion weren’t being harnessed.
“The dialogue led our task force online-because everyone is online-and we thought we could create something far-reaching that could educate people no matter where they are, and also connect them to our community,” Dain tells JNS.org. “We also realized we needed a concierge, a real person behind the website… for parents who are seeking more hand-holding than a site can give them.”
It took about seven months to come up with the idea for BJAA, and another seven for the website-as well as its interactive forum and resource guide featuring more than 700 local organizations-to come to fruition. But since then, says Dain, more than 76,000 unique visitors have viewed more than 332,100 webpages on the site. The Web platform was developed by a local Internet services firm and was also made compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities. Dain says that as a result of this project, The Associated is also examining how to make its website 508-compliant. (Although neither BJAA nor The Associated are federal agencies, meaning they are not required to be 508-compliant, trying to meet that standard reflects their desire to be more inclusive.)
BJAA has carried out handfuls of successful programs for the Baltimore Jewish community, bringing the topic of inclusion and accessibility to the forefront. The initiative has also connected those in need with others who share their experiences.
“The BJAA coordinator got a call from someone who had seen the site and read about the parent-to-parent network,” recalls Dain. “This parent was matched with a support parent. The referred parent had a lot of financial challenges and the support parent had strollers and clothing and medical equipment to lend her. The BJAA coordinator was able to deliver the items. The referred parent got the connection and so much more. She was crying to our coordinator about how beautiful the program is, how she feels like it saved her life.”
Now, BJAA has extended its impact to people with disabilities outside of Baltimore. Last March, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta launched its own website to mirror BJAA. Atlanta has been working closely with the Baltimore initiative, whose Web developer is programming the site. A dedicated resource is now supporting national content for both sites, while a team in Atlanta pulls together local content. Dain says Baltimore’s The Associated is in dialogue with several other communities and is hopeful that the BJAA model will become a national project, with a North American Internet presence and geographically focused micro-sites.
Ina Enoch, co-chair of Atlanta’s Disabilities Task Force, says her community went through a similar process as the organizers in Baltimore, meeting since January 2013 in response to the notion that 10 percent of the Atlanta Jewish population of 130,000 has a disability.
“We knew we had a number of agencies that have services for people with disabilities, but we were not affectively communicating with each other. … There was a breakdown. … Now we will be able to share resources,” says Enoch. “We felt we were losing Jewish families when could not walk into a preschool and have their child’s needs met. We want to start now with this and then expand, by providing the services they need before they turn away.”
Enoch says the Atlanta federation is working to raise additional funds to add the concierge service and parent-to-parent network that are part of the Baltimore program.
Jay Ruderman says he learned about the BJAA at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly last November. He applauds the effort, but says he is more impressed not by the website or the resource directly, but by the notion that Baltimore and Atlanta leaders have made inclusion a priority. He says that change starts when full movements or communities buy into the importance of inclusion, noting his foundation’s most recent partnerships with the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in order to help “create a culture of inclusion” for people with disabilities.
The millions of dollars put into the Ruderman Family Foundation’s multi-denominational collaborative efforts will work to change attitudes within Jewish communities from “doing for” to “working with” people with disabilities, says Ruderman.
He adds, “It is community leaders and influencers in society that have to be educated and have to change their attitudes.”