Beyond February: the new urgency of disabilities awareness and inclusion

In February, Jewish communities across North America and Israel marked Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. It was heartening that JDAIM gave voice to millions of Jews with disabilities and highlighted disabilities inclusion achievements, but it was not enough. Now that February has come and gone, we must continue to work urgently to ensure our communities are welcoming and empowering throughout the year.

Today there are around one billion people with disabilities worldwide. They’re part of our families and circles of loved ones, members of our day schools, summer camps, synagogues, community centers and social networks. Despite this social proximity, they often live on the margins and, live even more precariously during times of crises.

As we have seen in the last year, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people with disabilities, upending the support, services, and efforts at accessibility and community integration that have been key to their progress. And, perhaps more pressing, the significant gains made on disabilities issues over the years are in danger of being lost. Why?

People with disabilities have once again been largely absent from public discourse on pandemic needs. Such an absence of their voices and concerns, and media’s reliance on old stereotypes about people with disabilities, made it that much harder for them to retain their hard-fought place in society.

And yet, people with disabilities have faced outsized pandemic-related challenges. They have higher rates of unemployment and are now encountering limited options for returning to work. They have experienced higher rates of loneliness and isolation as their social participation has been severely limited by restrictions on public transportation, a mainstay of their independence. The suspension of in-person gatherings is further exacerbated by the lower rates of digital literacy in this populations, cutting them off from vitally important online activities and medical information.

For many years, we have worked with people with disabilities to develop responses to these needs and to strengthen and promote their broader participation in society. There are three important objectives which can help Jewish leaders and institutions, grassroots organizations and community activists mitigate pandemic-era losses and advance self-empowerment. This is an opportunity to build back better.

First, to be inclusive, people with disabilities need to lead, be seen, and be heard. People with disabilities must become central to discussions about needs and creation of services. They must have lead roles in setting community agendas and building awareness. Truly inclusive communities – a university, nursing home, residential building, work environment, or social service cohort – are shaped by people with disabilities and are more successful for all their members.