A few years ago, I had the incredible opportunity of working as an inclusion counselor at Camp JCC. As an inclusion counselor, my job was to work one-on-one with a camper with disabilities – the “inclusion” part meaning that he, along with other campers with disabilities, were integrated in everyday camp activities alongside their typically developing peers. Some of my friends, who had been inclusion counselors in the past, told me that by the end of the summer my camper would be my best friend.
It did not take long for me to understand what they meant. I soon knew him better than I knew myself – what he liked, what he disliked, what upset him, and how to calm him down in the midst of a meltdown. I loved him the way I love my brother – and I was fortunate enough to spend 40 hours a week with this sweet, enthusiastic, energetic boy.
Most importantly, however, I learned that he is so much more than his autism diagnosis.
Since my summer as an inclusion counselor, awareness and inclusion have been incredibly important to me. But that begins with learning about different types of disabilities: cognitive disabilities, like my camper’s, as well as physical disabilities, and invisible disabilities – ones that you can’t see from just looking at someone, but are just as important to accommodate for. As an able-bodied person, I can learn about different kinds of disabilities and do my best to include everyone in my community, regardless of ability. As a Jew, it is my responsibility to do so.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Inclusion may not be taught in Hebrew School as a Jewish value, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one – at the very least, it is at the heart of many of the values we do learn about. Tikkun olam, gemilut chassadim, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, respect, and refraining from speaking lashon hara are just a few that depend on inclusion in order to be practiced to their full extent. We cannot attempt to heal our broken world while our communities themselves have holes. We cannot live up to our potential when “we” are not including our community in its entirety.
Learning about and becoming aware of differences in ability is a necessary precedent to inclusion. Awareness allows us to better understand each other, how we can work together, and what we must do to make our community the best it can be. And what is more Jewish than learning, asking questions, and being mindful and curious about others?
Being an inclusion counselor taught me so much about myself, as well as about society in general. I learned the importance of providing appropriate accommodations for those with different abilities – both visible and invisible. True inclusion allows people of all abilities to work and play alongside each other. Most importantly, it not only benefits those who are affected by disability, but those of us who belong to inclusive communities as well. When we are all able to work, play, and live up to our full potential, everybody in our community is better and does better because of it.
Do not let Jewish disability awareness and inclusion end with February. Awareness and inclusion are values central to our community, our religion, and our culture. We may not formally learn about disability awareness and inclusion in Hebrew School, but that does not make them any less important or any less Jewish. We must make an effort to learn about and accommodate for those with different abilities, and these efforts cannot end with the conclusion of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. They must be constant, conscious, and evolving actions we take every month of the year in order to truly be the best community that we can be.