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Do you fear change? Do you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of helping your school, organization, or community become more inclusive?


It's not unusual to feel uneasy or intimidated by the magnitude of a significant undertaking. It can be that "inclusion" feels so huge that you do not even know where to begin; so you don't. 

Even knowing that change needs to happen you may not know how to go about delivering it. Where do you start? Whom do you involve? How do you see it through?

What really matters is that you start somewhere. Small steps CAN make a difference.

A favorite story:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who took walks on the beach every morning. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. 
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)

Helping to move your faith organization toward inclusion may seem like throwing back all the starfish on the beach, but it genuinely is ok to start with the starfish you can reach.  


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Language use is top of mind for me lately.



Maybe this is because it’s the time of year to focus on year-end forms and registration for next year. Maybe it’s because there’s more and more being written about language use as it pertains to gender and sexuality and I find myself thinking about how I believe the Disability Inclusion Movement lags behind by about 5 or so years. Or maybe it’s because I am just a self-professed grammar nerd and think about the nuances of language use on a regular basis. Probably it’s some combination of the three.

Regardless, this is most definitely not a new topic for me. Read:  
Choosing Our Words Carefully [Using the Words You Really Intend] 
Special Needs…Disability…What’s the Difference? 
Disabilities vs. Special Needs - It's Time to Use the Words We Truly Mean.

I have been thinking a lot about the use of the term “special needs”. The amazing team at Kids Included Together has just published some research around the Top 5 Trends in Disability Inclusion 2018. I highly suggest you read all of it. The part that caught my eye most was the section entitled, Special Needs is a Euphemism. That this is noted in national research as a trend is exciting. In particular, having data to back up what many already assert and believe, is powerful. This report cites that "the phrase ‘special needs’ has recently been determined ineffective by researchers at the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and Kansas, who found the phrase to be associated with more negativity and to evoke more unanswered questions than ‘disability.’”
I have almost completely removed the use of the phrase "special needs" from my writing and discourse around disability inclusion, and I would like to suggest that others consider the same. (I'll come back to the "almost" in a moment.)

To further explore the rationale and intent behind this necessary shift in language I point to pieces written by self-advocates assert that the term "special needs" is a euphemism that is not only useless, but in fact harmful.

Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, a Jewish disability self-advocate who leads the organization Yad HaChazakah -The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, wrote a great piece in the NY Jewish Week: "Disability" vs. "Special Needs"
Emily Ladau, another self-advocate (who is Jewish, but does not focus her advocacy on Jewish disability inclusion specifically) wrote: 4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust

Returning to my statement of "almost" from above; in determining how we should refer to others, we most certainly should use the language that they choose for themselves. (This seems logical and obvious of late with gender, less so around disabilities.) There are those (primarily parents, I believe) who still prefer the term "special needs" to describe their children with disabilities. Regardless of one’s reasons or whether a person has yet to learn enough to change their mind in this area, personal choice rules the day. So if someone specifically refers to his/her/themself or his/her/their child with the term "special needs", I will use it in conversation and discourse with them. Hence, my statement of “almost”.
Changing one’s language use may seem subtle, but I would suggest that it is a necessary and significant step in affecting lasting culture change. 

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Eighteen years ago my synagogue hired me as the Religious School’s Special Needs Consultant. Within a year that title changed to Special Needs Coordinator. A subtle shift, but one that we believed demonstrated our commitment to the permanence of our program. Today I serve as a full-time Education Director with oversight of our disability inclusion efforts. But if anyone asks me what I do for a living, my reply is typically that I am a Jewish Educator and a Jewish Inclusion Expert.

Why so much focus on the semantics? Isn’t it just a job title after all? Isn’t the work far more important than the label we attach to it?

A few years ago my congregation’s Outreach Committee hosted a breakfast to explore creating a support group for parents and grandparents of children with disabilities. When I helped to edit the invitation, I chose to write “parents and grandparents of children with disabilities”, believing that it would make our message clear and would help to draw participation from the larger community. However, a member of the planning committee, a mother who’s son is on the autism spectrum, immediately wrote and asked me to change it to “special needs” because “it seems less harsh than the term disability; disability just has a more negative connotation”.

Is that true? Does disability really conjure up negative images? 

Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Maybe that is why we have to celebrate when a young girl with Spina Bifida is on the cover of Parents Magazine:

Or when a boy with Cerebral Palsy and his brother are Sports Illustrated Kids Stars of the Year?

 
I feel sad that these aren’t just “normal” occurrences in our society yet and work hard to advance the advocacy necessary to change such perceptions.

So I reflect on that parent's belief that “special needs” is much gentler than “disability”, and wonder if gentler is better? Or is it more likely that we are perpetuating the use of an outdated euphemism that serves to harm more than help?

There are many who will advocate the latter, that the euphemisms must go. Here's one from Emily Ladau: 4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust. And she is not alone. Many disability self-advocates argue that terms like special needs must be eliminated from our discourse to advance true inclusion.

I don’t have all the answers. While I respect the desire of the disability community and use the term disability almost exclusively in my writing and my work, I acknowledge that others disagree and have other preferences. 

Nevertheless, I will say this: The work I am honored to do is most definitely special. Maybe that’s enough.

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An inclusive teen program benefits everyone.

But building such a program will be challenging if you don't personally embrace a philosophy of inclusion. Unless you truly believe in the value of inclusion across every experience, you are bound to get stuck in notions such as, "Having her there takes something away from the other teens," or, "They shouldn't always have to look out for him." Until teen educators embrace the value of inclusion and recognize that an inclusive community is a stronger community for everyone, such fallacies will persist. 

A true highlight of my work as a Jewish Educator is leading experiences with teens. I have relished each opportunity to teach, guide, mentor, counsel and support this age group for over twenty years. And I am exceptionally proud of the unique model we have built in our congregation. We have created a structure that affords all students, regardless of ability or need, the opportunity to participate fully. Including overnight experiences. And it works.

Synagogues across North America lament a significant decrease in engagement with Jewish life post-bar and bat mitzvah,but when you ensure that any post b’nei mitzvah program is fully inclusive, you maximize opportunities to continue learning, growing and engaging with Jewish life experiences. Further, there is opportunity to socially engineer relationships between teens every step of the way, thereby maximizing their potential for developing strong Jewish friendships. 

Professor Steven M. Cohen of HUC-JIR states, “Jewish educators should have an explicit mission to bestow Jewish friendship networks on children and adults who are increasingly unlikely to find them on their own.”

Inclusive teen experiences are possible. Teens with disabilities are entitled to the same Jewish opportunities that their peers experience.  

Contact me to learn more about how to build an inclusive teen community.

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I haven’t written in a while. 

It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say.

It’s more that I hadn’t quite figured out how to put what I want to say into words.

February was, once again, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. It remains, in its tenth year, an opportunity to raise up an issue that matters and spur to action those who might otherwise remain inert. But as the month drew to a close, we lost one of our own. We lost an incredible woman, teacher, friend, and rabbi, one so deeply committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities in our Jewish world and in all aspects of society. On February 26, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg lost a struggle with cancer at the age of 66.

Her story is truly an incredible one. It is an example of a life well lived. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t do it justice myself. Better that you read some of the exceptional tributes:

Lynne Landsberg, rabbi who sought a place for those with disabilities, dies at 66

She fought for rights of the disabled, then was disabled in a car crash. It didn’t stop her.

Lessons for living: Remembering a Staunton rabbi

But even as I defer to articles like these to tell Lynne’s story, and send my heartfelt condolences to her family and friends who knew her longer and loved her deeply, I, too, feel this loss keenly.

Lynne was my friend, and I miss her already. 

This is my story:

In 2008 I received a phone call from a rabbi I had never met. She introduced herself as Rabbi Lynne Landsberg and we spoke briefly. She shared that she had learned of the work that I was doing in my congregational school in the area of disability inclusion and that others needed to know about it, too. She then shared that she was scheduled to speak at an upcoming regional conference near me in New Jersey and that they had given her 30 minutes to offer her keynote. “So I will speak for 20 minutes and give you the other 10, ok?” 

After that call I learned more about Lynne, her story, and her current role as the Senior Advisor on Disability at the Religious Action Center. And I learned that you didn’t say no to Lynne. No one did. 

I am so very grateful that she “found” me and that I had the opportunity to present with her.

The gifts that I have received from Lynne are numerous. She gave me a chance to share my work and my passion for disability inclusion more broadly. She included me in each of her efforts, pushing me to take on more significant roles on planning committees and task forces. She taught me that perseverance is to be admired, and that there is a graceful way to never take no for an answer. She inspired me to work harder, push boundaries, and never forget to laugh.

At her funeral it was shared that Lynne collected people the way most others collect things. While others amass knick knacks and trinkets, Lynne cultivated relationships. I am so blessed to have been a part of Lynne’s collection.

I think that it is no coincidence that not only was her funeral on Purim (many made reference to how apropos of Lynne this truly was), but that it was on March 1. As Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month ends each year, I feel wary that some will mark it off their list as a task completed. But the inclusion of people of all abilities must be something that we discuss, advocate for, and make a reality all year long. We must bring this piece of Lynne’s legacy forward.

After a very long day of train travel from New Jersey to be present at the funeral in Washington DC, I arrived home late at night and shared the following with my son:

“We should all strive to live a life so significant that the David Saperstein of our world offers a eulogy at our funeral and is barely able to get to the end without crying.”

Thank you, Lynne. I miss you.

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One of the things that many religious school education directors will agree is a part of the job they like least is progress reports. Why?

1. Producing documents that are meaningful to parents as a way of acknowledging their children’s growth and development can be difficult. Typical reports focus on deficits rather than strengths, and check-offs or even a short narrative can’t always offer a full picture of a student.

2. Encouraging teachers to write comments and remarks that are thoughtful, productive and demonstrate that they have gotten to know their students as individuals can be really hard.

3. Getting teachers to submit their reports in a timely way can be a huge challenge.

Nevertheless, I continue to use mid-year progress reports. I think they are an important way to tune in to our students and while not a complete picture unto themselves, they are certainly a valuable piece to include in developing a comprehensive picture of each student. 

What’s more, as a community that values disability inclusion, progress reports can help us to ensure that we are truly meeting each individual student’s needs. Often, they can serve as a good way to check-in with teachers. I value progress reports as a way to determine which teachers need more of my support in working with individual students.


I am frequently asked to describe how we built our culture of inclusion. I find that I often speak about inclusion in our school matter-of-factly because inclusion is who we are, not simply a thing that we do. I recognize that it can take a lot of time and commitment to get everyone on that page, and I don’t dismiss what it took to get us to this place. There are many behind-the-scenes conversations about values and the importance of supporting each child and each family. We don’t shy away from the hard work needed to support individual students in appropriate ways, but neither do we dwell on this as something that is a burden or a frustration. Again, it’s part of who we are and what we value, so we do what is necessary.

Therefore it is truly a joy to read progress reports and come across comments our teachers have written about children who have struggled, sometimes quite significantly, in their secular school or various other settings (*names changed for privacy):

Josh* works hard in our class each week. He is a good listener, follows directions and gets along well with his classmates. He is very active and will take breaks from class when needed. He will ask to leave the room and is always respectful. I adore him! I look forward to working with him over the rest of the year. If there is anything I can do to make class more enjoyable and/or manageable for him, please let me know.”

Seth* is continuing this year on the same great track he left off on last year. The ease with which he is acquiring Hebrew skills this year is absolutely wonderful, his reading and writing are improving beautifully, and he is getting better and better at making connections between old lessons and new ones…And he is getting better at vocalizing when he is struggling himself. He more frequently seeks out help rather than trying to work through challenges entirely on his own.”

And it is equally as satisfying to read how our teachers embrace our students’ unique personalities and abilities and use them to enrich a classroom environment:

Sarah* is very artistic and creative. She is a free thinker and very confident. She really enjoys and contributes to our class.”
The next time you are feeling frustrated by the process and product of progress reports, I encourage you to think of them in a new way. I hope you will use them as a tool to reflect on and enhance your own school’s inclusive practice.

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I am fortunate to have had a second opportunity to staff a Birthright trip to Israel. Many will recall that I led for the first time in 2016 as a way to honor a dear friend as well as to understand this meaningful experience firsthand to be better able to guide the young adults I love and teach. I quickly recognized that this was also an opportunity for me to grow both personally and professionally.

This time, I embarked on a trip with a small group of young adults from my own community in tow. How powerful to travel together again as we did when they were teens and to stand together in the places that I had taught them about when they were children.

And yet, as it often does, my thoughts turned to inclusion as I came to learn the personal stories of others who joined us on this journey.

Rewind to 2016 for a moment: I vividly recall sitting at breakfast one morning with a group of young men as one shared his story of being kicked out of Hebrew School. He spoke of his own challenging behavior and the lack of patience anyone in his community had for it. I can still remember my jaw dropping a bit and not being able to understand how this could be…and yet it was. I tucked it away.

Fast forward a year: Another breakfast conversation, this time with a young woman who shared her childhood struggles with dyslexia and the inability of her community to teach her successfully. She shared her feelings of isolation and frustration and of thinking that she was never good enough, so she stopped going to religious school. And once again I felt my jaw go a little slack at my sense of disbelief that anyone in any community would let such a precious soul go. 

Toward the end of our respective trips, each of them remarked that they wished they’d had an Educator like me growing up. And while I hold close the power of their words, I share them not as a statement of ego, but rather to illustrate the missed opportunities. Inclusion is always possible. It may not always be easy, but it is right and just and necessary. No young adult should ever look back and wish that his or her Jewish education had been different. No young adult should ever come to realize that the gift they were always entitled to was taken from them.

This is our wake up call. This is our reminder that each and every child matters. Every educator has the ability to ensure that everystudent feels loved and supported and capable. 

I’m the lucky one. I was there when each of them reclaimed their birthright of Jewish identity as they became bar/bat mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I'm the lucky one because I get to love these precious souls as the Jewish adults they were always meant to be.

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In my work coaching organizations toward increased inclusion for people of all abilities, I spend a lot of time exploring organizational change. The one thing synagogue professionals and lay leaders ask most often is some version of this, “How do we change the culture of our community to one where individual members recognize and value inclusion?”  

Organizational culture change is a complex process that demands a clear vision and a focused leadership team committed to create, anchor and support change over time within the institutional culture. In other words, it is anything but a “quick fix.”

The Eight Steps of Organizational Change, as outlined by Professor John Kotter of the Harvard Business School, can serve as a framework for organizational change in the Jewish community. Here are his eight steps, mixed with my own commentary:
  1. Establish a sense of urgency – Without a shared sense of urgency, the process typically goes nowhere. I’m coming back to this in a few moments. 
  2. Create the guiding coalition – None of us, NONE OF US, can do the work of inclusion alone. We need partners, and to do this right an organization must assemble a team from the very beginning. Assembling the right team matters, too. 
  3. Develop a vision and strategy – An organization’s vision provides aspiration, motivates a community toward change, and establishes a framework for making strategic choices. A clear strategy is grounded in the vision with a rational understanding of the organization and provides a logical path toward realizing that vision. In other words, know your why.
  4. Communicate the vision – Be transparent. Share, share, share. I can’t begin to describe the number of congregations I have encountered over the years that believe they are inclusive because they host a once-a-year Shabbaton focused on inclusion or they have a committee/task force focus on issues of inclusion, but the vast majority of people in the congregation know nothing about these efforts. 
  5. Empower professionals and volunteers for action – This is about ensuring that there are changes that can be made and identifying the resources needed for implementation. 
  6. Generate short-term wins – I typically call this “low-hanging fruit”. These are the things that can be done easily and which give a team quick reward for their efforts, thereby helping to build morale and momentum around continued change. 
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change – This is often the point where small, incremental gains are celebrated as the conclusion of the larger effort rather than used to propel momentum forward. Communication and transparency are particularly significant here. 
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture – This includes structural changes such as changes to by-laws, job descriptions and/or new program objectives. This is also the place where an organization assesses the attitudinal and behavioral changes that have taken hold within the community.
I have said it before and I will say it again: inclusion is not a person or a place or a program; inclusion is a mindset, a way of thinking, and it needs to be who we are as much as it is what we do.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this list and the question I am so often asked, “How do we change the culture of our community to one where individual members recognize and value inclusion?” If we are to embrace this process and commit ourselves to the work, we need to identify what it means to “create a sense of urgency.”

A number of years ago a colleague made the following statement that has stuck with me, “There are no emergencies in Jewish education.” It is a profound truth to recognize, especially in education, that your urgency is NOT my emergency. This is not to minimize the things that absolutely require our immediate attention, but rather it is a way to enable us, as leaders, to slow down and give reflective process its due.

And yet, here we are talking about creating a sense of urgency around increased disability inclusion. How do we do this in a way that sparks meaningful change but doesn’t provoke anxiety and a misguided sense of immediacy? Urgency can motivate us, urgency can help others commit to our vision, and urgency can compel us to act.

So how will you create a sense of urgency in your community?

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It’s exciting to attend a conference focused entirely on disability inclusion. I am grateful to the leadership of the Ruderman Family Foundation for convening such an event. Regardless of one’s interest, connection, professional role, or personal story – being in a space with nearly 1300 other people who are passionate about and committed to inclusion is inspiring.

I spent the better part of two days in Boston catching up with old friends, making new connections, engaging in facilitated discussions, learning from the powerful work of others and just generally feeling energized that I am engaged in work that truly matters.

My Twitter feed (@JewishSpecialEd) will give you a glimpse at some of the significant takeaways:

We are stronger when we share our stories. Ernie Auperlee: “I am part of a warm, welcoming community not because I am different but because I am one of many. I belong.”

Inclusion needs an address, but it can’t be that all things rise & fall on any one person. Inclusion = WE!

“Disability affects everyone. We are all connected.” ~Congressman Gregg Harper

“No one can do everything. Everyone can do something.” ~Congressman Gregg Harper

We need to flip the narrative. “We identify children by their abilities, not labels.” ~Gary Siperstein of Camp Shriver

Retweeted: Torrie Dunlap of Kids Included Together: “In order to influence disability employment we need to start with kids and building more inclusive schools.” YES! It’s why I wrote: We Have to Teach So We Can Employ

“Disability inclusion isn’t “too big,” you just don’t want to deal with it.” ~Sandy Cardin of the Schusterman Foundation.

“Anything is possible…I don’t want to be rare.” ~Mandy Harvey as she addressed the audience and performed.

But there was one idea that bubbled up and over the rest. It is the notion that I am “rare” in the field of disability inclusion. Strange statement, right? But if you talk to most advocates and those passionately engaged in the work of increasing inclusion (please – TALK TO THEM!) you will learn that the vast majority are committed to this because they have a family/personal connection to a disability or have a disability themselves. Those of us who do this work “simply” (nothing is ever simple!) because we know it is the right and just thing to do are rare. And quite frankly, that has to change.

Inclusion is EVERYONE’S issue.

So go check out the hashtag #Inclusion2017 and learn from some
amazing minds and souls. More importantly, take the message of inclusion to heart and know what I know – that an inclusive world is a stronger world.Let’s change the narrative one community at a time.


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A few days ago someone I follow on Facebook shared the following article: How to Teach Your Child to be an “Includer”. It’s an older article, so I found myself wondering if she was sharing this now because it felt particularly timely, or if it was more of an extension of her own consistent, personal commitment to inclusion. Either way, it resonated with me and had me immediately recalling a post that I wrote for this blog which was widely shared: Teach Your Children to Be Accepting of Disabilities

It’s easy to write blog posts and forget about them. We live in an age of immediacy. Often, if something doesn’t happen in the moment, it won’t happen at all. Instant gratification has become the norm, even when we know that delaying gratification and taking time to process and reflect can be critical. It’s why I pointed out the fact that the article shared a few days ago was written a few months ago. Life moves fast. So even when blog posts “do well” and people read and share widely, a week or two later those same pieces are forgotten; and citing something written a few months or even a year ago can seem outdated.

But in this case, I think the message bears repeating and re-sharing: We CAN teach our children to be accepting. We CAN teach our children to be “includers”. And, maybe most importantly, we CAN teach our children to be kind.

Children really will do what we do. We have the power to model for them each and every day. We have the power to teach, through our own actions, how to be kind, compassionate and inclusive.

I think the strategies outlined in the original article are sound: Listen and empathize
“When we empathize with our kids, we teach them to do the same for others.” Directly modeling and teaching empathy will send ripples of kindness into the world. It is our responsibility to be there for children and guide them as they work through their emotions. It can be extremely difficult to listen to a child share a painful experience and the temptation to say something like, “What a terrible friend!” or “He/she was wrong to do that!” is powerful. But what a child most needs to hear in such a moment is, “That sounds awful. You must feel so upset right now.”


Be an “includer”

“If we want our kids to learn to reach out to others and include new people (or people they wouldn’t otherwise sit with), we need to do the same.” It’s easy to tell this to our children, but it is often so much harder to model it ourselves. Find opportunities to step out of your own comfort zone to demonstrate to a child how meaningful it can be to cultivate a new relationship.

Look for someone who needs a friend
“Young children like routine (so do adults!!) and tend to sit at the same table at lunch or play with the same groups at recess, but this can be limiting. Teach your child to scan the room (or field) to look for someone who might need a friend. Practice ways to invite a new kid into the group or ask others to join a game. When kids practice these skills at home, they are better able to use them out in the world.” There is little that I would add, here. This is spot on.

Talk about unintentional exclusion
“Talk to your kids about what it means to exclude and how they can include others. Ask your kids to draw connections between being excluded and possible negative emotions and between being included and possible positive emotions.” Each of us can call to mind a time when we felt excluded. We can remember the pain and hurt associated with such a situation. These are the memories that can be our most powerful teachers. We can use these moments of personal pain and exclusion to rewrite the story for someone else. We can be the one to open the door and include.


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