February is ‘Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month’ in Canada. Its mission is to build awareness in Canadian Jewish communities and increase community engagement in this agenda. In particular, it aims to identify and break down barriers and enhance inclusion of individuals that require special accommodation so that they are able to fully participate in community life.
Special considerations include adjusting the physical environment, shifting organizational attitudes and behaviour and changing public policy and funding models. However, the most significant changes required are within the community culture and mindset.
I am very proud to note that the national system, in partnership with our advocacy agent the Centre for Israel & Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Jewish Federations across Canada, local agencies and residential organizations as well as our Israeli partners, are all invested in improving the lives of Canadians with disabilities. We are also engaged in changing the narrative by building a deeper understanding of their abilities and the barriers that they face in their everyday life.
This multi faceted effort has wide reaching policy, programmatic and financial implications.
For example, on February 21st, we participated in the national Jewish community delegation ‘fly in’ to Ottawa to bring our communal concerns to the attention of federal ministers and parliamentarians. The delegation consisted of lay and professional leaders from Vancouver, Calgary, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
With the pending federal disabilities legislation on the table, now is an opportune time to officially present the Jewish community's issues and perspective. The disabled members of the Canadian Jewish community face serious economic, employment, housing, care provision, transitional and jurisdictional challenges. These challenges are compounded by the complexities of navigating a system that is often compartmentalized and fragmented, in addition to dealing with territorial issues and system wide gaps.
The delegation raised these issues with The Honourable Carla Qualtrough, P.C., M.P., Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, and The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, P.C., M.P., Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. They also met with several other parliamentarians. In an open exchange forum, participants expressed a genuine interest in understanding each other's perspective and creative suggestions. Read more about the fly-in here.
On another note, JFC-UIA is also engaged programmatically and philanthropically in promoting inclusion and awareness.
In 2016, Canada Israel Experience brought two groups of young adults with special needs on a Birthright Israel experience – a milestone rite of passage for today’s Jewish young adults. Each program was modified according to the participants’ unique needs and capacities and was an unequivocal success.
In Israel, within each of our partnership communities, JFC-UIA and the Federations are invested in facilities and programs that work with individuals with motor, developmental, physical and sensory challenges.
These multi-cultural programs are open to Israelis of all backgrounds and disabilities. They cover the gamut of therapeutic, educational and social programs and services. ‘Maarag’ aims to increase economic independence through training and business development. The hydrotherapy pool in Mevoot Hermon provides physical therapy to Israelis living in the north. Krembo Wings in Kiryat Shemona is a fully integrated program for youth with and without special needs. A special relaxation program for autistic children is supported in Bat Yam and a full continuum residential program is supported in Beer Sheva.
New approaches in the field of inclusion and disabilities are being developed all the time. Ongoing research is allowing for a better understanding of causation, from genetic to neuroscience to environmental causes on the one hand, and on the other the efficacy of different treatment and care giving approaches.
There is much activity in this field but there is so much more work that needs to be done.
When someone in your family has a disability, it is a complicated journey for all members. It requires enormous resources, often beyond the physical, emotional and financial capacity of the family. Just ask a parent or grandparent- they will tell you. It is full of unexpected twists and turns and can be exhausting and isolating to navigate. Each developmental stage presents unique and unpredictable challenges. And more often than not, available community services are not organized in a user friendly way - in other words in an integrated and seamless way.
In response, families sometimes react with incredible ingenuity. Indeed, it is often the case that families, in the absence of adequate community supports and services, have rallied and created innovative and inclusive programs for their own children.
It takes a thoughtfully designed ecosystem to build bridges between sectors. While government policies and programs complimented by community programs are all required, it is too big a job to pass off to one sector alone.
From the basic requirements of affordable housing and food security to education, socialization and vocational training, medical care and related therapies of all types - it takes an aware and sensitive community to take an inclusive and integrated approach that fully embraces the disabled and their families. It takes a change in expectations, an open minded community and an investment in training. It takes physical modifications and a change in mindset to eliminate all barriers to participation.
This is a challenge that we must tackle head-on. Our families and our communities depend on us to do so.
On a final note – please mark your calendars for April 15th -17th 2018. JFC-UIA, together with our colleagues at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Miles Nadal JCC and DANI, is co sponsoring a national conference "Pushing the Boundaries: Disability, Inclusion and Jewish Community'.
This conference will not only gather family members, professionals, self advocates, community leaders and academics to share best practices, it will also serve as the launch pad for an ongoing a national capacity building initiative.