Inclusion of people with disabilities was the topic of a first-ever national conference organized by the Canadian Jewish community. “Pushing the Boundaries: Disability, Inclusion & Jewish Community,” held in Toronto from April 15 to 17, discussed how to remove the many social, economic and physical barriers faced by Jews with disabilities.
The conference, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, UJA Federation of Toronto, and other organizations, spotlighted Canadian and Israeli programs and organizations working on disability issues. Equally important, it allowed around 150 people, with a variety of expertise and lived experience, to begin an overdue discussion.
Sarah Beutel, Jewish Federation of Ottawa vice-president (community building) attended the conference along with a number of other community members including Tamir Executive Director Mark Palmer, who highlighted the recently-announced plans to build an integrated living centre on the Jewish Community Campus, as part of a panel addressing housing adapted to the needs of people with disabilities.
While the disability rights movement has been pushing for inclusion for decades, the Canadian Jewish community has lagged behind. The conference discussed how the most persistent barrier to inclusion is the tendency to see people with disabilities as “the other,” and to stigmatize and marginalize them. Bimahs without ramps; Jewish schools that do not adequately accommodate the needs of children with disabilities; lack of affordable, adapted housing; and community spaces that are not fully accessible are still common.
Jewish communities across Canada are beginning to catch-up. Several Jewish communities have hired inclusion coordinators to facilitate the inclusion of people with disabilities and other stigmatized groups in community life. In Toronto, innovative social enterprises are hiring people with intellectual disabilities and paying them real wages for real work. And the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has included disability rights in its advocacy agenda.
The conference attendees also heard from several Israeli organizations, such as Krembo Wings, a fully integrated youth movement. Several of the Israeli organizations at the conference are working in partnership with Canadian federations, to ensure inclusion in the Jewish state.
The discussion started in Toronto continued in Ottawa on May 2 when one of the conference organizers, Linda Kislowicz, president and CEO of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, spoke at the Jewish Federation of Ottawa members’ meeting. As Kislowicz emphasised, disability rights are now firmly on the Canadian Jewish community agenda. The enthusiasm to keep the conversation going, by participants at the conference and organizing partners, was encouraging. It would be supported by her organization, she said, by the allocation of seed financing to grassroots inclusion projects.
Anyone interested in an informal discussion on how to make the Ottawa Jewish community more inclusive is invited to contact me at email@example.com.
Harvey Goldberg is a semi-retired senior policy advisor at the Canadian Human Rights Commission where he has worked for over 25 years on issues regarding the rights of persons with disabilities.