Inclusion changed with COVID

by Risa Plotnick

Our community has been talking about the need and value of including all members of the Jewish community for years. Amazing steps have been taken and regular progress has been made. Shelly Christensen visited our community, Jewish Federation of Ottawa awarded grants to the supplementary schools to train teachers on inclusive teaching practices, and Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) took on an elevated presence with a web-based community conversation that has been follow up with two focus groups.

When COVID shut our institutions and we needed to redefine what it looked like to “belong,” inclusion got a major boost! Did you even notice? Probably not. That’s the beauty of inclusion. As inclusive educational expert Shelley Moore says, “Inclusion isn’t harder work, its different work,” and our community rose to the challenge. Suddenly it was like COVID gave us all a disability. We were all homebound and the entrances to our institutions that we once walked through, were inaccessible.

Thankfully, the community pivoted with grace and our communal leaders quickly rethought the way they offered services, and we all benefitted. Everyone was able to join a virtual meeting, program, or event. It was easy to use closed captioning, adjust the volume of the speaker, pin the speaker for increased visibility, and if we needed to sneeze or move our bodies, we could mute ourselves or turn off our cameras. The inclusion playing field was leveled. We could all join in without feeling singled out or different. This is goal of inclusion.

At Tamir, we received emergency funding from Federation (thanks to generous community donors) to make sure that all our homes and families had their technology needs met. Virtual connection became critically important, and no parent should have to cease communication with their child, due to COVID. Tablets and Chromebooks were delivered to homes and families, and we gave lessons to those who needed the support. We created a monthly calendar of virtual events and activities and everyone was invited, no one was left out, and everyone was important and valued. We saw these actions repeated throughout Ottawa and it is a testament to our strength in the face of adversity.

In addition, we strengthened our communal partnerships and offered more collaborative programming than ever before. Our community is rich with opportunities and we took advantage of them all. The casual atmosphere of working from home meant that families were doing more together, children and pets would occasionally appear on screen and, in some ways, we got to know each other better than we did before. That is inclusion in action.

Currently, the community is turning a corner and our institutions are beginning to reopen. As that happens, it might be easy to slip back into old routines. However, after we all felt the “disability” of COVID, maybe we can try to remember how it felt to be cut off, to no longer be able to visit the physical spaces of our community. We have the capacity to make sure to always do programming differently. We can commit to always include everyone.

It’s not hard, it’s just different.

- Risa Plotnick is the executive director of Tamir