The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island will hold its annual event for Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month on Feb. 6.
This year’s topic is “From Longing to Belonging: A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community.” The Alliance recognizes that people with disabilities, handicaps and mental-health issues desire inclusion in the Jewish community as much as everyone else, yet all too often are excluded. This program will spark efforts to remedy this situation.
The presenter is Shelly Christensen, unquestionably the “go-to” expert on inclusion in faith communities and the author of a book that shares the title with this year’s event. “From Longing to Belonging” is a comprehensive resource for understanding and developing successful inclusion efforts in congregations and all other faith-based organizations.
Christensen is the co-founder of Jewish Disabilities Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM). She is a past president of the American Association on Intellectual Disabilities, Religion and Spirituality Network.
Christensen, who has a child with a disability, believes that people with disabilities and mental-health conditions want what everyone else wants – to belong, to contribute and to be a valued member of their faith community.
She will conduct two workshops at the Alliance’s event. The first, from 12:45 to 5 p.m., will be a professional development workshop for people who work or volunteer in faith communities. The program is based on the two key concepts from her book, the spirit of belonging and the structure of inclusion.
First, Christensen will establish why including people with disabilities and mental-health conditions is so vital. Then she’ll focus on how to effectively organize practical steps to move a congregation/organization/school toward inclusion, and how to organize a plan of action.
Participants will also learn how to do meaningful assessments that result in quality information and buy-ins from people in the organization; how to determine priorities, set the process in motion, and overcome major and minor obstacles; and current practices and policies that can be expanded, modified and/or eliminated.
The evening session, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., is for parents and people with disabilities and mental-health conditions to discuss how to encourage faith communities to become responsive, accepting and inclusive. In preparation for the session, a group of parents and professionals has already been formed and invites those interested to join them in a Facebook group: RI Jewish Disability Network.
Nationally, one out of five people has some type of challenge, whether a disability, a handicap or a mental-health issue. Some believe that since Jews often have babies later than the general population, rates of autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are higher among our community. The Jewish community cannot afford to ignore the needs of a fifth of our own community.
Stephen Mark Shore, Ed.D., an internationally known educator, consultant and presenter on issues related to autism, was a presenter a few years ago. He writes that “through a unique combination of personal, professional, and formal study, Shelly Christensen gifts faith-based communities with accessible, easy-to-implement, practical solutions for including people with disabilities and other differences as an integral part of society.
“[Her] book brings the day so much closer when people of all abilities are meaningfully included – with a full sense of belonging – as the rule rather than the exception.”
LARRY KATZ is director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.