One year ago I wrote an op-ed in the Australian Jewish News for the ShabbaTTogether weekend – a global campaign whereby communities around the world would be participating in a Shabbat of disability inclusion and mental health awareness. The article was entitled ‘beyond the wheelchair ramp’ and I explored the need for communities to recognise that disability inclusion went far beyond the construction of a wheelchair ramp or accessible bathroom facilities. It was in fact a change in mindset that was crucial to ensuring a true sense of inclusion. Given that we all have preconceived ideas and implicit biases, which often shape the way in which we view others who may seem different to us, it was (and still is) vital for us to challenge and confront those perceptions. And so the ShabbaTTogether weekend was not designed to be a one-off project or initiative but rather to create an ongoing new way of thinking and behaving.

At the time it was encouraging and inspiring to see so many Shules and community organizations rally behind the concept and numerous events and talks were held over the weekend.

A year has since passed.

This coming Shabbat we will once again be joining with hundreds of other communities around the world for the global Shabbat of disability inclusion and mental health awareness.

The question which needs to be asked is, ‘how did we do’? How much closer are we to a changed mindset? Are we in fact being inclusive? Are those with disabilities being empowered? Are they included in the discussions and decision making processes when it comes to their needs? Did the Shabbat, designed to be a catalyst, bring about the change needed for communities to become more inclusive? Have we been able to truly absorb a fundamental Jewish teaching of the basic premise that we are all created in God’s image?

The truth is every community and every individual needs to answer these questions. Communities and individuals need to take an honest assessment both on an external and internal level. Externally, to audit whether the physical changes needed to be more accommodating were made or at least plans put in place? Internally, to ask whether we are still defining people by what they can’t do rather than by what they can?

Perhaps there is no better yardstick than asking those living with a disability if they have felt included and are being treated as equal members of the community.

I have personally heard numerous encouraging stories and anecdotes that show there has been much positive change in the mindset of communities and individuals.
Unfortunately there is still a way to go. Just recently I was told about a group of teenage classmates who had organised to meet at a particular time and place to walk to an event together. One of the classmates had a physical disability which would not allow him to walk at the same pace as his peers. Without much thought given to his needs they had asked him to miss out on this one. Instead of meeting earlier or considering other ways to accommodate him, they chose to exclude. I don’t for one minute believe it was intentional or intended to cause hurt. But hurt it did.

So with the 2020 ShabbaTTogether soon upon us, what is our commitment going forward? What can we do to continue creating positive change and breaking down barriers? How do we ensure we can all live, work and socialise in an accessible world?

I’d like to suggest just one practical idea inspired by an article I read published by Disability Advocacy Victoria Inc. Their paper on ‘How to be disability inclusive’ featured a section entitled ‘Imagine Yourself’. One example featured was a situation for someone who was deaf. It read: ‘Imagine that you walk into a community centre for an information night about the impending bushfires. The room is full of people speaking a foreign language. You only know a little of this language, but they are speaking so quickly and fluently that you have no idea what they are saying. They look at you and ask you a question but you don’t know what the question is. You only know that they are standing there waiting for an answer. You indicate that you can’t understand them and they sigh and brush you off, telling you not to worry about it.’

The question that followed was ‘What would you need to make this work for you?’

I think this highlights a very powerful and important step in continuing to make the positive change we are trying to implement.

By considering how you might feel in a particular situation or circumstance will allow you to listen, respect and appreciate the other person’s perspective. If the teenagers in the above story had ‘imagined themselves’ they would have no doubt done things differently to make things work. ‘Imagine yourself’ will help to assist in creating an environment in which everyone can feel comfortable, included and welcome!

Wishing you a beautiful Shabbat and weekend ahead!

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