Fostering a Culture of Acceptance

Project IncludED Student Presidents: Why Disability Inclusion is a Crucial Responsibility of the Jewish Community

Society’s long-awaited shift toward the inclusion of individuals with disabilities has taken front stage in today’s culture. TV shows ranging from Speechless and Atypical to Sesame Street and Good Doctor feature individuals with special needs in mainstream environments and focus on the unique strengths that such people bring to their communities. In an effort to better reflect the overall population and include those with disabilities, Apple recently proposed the addition of 13 new emojis that include men and women using wheelchairs and people with visual impairments.

On and off campus, Yeshiva University student club Project IncludED runs workshops that integrate students with disabilities and their peers for fun, engaging activities.

The notion of disability inclusion, the belief that each person merits full participation in the broader society regardless of physical or cognitive limitations, is seeing a growing emphasis within the Jewish community. As both Jews and members of the broader society, we have a responsibility to share this call for inclusion with the larger community to add our voices to help ensure that each person is respected, valued and has access to the same opportunities.

A core tenet of Torah and Judaism states, “V’ahavta lere’acha kamocha”— love your fellow like yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Based on this commandment, Jews have a responsibility to respect, honor and accept other people, regardless of differences they may possess. In another sense, we as Jews strive to provide everyone with the opportunities and appreciation they deserve.

Building on the values that Yeshiva University and our greater Jewish community have fostered within us, we have chosen to spread the message of inclusion on campus. In September 2017, two YU students, Rachel Gozland and Donny Steinberg, founded a club called Project IncludED. Their mission was to advocate for the acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities through hands-on, interactive learning, with an emphasis on students educating other students.

As members of the club’s first board and now its presidents, we have organized several on- and off-campus events that underscore disability awareness and sensitivity. Guided by the goal of educating YU’s student body about disability inclusion, we have hosted speakers like Zack Pollack, a Yeshiva College student with cerebral palsy, and Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman to share their personal experiences on this topic. Along these lines, much of our effort has been focused on creating opportunities for people to gain a better sense of what it means to live with a disability. We want people to develop a greater sensitivity toward the struggles that everyday life often presents to someone with a disability and furthermore to appreciate how well so many individuals with disabilities work daily to adapt to the world around them.

To accomplish this, the club has developed a curriculum of sensitivity workshops that use experiential activities to simulate common disability challenges. For example, to mimic the physical and even social difficulties some people experience with articulation and communication, participants are challenged to read a story to their peers with a taffy in their mouth. These exercises provide an opportunity for people to step into someone else’s shoes for a few moments and see disabilities from a fresh perspective.

To extend our reach beyond our own campus and into our greater New York City backyard, our club chose to independently pilot the workshops at a local Washington Heights public school, I.S. 143, where the special education track had little interaction with other students. With the help of our trained volunteers, we led three sensitivity workshops for an eighth-grade class over the course of a semester. Capping off the semester, we threw a paint party that integrated a special education class with the class we had taught. It was exciting to see how well the students internalized the lessons and perspectives from the workshops and put them into practice.

The transformation of the students’ mindsets and approach from the beginning to the end of the semester made even more clear just how crucial disability education is and how great an impact it can have. After seeing the pilot’s success, we have enthusiastically continued to teach these workshops in other classrooms at the school each semester and hope to soon spread to more schools.

As far as disability awareness and sensitivity have come in the past few years, there is still so much further to go. True, media and entertainment have begun to embrace a more inclusive representation of all people. Yes, Yeshiva University, its clubs and the new Makor College Experience program continue to be at the forefront of bettering not only this campus but society as well. However, we are far from the finish line. We must not become complacent in our goal to promote and fight for inclusion. We must actively campaign to take inclusion further. We must be ambassadors of inclusion and share our mission and our beliefs with everyone around us, so that inclusion is no longer something to tout or be proud of but instead becomes an unquestionable given.

Monica Marmer and Dov Levinson are the presidents of Project IncludED, an on-campus club that creates programming to promote acceptance and inclusions of individuals with disabilities. Opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Yeshiva University.