This past November, I, along with fellow CJP colleagues, attended the second annual Ruderman Inclusion Summit as part of a think tank developed at CJP to help brainstorm and address ways our organization can be more inclusive of those with disabilities. We hope to review this issue both internally and externally, particularly in the way we provide leadership and advocacy in the Boston Jewish community and in the community at large. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend.

Over the course of the two-day conference, hosted by the Ruderman Family Foundation, I had the chance to hear from amazing plenary speakers and attend various interesting breakout groups. The first evening, we heard from several speakers, including Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who shared that when she won an Oscar in 1986, she was one of only two actors with a disability to have ever been nominated.

She made the point that over 90 percent of roles portraying characters with disabilities go to actors who do not experience those disabilities, and wondered why, when there are already so few opportunities available in entertainment for someone who is disabled, they don’t get the opportunity to portray a character they can personally connect to. Personally, I wonder if those actors are even getting an opportunity to audition.

Another effective speaker was U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire. Her son has cerebral palsy, and she spoke from a policy-based perspective on how various federal policies and laws affect those in the U.S. experiencing disabilities. Specifically, she mentioned how devastating cuts to Medicare and Medicaid would be and how badly it would affect industries such as home care, which are immensely important to those with disabilities and special needs. And, of course, she detailed the importance of making sure pre-existing conditions are covered by insurance and how devastating it would be to this population were they to be cut off.

One fascinating through-point of the entire summit, however, was the notion that even the most well-meaning people can often look down on those with a disability or say that we pity them. The reality is that this population of individuals simply wants to be treated as they are—as human beings. One question I had listening to several of the speakers is how can I, in my everyday life, work to provide true equality for this population both in how I view/interact with someone with a disability and work to be sure they are given access and mobility in their day-to-day life that I often take for granted?

Another point made quite often was that beyond increasing accessibility and focusing on inclusion because it is the right thing to do, there is also a natural economic benefit to doing so. In one of the breakout sessions, I heard from a woman named Haben Girma, a young deaf-blind lawyer who is able to speak through technology. In her work, she travels around the world convincing companies to be more inclusive because any temporary short-term cost increase is offset by the fact that their business and their product is now more accessible to billions of potential clients and customers worldwide who experience disabilities.

Attending the summit helped me realize that it’s not just important to be speaking for those who are different from you and experience the world in a different way, but it is equally as important to have those voices sharing their own stories as well. I will never be able to tell a story as effectively as one who has lived it.

One of my main takeaways is that as we strive toward a more just world, the more we can include as many people as possible, the more prosperous we become as an entire community.

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