We at the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF) dream of a world in which full inclusion of people with disabilities is accepted, normal and legitimate. We are guided by the principle that inclusion is not an issue of charity; rather it is one of social justice and civil rights. Further, we believe that including people with disabilities will strengthen our institutions, our local communities and our broader society. For example, from a financial perspective, we cannot afford to continue to exclude people with disabilities from the labor force. The current unemployment rate of people with disabilities is approximately 70 percent, and the economic impact is devastating. From the perspective of Jewish continuity, our synagogues, day schools and Jewish summer camps must include the 20 percent of our population that has a disability. To ignore their potential would be to lose the invaluable contributions of thousands of people.

How do we build a world where those with disabilities are fully accepted? We at RFF believe that engaging the next generation is critical. We must raise a generation of children who not only value inclusion, but view inclusion as natural and necessary. These children will grow up to be the employers who recognize the value that people with disabilities bring to their companies. They will be the educators who recognize the contributions that children with disabilities make within their classrooms. And they will be the synagogue leaders who know how to make all people feel welcome in their congregations. With the mindset of inclusion, these leaders will help our communities to thrive.

The Ambassadors for Inclusion (AFI) program is an amazing vehicle through which we aim to achieve our goals. AFI is a disability awareness program that incorporates Jewish values, and is currently available to Jewish day and congregational school students in grades kindergarten through 12. Through a curriculum called Understanding Our Differences, students gain in-depth knowledge about specific disabilities. For example, during a unit on deafness, students learn about the anatomy of the ear and how hearing loss can occur. Additionally, through the AFI program, people with disabilities visit classrooms to tell their stories. The students interact with their visitors, ask questions and ultimately experience disability as normative and as a form of diversity within the community.

As students gain valuable perspectives, schools and classrooms are transformed into the welcoming and accepting environments that we dream of for all of our children. And the result can be empowering for all. One fifth-grader with a disability who participated in the program was inspired to address her fellow students and teachers. She said, “The Understanding Our Differences Gateways program was very inspiring because if total strangers could get up there and talk about their disabilities, then I could, too…I felt like my classmates and teachers walked away from my presentation with a better sense of what my disability is, how it affects me and how they can continue to support me.” We have no doubt that this girl and her classmates will carry these lessons with them. When they grow up, they will enact the changes that we hope to see throughout all sectors of society.

AFI has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. The program started out serving only those children in grades 3-5, and has now expanded to reach students across the elementary and secondary years. AFI is also expanding outside of the Boston area to other cities in the Northeast, and we at RFF are thrilled to witness and be a part of this growth. As we reach more and more children, the long-term impact will multiply exponentially. Each child will grow up to lead by example in his or her own way and, thus, the effect on our society will be immeasurable.

Sharon Shapiro is a trustee and director of the Boston office of the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Miriam Heyman, Ph.D., is a program officer for the Ruderman Family Foundation.

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