What I Mean When I Use The Word “Inclusion”


We’ve met.

You are a Jewish professional or a lay leader who cares about your community. You are deeply committed to the people and the organization you serve. You make it your business to read, stay current, understand trends, and learn as much as you can. You understand that what you do is about more than the people you serve; you recognize that the future of the Jewish people rests in your hands.

I admire you. I appreciate you. I respect your commitment and recognize that you want what’s best for your community. And I know that deep down you genuinely want to live the values you believe in.

But you are still struggling to get it right when it comes to inclusion. Despite your best intentions.
I want to help you. 

I love that you are learning about person-first and identity-first language and that you are trying really hard to break habits and change a culture. I get it. It’s hard. It’s really hard.

You have to realize that what you say always matters. Others are looking to you as the example. All your good work will be ignored when what you SAY about that work misses the mark. This is why you have to get it right. This is why you have to pay attention to all the things you shouldn’t say.
But first, before I share my list of what you shouldn’t say when talking about disability inclusion, let’s clear one thing up. I want to be transparent about what I mean when I use the word INCLUSION.

Inclusion is an ideal. It is a state of being and a mindset. Inclusion is what we strive for our world to be; it’s not a place, not one person, not a moment in time. I wish it wasn’t an ideal, I wish it was consistently REAL – right now, all the time. I wish inclusion could just BE. But it isn’t yet, so we work toward it and strive for it and continue to celebrate it as an accomplishment because we have yet to get to the place where inclusion just IS.

SO…if you are still with me, and you believe in what I say, we have to, HAVE TO, work on what we say.
Here is my list of things you shouldn’t say when talking about disability inclusion:

1. We have a great inclusion program
NO. You don’t. You may have a great program. And if you are doing inclusion right, it is a seamless part of everything else you do. But then you wouldn’t have to tell me about it, would you? The minute you tell me all about your great inclusion program, what you have said is that you separate people with disabilities from everyone else. Even if everyone is in the same room – when you reduce inclusion to a program you perpetuate the idea that it is an add-on, an extra “something” you had to design or develop or create. No, you do not have a great inclusion program.

2. Members of our inclusion community will speak/present/share their reflections
Ugh. I just read this one this week. From a very well-intentioned lay leader who is working hard to ensure that his congregation is as inclusive as it can be. And yet, the minute I read his comment about plans for their upcoming Inclusion Shabbat (see #3 below) which will include reflections from members of their inclusion community, I cringed. How about just members of our community, period? If you really must highlight that a person with a disability will be a speaker, and that person is comfortable having their disability highlighted in this way, then say exactly that in whatever way they want you to. But “members of our inclusion community” just singled people out as “other” and undermined your whole effort. 

3. This Friday we are hosting our (annual/monthly) Inclusion Shabbat
I will admit that this one is a little trickier. I understand the desire to raise up the value of inclusion, and I also recognize that this can have merit as a tool for awareness raising. This is one of those places where I think the distinction between Inclusion with a capital “I” vs. inclusion with a lowercase “i” comes into play. Inclusion with a lowercase “i” takes us back to Number 1 – it’s about who we want to be. But the value of capital “I” Inclusion can be about bringing attention to an issue. It’s not that this is the only Shabbat that is inclusive (I hope!), but rather, it is the one where you celebrate inclusion and help others to understand its critical place in our Jewish world. Just like you sometimes host “Pride Shabbat” or “Social Action Shabbat” as ways to lift the values of LGBTQ Inclusion or tikkun olam, so, too, can you lift the value of disability inclusion. Just know your goals.

4. We have a terrific inclusion classroom
Again, NO. You don’t. If you have designated one classroom to be the place where children with disabilities learn with their peers, then you have one classroom of mixed abilities. When you call it your inclusion classroom, you once again perpetuate the idea that inclusion happens in one space at certain times. Now, can you have one or a few classrooms of mixed abilities within a school? Of course! And there is so much value to that. It can be a way to maximize resources and meet student needs the most effective way. What I am emphasizing here is strictly the way you speak about it. You do not have an inclusion classroom, your school is inclusive and you have many ways to meet students’ needs.

5. I can’t “do” inclusion, I wasn’t trained
Are you a human? Then you can be inclusive. You do not need special training to understand that every human has value, every life is worth living, and everyone has a gift to share with the rest of the world. You do not need special training to be kind, warm, inviting, and open to possibility. You have the ability to break down barriers every single day. You have the power to stop being a barrier yourself, in ways you didn’t even realize. Change your language, change your mindset. When there is something you do not know, ask. Inclusion really can be that simple.

Editor’s Note: This blog originally appeared here. 

Lisa Friedman is a widely recognized expert in Jewish disability inclusion. She is an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey, where she has developed and oversees an inclusive synagogue school. She is also the Project Manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. Lisa consults with congregations, schools, camps and other organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy and families through dialogue, interactive workshops, and awareness training. Lisa is a sought after speaker on a wide variety of topics and blogs about disabilities and inclusion at “Removing the Stumbling Block.”