Celebrating inclusion through art and culture

One of the images that will be featured in the Spina Bifida: Front to Back exhibit. STEVE KEAN PHOTO

As the founders of the Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) campaign in the United States are celebrating its 10th anniversary, organizers in Toronto are gearing up for their third year of programming. Liviya Mendelsohn, the manager of accessibility and inclusion at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC), said she’s thrilled to see how our culture is shifting to better embrace everyone in the community.

This year, the program – which is spearheaded by the MNJCC, in partnership with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s inclusion initiative, Itanu Toronto – features about 40 events, including panel discussions, art exhibits, film screenings and workshops.

Mendelsohn said that JDAIM – which is also running in other Canadian cities, including Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver – continues to grow and evolve each year.

“It’s not just about awareness, it’s about celebration and embracing everybody in our community.… I’m excited to see that we’re moving beyond talking about ramps and renovations, and talking about how we include people,” Mendelsohn said.

“I’m excited about the focus on arts and culture, because I think that is where, overall, our culture shifts. That is where we look at how we represent ourselves and each other and that is a really lovely thing.”

Among the dozens of events that will be running throughout February, the MNJCC will be hosting a photography exhibit called Spina Bifida: Front to Back, from Feb. 1-26. Steve Kean, who has spina bifida, a birth defect that results in the vertebrae forming improperly around the spinal cord, will be showing off his work at the exhibit.


“Steve Kean, who teaches at the MNJCC, … has taken pictures of people with spina bifida from the front and the back, so you can see both the beauty and the difference in their bodies,” Mendelsohn said.

On Feb. 4, Oded Ben Dov, the CEO of Sesame Enable who Mendelsohn called “an amazing start-up maverick,” will come from Israel to talk about how his company developed technology that allows people to control smartphones, and other devices that use touchscreens, with their eyes.

“So if you can’t use your hands or your feet, you can still use it,” Mendelsohn said.

“He’s going to talk about how Israel has become this incredible hub, not just for start-ups, but for accessible technology and rehabilitation technology.”

In addition to programming that highlights physical disabilities, Mendelsohn said there will also be a focus on mental health, or what she calls “invisible disabilities.”

On Feb. 6, for example, there will be a panel discussion on the challenges of postpartum depression and the stigma attached to it at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation.

On Feb 25, there will be a screening of the 2011 documentary Dolphin Boy, which is about an Arab-Israeli teen who becomes non-verbal and anti-social after a traumatic incident, and begins healing and speaking again after working with dolphins in Eilat.

Mendelsohn said there is also programming geared toward young families, including the No-Shush Shabbat program, which is held once a month at various synagogues and institutions throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

On Feb. 10, The Secret Life of Riley K – a musical production about anxiety, mental health and courage – will be presented simultaneously with a show put on by The Concerned Kids Puppeteers, at Temple Emanu-El.

Looking beyond JDAIM, Mendelsohn said she’s looking forward to the inaugural Canadian conference on inclusion that is bing spearheaded by organizations including Jewish Federations of Canada–UIA, DANI and UJA Federation.

“Pushing the Boundaries: Disability, Inclusion and Jewish Community” will be held from April 15-17, at Toronto’s Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue.

“I’m thrilled to see us taking another step towards learning more and shifting our culture to continue to work towards embracing everyone in our community,” she said.

Looking back on the last 10 years, Shelly Christensen, who co-founded JDAIM, wrote that inclusion means everyone should be able to decide where, how and when to participate in Jewish communal life.

“Change your thinking. Don’t do things for people with disabilities. Do them with people with disabilities. JDAIM is a time to teach our organizations that Inclusion (with a capital I) is simply treating people as individuals, not as a group of ‘those’ people whose needs can be met through special programs or occasional visits to synagogues, or community events,” Christensen wrote on the JDAIM website.

“Someday we won’t convene as a community to raise awareness about including people with disabilities. Let’s look forward to the day when we have eliminated obstacles to belonging to the Jewish community.”

“Pushing the Boundaries: Disability, Inclusion and Jewish Community” will be held from April 15-17, at Toronto’s Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue.