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Embracing Inclusivity on the Ground: A case study in making it work

This story was published in eJewish Philanthropy.

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By Arielle Handel and Debbie Shemony

As the worldwide community acknowledged and celebrated Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) last month, our efforts to raise awareness and champion the rights of people with disabilities continues each and every day. Together, we can continue to foster a more inclusive Jewish community that emphasizes the value, dignity and capabilities of every individual.

As the leading Jewish pluralistic teen movement reaching over 83,000 teens, BBYO’s mission is grounded in the welcoming all Jewish teens, regardless of background, denominational affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, including those with a range of intellectual, emotional, and physical disabilities. We reflect on these words as much in the spirit of what we do, as well as the real work that takes place on the ground.

At our largest event of the year, BBYO International Convention (IC), which took place in Dallas over President’s Day weekend in February, over 2,500 teens representing 700 communities worldwide and 30 countries, united to practice peer leadership and experiential democracy, serve the local community and celebrate Shabbat together, all while doing their part to further a strong Jewish future. In preparation for IC, staff members worked closely with BBYO regions around the world, as well as teens and families in those regions, to gather information about participants who might need additional support onsite.

As a result of these extensive planning efforts, teens on the ground remarked on the pride and gratitude they felt throughout the weekend. “The first place I ever felt truly included was BBYO, and five years later, I am filled with pride over BBYO’s commitment to making every teen everywhere feel included,” said Dalia D., Pacific Western Region. “From gender neutral bathrooms for LGBTQ teens to fidget devices for teens who have trouble focusing, BBYO went above and beyond to provide an inclusive space for every single participant. If this is the future of the movement and what the Jewish people as a whole looks like, I have never been more excited!”

There were five key factors that led to being able to provide such an inclusive experience to participants at such a large scale event:

Leading from within. Teen leaders with a passion for inclusion worked closely with BBYO staff to implement new programs and plans, ensuring that all teens could take full advantage of the convention.

Full scale accommodations. In an effort to accommodate a variety of needs, teens were able to use assistive devices to move freely about the convention, and fidgets were available for those who struggled to focus during sessions. For teens requiring the use of assistive devices, staff ensured they had the appropriate amount of time to get to and from their activities, had accessible transportation, and were provided with sleeping arrangements that made them comfortable.

24×7 support. One-on-one staff support was offered to teens who required it onsite. Additionally, an infirmary staffed by a nursing team and a doctor was accessibly by all participants throughout the convention.

Inclusion in content. The topic of inclusion was incorporated into the content of a number of IC limmud (learning) sessions. There were opportunities to learn ways to include teens with varying abilities in local chapters and programs. Specialists from Keshet, Matan Kids, and Ablethrive provided hands-on sessions so that teens felt empowered to implement inclusive programs in their regions when they returned home.

Equality for all. Gender neutral bathrooms were arranged onsite so that participants had options that made them feel comfortable throughout their time in Dallas.

“BBYO is a place in my life that has become my home. I have found that their welcoming nature lends itself to an overwhelmingly inclusive environment especially on an international level,” remarked Zack C., Southern Region: Atlanta Council. “This year at International Convention, the commitment to creating an inclusive environment was seen like never before and I have never been so proud to call BBYO my home.”

By collaborating with others in our efforts to foster inclusion of people with disabilities, we act in accordance with our Jewish values, celebrating the gifts and strengths that we each possess. At BBYO we welcome all teens with disabilities into our communities and strive to make programs truly inclusive by developing Jewish teen programming accessible to all.

Arielle Handel is Director of Inclusion and Debbie Shemony is Vice President of Marketing and Communications for BBYO.

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