Esther Tiechtel, Director of the Revere Montessori Preschool applied for and received a grant from the Lori Ann Fishel Special Needs Fund to provide reading materials for a student with severe vision difficulties.
When a young child at the Revere Montessori Preschool needed special materials to accommodate his severe vision problems, the school’s Director Esther Tiechtel knew just where to go for help. She turned to the Lori Ann Fishel Special Needs Fund at The Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. “It was a very straight forward and streamlined process to request funds for some reading materials,” says Tiechtel, “We want to ensure that all our children have the resources necessary to meet their needs and to make each one feel cared for as an important member of the community.” And while this particular grant was not a big one, the impact and significance looms large for The Federation’s Inclusion Committee as it plans for the 2022 Inclusion Workshop. Sandy Cohen, Chair of the committee, says, “It is time to reflect on what is being done and what is not being done within our community to help everyone feel like they belong, are welcomed, and cared for.”
This year’s Inclusion Workshop will explore the concept of “ability rather than disability,” and seek to create a long-term shift in the local Jewish community’s narrative around inclusion. The keynote speaker is Erik W. Carter PhD, a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member, and Professor of Special Education. According to Sandy Cohen, there will be discussion of the Dimensions of Belonging, a concept identified by Carter, “We will use his ideas to explore ways to think about belonging as it applies to faith communities.” She adds that it is important to anticipate what might be needed at a particular event, for example, and figure out in advance ways to meet those needs. “Everyone has some sort of need, so our goal is to create a culture where accommodating people is natural and expected. It will take a while to move the needle, but it’s time we got started.”
One local organization already making strides is Vanderbilt Hillel. Brian Small, Assistant Director of Hillel, recently applied for a Lori Ann Fishel Special Needs Fund grant that enabled Hillel to purchase large print prayer books. “I am a big fan of being proactive so our organization can be more inclusive” he says, “When someone asks for the larger print, we already have it, and everyone has access to it.” In addition, Hillel has posted a sign at the front desk requesting suggestions for creating a more inclusive environment. He echoes the grant application experience of Esther Tiechtel as being easy and streamlined. Most important, though, is the message being sent. “There should be a certain level of expectation that is the common denominator between all of our community’s institutions.” Additionally, those interviewed all agree that everyone benefits from the accommodations, often in unexpected ways. Tiechtel says the special reading materials she received are available to all the children in the preschool. “This gives teachers another tool to measure when children reach developmental milestones. When they have what they need, the whole school benefits. And the children are learning compassion and to celebrate each other’s successes.”
This year’s Inclusion Workshop is scheduled for January 26th and, as last year, will take place virtually. There will again be breakout groups to explore topics such as hearing and vision issues, physical access, and the Autism spectrum. And, equally important to creating a cultural shift, is a focus on advocacy. Brian Small says he thinks about Moses, who had a speech disability, and yet that is not the focus of his story. “The work we need to do is like the work of Aaron. He helped his brother and elevated him so he could do great things. We need to focus on ways to advocate for and help each other focus on our abilities.”
For more information on the 2022 Inclusion Workshop, or to sign up, contact Adam Bronstone at firstname.lastname@example.org.