February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. But at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC) in downtown Toronto, disability and inclusion awareness are integrated into everyday life, and are at the forefront of important discussions. Though, this hasn’t always been the case.
Over six years ago, Liviya Mendelsohn who is the Director of Accessibility and Inclusion at the MNJCC, was working at Ryerson University as a disabilities counsellor when the Jewish centre asked her to help write a government grant to remove barriers at the MNJCC. They were awarded the grant, which led to the opening of a full-time position, which Mendelsohn applied for. She has been working at the community centre ever since.
“I fell in love with the place and the people,” Mendelsohn told me in an interview.
The team now consists of six staff (including Mendelsohn), one contractor, several instructors, and two paid interns with lived experience. There is robust programming, and strong education and outreach initiatives, with funds being provided by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Wagner Green Family Trust, Azrieli Foundation, and Odette Family Foundation.
“The seeds were there, everyone wanted to be open,” Mendelssohn described when discussing what the MNJCC was like before she began working there.
In the process of writing the government grant, a community needs assessment was conducted. Some people living around the MNJCC, and those who were part of the community, felt there were barriers in place.
According to Mendelsohn, one of the participants in the assessment said, “I don’t want special programs or services. I want to trust everything will be accessible, that I’ll show up, and I’ll be welcomed and part of the community.”
“People wanted that approach which is mine as well,” Mendelsohn said. “You need to engage the community with the belief that everyone has something to contribute. . . with fewer or no barriers we’ll have a more diverse and robust community.”
She added that because the community was not being engaged and consulted with to the fullest, people were not showing their whole selves or lives. Another example, was a parent who felt they couldn’t bring their son to swimming lessons or the Purim festival over concerns that he wouldn’t be accepted because of his behavioural differences.
“The staff was immediately in high gear to not just make superficial changes.”
Currently the MNJCC has programming that includes: socializing and gaming, arts and culture activities, Reel Abilities Film Festival (Mendelsohn is the Artistic Director), family support workshops, education and outreach initiatives, as well as mindfulness for neurodiverse adults, and civics and self-advocacy programs.
The support is focused for the 18 to 35 age demographic, as this is the time when people who have disabilities age out of support with the education system. “We wanted to make sure we were building a bridge, but that we were doing it in a way that centred people’s experiences.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Accessibility and Inclusion staff have implemented 18 hours a week of live programming which is facilitated by the peer outreach coordinator, and planned by the Youth Advisory Council on Accessibility and Inclusion.
One of the programs has been the Citizenship Project which promotes civic engagement. Now in its third year, the participants will be sharing their COVID-19 recovery recommendations with City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam on February 17—their recommendations centre the experience of people who have disabilities.
For Mendelsohn the programming has been integral during the pandemic to keep the teenagers and adults engaged in activities with their peers. And while there were steep learning curves in terms of technological logistics required for virtual learning, it was a priority to make the sessions easily accessible as quickly as possible.
“We really wanted to be an anchor for people in their day and know they can socialize and have the arts programming and learning. We designed our programs to be one click programs, so once you’re in you have different activities coming to you for two hours at a time.”
And it has been successful with one participant saying, “I love meeting new friends and doing theatre and songwriting online. It’s so fun and I can do it on zoom with everyone.” A family member added, “This program is a lifesaver. We are going through a very tough time. This is a bright spot in our day.”
Mendelssohn also said the staff call community members to check in and make sure their needs are being met. Even though the pandemic has caused tremendous difficulties the silver lining is now people can access the programming from all over Canada and the United States, and for those who can’t leave their home, being in a more tech-focused environment has allowed for greater access to the sessions being offered at the MNJCC.
This February, Mendelsohn is glad to see the synagogues, federations, organizations, and community centres choosing to engage more and celebrate disability awareness and inclusion, however, continuity continues to be “a big issue.”
“We miss out on the fact that there are many people who aren’t engaged because of barriers and they don’t feel like they belong. When we look at continuity, we look at what does it mean to belong to a community? And how will the next generation be supported? One in five people have a disability and one in five Jewish families are affected.”
While there is still much work for the MNJCC to do, there are many possibilities for where programming can take them.
But in order for there to be a full sense of belonging and inclusion Mendelsohn emphasized that meeting community needs is not just for people who have disabilities, but is also for seniors, the LGBTQ+ community, and others. Inclusion can’t take place without centralizing the voices of those one is trying to include, or as Mendelsohn said, “nothing about us, without us.”
It’s this mentality that drives her work and pushes the MNJCC to keep striving towards being a centre for the community.
Header photograph courtesy of Effie Biliris.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.