by Tamar Davis, CEO
As we approach the end of October and put the Jewish holidays behind us, there’s another holiday that I wanted to highlight (no, it’s not Halloween!). This one is for the whole month: it’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month, or NDEAM. NDEAM celebrates the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities past and present, and showcases supportive, inclusive employment policies and practices. For Gateways, it’s crucial that we’re not only serving children and teens with disabilities, but also including individuals with disabilities as part of the staff who make that work possible. I “sat down” this week with our Administrative Coordinator, Jo Rothman, who joined Gateways a few months ago, for a little Q&A about some of their experiences as a disabled person in the workforce and at Gateways.
Tamar: Were you always comfortable identifying as a person with a disability? I’m open about my own journey of only identifying publicly as such well into my adult years.
Jo: I was born deaf due to an underdeveloped auditory nerve, and am autistic; as a result, I’ve always felt comfortable calling myself disabled! Acknowledging my limits and differences has empowered me to seek supports throughout my life.
Tamar: I’m using the term “person with a disability,” but there are a lot of language options that people might prefer for themselves – do you have a preference?
Jo: I identify as a disabled person. The communities for both Deaf/Hard of Hearing and autistic people prefer identity-first language, and I agree with it! My disabilities don’t need to be separated from me; they’re part of who I am and how I move through the world, and I like to honor those parts of myself.
Tamar: How do you hope a work environment would support you as a, using your preferred term, disabled person?
Jo: As a disabled employee, a lot of what I need and want is patience – patience to repeat oneself or explain things differently when I have trouble hearing or understanding, patience with my adjustment periods, patience with the learning process in general. The best thing any employer has ever done to support me is to simply give me grace as I manage my own processes.
Tamar: Yes, patience is a good approach for any employer to have with an employee as they learn! Jo, where would you like to see more improvement in our society around disability inclusion?
Jo: As a disabled person, I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of spaces explaining what my disabilities are and why I need the supports I need. I’ve been very lucky at Gateways to be among people who understand disability, but in the wider world, I would love to see a shift towards accommodation without the need to share personal details. For example, I need to be doing something with my hands in order to focus; in my school days, being allowed to do that without objections from teachers required a formal letter of accommodation that explained my disabilities. I would love to see a world in which we can all ask for what we need and receive it without having to “prove” the need.
Tamar: Knowing a bit of your point of view now, is there something in particular about about Gateways’ mission that compels you?
Jo: The thing that compels me most about Gateways’ mission, and the reason I am so proud to work here, is the belief that every learner is capable of reaching a strong personal relationship with Judaism. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Teach a child according to his way” – that is, the way in which the child can learn. This teaching has always held significance for me as both a learner and an educator, and I am honored to be part of an organization that truly strives to teach every child according to their way.