February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. What I find fascinating is the story of the woman behind this initiative — Shelly Thomas Christensen. I spoke with Shelly recently to discuss her experience as a parent, advocate and business woman.
Shelly identifies as a mom of a son with Asperger’s Syndrome who was not diagnosed until he was in high school. She reports feeling frustrated and angry as she advocated for him to receive services in his public school, seeing firsthand how little the professionals at his school were invested in him achieving academic success.
“I just detest people blocking others’ success,” she reflected inspiring her to turn her energy towards making a difference in this arena. Convinced she could change the way things were, she became a trained parent advocate, gaining knowledge and strength. Although her son’s experience in his synagogue school was positive because he was treated like any other student, Shelly learned this was not the case for many people in the Jewish community. This motivated her to turn her attention to a new initiative at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis supporting people with disabilities in Jewish community life.
“We are not just someone’s mitzvah project,” she says. “All people deserve the respect to grow to be who they can be, including holding a job. That was the beginning,” she reflects.
While surrounded by successful business owners with disabilities, Shelly experienced her “aha” moment: “If people with disabilities can own their own businesses, so can I!” Learning from those whom she initially helped realize their potential, Shelly launched her consulting company — Inclusion Innovations. What she quickly noticed was that she was one of a handful of people representing faith communities in important disability rights spaces and decided to spread this novel idea throughout the Jewish community. She describes her business as designing, “individualized strategies and programs for faith communities ready to explore ways to shift to a more inclusive environment.” Through this work, she could help individuals with disabilities get more of what they want out of life as valued members of the Jewish community. For Shelly, helping someone get what they want and need out of their faith community naturally leads to these same individuals being seen by their fellow congregants as multifaceted individuals — employees, spouses, parents, athletes, and so much more. She emphasizes, “When we value people, anything is possible.”