Shelly Christensen, MA, FAAIDD of Minneapolis, Minn. has been named the 2021 recipient of the Religion and Spirituality Leadership Award. You can watch the award presentation and Shelly’s speech below and learn more about Shelly on this page.
Christensen is a pioneer and leader in the faith community disability and mental health inclusion field. Her career spans over twenty years and was anchored by her experiences as the parent of a child with autism. Long before she was an emerging leader in the field, Shelly was trained as a parent advocate, unwaveringly holding the school accountable for her son’s rights to a free appropriate public education as mandated in the IDEA. The family’s synagogue and religious school their sons attended treated all children with equity and respect, seamlessly adapting education to meet each child’s needs and ensuring his lifelong connection to his Jewish identity and community.
Twenty-five years after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota, Christensen earned a Master of Arts degree in Developmental Disabilities from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Her graduate work centered on the parent experience when a child is diagnosed, particularly four universal needs: getting information about the disability, locating services, finding social and emotional support, and making meaning.
Shelly Christensen began her professional career as the Program Manager of a new program, the Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities. Her innovative leadership approach supported synagogues, schools, community centers, and other agencies to significantly adapt attitudes toward people with disabilities and those who love them, applying theological texts, employing person-centered support, and prioritizing inclusion throughout the organization. After the publication of her first book, The Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities, she was in demand as a keynote speaker, trainer, and mentor to many Jewish communities in North America.
In 2009, Christensen co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month with the Jewish Special Education Consortium. The purpose was to coalesce communities and organizations to raise awareness about disability inclusion and designating one month for JDAIM. Shelly coordinates this grassroots initiative. A handful of communities and organizations participated the first year. Now JDAIM is recognized around the world by national and international organizations as well as locally. Shelly also consults with an interfaith initiative, Community for All, which is based on JDAIM.
In her 2018 book, From Longing to Belonging—A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community, she weaves stories, practical strategies and step by step guidance, as well as references to supporting biblical text, to foster diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2020 Shelly and colleague Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer co-created “Everyone’s Welcome-A Fresh Conversation About Disability.” Everyone’s welcome is a twice-monthly webinar series in which guests from diverse faiths, practices, interests, and lived experiences share their stories and their work. Shelly is currently developing an online course based on From Longing to Belonging that will launch as a pilot in 2021.
The Award was presented at the AAIDD Religion and Spirituality Interest Network Forum on June 24, 2021