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Jews with disabilities share their thoughts on inclusion

Ariella Barker

Ariella Barker

NEW YORK — Discussions about accessibility and inclusion for those with disabilities have become more mainstream in the Jewish world.

But there are plenty of issues that still need to be addressed — from concrete problems, such as synagogues that aren’t accessible to those in wheelchairs, to ignorance about what it means to have a disability and how even well-meaning Jewish institutions make many people feel unwelcome.

To coincide with Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month in February, JTA asked Jews with disabilities to share their thoughts on how the Jewish community is doing in terms of including them.

Inclusion is a matter of Jewish justice.

Rabbi Ruti Regan is a disability advocate and the first openly autistic person to be ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary.

I think that in some ways “inclusion” is the wrong framing, because Jews with disabilities have always been part of the Jewish people. The problem is that our communities have not acted accordingly.

For instance, synagogue sanctuaries have been built with the assumption that everyone who belongs on the bimah can walk and stand. The planned stage for the 2017 JTS ordination–investiture ceremony was not wheelchair accessible. Out of respect for our colleagues and future colleagues, we insisted that a ramp be provided.

We need to build accessibility and equal kavod [honor] into everything we do. We need new approaches to teaching that make room for difference, such as developing methods for group discussions that work when some participants have communication disabilities.

We need to approach disability not as a form of charity but as a Jewish justice issue.

We have excluded people for centuries, and it has left us without expertise and infrastructure. We need to devote considerable resources to catching up. Working for equality is a long-term effort.

Luckily, we’re Jews, and Jewish culture has a lot of wisdom about doing hard things.

As it says in the Mishnah, “It is not upon you to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.”

In love and marriage, disability is treated like a stigma.

Ariella Barker is a fellow at RespectAbility, which works to fight stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities.

As an Orthodox convert with a disability, I have a unique perspective on how the Jewish community deals with disability inclusion.

The community is truly incomparable in terms of being supportive and caring. People with disabilities often struggle with medical issues, wheelchair breakdowns, etc., and the community is always there to help, bring meals or visit, as opposed to the typical response of “you’re in my prayers.”

Where I’ve experienced difficulty in being accepted by the community is in the context of love and marriage.

Despite being a young, intelligent and highly educated attorney, I have been set up with a grandfather of six, a convicted pedophile, the perpetually unemployed or, most common, others with disabilities with whom I have nothing in common other than a disability.

Often this mind frame comes from the intention of ensuring genetically pure non-disabled children.

Obviously no one wishes to have a child with disabilities.

But or refusing to date someone because of perceptions of an “impure” genetic line or disability sends a message that people with disabilities are better off dead or a burden to their loved ones.

Put people with disabilities in leadership roles.

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman is an educator who is believed to be the first blind woman ordained as a rabbi.

One area of progress is the number of Jews with disabilities becoming religious and communal leaders.

Having folks with disabilities in leadership positions sends a message that people with disabilities are wanted as part of the fabric that binds communities together, instead of being seen as a burdensome afterthought, as is often the case.

We are seeing an increasing number of synagogues engaged in access and inclusion work.

Nevertheless, the work is far from done. We must work to make all Jewish communities, including Jewish social spaces, maximally accessible and inclusive. This is also true of service trips and travel opportunities writ large, both in terms of Israel trips and trips to other places of Jewish historical and contemporary import.

Too often we look at a person with a disability and assume that it would be too expensive, burdensome or resource-heavy to include them.

What we fail to ask is, what message are we sending about Jewish communal belonging when we exclude?

Recognize inclusion as a political struggle

Rabbi Julia Watts Belser is an associate professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University and a disability activist.

As a rabbi and a disability activist, one of my commitments is to help Jewish communities recognize disability as a social justice issue.

Disability communities have been on the frontlines of a number of key political struggles: opposing devastating cuts to health care and Medicaid, advocating for disaster response policy that centers the needs of elders and disabled people, and challenging the rollback of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Awareness” is only the first step. We need action.

Jason Lieberman is a disability advocate who has written about living with cerebral palsy.

Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month has been successful in many ways, but we have much work to do. For instance:

1. Form an accessibility or inclusion committee.

2. Perform an accessibility assessment and make a list of doable improvements.

3. Place a note in the bulletin requesting that if people need assistance they should contact the office, the committee, the president of the congregation, the clergy, an usher or gabbai for assistance.

4. Everyone mentioned above should know what is easily available and have access and knowledge what is presently available.

5. Work with committee to see if any homebound people want a minyan in their home for a yahrtzeit.

3 thoughts on “Jews with disabilities share their thoughts on inclusion

  1. Yaakov Watkins

    Nobody talks about being colorblind. Approximately 5% of the US has some problems with color vision. Almost all are men. Never the less government agencies continue to allow color coding in the workplace and government publications

  2. Shobi

    Sad to let you all know that the current ADA laws does not apply to all religious establishments. So they are free to do not provide and include people with disabilities and they are allowed to discriminates people with disabilites. For example, I have struggled with three Rochester, N.Y. Jewish temples about providing an ASL interpreter for the Deaf!
    Hence, the current ADA laws needs a few major tweakings!


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