Disability Awareness: Including Everyone in Our Communities

Within almost every family is a member with a disability. We often think we have few disabled members but that is often because many families and individuals with disabilities feel uncertain about joining a congregation or attending services. These families are more likely to join and stay involved if they are openly welcomed, and if all congregational literature includes mention of accommodations for people with disabilities. Here are some simple, inexpensive and easy steps to take to increase disabilities awareness and inclusion.

At a recent disabilities conference, a Reform congregation member who uses a wheelchair explained that the simple step of providing chairs and tables at Oneg Shabbat would mean that others would not have to bend down to speak to him. Moreover, think how many people who are not obviously disabled (maybe they have an injury, are weakened by an illness or are simply exhausted after a long day) would feel relieved to be able to sit down. Additionally, setting prayer books and snacks on lower tables means people using wheelchairs can get things for themselves and feel that the congregation recognizes the needs of all of its members. Likewise, affixing mezuzot lower on doorframes in addition to higher up is also meaningful to people in wheelchairs—and very intriguing to children!

Encourage everyone at the congregation to use people-first language as it reminds us that we are all more alike than different and that disabilities do not define a person. For example, say, “a child with autism” rather than an autistic child; “a man who uses a wheelchair” rather than a wheelchair bound man; a “young woman who has schizophrenia” rather than a young schizophrenic; or “a teenager who has had a brain injury” rather than a brain-injured teenager.

Seek donors and budgetary means to provide hearing loop amplification equipment for people with hearing impairment and indicate a readiness to provide interpreters for those who are deaf. The number of people with hearing impairments is very high, and as our population ages, that number will only increase. Work with other congregations and community organizations, like Jewish Federations, to find co-funding for these services.

Begin to offer printed material in accessible formats like large print, Braille and audio versions. Seek the assistance of Jewish agencies devoted to helping people with visual impairments.

Provide a ramp to the bimah or a floor-level reading desk for access to the Torah. Bringing the microphone down to a grandparent or parent in a wheelchair so that they can have an aliyah as a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah is a sign of consideration. Nevertheless, it sends a very different message of respect and inclusion when we bring the whole service—bimah and all—to a level at which all can participate.

Thanks to Neil Jacobson of Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA,  and Harriet Rosen of Temple Solel, Paradise Valley, AZ, for contributing to these suggestions.

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Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

About Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW

Rabbi Edythe Mencher serves as Faculty for Sacred Caring Community and Coordinator of the URJ-Ruderman Family Foundation Partnership for Inclusion of People with Disabilities. Rabbi Mencher was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (New York) in 1999. She received certification from the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in 1989 and currently serves on the faculty of the Training Institute. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from Hunter College School of Social Work and is a licensed clinical social worker. Rabbi Mencher is the major author of Resilience of the Soul -- Developing Spiritual and Emotional Resilience in Adolescents and their Families, a program guide focusing upon how Jewish communities and tradition can help adolescents and their families develop positive ways of managing stress and difficult emotions. Rabbi Mencher is an adjunct faculty member of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Interfaith Doctor of Ministry Program in Pastoral Counseling.

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