With the start of February, so too begins Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Of course, there is nothing uniquely Jewish about disabilities, nor is there a greater need for inclusion in February than in any other month. So why observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month 2015 this February?
We encourage Reform congregations to observe and participate in this important, Jewish community-wide initiative because it is Jewish to cherish each and every life; it is Jewish to create communities where each person and family is able to learn, pray, find friends, feel a sense of belonging, and reach their full potential; it is Jewish to dispel prejudices and misconceptions that contribute to isolation, underemployment, and lack of human rights. When Reform congregations observe Jewish Disability Awareness Month together in February, we join with other Jews across North America to make February a month to rededicate ourselves to creating a truly inclusive Jewish community.
In honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, we at the URJ offer a few suggestions to help congregations adopt further awareness and understanding of disabilities. Please feel free to adapt these ideas in ways that fit the needs and culture of your own community – and let us know what your congregation does that might be missing from our list!
- State your congregational commitment to inclusion.” Visit the new URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center and then register to have your synagogue listed as one of the many Reform congregations committed to expanding their inclusion efforts. Then, work with URJ staff to become an exemplar congregation whose inclusion efforts make their congregations open and welcoming for all people. Exemplar congregations will be honored at the 2015 URJ Biennial.
- Use “people first” language in all communications, including spoken, printed, and online resources. Such language recognizes that a disability does not define a person – i.e. “a child with autism,” not “an autistic child”; “a person who stutters” rather than “a stutterer”; and “a child with dyslexia,” not “a dyslexic child.”
- Ensure that all members, including people with disabilities, can contribute to congregational life in meaningful ways. Everyone has something to contribute and every person wants to be a valued and needed member of the community. Invite congregants, including those with disabilities, to participate in committees, worship, and volunteer opportunities.
- Rethink accessibility in your congregation. Chances are, your current mezuzot are out of reach for people who are short of stature or who are in wheelchairs. Place low, accessible mezuzot on all doorposts of your congregation, and involve the community in a ceremony explaining how important it is for all to be able to reach the mezuzah. Place a cup dispenser at an accessible level next to water fountains so everyone can get a drink independently. If the bimah is not accessible by ramp, place a table in the front of the sanctuary so the Torah reading can take place on a level that permits all to participate.
- Plan a special event. Look into inviting a deaf keynote speaker to your congregation or featuring a film, live performance, or art show with a deaf-centric theme. Use this event to demonstrate the possibility and importance of having sign language interpreters and other systems that make it possible for the deaf and hard of hearing to participate. Create a task force to look into ways of working with congregational members and community organizations to arrange and fund these important accommodations. Though you may not be able to schedule such an event during February, you can start the planning process and publicity this month.
- Display clear signage. All signs in your building should clearly indicate accommodations such as elevators, wheelchair-accessible restrooms, parking spaces and seating, large-print materials, loop systems, and other assistive technologies for the deaf and hard of hearing,.
- Publicize your congregation’s commitment to inclusion. Let people know that your congregation is a welcoming and inclusive one by sharing news of existing accommodations and programs and by indicating your willingness to work with people with disabilities to find ways to make participation possible. Include such information in your newsletter, website, and application materials.
- Provide seating at all congregational events. Make sure chairs and tables are available at your oneg, Kiddush, and other gatherings. This allows for the participation of people who use wheelchairs, people of short stature, and others for whom standing for long periods of time may be difficult. Make space for people using wheelchairs throughout the sanctuary, in meeting rooms, and in classrooms so as not to inadvertently segregate people with disabilities.
- Ensure that printed materials are accessible for all congregants. Make large-print copies of prayerbooks available at all services, and consider making available an enlarged, electronic version on an iPad for individuals for whom the large-print version is not sufficient. Similarly, make available digital versions of all printed materials used in educational, social, and worship programs.
- Invite people with disabilities to speak to your congregation. Ask congregants or guest speakers with disabilities to discuss and demonstrate the ways accommodations make it possible for them to live full lives. Such programs should focus on their achievements and contributions, avoiding simulation-centric programs meant to increase empathy. Stay away from programming meant to show adults and children how difficult it would be live with a disability by using techniques, such as by using blindfolds, tying legs together, reading garbled texts, etc. These programs, with their emphasis on what people with disabilities cannot do and on how difficult it would be to have a disability, inadvertently create a diminished impression of the capacities possessed by people with disabilities.
How is your congregation putting into action its commitment to inclusion? Leave a comment below and let us know. Visit the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center for more tips, ideas, resources, and contacts.