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How to Make Jewish Spaces More Accessible for Disabled Jews Like Me

One in four Americans has at least one disability. If you live long enough, the odds are that you will develop a disability. It’s just part of the spectrum of the human condition.

The Torah is full of disabled heroes. Moses had a speech impediment. Jacob wrestled with an angel and was left with a limp. Leah suffered from eye problems, and Miriam was exiled from camp due to leprosy. Saul struggled with severe mental illness, and Isaac was blind in later life and may have had PTSD. In fact, Aaron speaking for Moses is the first instance of reasonable accommodations in the Torah. Our tradition encourages us all to learn, gather together in community, and allow for accommodations to make that happen. Leviticus 19:14 explicitly spells it out: “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.”

Here in the U.S., religious institutions are not required to adhere to the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means it’s up to the organization’s leadership and members to ensure that spaces and services are accessible.

I have multiple disabilities and am a manual wheelchair user. For a few years, before I switched to a wheelchair, I used a cane. I couldn’t stand for very long, and I always felt self-conscious during services when everyone stands. I would either struggle to stand — so I wouldn’t stick out — or sit and deal with some curious stares and intrusive questions. The first time a rabbi said, “Please stand if you are able,” it made me feel like an acknowledged member of the congregation. I stayed seated and was able to have a much more meaningful time without the added stress on my body taking me out of the moment. It was such a simple thing for the rabbi to say — only four additional words —  but it made me feel like a full member of the community.

I recently asked disabled members of Jewish Twitter about negative experiences they’ve had in Jewish spaces and stories poured in. One new wheelchair user requested that their school move a third-floor service to the first floor; the student president asked if they were sure they couldn’t climb the stairs. I know families with autistic kids who were asked to leave services because they were “distracting.” One temple member with low-vision let their 20-year membership lapse after the synagogue refused to buy large-print siddurs (prayer books).

As a community, we can do so much better. Here are some basic guidelines to help you provide access to disabled people in your Jewish spaces.

1. Always assume a disabled person has agency and knows what they need. Don’t do things for a person, do them with a person. Do ask the person how you can make things more accessible for them. My favorite example of this is when people run in front of my wheelchair, cutting me off in the process, to open a door that I could have very easily opened myself. A simple, “Do you need help with that?” could have saved us both embarrassment.

2. Do you know who is homebound or chronically ill in your community? Do you reach out to them? Have you asked them how you can help provide better access? When I was at my sickest, I would regularly miss months of services at a time. While a few people would check in with me at home, others asked me nonstop where I had been whenever I would return to services.

3. Build physical improvements such as ramps, handrails, automatic door openers, etc., to make sure that your bathroom is genuinely accessible. That means that faucets, changing tables, paper towel dispensers — everything — must be within reach for a seated person. Ensure the accessible restroom is clearly labeled and that the door isn’t too heavy; it should require no more than 5 pounds of force to open.

4. Do you have a ramp to the bimah? If not, consider building one, or placing a desk and the Torah on the same level as the sanctuary’s seats so that everyone can access it. There’s nothing that makes me feel lonelier as a disabled Jew than to visit a temple that doesn’t have access to the bimah. Have your plan for access in place before it’s needed to not cause anyone embarrassment.

5. Remodeling? Hire an architect who uses Universal Design standards. These standards go beyond ADA regulations and provide better accessibility to all who attend. Involve people with various disabilities to help consult on remodeling plans.

6. Do you have a room that you can turn into a Quiet Room during services, events, and meetings? A dark, cool, quiet space to retreat to is wonderful to provide for people with various disabilities. When my cerebrospinal fluid leaks were terrible, and the only relief I could get was from being flat, I would go into the room used as a classroom and library and lie on the couch on and off throughout services.

7. Advocate for Zoom (or similar) coverage of in-person meetings and services post-pandemic. When our lives shifted online due to the pandemic, many home-bound people became able to attend services for the first time in years — or ever. Disability activists are worried that our access through Zoom to live events may be curtailed again as the pandemic ends. Weirdly, many disabled people have more access to the world now than before the pandemic. I’d hate to see that go away.

8. Switch to scent-free soaps and cleaning products. Ask that attendees skip perfume or other scented grooming items. One of my medical conditions, Mast Cell Activation Disease (MCAD), causes me to develop severe sensitivities to fragrances and cleaning products. I don’t use them in my home, but I can’t control what people use out in the world, which means that I’m always at risk of getting sick. Refraining from using them also helps people who get migraines.

9. Present information in more than one format. This includes captions, image descriptions, audio, braille, large print, and so on. Do you have an ASL translator on call?

10. Is your web page accessible? Hire a designer who knows the ins and outs of web accessibility. The ADA requires that websites be accessible, and even though synagogues aren’t obliged to follow the ADA rule, it’s still best practice to do so. The web is the first place people go to for information about your organization. If it’s not readable by a screen reader, for instance, then that person will move on to the next Jewish organization.

11. Announce and use a whiteboard to list page numbers during services. Whiteboards help people who are hard of hearing or deaf, as well as people like me who have brain fog and forget numbers easily.

12. Leave spaces throughout seating areas for wheelchair and walker users. There were many times that I would roll into kiddush, and my husband would have to scramble to move chairs so I could have a space to park my wheelchair while I tried to wrangle our toddler.

13. If you’re serving food, make sure it’s labeled with every ingredient listed. People with food sensitivities and allergies have to be very careful about what they eat. I’ll skip trying something if I don’t know what’s in it.

14. Be flexible when accommodation needs clash. What happens if one member has a service dog and another has severe dog allergies? Or one person is hard-of-hearing, but another has sound sensitivity due to migraines? True accessibility requires the ability to make changes on the fly in order to accommodate the needs of various people. It requires a pause, followed by thoughtfulness and creativity. I know of one synagogue that has a member with severe back issues who needs to lie flat as often as possible. The temple manager found a folding table and set it up in an aisle of the sanctuary. The member lies on the table and can be present for services. Another Twitter user told me that their synagogue gave them a music stand for their siddur, so they could turn the pages while still standing with their cane.

These suggestions are just a beginning. As we reach herd immunity and society slowly returns to public life, this is a great time to consider how accessible your Jewish spaces (and your homes and workplaces) genuinely are, and an excellent time to make any necessary changes. After all, and I think Aaron and Moses would agree, making reasonable accommodations is part of our tradition.

Header image by Malte Mueller/Getty Images

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