(Recently I was asked by a local synagogue to give a Friday night sermon on the inclusion of people who have disabilities in the synagogue and in Jewish life. This is the text:)
The Torah portion this week tells of when G-d called upon Moses to free the Jews from Egypt.
Moses was reluctant to take on the job fearing his speech disability would make the task difficult and perhaps humiliating. Moses said, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” But the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus)
G-d was undeterred, saying it is he who makes all people, those with and without disabilities. He believed Moses was up to the task and that his disability did not in any way disqualify him. He was still a Jew and had all the duties and obligations of any other Jew.
We are welcomed into the world with a brit milah or a naming ceremony. When we die we are sent off with a funeral and grieved, as people who care about us sit shiva. How well are Jews with disabilities included in the synagogue in those years in between? Are they given the opportunity to exercise their obligations as Jews?
“For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”(Isaiah)
Tuesday at the URJ Biennial Rabbi David Saperstein excitedly announced a partnership between a coalition of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, and the Ruderman Family Foundation to make synagogues and Jewish life across America more inclusive of Jews with disabilities. I was thrilled! Finding the tweet I clicked on the YouTube link to see the announcement. I clicked the button for captioning and this is what I got:
“We take great pride on a biennial separates… The room in Family Foundation under the leadership of its president a room in the foundation is doing transformative work mom in seeking to change the culture in the practice a bar national movement in our individual synagogues to make inclusion the norm a more institutional end our religious life through he may know to help roll out a coalition Reform Conservative Orthodox community across the Jewish community simply put armor I hear we r honored to have this partnership led by dream remain who is truly a visionary…”
It goes on. URJ failed to provide professional captioning and Google’s very inaccurate automatic speech to text translation kicked in. And nobody bothered to check. The announcement about inclusive Judaism was not inclusive of people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.
Later in the video Rabbi Saperstein asks about the inclusion of the “differently able”. This phrase, offered up a few decades ago as one thought to be polite or politically correct, is outdated and meaningless. It is fine to say “people who have disabilities”. Sadly Rabbi Saperstein never bothered to consult anyone who understands disability issues when he wrote his comments and questions.
Tuesday William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America wrote a column for eJewishPhilanthropy.com entitled Community: A Gift for the Jewish Future. He tells us approximately 20% of the population has at least one disability and they have been failed by the Jewish community. He says we must provide ramps, accessible bathrooms, braille prayer books, teachers trained to teach children on the Autism spectrum, camps that include programs for children with intellectual disabilities and sign language interpreters for services.
I can’t disagree with anything Mr. Daroff says. However I will go beyond it because I think he, like many other people, has inaccurate information. People who are culturally Deaf, that is people whose primary language is American Sign Language, make up approximately 5% of the population of people who do not hear well. Yet too often, when arranging accommodations for events, organizers provide only ASL interpreters. That leaves the rest of the audience with hearing difficulties, the vast majority, unable to understand what’s going on.
I’m Hard of Hearing. My primary language is English. The accommodations most appropriate for me are assistive listening systems and real time captioning or CART. But CART isn’t sexy or beautiful. CART is just words on a screen. ASL interpreters are wonderfully dramatic and a very visible reminder that the organizer is being accommodating. Provide both accommodations.
Braille materials are good for people who are Braille literate. But do not forget the majority of congregants who have vision disabilities. Most of them lose vision as they age and do not use Braille. They need large print materials. Provide both accommodations.
Disability is the one club any of us can join at any time either temporarily or permanently. “A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the holy one, blessed be God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and each one of us is unique.” Mishnah Sanhedrin
What do we do?
- Understand that not all disabilities are visible. Hearing loss, impaired vision, ADD/ADHD, psychiatric disabilities, intellectual and cognitive disabilities cannot be identified immediately when someone walks in the door. However, if you see someone who looks confused or lost or even slightly agitated, walk over and say, “Hi.” Introduce yourself. You might just learn what they need to feel comfortable in the synagogue.
- Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Don’t overthink what you say. This is another human being you are addressing. Be kind, be respectful, be a friend.
- Know the accommodations offered by the synagogue for people who have disabilities. What accommodations? Find out if the synagogue offers any.
- Gently, quietly, respectfully offer assistance. Let the person decide if help is required and if so, what kind of help. Please don’t make assumptions and don’t push assistance when it isn’t wanted. Most of us with a visible disability have a “door story”. This is when someone insists on holding open a door for us… when we didn’t want to go through the door.
- Think of your initial meeting with a newcomer who has a disability as a first encounter with a potential new friend. This person could become one of your favorite people in the whole world. “Do not look at the container, but what is in it.” (Pirke Avot)
But people can’t use what they don’t know about. By having, at the door to the sanctuary, a small table with assistive listening devices and large print siddurs you make it possible for people to find things that make participating in services easier. By doing it this way, they do not have to ask for help, it is already offered. This is a mitzvah. Consider letting people know about available accommodations in the bulletin on the website and in the synagogue.
“Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirke Avot). We are told to be part of the Jewish community. But are people with disabilities included fully?
A study released in September shows a big gap between what Jews say they want and what really happens. Although 89% of the Jews polled said they “strongly supported” including people with disabilities in Jewish life, 19% of Jews with disabilities in the sample also reported that they have “been turned away or unable to participate in a Jewish event or activity because of the disability.”
In Leviticus we are commanded, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.”
Today those stumbling blocks can be anything from an inaccessible bima to front doors that are heavy to open. They can be services that are difficult for people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to understand. They can be congregation websites that don’t work with screen readers used by people who are blind or visually impaired. We are obligated to remove these stumbling blocks.
Much of what can be done costs nothing or very little. Much of what should be done begins now with awareness and a sense of dedication and purpose.
Develop a plan: a 5-year plan and a 10-year plan. But make progress, not just plans.
“All Israel is responsible for one another,” is taught in Mishnah Sanhedrin. As Jewish inclusion activist Shelley Richman Cohen stated, “This is not charity, it is obligation.” Just as G-d insisted Moses fulfill his obligation to his fellow Jews disability or not, the Jewish community must fulfill its obligation to include Jews with disabilities.
We end Shabbat services by singing a song. One of my favorites is from Psalm 133: Hinei ma tov u’ma na’im shevet achim gam yachad. Behold how good and pleasant it is when ALL people live together as one.