Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stumbling blocks

February was Jewish Disability Awareness Month. If this is a surprise, I should add that it was the third annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

I missed the first two altogether and learned about the third after it had begun. According to Rabbi David Saperstein, during February Jewish institutions and organizations were supposed to “undertake a variety of initiatives to raise awareness of disability issues, whether it’s by hosting a panel on disability issues, studying relevant Jewish texts and discussing their application to daily life, volunteering with organizations that aid people with disabilities, or embarking on a holistic re-examination of how the community—our synagogues, schools and other communal institutions—includes, or fails to include, people with disabilities.”

So why did we miss this? One reason is that religious entities, including all houses of worship, are exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act, the law that mandates physical and programmatic access in other settings for people with many kinds of disabilities. Being under no compulsion by civil law to address disability issues, we could choose to ignore them. Another is that the ADA’s requirements for barrier-free design don’t apply to existing buildings, only to new construction and major alterations.

Nevertheless, for both ethical and practical reasons, most new synagogue buildings have included entrance ramps as well as elevators when necessary, as well as wheelchair-accessible restrooms and drinking fountains. Some, but not all, have provided for wheelchair seating in their sanctuaries, accessible telephones, and other accommodations. Some, including many existing synagogue buildings, have added assistive listening systems.

The ethical reasons include the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Stumbling blocks come in many forms, including less-than-accessible buildings, Shabbat services (how many sanctuaries have wheelchair access to the bimah?), and prayer books. We are also told, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” which implies that we should not impose separation on others.

The practical reasons include the Jewish need for unity. Especially in a community as small as ours, we cannot afford to exclude anyone, even inadvertently. Rabbi Saperstein suggests that accommodation for disabilities may be especially important in the Jewish community: the rate of disability increases with age, and the median age in the Jewish community is several years older than in the general population.

Disability awareness is particularly timely for our community because we are preparing to house all of our Jewish activities in one building. Half the space in that building is on a level that is currently accessible only by stairs, and there is no wheelchair-accessible restroom on either floor. The facilities committee has pledged to make necessary accommodations but may not have planned for everything that is needed, so I hope that everyone with specific concerns will be sure to share them with the committee.

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