When congregations talk about becoming more accessible to people with disabilities, there’s an underlying assumption that the congregation has something to offer to the person with a disability.
There’s the usual stuff, of course: the rabbi, the religious school, somewhere to go on Yom Kippur. But if the congregation is full of people who don’t know how to be friends with a person who looks different from themselves and who don’t care to learn, what’s the point? That congregation can have all the ramps and hearing devices imaginable, but it will never be a congregational home for Jews with disabilities.
So if we want to make our congregations into places that are truly welcoming, that do not put stumbling blocks before the blind, then we have to work on our attitudes as well as our architecture. And face it, it’s easier to talk about architecture. Stairways don’t get offended when someone says they have to change; people often do.
A question for every one of us (me included) to ask ourselves periodically: among the people not like myself at my congregation, whom do I know well? By “well,” I mean: Have we ever done anything together outside of the synagogue building? Have I ever given them help, or asked for their help? Have they been invited to my home, or I to theirs? Or make it even more basic: do I greet them by name when I see them on Shabbat? Do I smile?
Often, when challenged about such a thing, we feel defensive and embarrassed: “I don’t know what to say” or “I can’t understand her speech.” If the person has a mental illness or developmental disability, or looks very different, we may feel afraid and be embarrassed to admit it. This is a good reason to reach out to clergy, to say, look, I want to be more welcoming of so-and-so, but I haven’t a clue how to talk to him, or what to say to her, or I feel scared of him. Your rabbi can probably give you some ideas about where to start and will likely be delighted that you have asked.
(Note: as someone pointed out to me recently, there are situations where interaction itself is unwelcome, as with autism. Again, temple staff and clergy can help you figure out what’s welcome and what isn’t.)
Every person brings something unique to our communities. At my home congregation, people with disabilities include a published author, an educator, a bank vice president, a rabbi, and several other people with interesting jobs and/or life stories. People who are different from me in other ways (older, younger, have funny accents not like my funny accent, different income or education level) are also fascinating once I stretch a little to meet them. All of them bring their own gifts to give to the congregation as members. Each of them brings a lot to the table as a potential friend, too.
February is Jewish Disabilities Month. We can look at that as a month to make ourselves more aware of barriers in our synagogues and institutions. Or we can look at it as a month to make ourselves more aware of the barriers in our hearts. Either way, this is the month to remove the stumbling blocks.