February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a time that allows us to explore the complexity of the Jewish belief that every person was created in God’s image. Although each of us is clearly different from one another, we all resemble the Creator, and no one is greater or lesser, more or less deserving of life and dignity.
That concept is easier to accept in theory than it is in practice. And family struggles to deal with disabilities in an unforgiving world are well-known. For example, in “Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain,” Whitney Ellenby, a lawyer, writer and mother based in Montgomery County, Maryland, details her struggles and triumphs with her son’s autism. She tells of attending a Broadway performance where, despite her son sitting in the back row in a section reserved for people with disabilities, his “yelps and vigorous bouncing in his seat” disturbed people around him. “A nearby woman in a wheelchair was the first to cast a dark glare,” she wrote, and mother and son were quickly asked to leave. Ellenby’s call to action: regular sensory-friendly opportunities for people with disabilities – a reasonable request for accommodation.
The Jewish community has heeded that call, and those of other parents and individuals who grapple with similar challenges. Jewish organizations work with movie theaters to set up sensory-friendly showings; Jewish summer camps schedule newly accommodating activities; synagogues offer services with soft music, dim lighting and comfortable seating. Locally, in December, a staffer at Gesher Disability Resources offered tips to make the holidays inclusive. They’re all moves in the right direction.
In addition, in this year’s JDAIM guide, there is a list of related suggestions that synagogues can adopt:
1. Announce page numbers often. Describe the prayer book and commentary by color and size, in addition to name. Use a manual scoreboard to show page numbers.
2. Invite people with disabilities and mental health conditions ahead of time to participate in a service. Honor them by being called to the Torah and help them practice the blessings. Ask them and their family members to offer a d’var Torah, carry the Torah and otherwise participate in the services.
3. If the bimah is not accessible, move the reading desk to the main level of the sanctuary.
4. During this month, focus some conversations about inclusion in Torah study and sermons, and raise the issue with your board and in committee meetings.
5. Use social media to promote inclusion. Post about your events, and quote text that resonates with Jewish values about inclusion.
6. Provide prayer books and Torah commentaries in accessible format (i.e., Braille, large-print, audio).
These are relatively easy fixes. We urge each member of the community and each institution to raise awareness of and increase inclusion of people with disabilities, as we are all created in God’s image. JN