We have been referred to, and refer to ourselves, as the “People of the Book.” Actually, we seem more to be the people of the question. The Torah is filled with questioners, challengers, activists. The Talmud: more questions, clarifications, debates, arguments over every word, nuance and point.
So what does that have to do with The New Normal? With the mandate to include people with disabilities in the Jewish community? With disability services in Jewish institutions? Everything!
Let’s start asking more questions: not for the sake of asking questions, but in order to move forward and build a more inclusive community. Inclusion is our individual and collective issue: not the exclusive domain of people with disabilities, their families, caregivers, service providers or Jewish communal professionals.
Question: How do we, indeed, “Welcome all with joy”? [Pirke Avot 1:15]
“But where do I start?” you might ask. “I don’t even know enough to ask questions.”
But I think you do. Let’s try a few.
1. Do I say, “They have an autistic son,” or “They have a son with autism?” The latter — this is “people-first” language — communicates that autism is only one of many important things to know about this son.
2. Are there steps to my synagogue that are potential barriers to anyone who has trouble getting around? Can people open the door by themselves If they are on crutches? Using a walker? A wheelchair?
3. Can everyone get into the offices? Are the doors wide enough to accomodate a walker, wheelchair or scooter? Is there enough room in the office to maneuver a mobility aid from reception into an inner room?
4. Bathrooms. Is there a button to push that will open the door? Is there room to navigate inside? A sufficiently wide stall? Can anybody access the sink, soap dispenser, towels, dryer?
5. Does my synagogue/sisterhood/men’s club/brotherhood/youth group have a stated policy on the inclusion of people with disabilities? If so, is it publicized, part of its publications, posted on its website? What about our religious/Hebrew/day school have such a policy and is it publicized? Does the school have policies and procedures for accommodating children who learn differently?
While recognizing that Inclusion is far more than accessibility and accommodation, let us begin with these questions; more will be forthcoming. Without the questions, change is elusive. I invite you to submit your own questions to this blog so that we may share our experiences and our progress.
May we learn and grow together.
Sandra Block started her career as an English teacher and went on to a career in non-profit management: she was the assistant director of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of St. Joseph County in Indiana and also worked as a consultant. Now she serves on the board of Jewish Family Service in Houston in addition to chairing that city’s Yom Limmud. And, of course, she is an avid volunteer, offering her services to both people with disasblities and the elderly.