Each Purim, Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice charges its young adult leaders – a group of 20- or 30-something Jews involved in progressive activism– with planning and organizing a community Purim party. The event, called Gragger (Noisemaker), is described as “wild and raucous” and a “rowdy call for justice and joy.” Featuring homemade hamantaschen, a costume contest, “rad” political theatre, live music and a DJ, the event seems to have everything that one could ask for – except for a wheelchair-accessible venue.
“We regret that the location is not accessible to folks using wheelchairs,” reads broadly disseminated Facebook and publicity material for Gragger. Though later investigation would find that certain parts of the venue can be navigated by a wheelchair, promotional material and the Facebook page for the event warned wheelchair users against attending as of Friday afternoon before the Saturday event.
When a local community member reached out to us with this information, The New Normal decided to investigate. After speaking to staff at Boston Workmen’s Circle, who confirmed that concern over the lack of accessibility had been communicated to them by a community member two weeks prior, The New Normal was directed to Lisa Gallatin, Executive Director of Boston Workmen’s Circle. Speaking the morning before the event, she made the case for Gragger’s venue choice.
“We’re not at this venue because we love it, but this is the only space that was possible,” stressed Gallatin, noting that they had looked for others. “This is a party that goes late and has not only loud recorded music but also a live band and a lot of venues just don’t allow that kind of loud music until 1:00 a.m.” Noting that other important criteria for the organization included size, location and the ability to serve alcohol, she indicated that the venue had been in use for the event for the last three years. Organizers had attempted to locate accessible space, but after being unable to find a location that met their other stated requirements, decided to move forward with the current venue.
“We’re very regretful when this event or whenever any event of ours takes place in an inaccessible space,” Gallatin went on to note that prior to its current location, Gragger had rented a local union hall, but was prohibited from returning due to owner concern that the event was too wild to allow in their space. “One of the most important criteria is that the venue has to feel comfortable having a wild and raucous party and a lot of venues are just not open to that,” she added.
When asked about future plans for Gragger and other Boston Workmen’s Circle events, Gallatin stressed that the organization was aware of accessibility concerns and had recently voted to launch a significant fundraising effort to raise money to make renovations to their headquarters for reasons of both wheelchair access and energy efficiency. In spite of this, she and other Workmen’s Circle representatives indicated that the venue may remain the same in future years.
“It’s a party, so bottom line is that the venue has to be suitable for throwing a party,” stressed Gallatin “For this particular event we needed a venue that was able to accommodate this particular event which is a wild and raucous late night party, and both last year and this year this was the only venue that was possible.”
How should we react to the argument made by Gallatin and Boston Workmen’s Circle? Is accessibility just one priority among many, one that groups can set aside when it proves inconvenient as compared to issues, like size and alcohol availability, that are deemed to matter more? What does this kind of calculation imply about the extent to which the Jewish community truly considers inclusion of people with disabilities a priority?
It is undoubtedly true that finding an accessible venue is difficult in Boston, as it is in Washington and New York and every other major American city. There is a reason for that. If community groups were unwilling to offer their business to venues which fail to comply with federal civil rights law, more accessible venues would exist. When accessibility is a second-tier need in comparison with other priorities potential renters enumerate, they do not.
Every year, hundreds of businesses and non-profits make the same calculation Boston Workmen’s Circle made, and the choices that they make leave us with our current inadequate status quo. How is it then that an organization that is specifically dedicated to the pursuit of systemic change in support of equality doesn’t see it that way? How can a group which would never dare adopt a policy discriminating on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation feel comfortable stating that people with mobility disabilities are not welcome at one of their major community events?
We would like to believe that this is an isolated incident that will not occur again. Regrettably, it isn’t and it will – this is a familiar story, and one that plays out with many disabilities and in many Jewish settings, from summer camps and day schools to synagogues and social justice organizations. For too many people, accessibility and inclusion are desirable traits, yes, but not required ones. Like becoming carbon-neutral or buying a hybrid car, welcoming people with disabilities is something that the Jewish community applauds when it occurs – but is inclined to be all too understanding when it does not.
It is time for the Jewish community to embark upon a real cheshbon nefesh – real soul searching – with respect to our own communal hypocrisy regarding disability. Is this willingness to accept inequality not profoundly shameful? Does it not put the lie to our ostensible commitment to include all Jews? Many in the Jewish leadership who speak loudly and without reservation in support of all manner of causes and moral ideals display an incongruous degree of timidity when asked to make commitments to disability access. Almost a quarter-century after the ADA, they hem and haw, implying that the call to bring people with disabilities into our society remains a new one to which they had previously been ignorant or are only now able to consider responding to.
This problem is not limited to the more traditional elements in American Jewry, many of whom are used to being deemed reactionary. As this troubling episode indicates, failures of accessibility are common among both those who trumpet their progressivism as well as in the more conservative parts of the Jewish world. As Jewish Disability Awareness month draws to a close, The New Normal wonders when Jews with disabilities will no longer be seen as an optional component of our supposedly shared community. How long will the shame of exclusion plague our people? It is up to us, as a community, to treat accessibility as a minimum requirement we are committed to – not as a trendy feature to be discarded when other priorities are more valued.
Ari Ne’eman is the President and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a national community advocacy organization run by and for Autistic adults. Since 2010, he has served as one of President Obama’s appointees to the National Council on Disability, where he currently chairs the Council’s Entitlements Committee and is both the youngest and the first openly Autistic presidential appointee in American history. He is a Schechter and Ramah dropout and was one of the New York Jewish Week’s 36 by 36 in 2010.