Celebrating Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month

Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) means being able to ensure that Jewish people with disabilities are able to access the Jewish community. During this month, we run educational programming and campaigns on the challenges Jews with disabilities face, changes that are needed to reach full inclusivity, and how to make these changes.

Religious organizations are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The religious exemption to the ADA means that religious organizations are not required to:

  • Install accessibility features such as ramps and elevators
  • Provide accommodations for services, schools and events
  • Allow service animals on their premises

As a result, it is very common for religious organizations to not have accessible buildings, not provide accommodations such as sign language interpreters, or ban congregants from bringing service animals.

If a religious organization is to provide accommodations for people with disabilities, it needs to be because they want to. JDAIM provides an essential opportunity: a way to convince Jewish communities that accommodations are necessary and instruct these communities on how to put accommodations in place. JDAIM is also great for promoting disability etiquette, neurodiversity, and disability acceptance. My mentor and fellow committee member, Bob Gumson, has this to say about what JDAIM means to him:

“Inclusion in places of worship may not be a right under the ADA but it is right! As a blind person and longtime disability rights advocate, I know how important it is to have a voice at the table.  JDAIM reminds everyone in our spiritual community that we need doors open and an equal playing field to lead us down the path of holiness.”

Banner that reads " getting involved with the synagogue inclusion committee"

In 2016, our Rabbis signed on to the Ruderman Family Foundation’s Ruderman Inclusion Initiative. This initiative provides support to synagogues who wish to start inclusion committees. Knowing about my disability advocacy work, the Rabbis asked me if I would be co-chair of our committee.

I agreed to be co-chair because I saw it as the way I could fix many of the problems I experienced growing up. When I was three years old, I was told I could no longer attend the synagogue’s nursery school because they did not have the resources to serve an autistic child. While I was allowed to attend Hebrew school at the synagogue, teachers often did not understand how I learned or interacted with my peers. Bullying and exclusion were common in Hebrew school and the synagogue’s youth group. Additionally, the synagogue’s services were often loud, crowded, and had a heavy perfume smell. Many autistic people cannot handle these conditions.

I eventually learned other stories from Jewish people with disabilities who experienced barriers to the community. One family friend needed to be carried down a flight of stairs to attend Hebrew school because her childhood synagogue did not have an elevator. Another was not allowed to bring his service dog on the Bimah (ritual stage) at his former synagogue. My synagogue is a lot better now than I was a child: The Nursey and Hebrew schools have what they need to serve students with disabilities and try to reach them. Still, my committee still actively tries to improve all aspects of our synagogue.

The very first thing we did as a committee was request an accessibility audit from the Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley. An employee of the center toured our synagogue and told what adjustments we needed to make so our building and grounds would be up to ADA standard. Our next step was to distribute a needs survey to find out what other accommodations were needed. These included, but were not limited to:

  • Large print prayer books
  • Assisted Listening Devices
  • A policy banning the use of fragrances like perfume or cologne
  • Language stating that service animals are welcome

We also plan workshops and events about disability etiquette, what it is like to live with a disability, and how the intersection of Judaism and disability plays out in greater society.

The hardest part of starting an inclusion committee is convincing your synagogue membership that the initiative is needed in the first place. Some people may feel that due to the religious exemption to the ADA, the synagogue does not need to take on the extra costs of disability accommodations. Others may be against certain accommodations, such as banning fragrances or allowing service animals.

To overcome these obstacles, you need to remind your synagogue  members of the Jewish values which mandate that we include people with disabilities. My committee found a passage from the Torah (Jewish holy book) that we use as our motto. This passage is “Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind, nor curse the deaf”. Our committee also often discusses values such as duty to community, the inherit rights of all people, and repairing the world with our synagogue members.

banner that reads "creating a comfort room"

Out of everything that my committee has accomplished, I am most proud of our Comfort Room. Many people who answered our needs survey had said that they or their child had sensory issues, and there was currently nowhere to go in the event of sensory overstimulation. While trying to think of a solution, I eventually came up with the idea of building a Comfort Room in our synagogue.

I had learned about Comfort Rooms during my committee work with the Office of Mental Health. Comfort Rooms are quiet rooms filled with calming tools which are often used an alternative to restraint or seclusion in mental health, developmental disability and juvenile justice facilities. When I mentioned to Stephanie Orlando that I was thinking about building a comfort room, she gave me a CD-ROM containing an Office of Mental Health toolkit for designing comfort rooms.

Using the toolkit Stephanie had given me, we chose a suitable room in our school wing and made a plan for transforming it into a Comfort Room. The toolkit advised us which types of wall paint, flooring, and items to use. However, the toolkit’s advice on setting policies for use of the Comfort Room was just as important as its’ advice for the design of the room itself. The toolkit stated that the comfort room was to be used by one person at a time and was not to be used for reward or punishment.

The Comfort Room has been one of the committees’ greatest successes. Both the nursery school students and synagogue members have used it. I know that if the Comfort Room was around when I was younger, I would have had a much easier time attending services.

banner with text that reads "ensuring inclusion"

The accessibility fixes and accommodations I mentioned are a large part of ensuring people with disabilities are included in the community. What is more important, however, is realizing that inclusion is about more than just ramps and assisted listening devices. Inclusion is a state of mind. Any community needs to have the inclusion mindset in order to be truly inclusive.

This inclusion mindset has a few parts to it. The first part is viewing people with disabilities not as charity cases, but as equal and vital members of the community. Secondly, it is people with disabilities themselves who need to express what they need to participate in the community, rather than others deciding for them. Finally, everyone must always be careful that their words, plans and actions do not exclude or stigmatize people with disabilities.

The religious exemption to the ADA disproportionately impacts people from minority religions such as Judaism. There are often only one or two synagogues in entire areas. If the only option in a particular area is not accessible, Jewish people with disabilities are entirely unable to participate in their community. This is why JDAIM is so important. Inclusion efforts are often the only way Jewish people with disabilities are able to access their religion and culture.