February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month!
Melanie Hecker, MPA
For as far back as I can remember, my family has always wanted to instill a sense of Jewish identity and pride in me. As the granddaughter of Cantor Daniel Chick, they wanted me to have a genuine interest and background in not only Jewish prayers, holidays and customs but also our food, culture and history. The ability for me to access experience, however, was often limited due to my being autistic and having mental health issues.
People with disabilities live in a world which is not set up for our minds or bodies. We very often speak about this in the context of employment, education, housing or transportation. Like these areas of living, religious life is set up for the average body or mind. My personal experience always had this hard truth as the background.
During my childhood, Hebrew School often did not have many tools needed to teach someone who learned, thought, and process information differently. Attending services was also a challenge. Services would often be loud or contain people wearing copious amounts of perfume. Whenever services became too much for my sensory issues to handle, there was never any place for me to escape to. Social events were also an aspect of the synagogue I felt I needed to escape from because the temple’s youth group usually excluded me.
My struggles were challenging, but I am not the only one in my disability rights circles to have experienced barriers to the community. One family friend needed to be carried down a flight of stairs to attend Hebrew School because her synagogue lacked an elevator. Another family friend was not allowed to bring his guide dog onto the “bimah”, or ritual stage. These stories and more are the reason why Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month was created.
Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is not only an awareness campaign, but also a call for action. It calls upon our community to make our spaces, services, events and education accessible and welcoming for all people. While religious organizations are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, people who celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month are dedicated to following the Act as much as they can. These efforts can include anything from installing ramps or acquiring large-print prayer books to establishing fragrance-free policies or setting aside quiet spaces.
As the co-chair of Congregation Ohav Shalom’s inclusion committee, I am extremely proud of the work we have done. We have made modifications to bring our building up to ADA standard, acquired assistive listening devices, built a “comfort room” for overstimulated congregants and a lot more. These tangible accommodations have been paired with educational campaigns promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life. Our efforts, combined with a change in attitudes over the year, have led to our services, events and education becoming what I needed as a child.
The success of our committee gives me hope. It gives me confidence that synagogues, Jewish community centers, and Hebrew schools all over the country and the world will be able to be fully welcoming of people with disabilities. I cannot wait to see what the future of our movement has in store.