Disability with dignity

January 30, 2020

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In order to best serve a community’s diverse needs, accountability and awareness co-exist with Kavod, the Hebrew term that translates to concepts of dignity, honor and respect.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. The community’s commitment to recognize and meet the emotional, functional and physical needs of people with all kinds of disabilities is an ongoing challenge, but initiating and fulfilling steps to meet them is the source of hope and change.

Kavod often expands beyond the game-changing act of building a ramp for a wheelchair or providing hearing devices for those who are hard of hearing. Kavod is actually felt when a synagogue sees people with disabilities as an integral part of their congregation.

“A number of our congregants have disabilities. They are often asked to participate in Shabbat services by opening or closing the ark, given an Aliyah, or playing the guitar,” says Nancy Tucker, Temple Israel’s executive director. “We have a portable ramp for wheelchairs so that members in wheelchairs who get an Aliyah, can go to the bimah. We also have a wheelchair lift that takes people to all four levels of the synagogue.”

“At Temple Emanuel we have wide doors to accommodate wheelchairs and one bathroom in the sanctuary that accommodates wheelchairs. We also have a ramp leading to the entry doors,” says Steve Warsoff, the synagogue’s president. Other than the bima, there are no other steps in our buildings, so individuals can navigate without barriers.”

“Disabilities” are a wide spectrum that include ‘invisible disabilities’ such as reading processing disorders, to more significant/profound disabilities such as cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome.

“The misconception often is that all people with a disability need the same things,” says Kelly Burroughs, CEO, Jewish Family Service of Tidewater. “We all have unique and individualized needs, and there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach.”

How does a blind person see colors? How do we know what people look like? “Ohef Sholom Temple is excited to welcome Dr. Arielle Silverman as a guest speaker for Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month to answer questions such as these for our students, parents, congregants, staff, and board,” says Linda Peck, Ohef Sholom’s executive director.

Blind since birth, Dr. Silverman is an activist with disabilities and a social scientist who is passionate about improving public understandings of disability.

“Dr. Silverman will teach us about disability wisdom. Sociologist Irving Goffman described ‘wise’ people as those who treat people with differences in the same way they would treat “ordinary” people without differences,” says Peck. (For more information, see page 23)

For decades, Jewish Family Service of Tidewater has been stepping up for adults and children with a spectrum of disabilities by honoring their right to participate more fully in activities inside and outside the synagogue. Help in the form of transportation, supervision, support, and companionship opens doors that would otherwise be closed.

“We want to remove barriers so a camper with autism, for example, can enjoy the bunk experience,” says Michelle Walter, coordinator of JFS Special Needs Services. “We partner with the JCC to give campers what they need to do mainstream activities. Sometimes it just takes a little extra help navigating, socializing or communicating.”

The JFS Socialization Group is an opportunity for people with a range of developmental disabilities—from autism, chronic mental illness or intellectual disabilities, and Down Syndrome, to go to temple as a group and participate in programs.

“All synagogues are making an effort to ensure their facilities are more accommodating and inclusive,” says Walter.

“People with disabilities want to be treated wisely—to be respected as full human beings, to be included in the full range of human pursuits and to be empowered to make their own life choices,” says Dr. Silverman.

- Lisa Richmon

Letter to the Editor