People with Disabilities - An Untapped Resource
(This was published in the URJ 'Torah at the Center' - Oct.2009)
I am often asked, “how can my Temple be more welcoming to people with disabilities?’ I say, get us involved. Help us understand how we can contribute to the synagogue. Help us feel needed. Help us feel wanted.
I am a Board member of Temple Sinai in Oakland and the Chair of its Access Committee. After 29 years of working at Wells Fargo, I retired last year as a Senior Vice President to be the CEO of a nationwide staffing and placement company. I have a significant disability caused by Cerebral Palsy which results in my having very slurred speech, requires me to use a powered wheelchair and necessitates that I do activities of daily living in creative ways.
My wife, Denise, who has a similar disability to mine, started the Access Committee many years ago. The Committee worked hard to get common accessibility issues resolved. Temples need to be wheelchair accessible with wheelchair seating throughout. The Arc and Bima must be accessible. The table where the Torah is read from must be accessible. There need to be Braille prayer books and hearing devices. There need to be tables at Oneg’s and Temple events where people can talk. Drinking straws at these events are also required. Temple meetings need to be held at accessible locations, etc. However, all of these things put the person with a disability on the receiving side of assistance. To feel included, it is vital to be on the giving side as well.
The time I felt the most accepted was when our son, David, was a baby. Since Denise had him all day while I worked, I had night duty. When David woke up hungry at 2am, he didn’t ask if I was able to get up and warm a bottle for him. He didn’t ask if I was too tired. He didn’t ask how I was going to do it. He made no assumptions as to what I could or could not do. He cried and demanded his bottle. I was thrilled. I was needed! (By the way, he’s 22 now and still demanding things – but that’s another Article)
One of our Rabbis, Rabbi Berlin, relates how as a child, her family found a welcoming Temple. Her family, which included a brother with a developmental disability, did not feel welcomed at their old Temple. The Rabbi at the new Temple immediately asked her brother to please turn the lights off before Havdallah and turn the lights back on at the end of the service. The boy was thrilled! From then on he had his job. He knew he was needed. He and his family knew they were wanted! The Rabbi had created an environment where everyone felt valued.
Unemployment rate for people with disabilities still hovers around 70%. This is the same as it was when I grew up in the 1950s. That was before we had all the wonderful laws we have now such as the ADA, 504 and IDEA. This lack of progress is not due to a lack of skills, or education or motivation, but more often lack experience. Children with disabilities rarely are given chores to do. Teens with disabilities are allowed not to participate in school, or sports or religious school. Adults with disabilities are permitted not to work. What better place to get real work experience than in one’s own synagogue
With all the work that goes on in and around Temples, the opportunities to get people involved, including people with disabilities is enormous. While I know that congregations and synagogues will continue to find ways to support people with disabilities, please also consider people with disabilities as an untapped resource. As you find jobs and tasks around your Temple, or Community, or Home or where you work, consider using this untapped resource. People need and want to feel they are part of a community and to be part of Tikun Olam. Become a welcoming community by providing opportunities for everyone to do so.