It’s Easier Than You Think: Creating Jewish Communities Inclusive of the Disabled/Chronically Ill Community

Fourth-year rabbinical student Emily Dana writes about how to make your community as inclusive as possible.

Emily Dana Headshot
February 6, 2023

When your community decides that this is a real priority, one you can commit to, you can be successful in making positive change.

You may not know if there are people with disabilities in your community, and those with disabilities of any sort should not be put under any obligation to disclose their disabilities. But given that most surveys estimate that about a quarter of the population of the United States have some sort of disability, it is reasonable to assume that some of that group may walk, roll, or zoom through your doors.

Objections to Inclusion:

I talk to a lot of people about this topic, both casually and in a more professional setting, and there are a few very common objections that I receive. My hope here is that you may learn the frequently perceived obstacles to inclusion can be avoided or overcome if we make creation of more inclusive communities a priority.

It’s too expensive.

This is one that I hear constantly from all sorts of institutions, both in and out of the Jewish world. To this, I want to offer two points: first, there are a number of things leaders can implement that are free or use tools that their community probably already has. For example, making sure that whoever is speaking in front of a group always uses the microphone or ensuring that there is always somewhere to sit, even if it is an oneg or cocktail-style event. Adding a section for “accessibility needs or questions” on your registration sheets shows your congregants that disability inclusion is important to your community, allows the organizers to understand what needs may need to be arranged for, and makes it easy for people to disclose in a private way.

Second, where we put our funding shows our communities and the outside world our priorities. If accessibility is important to a community, big or small, we can choose to put money into it. Budgets provide certain limitations, but as we spend money, we can think carefully about how we might create more accessible spaces and fewer inaccessible ones.

It’s inconvenient.

This is the objection that is so often lying beneath any other objection that is given. It certainly makes it harder to host events out in the world when one has to make sure that they are physically accessible, and it may end up being more work on your end. And I empathize. Even as someone who does this work professionally ( both disability inclusion and planning Jewish events), I find it frustrating to sometimes have to think about accessibility needs, but at the same time, I have also been the disabled person on the other end who had to put myself in pain or feel excluded because no one wanted to go to the trouble of unlocking the accessible door or , giving a break between speakers, or providing places to sit. Your inconvenience should not take precedence over the needs of those people who are already at a disadvantage.

It’s too hard to fix the problems, so why should we even try?

As of right now, I have only heard one person say this one out loud, but I have heard the frustration in the voices of many Jewish professionals with this as their subtext. So why? Because more and more people are being disabled by Long COVID every single day. Because even those who have chronic illnesses or disabilities are made in the image of God. Because we have a duty to open our arms to anyone who comes through our doors. Yes, this is hard. Yes, progress is slow and difficult; however, it should be important to us.

I don’t know where to start.

This is fair. Most of us have not had explicit training in how to look at a space or event concept and think about how it might be accessible or not. An example I often offer, because it is an accessibility issue for me personally, is temperature control. My body is unable to regulate temperature, and because of this, it is imperative in the summer that there is air conditioning in the spaces I am in. For most people who do not have similar conditions, a lack of air conditioning is a minor inconvenience, but for me, it can be a major issue.

At the end of the day, if you want to improve your community’s work in this realm, one of the best things you can do is hire or consult those of us who work with communities. One of the best things an HUC administrator has ever said to me is that he “didn’t realize how many accessibility obstacles there really were until you walked me through them.” Disabled people will see more than you do if you are not trained to look for these things. You don’t have to do any of this as an island. We are one people who should strive to create inclusive communities in every way that we can.