Groups self-assess thanks to disability toolkit

(Photo from Getty Images)

Last February, the inclusion advisory committee at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation answered a questionnaire to learn how well it was doing in making the synagogue accessible to people with disabilities.

The committee discovered it had neglected offering an obvious piece of information that people with disabilities or special needs want: accessibility information on its website for the Bethesda synagogue and its programs.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. A year after answering the questionnaire, Adat Shalom is now making sure its website, forms and newsletters include information about accessibility — from whether a service is streamed online to whether prayer books are available in large print or Braille.

The self-assessment questionnaire was developed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. It is designed to spark conversations about inclusion and accessibility for people with disabilities and how congregations and organizations can ensure their programming is available to all, according to the Federation.

The self-assessment is part of what the agency calls its Disability Inclusion Planning Toolkit.

Available online, it includes resources and guides in six areas — physical accessibility, communication, worship and ritual, volunteer and employment, education, and social, recreation and leisure. The toolkit’s creators say it’s the first of its kind.

The toolkit is there to “pull back the curtain” on disability inclusion to focus on what congregations and organizations should be working on, said disability advocate Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who was part of the committee that created the toolkit.

Alan Levitt, co-chair of Adat Shalom’s inclusion advisory committee, said the changes being made are inexpensive, but are important to people who benefit from them.

But there’s more work to be done, he said. Adat Shalom’s Mishnah Garden is the pride of the synagogue, for example, but anyone who uses a walker or wheelchair is unable to get to it.

“You can’t just say these facilities aren’t open to some members,” he said, because everyone deserves access.

This emphasis on inclusion in the Jewish community is long overdue, said Anita Thornton, the incoming director of caring and inclusion at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church. Her position was created in the wake of the Reform synagogue’s self-assessment.

“We have been striving over the years to be inclusive and welcoming, and we have been,” said Thornton, who has been the congregation’s director of member service and the caring community. “But we’re making a real push now to put it front and center.”

The toolkit has been part of the impetus for the current push, she said.

This is a portion of a Disability Inclusion Planning Toolkit discussion guide focused on communication. (Screenshot of Federation website)

The congregation has had inclusion specialists at its nursery and religious schools and camp for years, she said. In her new position, Thornton hopes to institute “visual tefillah” — a large screen that would show in large print the sections of the prayer book being used to make it easier to follow along during the service — and updated hearing devices.

“We’re making inclusion an everyday practice here,” she said.

“We can’t do everything, but we’re working to do whatever we can.”

Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria will mark Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month for the first time this year.

Its events were being planned before the Conservative synagogue used the toolkit, said Barbara Elkin, who is helping organize the Conservative synagogue’s inclusion committee.

There’s a lot of interest in the inclusion committee, Elkin noted, and the group will use the toolkit more specifically once members start meeting to think about more detailed changes. Even just having committees and leadership thinking about inclusion more consistently is an important step, she said.

And that’s exactly what Lisa Handelman, the Federation’s community disability inclusion specialist who led the construction of the toolkit, hoped would happen.

Overall, the results are both encouraging and complicated, she said. When it comes to disability inclusion, “we’re kind of all over the place.”

Some congregations and other Jewish groups are uneducated about the ways everyday life can be difficult for people with disabilities and so don’t think to adapt their programming, she said.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Handelman pointed to a synagogue that created an assistance cart for its sanctuary that includes a large-print siddur, magnifying glasses and hearing devices. Other congregations have heard of this cart and made carts of their own, she said.

About 70 organizations, mostly congregations and including 16 in the Washington area, have signed up for the self-assessment questionnaire.

Mizrahi said she has been touting the toolkit as a part of her work with RespectAbility, a disability advocacy organization, and many groups outside the Jewish community and Washington area are looking to it as a model.

The toolkit, said Handelman, “has shown me the complexity that’s involved in culture change and it’s a process that’s going to be a two steps forward, one step back kind of thing.”

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