Struggle over disability access at synagogue

Feel guilty about missing the service? Some of us are struggling just to get in


Calling for change: Flick Harris

Calling for change: Flick Harris

Batya Wiles wants to go to shul. But unlike her Stamford Hill friends and family, hers is not a routine decision but an intense dilemma.

Ms Wiles has been in a wheelchair since 1986 and accessing synagogues which lack facilities for the disabled can be an intimidating and undignified affair.

During a recent visit to St John's Wood Synagogue, she says, "I wheeled through to the centre of the men's section where there was what looked like a wooden pen with no curtain. I was so embarrassed I wanted to leave, but I couldn't get out."

The experience left her feeling "vulnerable and exposed".

Synagogues need to start using ingenuity

In Manchester, Sarah Cohen (not her real name), another wheelchair user and member of Holy Law South Broughton Congregation, says she feels "cut off" by the lack of facilities.

Although the 2005 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) created a new requirement for places of worship to make "reasonable adjustments" to improve access, frustrated wheelchair users like Ms Wiles and Ms Cohen are still waiting for things to change.

Having urged shuls to take action when the act came into force five years ago, the Board of Deputies is about to hold another seminar on the issue. Vice-president Jerry Lewis admitted that many synagogues are still not accessible. He said: "The problem with most synagogues is their age and budget, but they need to start using ingenuity."

Roger Tann, whose late father was Birmingham's Rabbi Leonard Tann, said the nearest synagogue with disabled access was more than five miles away from his Finsbury Park home.

He said: "I have spoken to people in the community and contacted the Chief Rabbi's Office, but there is nowhere near me I can go.

"Here is a group of people who can't get to most civic places because they are not wheelchair accessible, but we also can't go to religious buildings."

Meanwhile, Ms Wiles said she could not access any local mikvaot and struggled to find a nearby accessible shul.

"There are no mikvaot that are accessible," she said. "How could I get married again if I can't go to a mikveh?"

But Chanoch Kesselman, executive co-ordinator of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, insisted that help was always on hand if anyone requested it.

"Any disabled person who needs any communal facility, it can be arranged even if it's not in-house," he said. "The equipment will be made available, it just needs a phone call.

"There is provision on the ground floor levels for ladies who are disabled and there is a team of volunteers who will carry wheelchairs up any stairs.

"Should it be needed, a lift to lower people into the mikveh can be made available."

Andrew Brayam, health and safety manager of the United Synagogue, said: "The majority of US buildings were built in the 1950s and disabled access just wasn't part of the agenda. If you were disabled, you had to stay at home.

"We are trying to bring ourselves into the modern era. The US commissioned a report four years ago in order to comply with the DDA. We looked at whether the shuls complied, some did and some needed some work. A number of shuls are undergoing some remedial work and maintenance."

Future work includes accessible restrooms at Bushey and Willesden cemeteries.

A spokeswoman for the Movement for Reform Judaism said there were plans to improve accessibility at its own head office in the Sternberg Centre, Finchley. Two new synagogues, Menorah in Manchester and Beth Shalom in Cambridge, have ensured their new buildings are fully accessible.

She said: "Synagogue services staff at the Movement for Reform Judaism offer guidance to shuls on a range of issues including accessibility, government guidelines and legislation.

"Our website lists details of accessibility at all Reform synagogues."

Esther Gluck's 10-year-old son, David, from Stamford Hill, is severely disabled and uses a wheelchair. "Most synagogues are not accessible," she said. "Sometimes, we need two men to carry him up the steps. We find it very hard. We go to different shuls where we have family and friends so they can help."

It is not just synagogues, however. Some sites are making vast efforts to improve accessibility.

One school in Stamford Hill is trying to raise £50,000 for a disabled lift so that a pupil who has gone to America to receive treatment can return to have full access to the school.

Chani Rapaport, projects co-ordinator at Beis Chinuch Lebonos school, which has more than 500 pupils, said: "We had a stairlift but it wasn't good enough because, besides being
undignified, it was very dangerous for teachers."

In Manchester the situation is no better, with most synagogues unable to provide full access.

Brian White, chairman of Manchester Jewish Community Care, said: "Disabled access is just not on the agenda. Some have ramps around the back or side with seating downstairs, but most don't have disabled toilets.

"It should be on people's agendas, but it's not because there aren't the finances to do it. It's a second thought rather than a
priority.

"There is a lot of money available from Lottery programmes and I'm happy to assist any organisation which wants to make an application for their disabled facilities."

He said that it was "wrong" that the mikvaot in Manchester were not fully accessible and said he planned to apply to charitable trusts to finance a ramp and hoist in the next 12 months.

Ms Cohen, who attends South Broughton Congregation, said: "There are steps at the front of my shul so I have to go around the back, where there is a ramp. If I go on my own, it's a real struggle because I can't push on my own. It's very awkward. Most other shuls are not accessible."

Edward Isaacs, president of the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, said: "I think Glasgow is well advanced in providing disabled access and I don't think it's as much of a problem as it used to be. Glasgow Reform Synagogue and the Glasgow Maccabi complex are both fully accessible."

Alan Tinger, chairman of the Merseyside Jewish Housing Association, said: "I am aware that the shuls in Liverpool have made adjustments to ensure that front steps are accessible with portable ramps and that ladies who cannot climb the stairs to the gallery can be accommodated on the ground floor. Allerton Synagogue has been redeveloped and is automatically accessible."

Flick Harris, chair of Manchester Disabled Peoples' Access Group, said: "There are a lot of difficulties with synagogues which haven't managed to make many adjustments.

"Under the DDA, we're supposed to make reasonable adjustments and at the moment anyone who feels they don't have reasonable access can take legal action against the provider, so it's very important that synagogues take the best guidance. No shuls have been in touch with us about making improvements.

"Synagogue is a social and religious place to go and if you want to be part of that, you shouldn't be excluded. That is a basic element of the
religion."

Gemma Blaker, headteacher of Side by Side, a school which integrates mainstream and special needs children in Stamford Hill, said: "Accessibility is not just about lifts and ramps. It is about creating environments and communities that are conducive to the needs of people with a range of needs."

Find out about the Shul that’s a model to them all here

What the 2005 Disability Act says

● 6.3 - The Act requires service providers to take positive steps to ensure that disabled people can access services. This goes beyond simply avoiding treating disabled people less favourably for a disability-related reason.
● 6.10 - It is important that service providers do not assume that the only way to make services accessible to disabled people is to make a physical alteration to their premises. Often, minor measures such as allowing more time to serve a disabled customer will help disabled people to use a service.
● 6.16 - Service providers should not wait until a disabled person wants to use a service that they provide before they give consideration to their duty to make reasonable adjustments.

Last updated: 2:36pm, August 12 2010