Synagogues are starting to remove stumbling blocks for people with disabilities

There is rarely no solution to accessibility issues


The United Synagogue has created symbols for a new accessibility guide to its synagogues (Photo: Tatiana von Beelen)

The other day, the rabbinic couple at our shul generously invited me and others to Shabbat lunch. “We have a minhag (custom),” the rebbetzin announced at the table. “Everyone must share either a good news story or a complaint. Complaints are especially encouraged!”

Not being one to gripe, initially I was nonplussed by the invitation to kvetch, but once my fellow guests had gamely chipped in on such familiar pain-points as the weather and communal bureaucracy, I found an apt topic for a sociable whinge, with a silver lining: accessibility.

Accessibility has been a lifelong question for me. Born with cerebral palsy, I have always had challenges with movement and stamina, which recently became more acute as I developed osteo-arthritis. Two years ago, I started using a wheelchair to mobilise outside home, which greatly increased my understanding of how easily we take access for granted.

As I explained at the Shabbat lunch, to live with a mobility impediment is to encounter the world as an obstacle course. Nor are all the challenges obvious: people often ask how I cope with stairs, but due to my faulty sense of balance, an open space with no handrail is much more difficult to traverse.

And then, you need to reckon with other people. As a new wheelchair user, I discovered I have an invisibility cloak; pedestrians often simply do not notice me, a situation which is hazardous for them as well as me. Repeated exposure to the rush hour at Farringdon Station has made me the Lewis Hamilton of “defensive” wheelchair driving.

Hence, as a person with disabilities, I am constantly both solving problems and looking for allies: people who do “see” me, and work with me so that we can all go happily about our business.

At least in theory, Judaism has a long tradition of alliance with the disabled. My parents, pioneers of disability integration, made me aware early of the famous Torah commandment: “Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind.” They interpreted it as applying to impediments in general: a halachic obligation to be inclusive, to extend access.

I’ve cherished my parents’ inspirational insight throughout my life, and over half a century, have seen the principle of accessibility become the norm in society and within the Jewish community. When I was growing up, there was no such thing as a disabled bathroom, anywhere – now, my shul has been adapted with accessible facilities. My former London shul has been refitted with a Shabbos lift. The United Synagogue has published new guidance on accessibility and included on their website a page where shuls publicise steps taken to improve conditions for disabled attendees.

Yet, while the will is there, often completely removing stumbling blocks will take time and expense, and, in some cases, be impossible. In many shuls, the bimah, aron kodesh (ark) and ladies’ section can only be accessed via steps. Absent major reconstruction work, what can be done?

My experience of the Jewish community suggests that the answer is seldom “nothing”. There are opportunities for teamwork. One of the most moving things that has happened to me as a wheelchair user has been the experience of being called up to our (step-free) bimah. Since I cannot always reach to touch the Sefer Torah with my tallit, the scroll is lifted down to an accessible position. It’s a simple thing, but to my mind, such an example of practical adaptability and kindness demonstrates the spirit of Jewish solidarity in action.

My advice, then, to any Jewish disabled person with an accessibility issue is to follow the rebbetzin’s hint and kvetch away. Rarely can nothing be done; chances are that you will find allies, and the kehillah will be stronger for it.

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