Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, New Jersey, installed this ramp to its bima to better serve its members. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg/New Jersey Jewish News.

When it comes to disability, religious organizations still do not fully understand inclusion. As a result, they are missing an opportunity to learn, adapt, and lead.

I was raised in a conservative Jewish household in rural upstate New York, attended Hebrew school, and was Bat Mitzvahed at a synagogue almost 30 miles away from my home. There were only three Jewish students in my entire school, so religious diversity was limited, and disability inclusion wasn’t even on the radar.

In 1983, when I was 16, I became a quadriplegic and returned to high school after a long period of rehabilitation. Between being Jewish and having a disability, I felt different, like I didn’t belong.

There was no refuge in the synagogue my family attended, since it was not fully accessible. The bima (altar) had steps and the bathroom was not wheelchair accessible. In fact, after my injury, I never went back to that synagogue. My own personal internal struggle of trying to deal with my injury had me questioning whether there even was a God, so I had no interest in going back to an inaccessible synagogue.

I Felt Like I Belonged

After high school, I attended college at the University at Albany. There I experienced diversity and, without realizing it, being part of an inclusive community. There was a large population of Jewish students and our voices were heard. I had never been around so many other Jewish people, and I felt like I finally had a religious identity, something I had never experienced. Because of the presence of other Jewish students and our school’s inclusion of people with disabilities, I felt like I belonged.

Because of the Rehab Act, which preceded the ADA, religious services on campus were fully accessible. They weren’t just physically accessible — there were also sign language interpreters and Braille prayer books.

As vice president of Disabled Students Services, I was consulted in the planning of Jewish events and celebrations on campus to ensure  they were as accessible as possible. I did not want anyone who was disabled to feel excluded from participation in Jewish events on campus — or any religious events on campus.

It is hard enough dealing with a disability and the feeling of being “different,” so ensuring that religious events on campus were accessible was extremely important.

A Message for Religious Leaders

So what lesson can you learn from my experience?

If you are a religious leader, ensure that you have at least one person with a disability on all planning committees for major events and especially renovations. While one disabled individual cannot represent all, that person should be able to consult with others in their network to help your congregation include people with all types of disabilities.

If you don’t have anyone with a disability in your congregation to help, then your congregation should make it a priority to attract more diverse members. Congregations, like all organizations, benefit from having diverse perspectives. Many of us who experience disability are very resilient, and our perspective will likely benefit all members.

I am confident that if an organization shows a serious intent to be inclusive, volunteers with disabilities and/or those familiar with different disabilities will come forward.

Ask Yourself These Questions

As part of a conscious effort to ensure your worship services are accessible to all people with disabilities, ask yourself these questions:

Is your facility and key areas, such as altars, physically accessible? Do you have prayer and song books that people with visual impairments can use? How about a service dog policy, or ASL interpreters? Is your seating area designed so that scooter or wheelchair users can see what is going on without feeling like they are sticking out in the aisle?

It may help to imagine you need access and that your grandchild, spouse, sibling, child or dear friend would like to honor you by calling you up to the front of your congregation. Is this possible in your house of worship? It would be awful if you could not fully participate in a celebratory event or a funeral in your own house of worship because of lack of access.

Full inclusion and access is the right thing to do.