(Names have been changed)
Last week, I wrote about the need to make Jewish institutions open to all Jews. Ramps to bimas, buildings and mikvaos are something that need to be in the plans of all new buildings and when renovations are being undertaken in old ones. However, accessibility is not only something physical. It is also a way of thinking.
It was Chanukah. Every year, Shmuel’s shul set up a giant Menorah on the lawn. The shul was located in a mixed community and the lights of this Menorah shining bright, in contrast to other seasonal lights, made the Jews in the area proud and helped them with feelings of identification. Shmuel was one of the regular members of the shul and well known among the congregants. He was usually on time to minyan, no matter what the weather was. He always made sure he had someone to push him in his wheelchair every Shabbos morning.
This year, the first night of Chanukah fell on Friday night. When Shmuel arrived at shul, he discovered that the Menorah was not in its usual place on the lawn. Instead, it was placed at the top of the ramp. The Menorah was blocking the only accessible entrance into the shul. Shmuel had to go home and daven without a minyan that Shabbos. Although he still continued to daven at his shul since it was the only accessible one in the neighborhood, he somehow he never felt the same about it. He felt that he was no longer a full-fledged member.
Daniel was invited to a simcha which was held in his shul. His shul had a beautiful ramp right in the front that blended in with the architecture of the building. Daniel appreciated not having to use some makeshift ramp hidden somewhere in the back, like he had to do in a lot of other buildings. They were often as unsafe as they were ugly and hidden.
The simcha had been lovely. It was held in the all-purpose room that housed the sanctuary and the social hall. Daniel had easy access to everything from the washing stations to the bathrooms. The shul was simply set up that way.
However, when Mincha was announced, everyone was asked to go downstairs to the nursery room for the service so that the sanctuary could be used to set up a sweet table. Daniel was the only one remaining upstairs since the only way to get downstairs was a large flight of steps. He would have preferred to be able to daven with a minyan than to eat the sweets, and wondered why they couldn’t have used one of the other upstairs rooms for Mincha. But the worst part for Daniel is that no one seemed to notice that anything was wrong. Everyone accepted that Daniel simply couldn’t get downstairs and there was no alternative. So, he wouldn’t be part of the minyan, oh well.
Moshe’s children attended a Yeshiva in his community. Though the entrance to the school had a ramp, all the classes, bathrooms and offices were either upstairs or downstairs. The only thing on the main floor was the auditorium and kitchen. When it was time for parent-teacher interviews, Moshe accompanied his wife, assuming she would just have to go upstairs and ask the teacher to have the interview in the downstairs hall so he could attend. Much to their surprise and pleasure, they noticed that all their interviews had been already scheduled in the auditorium. Everyone from the classroom teacher to the gym teacher was scheduled to meet them there. They never had to ask. Later in the year, when classes had programs to which parents were invited, Moshe’s children’s classes always had theirs scheduled in the auditorium. Moshe never had to ask, his children never had to feel left out, and the school never said a word. Things just happened automatically, or so it seems, to accommodate the disability.
A few years later, when the school’s kitchen was being redone, a piece of the kitchen was taken away to make an accessible main floor washroom. It was done quietly and without any fanfare, as if it was a given that this was the right thing to do.
Accessibility is not just a ramp or a lift. It is not just Braille on light switches and rooms. It is also the way we treat people. Are we inclusive in our community or exclusive? Do we consider the needs of everyone and not just when we build or renovate, but when and how we hold a simcha, celebrate a holiday or hold a class event?
Think for a minute, how you would feel if you arrived at your shul to find your entrance barred, but everyone else was admitted. Think how you would feel if you were unable to attend your child’s school events or were left alone and not allowed to daven with everyone else. Sit for a minute in those chairs. Perhaps then you can see that providing access is not only about ramps and lifts, but is also about our sensitivity and realization of all our members’ needs.
(Names have been changed)