Tag Archives: access

Twenty Years?!

Today’s blog post comes from Australia. This article in Mashable highlights a local train station which is clearly not accessible for people with disabilities. Two things stand out:

1) The state Transport Minister called the below video “distressing.” Just distressing?

2) The article states that area residents have been involved in a TWENTY YEAR BATTLE to make the station accessible. Unbelievable.

Watch the video below and see for yourselves:

Hopefully the video will cause this “distressing” situation to immediately be taken care of by local authorities.


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Doing The Right Thing

2015 is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. We will be posting 25 posts over the next 12 months which will focus on the ADA- how it has changed society and what still needs to be done. Our goal is to cover for you, dear reader, as many different angles and issues as possible. Below is the first post in our #ADA25For25 series.

Jo Ann SimonsBy: Jo Ann Simons

The ADA is turning 25. Big deal? I think so.

I took my new grandson for a walk yesterday and I remembered a time without curb cuts and a broken elevator meant I couldn’t access the mall with his carriage. I have become used to seeing our elected officials with sign language interpreter’s close by. I do a silent mini dance in my head each time I see a person with a disability working. I notice ramps.

Those ramps, on our older buildings, are an afterthought and a testament to a time when people with disabilities were not a thought, not even an afterthought.

So it was with great excitement, last month, that I visited an inclusion program at the South Boston Boys and Girls Club. If you are not from Boston, you are not aware that South Boston is a densely populated, economically challenged and proud neighborhood. It was a crowded street and I noticed that there was a big construction project going on.

I had been instructed to use a side entrance and once inside I learned that I had entered through the handicapped entrance, a more recent addition to the original building. I am guessing the building was built in the 1950’s- almost a half century before we would learn that steps kept some people from buildings. I also learned that the construction project, which took up most of the small block, was being done to make the main entrance accessible.

Imagine that all the boys and girls would be able to use the same entrance. Nobody would be excluded or relegated to the side, “handicap accessible” entrance. While the Club was already in compliance with the ADA, they didn’t stop there. They were spending hard earned fundraising dollars to make the Club welcome to all.

Signing the ADA into law

President Bush signs the ADA into law in 1990 (courtesy: http://bit.ly/1pDHQiW)

Good news for the kids but the ADA always excluded religious organizations and places of worship. I can only imagine that this exclusion was permitted so the bill would pass. There must have been powerful lobbyists hard at work. There may have been concerns about the financial requirements that would fall on religious organizations. Clearly, the voices of people wanting to enter and worship were not loud enough and the bill passed with religious groups off the hook.

So as we celebrate the ADA turning 25, wouldn’t it be nice if religious groups collectively said the time has come for us to be included in the ADA!

Or religious groups could ask the good people at the South Boston Boys and Girls Club for advice on how to raise money to do the right thing.

Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers.

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We Are Souls

Rabbi Steven WernickBy: Rabbi Steven C. Wernick

I recently reconnected with a young woman who changed my life in a profound way, forever expanding my understanding of the meaning of kehilla (congregation) and what it means to be created in the image of God.

In 1992, while serving as the youth director for Congregation Beth Kodesh, just outside of Los Angeles, I met Dina Springer. Dina was a bright and determined teen with CP (cerebral palsy). As a result, even the most rudimentary motor tasks posed significant logistical challenges for her. Though always surrounded in synagogue by her supportive family – whose care for her was regarded as the most natural task in the world – it was impossible to miss the multiple obstacles that someone like Dina overcame just to be part of the kehilla on a Shabbat, holiday or special occasion.

For those of us who are able-bodied, one of the most important consciousness raising experiences is to encounter the innumerable challenges posed by the physical space of the synagogue by looking through the eyes of someone who has a disability. From the very act of sitting and standing, to ascending the bima (podium in center of synagogue), to praying out loud to holding a prayer book to making one’s voice heard, the multiple motor requirements are daunting to anyone who is limited in their mobility.

Add to the physical challenges the social barriers one must overcome as a teen – disabled or not — and you can begin to understand what Dina faced.

As a young rabbinical student, something about Dina touched and inspired me. Looking back, I think it was a combination of her determination, intelligence and preternatural wisdom and willingness to put herself out there. Though limited by her body, Dina so wanted to be a regular teenager; she so wished to be just one of the kids, heedless, happy, no different from the others.

Anyone who was a teenager can relate to this yearning.

Yet Dina was different and it was the undeniable aspect of her otherness that touched me deeply. I empathized deeply with her spunk and her willingness to risk. And I decided to do something to change the landscape in my small community of Congregation Beth Kodesh.

As youth director, I undertook the daunting task of dedicating the regional USY conference we were hosting that year to the concept of diversity, starting by introducing Dina to the 200-plus kids who would be assembling at our kehilla.

Though Dina and her family embraced this idea, there was no way of guaranteeing that it was sound, and I went into the convention hounded with uncertainty. Certainly, the concept was right, relevant, and central to Judaism’s notion of Klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish nation) but teens are a tricky audience. Their need to be accepted socially often trumps sensitivity. Personal insecurity often turns kids callous, not kind.

The dignity of a young woman was in my hands. What if my idea backfired and Dina felt ridiculed or diminished by the exposure? She was the lynchpin of our entire event. The convention planning was focused on her as an individual and also a representative of the world of the disabled.

Inclusive congregation

Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, NJ, which started a Shabbat L’Khulam service that supports the full inclusion of all people, regardless of abilities.
Danielle Sass featured in the picture touching a kid-level mezuzah the temple affixed.

Many years have passed. Recently, I reached out to Dina. She is now Dina Springer Garcia. Married and the mother of a child, she and I communicated by Facebook and then phone about the personal impact of that USY convention, which was a mega-success – indeed, an important milestone in the life of Congregation Beth Kodesh. Dina recalled how proud she felt that together, we had helped so many of her peers – and the kehilla at large – to open their eyes.

Dina shared with me that prior to that convention she often felt invisible to her peers. The USY convention reversed that reality. The convention was not just successful on a programmatic level; it provided her with a voice. It proved a turning point in her life.

Empowered by the experience, Dina went on to teach people with disabilities how to advocate for themselves and now belongs to a kehilla where the obstacles that exist in most conventional synagogues are absent.

Dina’s advice to me was this: Education. Education. Education.

This prescription might sound simple but it involves thoughtful planning as well as persistent, up-close and personal work to raise the awareness that embracing people with different abilities and disabilities goes far beyond providing a ramp for wheelchair accessibility. It begins with hearing the individual stories of the struggles to stand side-by-side with other members of the community. It involves small matters that are often overlooked.

But perhaps first it begins with a radical gesture: the proactive gesture of synagogue leadership towards people like Dina, the commitment to include everyone along the spectrum of ability; it entails curiosity about their unique stories and situations; it is built upon the breaking of boundaries between those who are able and those who are differentiated so that our kehilla is strengthened by true diversity.

Choosing inclusivity as an ethic is not just a matter of accommodating the other. It is not just being nice or kind or doing the right thing.

Adopting inclusivity involves a radical reimagining of kehilla as the place where all of us define and redefine what it means to be created in the image of God.

Though we are just at the beginning of the Genesis narrative cycle, my mind moves forward to the book of Exodus to contemplate the character of Moses. Plagued by self-doubt, incredulous to find himself appointed by God as the leader of the Jewish People, Moses is described in the text as being “kvad peh u’kvad lashon,” literally, “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”

Though many Midrashists muse about what Moses’ affliction was, the fact remains: Moses, chosen to meet God face to face, struggled with a form of disability, likely related to speech. Supported by his siblings, surrounded by family, given prophetic voice, he was able to rise to greatness.

I will never forget the example set by the Springer family, who brought their young daughter to synagogue regularly, who lifted her onto the bima, who removed obstacles with their own hands, who made sure she was a full member of the kehilla.

As United Synagogue goes forward in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation to make inclusivity the rule (as opposed to the exception) of every kehilla, I know that Dina is right: it all begins with education. And for the first lesson, I would choose this teaching from the “Yigdal” prayer, recited daily in the morning. Speaking of God, the poet says, “Ein lo d’mut ha-guf, v’eino guf – God does not have the image of a body, nor does God have a body.”

We are more than our bodies. That is one of the great teachings of the Torah when it says we are made in the image of God. And that is one of the great teachings of Jewish leaders like Dina Springer Garcia who inspire us to see each other as souls – eternal, connected, shining brightly.

Rabbi Steven Wernick is CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Engage USCJ on Twitter and Like them on Facebook.

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Architectural Barriers

Credit: Mike Lovett

Credit: Mike Lovett

By: Jennifer L. Lee

As a Ruderman Social Justice in Disability Scholar, I had the amazing opportunity of interning last summer with Stavros Center for Independent Living in Springfield Massachusetts. As an individual with a disability and an advocate for disability rights, my internship placement at Stavros was a perfect fit. As an organization, Stavros provides a multitude of services to fit the needs of an individual despite their age or disability.

One of the services they offer is assessing architectural barriers within residential facilities, businesses and the community within the Pioneer Valley area. During the summer, I worked alongside Stavros’s Access Specialist, Andy Bristol and as an Access Specialist Intern, I helped to address access disparities for people with disabilities. I was given the opportunity to address access issues in many public places including hotels, newly renovated facilities and locations nominated for the 2014 Access Awards. The Access Awards is an annual awards luncheon that works to honor people and businesses that work to create an accessible environment for people with disabilities. 2014 Access Award nominees are nominated by recipients of Stavros services and members of the Pioneer Valley community. I assisted with the visiting, evaluating and compiling detailed notes for all 2014 Access Award nominees.

Jennifer Lee speaks about her experiences interning at Stavros. In this picture she is presented a 2014 Access Award. This picture was taken at the event by Nancy Bazanchuk of CHD, Disability Resource Program, Springfield MA

Jennifer Lee speaks about her experiences interning at Stavros. In this picture she is presented a 2014 Access Award. This picture was taken at the event by Nancy Bazanchuk of CHD, Disability Resource Program, Springfield MA

In addition to preparing for the 2014 Access Awards, I also assisted and co-facilitated the Disability Action Network meetings. These meetings work to bring advocates and members of the disability community together to discuss access issues within their community and surrounding areas. These meetings strive to provide insight, supports and resources necessary for improving access.

I also had the liberty of completing independent projects such as creating the first Handicap Parking Application for the Ludlow Council on Disability, creating a compiled list of tax incentives and deductions for small businesses that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards and Architectural Access Board (AAB) standards. Moreover, this internship experience allowed me to become more knowledgeable about access issues within my community and beyond. Even after my internship, I continue to advocate for equal access for people with disabilities. My hope is to apply what I have learned this summer to create a list of recommendations for improving accessibility on the Brandies campus.

Despite Stavros’s mission, the help of advocates and the efforts of people with disabilities, people with disabilities continue to face architectural barriers within their communities. This is a huge issue for people with disabilities because it reinforces community isolation and limits their ability to work, socialize and live productive, independent lives. Even after the 25th anniversary of the ADA advocates such as myself, organizations such as Stavros and other disability-centered organizations continue to have to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities within their communities. My internship experience made it crystal clear that community inclusion of people with disabilities cannot be adequately achieved without addressing the architectural boundaries that hinder access for people with disabilities in everyday life.

Jennifer Lee is a current 2015 Ruderman Social Justice in Disability Scholar at Brandeis University. She is obtaining a double major in Health, Science, Society and Policy (HSSP) and American Studies (AMST). As an individual with a disability and a disability rights advocate she hopes to use her degrees to promote inclusion, equality and equal access for people with disabilities. 

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Lessons From My Son

5 of ClubsBy: Shelley Richman Cohen

My son Nathaniel was a person who never could take “no” for an answer. It wasn’t that he never listened or misbehaved to get his way. He just was a believer that anything in life is possible and therefore could never accept the word no. “Say ‘maybe’ Mommy, not ‘No.’ Just maybe you could change your mind.” He always held out hope for change even if he heard the word ”no.”

I learned much from Nathaniel and his too short life, and I have found that with each passing day I have become more like him, I too have trouble accepting the word “no” and look for the “yeses” and “maybes” in life.

Throughout Nathaniel’s lifetime I heard more “no’s” than I care to remember. “No” to a Jewish Day school education (from every religious denomination.) “No” to a mainstream summer Jewish camp experience. “No” to creating accessible programming in my synagogue. I always believed in Nathaniel’s right to be a part of all of these Jewish institutions despite his muscular dystrophy, so my husband and I kept trying to find our way in and, despite many rejections, Nathaniel ultimately got to be part of the greater Jewish community through its schools, camps and synagogues. 

Not only was Nathaniel a part of these institutions, he added greatly to the spirit of these places. At both his eighth grade and high school graduations he received standing ovations from both faculty and classmates alike. At camp, he not only became a camper but ultimately was put on Sport staff even as he became a quadriplegic – his mouth worked and he could use a whistle to referee the games. 

Nathaniel CohenThe truth is wherever Nathaniel went he was cherished by all who knew him. So the question remains – why was the first response to Nathaniel’s being included in our Jewish institutions always “No.”  I place the reason somewhere between fear and ignorance. At the time Rabbis, Principals, and Camp Directors just didn’t know how to see the possibilities. They were overwhelmed with the thoughts of dealing with someone who fell outside the norm with which they were used to dealing.

That was sixteen years ago and things have improved. Now almost every Orthodox summer overnight camp has an inclusion program for children with disabilities and camps run by other denominations do as well. But schools and synagogues still seem to be struggling with the concept of inclusion. It is for this reason that I have created The Jewish Inclusion Project, with the help of a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation. The prefix “in” in the word “inclusion,” sounds so easy to do – come to me and I will let you in. But the reality is that inclusion is a very proactive process.

One has to proactively include people with disabilities. A person with visual impairment won’t think of praying in your synagogue if they don’t know that a Braille or large print prayer book is readily available from which they can pray. A family that has a member with Tourette syndrome won’t feel comfortable going to a prayer service unless they know the Rabbi and community value people with differences, even if those differences are occasionally disruptive. The Jewish Inclusion Project teaches rabbinical students and Jewish leadership how to create proactively inclusive Jewish environments in synagogues, schools, camps and Jewish organizations. Through Jewish learning, role playing, lectures and panels, TJIP teaches our future and present leaders how to proactively create communities that are inclusive of people with disabilities so that every Jew has a place at the table.

In time, I hope to prove Nathaniel correct, and see to it that there are no “no’s,” only “maybes” that can turn into an enthusiastic “YES!”

Shelley Richman Cohen is the Founder and Director of The Jewish Inclusion Project, which educates rabbinical students, Rabbis and communal leaders on the obligation, need and methodology for leading the creation of more inclusive synagogues, schools, summer camps and community organizations that fully embrace the communal, social and religious needs of people with disabilities and their families. The Jewish Inclusion Project is funded in part by a grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation.

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Including Each, Strengthening All

JayRuderman“And all the people of the world pass before Him like sheep” (from the High Holy Day prayers)

Tomorrow night, Jews around the world will begin the holiday of Rosh Hashana, a holiday which ushers in a new year. Not only do we look forward to the New Year but the High Holy Days are a time of reflection, as we review our actions from the past year.

Our foundation is looking forward to the coming year, as we embark on a number of new ventures. One I wish to highlight is a partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston to create more inclusive synagogues and congregations. The goal is to highlight inclusion awareness and visibility and create long lasting change in the community.

If you will be attending services during the High Holy Days, make sure to look around: is the synagogue accessible? Are services open to everyone- including those with a disability? As a community, we should not tolerate a situation where even one individual is left out.

Looking back, we take great pride in having awarded the B’nai Amoona Synagogue in St. Louis the Ruderman Prize in Disability this past year. Their synagogue is a model of inclusion and is proof that when people invest in doing what’s right for our community, they will succeed. This is what we hope to bring to synagogues in Boston through our partnership with CJP.

A Hassidic legend speaks of a young shepherd who came to pray on Yom Kippur in the synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Hassidism. The young boy did not know how to talk or read the prayers but being deeply moved by the service, he began to whistle as his mode of prayer. Many in the congregation were irritated and wanted the boy to stop. However, the Baal Shem Tov intervened and said, He too has a place among us. His prayers must also be heard before God.

As we begin the New Year, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that each member of our community is included, feels welcomed, has a place among us. Because each individual strengthens us all.

Wishing you and your entire family a Shana Tova- a year of health, peace and inclusion.


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