by Naomi J. Brunnlehrman
In celebration of February as Jewish Disability Awareness Month, The Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Resource Center (JDRC) was asked to share some thoughts about the meaning of this month. As the co-founder of JDRC, I recognize that while everyone has good intentions when highlighting access throughout this month, the reality is that when February is over and the excitement of access has faded, we too often go back to the same Jewish world we lived in before February began.
In order for us to envision our Jewish organizations as fully accessible, we first need to change our own thoughts and practices in the Jewish world. Part of the challenge is that sometimes we don’t really understand what we need to do. Other times, we understand but are not ready to make the necessary changes. Change scares us. We know creating more access is the right thing to do, yet there are so many reasons why we are slow to change.
We feel that our congregational Special Needs Committees are a good way to “explore various approaches.” But who sits on these committees? How many individuals with disabilities are on these committees? How many of the chairs of these committees have disabilities? How many presidents or executive directors of Jewish organizations have disabilities?
A recent conference on issues of disabilities did not include national deaf or hard-of-hearing leaders. When we asked why, the response was, “We don’t feel the need to include this group at this early stage.” The problem with that response is that when we say “no” to leaders requesting access, we “disable” them – because now they cannot join us at the decision-making table. Too often, it is we who make others into individuals with “disabilities.”
Jewish Disability Awareness Month is about us and our need to change our “disabled” way of thinking. We need to listen with our heart. By doing so, we can focus on what prevents us from changing and implement policies that will support access and our new way of doing business. This will allow us to create a Jewish community that is truly a light unto the nations. One suggestion is to add a sentence to all of our communal event flyers that says: “Accessibility and communication needs may be directed to [someone’s email address]” (I suggest an email address and not a telephone number because the latter can be more difficult for hard-of-hearing individuals making requests about access). Only when we respond with a “yes” will we have honestly wrestled with the important lessons of Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
Naomi J. Brunnlehrman, MA, is the co-founder and director of The Jewish Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Resource Center (JDRC). Visit jdrc.org to learn more.