"Hinei ma tov u'ma na'im shevet achim gam yachad." - "Behold how good and pleasant it is when all people live together as one." (Psalm 133)
By Susan Sklaroff-Van Hook
The Jewish Family Service of the Lehigh Valley has been actively working to build bridges with other social service agencies in the community in an effort to partner and collaborate in meaningful ways. This effort emanates from the realization that no one agency can effectively provide all the support and care that is needed. To that end, in March of 2017 JFS invited the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living to our office so that we could introduce ourselves and learn about their services. At that meeting we discovered that the LVCIL offers no-cost handicap accessibility assessments in order to help organizations better understand how accessible they are to people with disabilities.
Thanks to the enthusiasm and vision of our Board President, Rabbi Juda, by June of 2017 we had scheduled a LVCIL team to visit our site. After a thorough and thoughtful assessment, we received a booklet full of photographs with notations about specific accessibility and recommendations to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards in reasonable ways. Many of these recommendations have already been implemented, such as special hinges on the food pantry door and a drop-down counter in the foyer to accommodate a wheelchair, simple modifications to the water fountain so that it is cane-accessible, adding grab bars in better locations in our accessible bathroom, and an accessible dedicated parking spot in front of our office on Allen Street. Other changes still to come include better signage regarding access and plans for an automatic door opener at our main entrance.
All of this signifies that JFS is making a commitment to continue to open our doors to the diverse populations we serve. Access can mean many things, from language to the physical environment to a cultural attitude of respect for human dignity and diversity. These are all principals that JFS continues to strive to honor.
In 2016, the renowned virtuoso Itzhak Perlman became the third recipient of the Genesis Prize, an award honoring his contributions to humanity and his dedication to honoring Jewish values and the state of Israel. Mr. Pearlman has traveled worldwide and enjoyed well-deserved praise for his precious gifts. Yet, Mr. Pearlman has often spoken of the many challenges he has encountered a person with mobility disabilities. Within this context, Mr. Perlman is directing most of the one-million dollar award to efforts of inclusion. “I envision a society where if I want to go to a concert I shouldn’t have to call and ask 'is it accessible?'” he said. “And I don’t want an answer like 'sure it’s accessible. You can go through the kitchen, or through the basement.' I need access with dignity.”
These constant insults referenced by Mr. Perlman are an excellent example of what is called microaggressions, first defined by psychologist Derald Wing Sue as, “…brief everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to a target group…often verbal, nonverbal, visual, or the behavioral realm” which overtime “can be extremely harmful to the victim’s physical and mental health.” Imagine the experience of people living with disabilities who constantly encounter stairways and doorways that are barriers, hotel rooms that do not have adequate space for showers, sidewalks with no curb cuts, houses of worship that have no ramps to the bimah or pulpit, elevators that are broken and “special” buses that segregate children on field trips. These are the kinds of everyday assaults that lit the fire in the 1970’s for people with disabilities to create their own grass-roots movement that eventually led to the passage of the ADA.
During this month of attention to the need for our Jewish institutions to be aware of and include people living with disabilities, may we reflect on the power of collective activism as we seek to open our doors so that all may enter. It strikes me that the efforts made by JFS now and its on-going commitment to access are not only in-line with the intent of the ADA, they are also foundational to concept that all of us deserve to be welcomed with dignity