JFS hosts Virtual Town Hall on disability inclusion

A crowd of over 45 people gathered on Feb. 20 to discuss disability inclusion in the Lehigh Valley Jewish community at a virtual town hall co-sponsored by Jewish Family Service of the Lehigh Valley and Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley. 

RespectAbility presenter Lily Coltoff shared her story of living with a disability and becoming an advocate passionate about invisible disabilities and universal design. Coltoff gave a brief “Disability 101” presentation to the group.

As she explained, universal design benefits not only people with disabilities but also those without them — an example would be an elevator that is useful for both someone using a wheelchair and someone carrying groceries up several floors. But, she emphasized as she quoted Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, z"l, "It's not enough to ramp buildings; we must also ramp attitudes."

As Coltoff explained, disabilities are both temporary and permanent, both visible and invisible, and can be from birth or acquired later. Anyone can acquire a disability from aging, an accident, trauma and/or illness. In fact, 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a disability. Almost half of all people have a family member or close friend with a disability, so disability is close to all of us. 

“Jewish values encompass all types of inclusion, including disability. It is really baked into Torah and baked into Judaism. Tikkun olam involves making the world accessible and welcoming to all people. That’s a key Jewish value. And another is that everyone is made in the image of G-d,” said Coltoff.

Data from RespectAbility 2018 and 2021 studies on Jewish disability inclusion was shared. It showed that more people think that the Jewish community is doing better, and that faith inclusion overall is strong but inconsistent. The barriers three years later were nearly identical to the first study: prejudice and unacknowledged stigma. In 2021, 22% of people with disabilities still reported exclusion. 

Jewish Family Service’s new Disability Liaison Amanda Thomas, PhD, took over, saying, “Jewish Family Service and the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley really recognize the need to improve our understanding to produce a more inclusive community and begin to understand the issues. This town hall is to really begin making the next steps and to begin to understand your needs and make sure there are ways we can meet them.”

A survey was offered online before the event, and during the town hall, a series of poll questions were asked of the audience. From their responses and comments, a list of short- and long-term goals were drawn up for JFS staff to review and create an action plan with a new Disability and Inclusion Committee which participants were invited to join. Some issues can be easily addressed, while others will take more time, thought and planning. From creating solutions to make religious services and Jewish spaces more inclusive to educational training aimed at ending stigma and increasing accessibility, there are many ways that the committee will seek to improve the Jewish community.

The Disability and Inclusion Committee will meet in March. Stay tuned for updates regarding the initiative and next steps. 

If you want to continue the conversation and learn more about the next steps, please email Amanda Thomas at amthomas@jfslv.org.