November 20, 2018

Seven Ways to Make the High Holidays More Inclusive for People with Disabilities

Fall has officially arrived, and many of us are pulling out the brisket recipes from Bubbe, and figuring out which dressy shoes hurt the least to wear to services while getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As synagogues around the world prep for their biggest crowds of the entire year, this is also a good time for synagogue staff, lay leaders and volunteers to make their venues truly open for all, and to welcome congregants of all abilities.

There’s a wonderful new resource, the High Holiday Toolkit provided by the national nonprofit RespecAbility, with the help of Shelley Cohen, Director of the Jewish Inclusion Project, that has many important and easy steps that synagogues should take now to truly create more inclusive communities.

Here’s a sampling:
1) Set aside some aisle seats for those with physical disabilities/mobility issues, mindful that some congregants without disabilities may view those as “their” assigned seats, by explaining to them ahead of time that their seats may have been shifted just a bit

2) On all forms for any childcare or youth services, ask parents if their child will need any special accommodations to fully participate, and also all communication about childcare services should note that accommodations are available upon request

3) Offer either ASL or Closed Captioning for Congregants with Hearing Impairments
There are plenty of internet resources to find either one, and a good place to start is with the Jewish Deaf Resource Center (JDRC) 

4) Ushers should be briefed on helping congregants with disabilities and should welcome all guests equally, regardless of ability level, and to speak to adults with developmental disabilities in an adult manner, rather than speaking to them in a childish way. Also, ushers need to make sure all doors and walkways are kept accessible at all times for people who use wheelchairs and walkers. When in doubt about what congregants with disabilities need, don’t be afraid to ask.

5) Provide a sensory calming room for children or adults with disabilities who need a quiet place to chill out if the sound system, singing or other loud auditory sounds are overwhelming, or even if they just need a break. As the toolkit says, “This room should be accessible for those with mobility issues and contain quiet play toys, books, puzzles, and comfortable chairs. Parents would need to chaperone their children. If synagogue custom allows, there should be a live stream or an audio feed of the service so people can still feel like they are a part of the service.”

6) If possible, have large-print machzorim and a Braille machzor for those with visual impairments. They can be ordered from Jewish Braille Institute at

7) Please keep in mind that in case of an emergency, people with disabilities must be included in any evacuation plan.
FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination has information and resources regarding evacuation plans and emergency procedures that include people with disabilities. 

Shana Tova!