The first thing a newcomer to a synagogue wants to do is scoot into an
inconspicuous seat and blend in. Finding a seat is easy for me, because I
travel with my own; what’s harder is finding a place where my wheelchair
will fit without looking like I’m claiming new territory and just daring the
Torah procession to cross through it. There goes “inconspicuous.”
But wait, as the infomercials say, there’s more!
There’s the white cane perched in its holder on the side of my wheelchair.
There are my hearing aids, which are different colors right now because I
like to go for a little variety every time one of them needs repairs.
There’s the close-focusing telescope I use to read. And there is, of
course, the simple conspicuousness of being a newcomer. It can make one
nervous enough to want to scurry back home and hide under the bed.
But I didn’t stay home under the bed. I showed up. And it takes a lot of
extra work to show up. I need to first find a synagogue on a side of Los
Angeles that most Jewish people left fifty years ago, and comb through its
website for clues about its culture and whether I might feel comfortable
there. I need to look into public transportation, to see whether I can get
there in fewer than three hours and make the necessary bus transfers, which
has its own logistical challenges for someone who has about half of one
percent of normal vision. I need to spend time looking at Google Street
View to get an idea of how I might recognize the building since I can’t see
signs or address numbers, and to check out whether it’s accessible to people
who use wheelchairs. I know that sounds like something a phone call could
tell me, but everyone has a different idea of what accessibility means, and
“only three steps up to the door” counts to a surprising number of people.
I bring my own kippah because I probably won’t be able to find the communal
box, so that’s one less thing to worry about.
Those are logistical challenges, though, and those–if I can work around
them–are routine. What really makes me nervous is being a newcomer. Is
the siddur a familiar one? Was I paying enough attention this morning to be
sure that my socks match? What can I do to appear more friendly than
Everyone needs community, and nobody finds it easy to enter into a new one,
even when they’re friendly, and even when people are open and welcoming.
It’s inherently awkward. It’s also worthwhile to go out on that limb. A
new person is saying, with their presence, “It’s important to me to be
For me, though, there are extra things I need to be ready for. Consider
kiddush snacking. One does not turn down food among Jews, but a buffet line
is about the most inaccessible thing I can think of for someone who can’t
see what’s there, much less find a plate to put it on and then balance on
one’s lap because one’s hands are occupied with maneuvering one’s chair.
The obvious answer would be to ask for help, but there my ears become an
issue. Hearing aids can’t correct hearing losses in the way glasses can
correct minor vision losses. In noisy situations, their function is largely
decorative. And this is why I wear colorful ones: if someone speaks to me
and I appear to ignore them, I hope they catch sight of the hearing aids so
they realize I’m not being rude. Many people with hearing losses can
compensate visually to some extent–by seeing that someone is trying to make
eye contact, for instance–but that’s not something I can do.
Here we all are, a room full of nice people with good intentions, wanting to
connect, to introduce ourselves, and we can’t. They don’t necessarily
understand what the barriers are, and I can’t explain them, nor do I really
want to. I don’t want to talk about disability; I want to say hello, to
tell them my name and learn theirs, to chat a little bit about their
community, the parshah, the weather–anything!
I remind myself that I didn’t come for the kiddush. My real goal is to be
there, among people, looking pleasant. When the crowd starts to thin, I
might be able to pick out individual voices and join conversations. I might
be able to ask about community events that I’d have an easier time with,
like adult education classes, where only one person speaks at a time and I
don’t have to worry about moving around once I’ve found a place to sit. I
might find out about what sorts of volunteer opportunities there are in the
community. I might even be able to connect with one person or family, and
that, too, is community.
These are specific examples from one person’s experience. It’s been a bit
of a rough road to travel, and I’ve put a lot of thought into what could
make it smoother, not just for me, but for the larger goal of people
connecting with each other when they don’t quite know how to reach out.
People can tell immediately that I’m fairly unusual, but that’s true of all
of us. The only real difference is that some of what makes me unusual is so
immediately apparent, while with other people, it may take some time to see
how they stand out.
I have compiled the following off-the-cuff list of things I would want
people to think about as they approach people with disabilities in their
communities. I think many of these things apply to any new person entering
any community. The details will vary, so please trust your own good
intentions, wisdom, and experience.
1. Start with what you have in common, and branch out from there.
You don’t have to agonize over your words; just start with “Hello.” When I
was in college, I took a lot of linguistics courses, and I learned that the
essential meaning of the word “hello” is, “I’m aware of your presence, and
I’m not hostile.” There’s no more welcome message to a newcomer than
Sometimes, people in Jewish settings avoid talking about Jewish topics
because they don’t want to get involved in the micropolitics and contentious
categories that can be a source of internal division among Jews. That’s
understandable, and there are plenty of other good topics that can open a
conversation. I mentioned earlier that I’m happy when people talk about the
weather. Why? Because one thing two strangers in the same place can be
sure they have in common is the weather.
Try to avoid using disability as a topic to open a conversation. When we
meet someone we see as noticeably different from ourselves, we find the
difference interesting, and we’re naturally curious. This can be a source
of stress to a person who is often approached around the ways they’re
obviously not like other people. Disability isn’t taboo, but there are
better and easier starting points, because it feels more comfortable to
begin with something that can bring us together rather than something that
defines us as different. I will add the specific caution that trying to
relate to someone around disability, while often well-intended, often sets
people farther apart: many people try to relate to my experience by saying
that they “can’t see a thing” without their glasses, or that they used a
wheelchair for a week after an injury, and this only emphasizes to me how
different our experiences have been. My disabilities are a lot more
interesting to other people than they are to me; for me, this is just daily
life, and I’d rather talk about something I find more interesting.
When other people focus heavily on my disability, I feel as if they’re not
allowing room for me to have more going on in my life than that. For
example, I have a master’s degree in library science, and I worked for
several years in public libraries, which has given me some funny stories to
tell. I also love to knit, and maybe that’s a point of connection. If I’m
answering a lot of questions about my disability, I can’t get to those other
things, nor can I ask about another person’s interests. That’s a loss to
both of us.
2. It’s not up to you to figure out what will be most helpful to someone
Many people want to be helpful and don’t know how. They’re also nervous
about offering, because different people have very different reactions, some
more or less friendly (or even civil) than others. I can only speak for
myself. I’m never offended to be offered help, unless it’s offered in a
patronizing sing-song voice, and even then, what offends me is being talked
to like I’m three years old, not the offer of help. If I don’t need
anything, I’ll smile and decline and thank a person for having offered, and
I’ll consider it friendly contact.
Even an offer that is not specifically needed can be helpful, because it
lets me know that a person is willing to help, and that eases the way for me
to say, “I’m all right with this, but would you please help me with that
instead?” Often I just need to ask for information, like where I can put my
plate down. I’m much more willing to ask for help from someone I know is
interested in giving it.
You might also feel as if you should wait to offer help until you see
something specific that’s needed, because you’re afraid that an offer that’s
not specific might appear less sincere. Specific offers are great, but not
necessary. And if you’re offering help because you’re not sure what else to
say, you can just say “Hello.” I want my interactions with people to be
about more than just giving or receiving help, so those simple things
The most important thing is that you are expressing good will. A person
might or might not need you to put that into a more concrete form, and you
can trust them to let you know what they need.
3. Try not to think in terms of “special needs.”
This is more about how we think about people than how we talk about people.
By describing people as having “special needs,” we unintentionally set the
relationship off-balance. All people have needs, and all people have
something to offer. People accommodate each other all the time, so it’s
often a matter of which things we pay attention to. As much as curb ramps
are accommodations to people who use wheelchairs, streets are accommodations
to people who use cars. There are more people who use cars, so we don’t
think of streets as special accommodations for them. The point is that
singling out one group of people as being about “needs” is a raw deal for
4. Accessible communities are good for everyone.
When communities think about how to become more accessible to specific
people, the changes they make often benefit more people than anticipated. A
familiar parallel serves as a good example: people with disabilities had to
work for many years to convince Congress pass laws to require ramps in more
places. Many business owners had argued vigorously that there was no need
for ramps because people who use wheelchairs didn’t visit their businesses.
Now that ramps are in so many more places, they are also considered
essential by parents with strollers, and just look at the rolling backpack
industry. (This also illustrates the earlier point about the narrowness of
defining people in terms of “special needs.”)
Changes do not need to be big or expensive in order to make important
differences. This can be as simple as making different choices when light
bulbs need to be replaced. People do not need to have certifiable vision
impairments to benefit from better lighting.
If the community’s approach is that changes are made inclusive of disability
considerations, rather than with a grudging “compliance” mentality, the
atmosphere is healthier, and people are drawn to a good atmosphere. A
community that makes itself more actively open, even before a specific need
arises, will likely find that more people want to get involved.
5. If one thing doesn’t work, another might.
Not everything will work for everybody. Kiddush kibitzing will never be a
really accessible activity for me. Plenty of other things will work,
though, like classes, small group meetings, or volunteer opportunities.
That is true of everyone in a community, for various reasons–schedules,
personalities, finances, family situations. Each person has places where
they shine, and places where their particular abilities have less scope to
come out. If you see someone and aren’t sure where they might fit in, just
let them know that you would like to see them involved in the community.
People might not know where they fit or where they do best, but they can try
different things. The vital thing is that they know that they are wanted in
the community. People are motivated to give when they know that what they
have to give is valued.
6. If you say the “wrong” thing, it’s not the end of the world.
Finally, sometimes we just put our feet in our mouths. The only way to
avoid that is to talk through clenched teeth all the time. If our general
warmth, respect, and appreciation for people are clear on an ongoing basis,
then it’s much easier to move past missteps. I know that some people aren’t
sure how to approach me, but I would feel sad to know that someone doesn’t
speak to me because they’re so afraid of saying the “wrong” thing. Who
among us doesn’t have a long list of awkward things we’ve said? The most
important thing is to start a conversation. I’d rather work through the
occasional hiccup than miss an entire friendship.
This has been a thoroughly incomplete list of the ways communities can reach
out to new people. It is not a checklist of ways you should make sure you
are “doing enough.” Instead, I hope it highlights familiar things in new
ways and helps you to recognize that you are already doing a lot of what it
takes to welcome new people into your communities.
Written by Jeremy Congdon