Jewish places need smoother access for disabled, study says

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A ramp up the bimah is a beginning, but it doesn't mean much if the synagogue doors are too narrow for a wheelchair.

So said Abby Kovalsky, coordinator of the disabilities project of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services. And unfortunately, she added, the scenario isn't unusual.

"Most Jewish institutions in the city aren't accessible. The buildings are old," she said. However, "they can be more accessible without costing a lot of money."

To increase awareness about this issue, volunteers are surveying Jewish institutions and reporting back to JFCS with their findings. Kovalsky follows up, meeting with building managers and executive directors to discuss results and make suggestions for improving accessibility.

The survey of San Francisco facilities is complete, with results from 15 agencies and a sampling of six synagogues. Marin and the Peninsula are still looking for volunteers.

To make many San Francisco agencies and synagogues fully accessible to the disabled would cost thousands of dollars, as ramps and elevators are needed in many locations. While Kovalsky consults on such costly renovations — passing along names and numbers of contractors specializing in this sort of work — she mostly educates Jewish leaders about how to make changes in their buildings that are less expensive.

For example, Judy Miller — who after several hours of training surveyed many of the San Francisco buildings with Sue Siegel — noted some agencies had dim lighting in their waiting rooms, making it difficult for elderly individuals to fill out forms or to read.

Other agencies need to familiarize staff members with the California Relay Service, a system linking deaf people with TDDs (telecommunications device for the deaf) to their hearing friends and relatives via phone lines.

"These are little things you don't think of unless you've experienced them," Miller said. "It's the kind of thing a little forethought can take care of."

Miller and Siegel also suggested that receptionists speak loudly and distinctly, and that they look up at individuals when addressing them. These small changes can make a difference to someone with a hearing disability, Miller explained.

Miller and Siegel surveyed about 12 buildings, spending about an hour at each, measuring doorways and poking around kitchens and garbage bins looking for freight elevators.

They reported all agencies were open to suggestions and information. But because of the high cost of certain renovations, many organizations remained skeptical of what they could accomplish.

Miller explained that "today's concept of accessibility is broader than it was 25 years ago. We're not just talking about wheelchairs." However, she added, "our population is aging and it's a population that isn't willing to sit at home by the fire and crochet tablecloths.

"Consideration toward special needs is crucial."

But the goal of this project, Siegel added, is awareness rather than renovation.

"In terms of what I think is the highest achievement, it's not so much enhancing access but opening hearts and opening minds," Siegel said. "We need to get into the Jewish agencies and find people to become the nucleus of the movement within their community."