Your building can become more accessible without costing a lot of money. Here are several ways to make practical accommodations:

1. Seating

People should be able to sit with others in the congregation, but often people with disabilities are shown seating that is off to the side or in the back corner where they can’t see the service or feel that they are part of the congregation. Sometimes people who use wheelchairs are seated in the aisles. This is awkward and can be dangerous, particularly if there is an emergency. It’s uncomfortable, too, because it feels like you’re on display.

What You Can Do

  • If you have permanent seating, you can shorten pews so people who use wheelchairs can sit with friends and family.
  • Should you only have room for people to sit in the aisles, make sure the aisles are wide enough for people to move around the person using a wheelchair.
  • Seat people who use sign language interpreters directly in front of the interpreters for barrier-free access.

2. Adequate Lighting and Acoustics

Both adequate lighting and good acoustics can determine how well someone who has vision or hearing disabilities can participate and feel part of the congregation.

What You Can Do

  • Check the wattage of the light bulbs and consider increasing it if you can. Determine what it would take to increase the number of fixtures, or add floor lamps where possible.
  • There are listening systems that can patch into hearing aids. If you use an assistive listening device make sure the batteries are charged and that ushers know where to find them.
  • And always remember to announce page numbers so people can follow along.

3. Bimah and Aron Kodesh

Many synagogues were built when stairs leading to the bimah and the Aron Kodesh were the standard. Changes in architecture can be costly, involving architects, building permits and construction and take time to complete. There are also some synagogues that are on an historic register and changes to the building may be restricted.

What You Can Do

  • First, look at the access points. Are there items that can be moved that might block access?
  • An alternative to building a ramp is to purchase or rent a portable ramp.
  • Is there space on the seating level of the sanctuary to place the bimah so no one has to use the stairs?
  • Another solution, which Rabbi Yossel Kranz of Chabad of Virginia created is an accessible bimah that is portable and accessible. Contact info@rcii.org for more information.

4. Programming in Accessible Spaces

Consider how people enter your building if they are unable to open the doors. Once inside the building, think about where you schedule classes and programs. Getting in the building and being able to get to the programs held there may present obstacles to someone who uses a wheelchair, other mobility device or is unable to walk up or down stairs.

What You Can Do

  • Some synagogues purchase an automatic door opener system that can be programmed for Shabbos. Consult with your local rabbinic authority for details.
  • Another solution is to use doorstoppers to keep the doors open.
  • Some congregations position greeters at the doors to assist with opening them.
  • Schedule classes and programs on the main level of the building so people who cannot go up or down the stairs can attend.

5. Access to Water Fountains

Something as simple as taking a drink of water from the water fountain is not always available for someone who uses a wheelchair.

What You Can Do

  • Place disposable cups next to the water fountain so people can reach them.
  • Place a recycling or trash container near the water fountain.