A survey of people with disabilities (and their families or caregivers) suggests that the local Jewish community has taken steps in the right direction, but needs to go further still in meeting community members’ needs.
Conducted in 2015 by Greater MetroWest ABLE (Access, Belonging, and Life Enrichment), the study suggests that financial stress forces some families to choose between care and Jewish communal activities, and that they would like to feel more deeply accommodated, considered, and included in area Jewish institutions.
GMW ABLE is a network of community leaders, professionals, and agencies advocating for and serving individuals with special needs and their families under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The goal of the survey, which was completed by 202 people, was to better understand what initiatives work for them and what challenges they continue to face.
“We wanted a better grasp on which services people access, the areas where we are hitting the mark, and the areas we need to do better,” said Rebecca Wanatick, community inclusion coordinator at the federation. “It’s been over 20 years since a survey like this has been done.”
Those surveyed ranged from children to 80-year-olds. Disabilities varied widely, from blindness to neurological issues to learning disabilities to mental health challenges. The largest group covered had a diagnosis of autism.
Fifty to 70 percent of respondents said they had plenty of opportunities to be part of the Jewish community, and over two-thirds have had a bar or bat mitzva ceremony and belong to a synagogue. However, 30 percent said they cannot participate fully because there is not enough support offered — like a show of caring when there are repeated medical emergencies or hospital visits — or simple accommodations like a designated quiet room or an atmosphere of acceptance.
Respondents also suggested that Greater MetroWest ABLE do more to raise awareness about its services.
In response, GMW ABLE is formulating a plan of action, said Wanatick. While the 15 participating agencies under its umbrella offer a range of low- or no-cost programs — including support groups, family workshops, and courses to train teens as “shadows” of children with disabilities — Wanatick said her department will continue providing financial support for a variety of services, including sign language interpreters and shadows for youngsters with challenges.
Other ideas being pursued in light of the survey include training for educators, additional guidance for area clergy, and a campaign to increase awareness of the challenges of ensuring full inclusion of individuals with disabilities in organized Jewish life and of the resources available through GMW ABLE.
In addition, GMW ABLE will be listed on the Greater MetroWest portal of Kveller, the national Jewish parenting site (kveller.com/location/gmw), in order to reach young families.
Wanatick and GMW ABLE chair Eta Levenson of West Orange acknowledged disappointment with the low response to the survey, which was distributed through their network of agencies, schools, and synagogues. Some responses had to be discarded because the respondents were not Jewish, not affected by disabilities, or not residents of “Greater MetroWest,” which encompasses Essex, Morris, Union, and Sussex counties, and parts of Warren.
But, Levenson said, the distribution of respondents among the zip codes reflects the makeup of the community.
Wanatick said she will consider the survey and its resulting efforts successful if there is an increase in people using GMW ABLE’s resources.
“We did the survey because we knew it was the right thing to do,” said Levenson. “It’s nice to be validated. It means we are on the right track.”