Accomodations for Disabilities in Halacha
When it comes to those with disabilities in secular society, much is said about inclusion, accommodations, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and similar concepts. It should not surprise one familiar with Orthodoxy that halacha is actually far ahead of the curve when it comes to this concept.
The reality is that some people have physical, mental or emotional conditions that might impede one’s ability to participate in certain ritual aspects of Jewish life. Halacha recognizes this reality and strikes a balance between not offering blanket exemptions and not having unrealistic expectations of people. In short, every Jew is expected to participate in Jewish life to the fullest, as their own individual circumstances allow.
A parking space closer to the entrance is an accommodation for someone with trouble walking; more time on a test may be an accommodation for certain learning disabilities. But a person in a wheelchair won't receive extra time on a test and a person with dyslexia won't receive a more convenient parking spot as these are not accommodations for their particular disabilities. Similarly, halacha treats people with disabilities exactly the same as everyone else, exempting only requirements specifically precluded by their own situations. To that end, everyone, regardless of circumstance, is bound by such basic mitzvos as Shabbos and kashrus. People with disabilities are required to fast on Yom Kippur and are equally obligated in the mitzvah of pru u’r’vu. Men with disabilities have the same obligation to pray thrice daily, with a minyan and tallis and tefillin, unless circumstances dictate otherwise. Any accommodations that deviate from the standard practice are based upon very specific needs.
What kind of halachic accommodations might be made for those with difficulty walking? A person who cannot walk unaided may use an ambulatory device such as a cane, walker, wheelchair or crutches on Shabbos, even in the absence of an eiruv (Iggros Moshe OC 4:90). In such a case, the aide is considered a substitute for a body part; this is a leniency that would not be permitted for one who can walk with assistance and merely finds such devices helpful.
Leg braces are considered “worn,” as one’s glasses would be (OC 301:16). Artificial limbs and other prosthetic devices are considered part of one’s body.
While it is not permitted to ask a Jewish person to push a wheelchair outside of an eiruv on Shabbos, one may ask a non-Jew to do so if staying home from shul distresses the person. Once he is being taken, it would be permissible to place a tallis or a siddur in the wheelchair for incidental transport to shul. (Use of an electric wheelchair on Shabbos and yom tov is extremely problematic and should optimally be avoided.)
There are other accommodations for the non-ambulatory. For example, people who use a wheelchair are not expected to rise for the portions of prayer that normally require standing (OC 94:6). Conversely, they may observe shiva from their wheelchair, rather than getting down into a traditional lowered seat.
Individuals with Visual Impairments
The extent to which people who are visually-impaired and even fully blind are intended to be integrated into the fullness of Jewish life may surprise some. For example, a person with visual impairments may not only lead prayer services, he may even read from the Torah on behalf of the congregation (assuming, of course, that he can actually see the text). Conversely, a blind person would be permitted to pray from memory.
A blind person would be obligated to light candles on Friday night, even though he or she could not personally see the light. (This would be excepted if the candles would pose a potential hazard.) A guide dog or other helper animal would be permitted to accompany this person to shul, even though animals would not normally be allowed in the synagogue (Iggros Moshe OC 1:45). A blind person who needs a cane to get around may do so in a r’shus harabim on Shabbos because to him the cane is considered like an article of clothing (MA, OC 301:18).
A person with visual impairments can serve as a witness in a wedding, divorce or other legal proceeding, though a fully blind person would not be able to do so. Even a fully blind person may recite Kiddush Levana for himself, even though he cannot see the moon (MB OC 420:1). A blind person cannot perform bedikas chometz and it is preferable that another person be motzi him the bracha on the Chanukah lights (MB 675:9; Aruch HaShulchan 675:5).
What may be especially surprising is that there are even leniencies in the harchokos of taharas hamishpocha to accommodate the needs of individuals. For example, a man with visual impairments may hold the arm of his wife for guidance even though she has not yet used the mikvah. Similarly, a woman who has not used the mikvah may write signs in the hand of her blind and deaf husband (YD 195:15).
Individuals with Hearing Impairments
As with the assistive devices of other disabilities, people with hearing impairments may wear their hearing aids on Shabbos, even outside of an eiruv, because it is considered a garment to them; they may not, however, adjust the volume on Shabbos or yom tov. Even the battery may be worn, but neither the battery nor the hearing aid itself may be carried in a r’shus harabim by hand or in a pocket (Iggros Moshe OC 4:85).
While a microphone may not be used on Shabbos or yom tov for the benefit of the hearing-impaired, electronic amplification may be used to assist the hearing impaired in hearing the Megillah on Purim (Iggros Moshe OC 2:108). Even a fully deaf person can fulfill his own obligation to read the Torah or the Megillah, even though he cannot hear himself do so (MB 689:5). A kesubah may be read in sign language for the benefit of a deaf choson (Iggros Moshe EH 1:87).
The Obligation of the Community
There is an obligation on the entire community to see to the needs of people with disabilities in general and those with developmental disabilities in particular. In the 1800’s, the Chasam Sofer ruled that the support and medical care of a young woman with developmental disabilities was not the sole responsibility of her father, but was incumbent upon the community as a whole (Chasam Sofer YD 76).
To this end, all reasonable accommodations for individuals should be met by the community, be they access ramps at synagogues, Sabbath-compliant elevators, Braille and large-type siddurim, or even lifts in the mikvah, community resources allowing. Children with special needs, be they physical access, learning disabilities or otherwise, should be provided with appropriate educational facilities as per the Biblical mandate to educate all children in a manner appropriate to their individual circumstances (Mishlei 22:6). Community leaders are exhorted to endeavor to ensure that the needs of families whose members may have disabilities are being met.
We recognize our obligation when it comes to members of our community whose financial resources are insufficient to meet all their needs. In such a case, the highest level of tzedakah is to provide an individual with the means to support himself with dignity. Similarly, when providing accommodations for individuals with physical, mental or emotional disabilities, the goal should be integrating all members of the community into the full spectrum of Jewish communal life, not as a favor, but as a basic right as a member of klal Yisroel.
This piece is based in part on “The Physically and Mentally Disabled: Insights Based on the Teachings of Rav Moshe Feinstein” by Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler, Ph.D. and Fred Rosner, M.D., Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society - No. XXII - Fall 1991, Succoth 5751. All piskei din are as cited by the authors of that article; see there.