I promised earlier that I would come back to Purim with a focus on inclusion–it is, after all, still Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Among the communally celebrated holidays, Purim may pose some of the very toughest challenges for inclusion. I’m going to try to put on my thinking hat here to look at what the challenges are to an inclusive Purim celebration. My purpose in this is not to suggest that every problem can be solved for every person in every place and at every time. Rather, I want to put in one place thoughts on how the traditional ways in which we celebrate Purim can work exclusion, and to prompt thought about how we might overcome some of those problems.
Let’s start with one of the biggest issues first.
Cursed be Haman. Graggers. Yelling. Stomping feet. Chanting. The sounds: the chaotic, exuberant noise of the Megillah reading and the Purim shpiel!
Now imagine that you’ve lost hearing in one ear and use a hearing aid. Or that you experience hyperacusis as a result of a prior injury to your head, or migraines, or PTSD. Or imagine that you have any of a number of difficulties that many autistic persons experience attempting to process sound.
For some people, the typical exuberance of the Megillah reading is something quite a bit different. It’s a source of tremendous pain.
Those individuals are excluded from the community’s joy.
I know–earplugs, right? Or earmuffs? These don’t work for everyone; Secular Jew Jr. and many other children simply cannot endure wearing things in or on their ears.
One could do a separate program that is sensory-friendly: Mishkan in Philadelphia does this. But is that accommodation without inclusion?
There are wide ranges of difficulties individuals may face related to movement that can play into the Purim experience. I’m not exactly the most coordinated person in the world, so spinning a gragger is not always the easiest thing for me to do. Imagine the difficulties for someone with dystonia, or an injury to the nervous system that prevents certain kinds of hand motions. Individuals with various forms of paralysis or other physical injuries may also find it difficult to spin a gragger.
So, stomp your feet, one might say. But remember: not everyone is able to do that.
Maybe you say, raise your voice! Well, some of the people who can’t spin a gragger or stomp their feet may also not have control over their voices. Simply getting to a Purim celebration may be a challenge.
Attention and Needing to Move
We easily forget that it’s really quite difficult for many individuals to sit seemingly without end for long periods of time. But even sitting for a few minutes waiting on the edge of your chair for the Megillah reader to say “Haman” can be difficult for a child–and for any of a number of individuals whose needs for movement and attention spans make that few minutes immensely difficult, the experience is more like waiting for Godot.
This can apply to individuals with attention and hyperactivity-related difficulties. But it can also apply to people with bad knees or joints: it’s just very difficult for someone with back problems to endure sitting…and sitting…and sitting. Especially if the chair is just a little uncomfortable for someone without a back injury: that chair may be excruciating for someone with back problems. And even many “normal” (used with scare quotes) persons just need to move around sometimes.
We also forget that others may simply move differently or really need to move more often for any number of other concerns–plenty of us have digestive or other needs that movement at what always seems like the worst possible moment.
Difficulties with sight pose yet more challenges to enjoying Purim “as it was intended.” Costume contests may lack meaning for those who cannot see–or cannot entirely see–the costumes. Any number of temporary or permanent visual difficulties can affect someone’s participation, from total lack of vision through the eyes to color-blindness to glaucoma.
If the community’s Purim shpiel is a visual feast, how does the person with limited sight participate? If you make red or green somehow important, how does that affect those who don’t perceive those colors in the same way as most others? How can those who cannot see be included in an activity when costuming–looking like someone or something else–may not always be meaningful?
Perhaps you’ve noticed that Jewish culture is very text-centered. Beyond the exclusions this imposes upon those with physical difficulties with sight, consider the difficulties of individuals with dyslexia, or who have in one or another way been unable or delayed from developing reading skills. Imagine as well adding to all that the difficulties associated with moving between English and Hebrew. After all, sometimes it’s not all that simple for many who have easy facility with both languages to move between them and track page numbers.
These aren’t the only possible sets of obstacles we face to being inclusive; I’ve tried to identify the ones that are the most easily understood by those who do not face unintentional exclusion or who are not the sometimes unintentionally-slighted beneficiaries of accommodation, as opposed to inclusion.
All of these concerns, and others, create complications in a service where, in many synagogues, there’s lots of bouncing back and forth between books, standing and sitting, calling out of page numbers, etc.–all of which can be frustrating.
There are any number of things that can be done to make Purim more inclusive–and nothing will ever be perfect. Perhaps turn down the volume on audio systems. Make a game of how you’ll make noise to blot out Haman’s name each time. If you’re not bounded by halakhah, you also don’t need to read the whole Megillah–and maybe you can help include many more people in the Megillah reading by making it shorter and hitting the high points? Maybe the Purim shpiel and even the Megillah reading can have more participation and more movement? Perhaps have “stations” where individuals can go to take a breather, either alone or with others, and offer Purim-related activities or items in those stations. (Like gluten-free Hamantashen! Purim puzzles!)
So as you think about Purim this year, and in later years, think about how your community can have as inclusive a Purim celebration as possible. It can be a fun holiday–but loud, gleeful public celebrations may turn away those who could most benefit from the bonds of a shared community.