Childhood polio didn't slow Jay Kruger. Although he couldn't run, Kruger led a normal life as a teenager and into adulthood. Now, like other seniors experiencing post-polio syndrome, his strength is receding. To get around, three years ago he began relying on an electric wheelchair that he controls with a joystick.
While federal laws require public buildings to provide access for the handicapped, Kruger still encounters restaurants without ramps, public restrooms with hard-to-open doors that trap him inside and theater seating that is spitting distance from the screen. One quarter of the nation's population cope with either physical or cognitive disabilities.
"People with two good legs, it doesn't hit them," said Kruger, who recently toured the recently opened Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Irvine to critique its accessibility for the handicapped.
Kruger had another motive, too. He is a member of a special Jewish Family Service (JFS) task force, which this fall will survey for the first time the needs and barriers of the physically and mentally disabled at synagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions in Orange County.
It is hoped the Jewish Federation-funded survey will identify synagogues or programs that address needs of the disabled, which can be a model for others. The subject is a sensitive and complex one, as it will put a spotlight on community support for special services and conflicting attitudes over how to provide those services.
Findings initially will be compiled as a local Jewish resource guide, said Mel Roth, JFS executive director.
"When you find yourself with a child with special needs, it's a maze out there," said La Rhea Steindler, a JFS case manager and counselor, who is leading the 18-member task force, and is a mother of children with disabilities. "If it takes you three years to identify special needs, you've lost three precious years and have the emotional damage that goes with it."
"If we shorten that process, we may prevent it," she said.
The task force includes representatives from local Jewish groups, like the Jeremiah Society, as well as county service providers.
"It's a very difficult job to get the community to recognize there are people among us who can't benefit from society," said Rose Lacher, who for 20 years has tried without success to establish a Jewish group home for mentally disabled adults in Orange County. She founded the Jeremiah Society, a social club of 30 members that draws participants from outside the county, reflecting the scarcity of such services.
"There are a lot of barriers," Lacher said. "Some people just don't want to hear about people who are different."
"Using a public restroom has nothing to do with being Jewish," said Joan Levine, who trains special education teachers at Cal State Fullerton. Levine, the author of a vocational guide for Orange County's disabled, is dyslexic and has attention deficit disorder. She also is a JFS task force member.
Even so, she pointed out, observant Jews with disabilities face some particular hurdles. As an example, she said, turning off a hearing aid on Shabbat is considered an act of work, which is prohibited. Levine recalls having to seek permission from a religious court to use a sign language interpreter at a bat mitzvah where a deaf relative was to be called to the pulpit.
While day schools and supplemental religious schools willingly enroll special needs students, few are staffed with teachers expert in their needs. Some training is available locally through a little-known group, Special Needs Learning Partnership, formerly known as Jewish Education For All. The group provides highly regarded training in special-needs instruction for religious school teachers, hosts experts for talks with parents and teachers, and supplements teacher salaries.
"It's the best-kept secret," said Linda Shoham, the partnership director and also a member of the JFS task force. In the coming year, partnership-trained teachers will offer special-needs religious school classes at Fountain Valley's Congregation B'nai Tzedek and Huntington Beach's Congregation Adat Israel.
Yet even when such resources are available, many parents with special-needs children prefer mainstream classes rather than a specialized one, which can be stigmatizing.
During the JCC tour, Kruger was pleased to learn the fitness staff includes Angel Luna, a victim of cerebral palsy, who is a rehabilitation specialist. Luna's expertise with stroke and heart-attack victims would serve the disabled, too, said Sean Eviston, the JCC athletic director.
"He fits a niche perfectly that is lacking in most commercial gyms," Eviston said.
Kruger was equally impressed with a submersible chair, allowing the wheelchair-bound to be immersed in the swimming pool.
"I've never seen another one," he said. But entering a JCC restroom or the senior center was a considerable effort for Kruger from his wheelchair.
"There are people with walkers who will have more difficulty than I getting through all those doors," said Kruger, none of which open automatically. For those reasons, Kruger gave the JCC a "B" grade. "I couldn't give it an 'A.'"