By Dana Marlowe
If the Mishnah, or any other Jewish scripture, were to get a facelift to the 21st century, we’d envision a roundtable discussion with some of the venerable sages. But what would they talk about for February’s Jewish Disability Awareness Month? Suppose some of the beloved teachers were in a Silicon Valley tech incubator. Sitting across a meeting table, we turn to Ben Zoma, sipping his latte. He turns to Hillel and asks, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person … So, how can we make our Jewish landscape more inclusive to learn from all, including people with disabilities?”
Hillel lifts his head up from his smart phone. “Good point, Zoma. If I am only for myself, what good am I? Collaboration and inclusivity is key.” They forget they’re on a conference call, and Rabbi Tarfon might interject on the polycom to say, “Friends, let’s remember, it is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” And to wrap up, Shammai, the boss, would conclude, “Say little, and do much. Let’s let our actions help with disability inclusion.”
Jewish traditions emphasize collaboration. The power of inclusiveness is magnificent. Fast forward a few centuries, and Ben Zoma might propose crowdfunding on Kickstarter or Jewcer. Technology today changes rapidly, but our sage advice remains constant. Just as we need ten individuals for a minyan, so too do we need a collection of diverse minds to drive new technology.
Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM) revolves around inclusion, and technology is a huge driving force. Consider laptops used to update spreadsheets, PDFs sent for review, organizational websites, phones in our pockets, wearables on our wrists, and tablets used to update our social media. As part of JDAM, we raise awareness of the products used on a daily basis, and contemplate how someone with different abilities might interact with the same technology.
Technology touches every instance of our being. It enables travel, communication, employment, education, and beyond. As a unifier, it levels the playing field to access all information. Accessibility is the nexus where technology innovation and disability advocacy meet.
Accessible means more than just being operable. It transcends basic functionality, and encompasses that the design of the product must factor in usage people with disabilities. Accessibility is the fusion of IT and disability; the focus on the user over the device. It can put people with disabilities at the helm of innovation and dictate progress focused on human experience. To contain accessibility automatically means that the design is inclusionary to some degree. There is no limit on accessibility, and similarly, there are no boundaries. However, there is the potential for barriers if we are not mindful.
When the Torah states, “do not place a stumbling block before a blind person” (Leviticus 19:14), it is not merely a suggestion. We as the Jewish people need to be proactive and remove such obstacles. A stumbling block is not often placed intentionally, but can be removed with purpose.
Consider an entrance to a building that consists of stairs leading to a heavy door. Similarly, envision a website featuring an informational video with no captions. In each scenario, individuals with disabilities may not be able to access the area that they desire. It is exclusionary. We need to look at technology as akin to physical buildings, and build inclusive ramps to web content, mobile applications, hardware, software, and beyond so that all people can access information as well as any other person.
The Hebrew word for Jewish law is Halacha, or “the way to go.” Jewish tradition describes virtually every function of daily living. Similarly, accessibility can affect the major driving forces of life. By removing inaccessible items, like images without textual descriptions for those with visual disabilities, audio without description for those with hearing disabilities, and more, we allow people with disabilities to communicate, learn and live independent, fulfilling and productive lives.
Accessibility builds a strong foundation that capitalizes on the contributions of users with disabilities. It includes having the input of people with disabilities in the design phase of the product (website, software application, mobile app, etc.), and having them test during development. It demonstrates inclusivity and also champions the validity of feedback of persons of all abilities. Technology does not exist in a vacuum, and is porous to the influences of outsiders, and created in symbiosis with human involvement.
As the world of technology rapidly evolves, we must be conscious about the needs of people with disabilities. We can be savvy enough to remove certain stumbling blocks and remain vigilant that we don’t create more in our haste to innovate. Innovation and inclusion need to go hand in hand.
The answer to that quandary is employment. Technology is woven into the fabric of our workspaces worldwide, and having accessible options enables more people with disabilities to have barrier-free jobs. This will improve mutual understanding about the benefits of inclusion and accessibility.
It’s clear that times are changing in the Jewish landscape, but the lessons from thousand year old texts ring true. The prophet Isaiah describes a house of prayer for “all people.” Jewish disability awareness, whether in February, but hopefully year-round, is a testament. It brings people and their innovative ideas together, and allows them to demolish the barrier wall to see the inclusive future beyond it.
Dana Marlowe is the Principal Partner of Accessibility Partners.
This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation which explores the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community. This series coincides with Jewish Disability Awareness Month.