Connecting to Young Jews Like Me is an Online Experience

By Raina Blumenthal

Every Jewish organization I have been involved with post high school I first found out about by looking at their website. Like many other people in my generation I’ve grown up spending a lot of time on the Internet. Statistics show that the average American teen spends 7 hours a day on their electronics (phone, computer, and tablet). While I was involved in my Jewish community as a child by having a bat mitzvah and attended JCC camp, as I got older and moved away from home, I relied on the Internet to find new opportunities to connect with the Jewish community. Through Internet searches I found and signed up to become a camp staff member, a Hillel student leader, went to Israel on Birthright and even signed for a MASA Israel program. While I was living in Israel I found a fellowship at a Jewish organization in the United States and even interviewed for it via Skype. As a young Jewish activist I was excited to see the Jim Joseph study on teen engagement. But, as a “digital native,” I think future studies could be made even better by a focus on inclusive online presence.

Like many young people I care deeply about inclusion of people of all abilities in society. Currently I have been focusing on inclusion within Jewish life, as the Jewish Inclusion Fellow at RespectAbility USA. So when I’m looking for a Jewish organization to connect with, I want one that shares my values of inclusion of people with disabilities.

An organization’s website has two purposes – to be your “brand” and welcome mat out to the public and to be a tool for your participants. With each of these issues you want your website to be welcoming and accessible to all – including people who are vision or hearing impaired. Below are some tips of what I believe makes an inclusive and accessible website.

1. Welcoming Words: Ensure that the website’s “About Us” section and mission statement include language about being inclusive of people of all abilities. Some examples of inclusive mission statements are from: The Temple, Temple Sinai, and Temple Beth Elohim. Make it a part of creating a welcoming, open and respectful Jewish community for all. Don’t limit inclusion to disabilities – celebrate welcoming other differences as well. Our research has shown that people respond very well to these four inclusive statements below. Feel free to use them in your mission statements or other parts of your website, or to find things in your own voice:

  • We are at our best when we are welcoming and respectful of the talents, experiences and perspectives that diversity can bring to table. People who have been historically disadvantaged – due to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or disability status, all comprise the larger society in which we live.  Inclusion means promoting justice, impartiality and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions, systems and communities. All people should be able to be seen as equal human beings and for the talents and gifts they have.
  • We are a stronger community when we live up to our values: when we are welcoming, diverse, moral and respect one another. We want our children, parents, grandparents, and other family and friends with disabilities to be able to have an equal opportunity to fully participate in our community.
  • People with disabilities and their families have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else, even if they face different challenges. We should ensure that everyone knows that his or her presence and participation is welcome and meaningful to us all.
  • Through inclusion, we can understand that, though everyone is different, all people were created equal and in the image of G-D, “b’stelem elokim.

2. Inclusive Photos: Put photos of people with disabilities celebrating Jewish life on your website. A picture really is worth a thousand words. Photos send a message that you truly are an inclusive organization. When you take your own photos, you should know that the photos that work well are of people with disabilities side by side with peers without visible disabilities. People want so see equality and respect in practice. Photos that are clearly staged, photos of people with disabilities alone, and photos where people are not happy, will not succeed in building inclusion.

3. Advertise that Accommodations are Available: Ensure that event invites announce that accommodations are available, if that is the case. For example, if the space is ADA accessible or your organization has access to an FM loop system, put that on the flyer or invite the same way you might add something like “dietary laws are observed,” or “kosher food available” or “childcare available.”

4. RSVP Forms Need a Place For Registrants to List Needed Accommodations: Add a spot to all event advertising on the RSVP form, whether online or on paper, to request accommodations. If there is no RSVP form, have a contact person listed for requesting accommodations with a simple statement, such as “If you would like to request an accommodation such as an ASL interpreter or large print materials, please contact (the name of the individual) in charge of this.” Sunflower Bakery has a great example of this in their application form for their summer volunteer program. Another good example of this is in the High Holdiay non-members guide for Congregation Sherith Israel.

5. Social Media: Link you homepage to your social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube). Talk about the inclusion efforts you are doing in your website and on your social media streams. Make sure that your posts are accessible. My organization has a free webinar on how to do this.

6. Screen Reader Accessibility: Make your website screen reader accessible so that those with vision impairments can access the information on your website. Accessibility Partners, a premier leader in web accessibility provided me with some suggestions and insight as how screen readers access web content and documents. Dana Marlowe and Sharon Rosenblatt will be providing more tips when they speak at Respectability’s free webinar on May 21st at 1:30 pm. You can register here. The biggest suggestion that any developer should consider is alternative text. For example, if you put a photo into a text document or website, you need to save it with a label that describes it by utilizing the alt text tag. That way when used properly, a user of a screen reader can audibly hear it say “photo of synagogue,” for example. But if you don’t label it, a user who is blind cannot tell if it is a photo of a synagogue or a dog, or a chart. Also, the Health and Human Services Section 508 website has some great resources on making documents and website accessible.

7. Pay attention to navigation:

  • If links aren’t properly labeled, repetitive, or if there isn’t a skip navigation feature, a screen reader user might get frustrated and go elsewhere.
  • If the index isn’t up front, they may never find what you wanted them to read. There should also be a tab index, which allows for items to be tabbed to and activated using the keyboard without using the mouse.
  • Another suggestion is to label buttons and form fields with their name and role, and always use native HTML elements. But that’s just for static pages.
  • For more interactive sites, there’s Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA). ARIA creates ways to make web content and web applications developed in JavaScript more accessible to people with disabilities. It wasn’t complicated, just a couple more lines of code here and there, and ARIA enables accessible navigation landmarks, JavaScript widgets, form hints and error messages, live content updates, and more.

8. Captions for Videos: Ensure that all new videos you create have captions so that people with hearing loss can also enjoy them. But meanwhile, you can start by putting all your videos on your own YouTube channel, which is free to create. While it is far from perfect, YouTube automatically adds rudimentary captions for free to all uploaded videos.

9. Document Distribution: When you distribute documents, there should be an electronic version that is screen reader accessible. This is especially true of registration forms. See the webinar we mentioned above on how to do this.

10. Use “People First Language” and “Disability Etiquette:” Respectful language is very important throughout. Some examples of using person first language is a person who using a wheelchair or a child with Down’s syndrome opposed to wheelchair bound or Down’s Syndrome kid. Person first language puts the focus on the person not their disabilities. We have a free webinar on that topic here.

Conclusion:

Being an inclusive organization is more than just having a website that is screen reader accessible, an inclusive mission statement and a ramp to your building. It is designing all of your programs with universal design in mind. That is remembering that all people with and without disabilities learn differently and have different needs to be successful. For some people listening to a lecture is what they want and need, others may need more visual information such a presentation or movie and other may enjoy more activities. So designing programs that take in account as many different possible needs as possible and make sure to mention that on your website. So that everyone of all ages and abilities knows your organization is making effort to be inclusive to a diverse population of all abilities.

Raina Blumenthal is completing a fellowship with RespectAbility USA, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. She is originally from Windsor, California and in 2014 received her bachelor’s degree in Biology from Lewis and Clark College. She is passionate about advocating that people with disabilities can contribute in all aspects of society and hopes to continue working in the field in the future.