Making Jewish E-Learning Accessible to All

By Aaron Richmond

I had a bar mitzvah, have been to Israel twice, recently graduated college, and am 22. I also happen to be blind. Like most young Jews, I want our Jewish community to be welcoming and respectful of all. Thus, I was excited to see the report by the extremely highly regarded Avi Chai Foundation, http://avichai.org/knowledge_base/onlineblended-learning-state-of-the-field-survey-summary-findings-report-2014, which focuses on online learning. This is a relatively new field that is extremely promising for differentiated learners – i.e. gifted learners, people with learning disabilities, and everyone else in between.

I happen to be a “typical” learner in my speed, but because I am blind, documents need to be what is called “screen reader accessible.” That is because most people with vision differences, like me, don’t use Braille. We use a feature that exists in every regular computer that you likely didn’t know that you have: text to speech functionality. Most computers have Narrator and VoiceOver but I’ve upgraded to JAWS. With a touch of a button from my keyboard, I have access to software that gets my computer to talk to the user. Indeed, because of screen readers, many people who are blind “read” a document or web content faster than who those are not. But for my screen reader to work, the person who creates the website or document in the first place needs to set up the text and images in the right way.

Soon we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act. We also have other laws that govern the accessibility of communications, including websites. Religious organizations are exempt from those laws. But we are better as a community when we practice inclusion both in person and online. To do that you need to follow the standards of http://www.section508.gov, which synchronize with what Accessibility Partners has recommended above. The standards are going to be updated soon as experts from around the world are creating even better universal guidelines. And you don’t have to go it alone. Indeed, groups like ours offer free webinars and tools on this, and you can hire experts.

Studies show that American teens spend an average of 7 hours a day connected to their devices (computers, phones, etc.). Jewish websites, emails and e-learning tools need to be accessible to all, including those such as myself who use screen readers or who need captions on videos because they are hearing impaired.

As a blind person, I obviously believe that it is of utmost importance to companies, organizations and individuals to build websites that are accessible to screen reader software. When a website is accessible a blind person, we will be able to participate and contribute equally within our community.

Today, education is moving on a strong course to online learning. The effectiveness of this method of learning will be maximized only at the point when the blind are able to fully use all of the features of a website. Incidentally enough, the graphics and charts in the Avi Chai report were not accessible to my screen reader. Thus, someone had to read and type them up for me in a way my screen reader could access it. There was a key chart in the Avi Chai report that named the major Jewish online learning groups. I explored a number of these websites using the Windows operating system and using a screen reading software called JAWS 15. Below one may find my analysis of the key features of each website followed by a brief conclusion.

Edjewcon

  • Their “About” page is screen reader accessible, and their menu/pull down links are accessible as well with a keyboard.
  • However, many links and images located on the page are not accessible.
  • Their videos are on YouTube, meaning that they have rudimentary closed captioning.

ISTE

  • Their calendar is accessible and vertically laid out on their landing page.
  • Their home page is not accessible. My screen reader could not read all of the text.
  • Using the screen reader software, it skipped links for their blog and their Twitter account.
  • Their videos are on YouTube, meaning that they have rudimentary closed captioning. Those with hearing impairments can watch the videos, but not with the utmost of captioning accuracy.

Lookstein

  • The text is accessible, but the images and links are not.
  • Even the tabs are not screen reader accessible.
  • Their videos are on YouTube, meaning that they have rudimentary closed captioning so that those with hearing impairments can watch the videos.

Bold Day School

  • Their “About” section: This link worked instantly with JAWS. The software was able to read the entire page.
  • Their “Home” section: By going to this link, JAWS tells me that there are 33 links on this page.
  • This is very productive because it tells me more about what is listed on the page.
  • Their “Content”: This link worked perfectly. I am able to obtain an email address to contact ‘Bold Day School’.
  • Overall, I would say that this website is extremely accessible with JAWS 15.
  • Their webinars do not have closed captioning, so they are not accessible to those with hearing impairments.

Digital J Learning Network

  • Note: JAWS is initially very comfortable with this website.
  • “About” section: Jaws read this link perfectly.
  • Video: Jaws was very comfortable here as well.
  • I would say that this website is accessible.
  • Their videos are on YouTube, so very rudimentary closed captions for those with hearing impairments are present.

Torah Umesorah Online Learning Program

  • Note: Jaws initial contact with this page was mostly good.
  • “About” section: Perfect, no problems here.
  • Blog: Mostly good, yet slightly jumbled.
  • Israel: Reads very well with Jaws.

Tel Aviv University Online Judaic Studies Courses

  • This search was less successful for me because JAWS was unable to find specific information about courses here.
  • I do not have a Computer Science background, but I can tell there is a need for substantial improvement with TAU website.

Yeshiva University

  • This website was not very accessible at all. I was unable to find much of anything when I put search terms into the search field.

As a means to determine the ‘right way’, I consulted with some experts. We have a wonderful partnership with Accessibility Partners, a premier leader in web accessibility. They have a skilled staff of engineers with a multitude of various disabilities, including those are blind, low vision, Deaf, Hard of Hearing, have mobility impairments, and more.

Accessibility Partners provided me with some more suggestions and insight as how screen readers access web content and documents. 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. I can relate to that necessity. That way when used properly, when I get to it, a user of a screen reader can audibly hear it say “photo of synagogue”, for example. But if you don’t label it, I can’t tell if it is a photo of a synagogue or a dog, or a chart, or something else. I clearly will miss intended information.

Another big issue is navigation. If links aren’t properly labeled, repetitive, or if there isn’t a skip navigation feature, a user like myself might get frustrated and go elsewhere. If the index isn’t up front, I may never find what you wanted me to read. Accessibility Partners reminded me of other items, like the tabindex, which allows for items to be tabbed to and activated using the keyboard without using the mouse. Another strong suggestion was 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.

As a company that values the contributions of its staff with disabilities, I could tell that Accessibility Partners has a vested interest in the future of usable technology by ensuring that their unique workforce collaborates with web developers to create products that enable all of us better access to information technology. But beyond that the entire Jewish community shares that interest as people with vision or hearing issues should be able to access Judaism and Jewish learning, just like anyone else.

Bottom Line: This brief report covers my initial findings when investigating the accessibility of Jewish online learning websites being used in today’s Jewish day schools. For some of these websites, I was impressed. Torah Umesorah and Digital J Learning Network were good examples, as they showed that a level of effort was taken to make their website accessible to the blind. For those websites listed above that were not accessible, they are losing out on the vital contributions that blind people can bring to Jewish life and learning. Accessibility means more than just ramps into buildings. It means that every person with a visual disability and other disabilities can have full access, appreciation, and the ability to contribute to our community – whether it is online or in person.

Aaron Richmond is a RespectAbility Fellow.