Access to Web-Based Content: A Civil Right and a Human Right

Credit: Kanji Takeno

Credit: Kanji Takeno

By Dr. Jonathan Lazar

People with disabilities need to have equal access to web-based content and the resulting opportunities in education, socializing, employment, and commerce. If you are using an alternative form of input or output, such as a screen reader, alternative keyboard, alternative pointing device, or captioning, you need to have equal access. It’s a fundamental civil right and a human right. That last line often makes people pause, especially people who work strictly in technical fields. A civil right? A human right?

Well, think about this. You are Deaf, and there was a radio show in DC, on the topic of accessible technology, streamed online, but the show was not live captioned for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. So, you were cut out of participating in the show, or e-mailing into the panelists with questions. You were excluded from the conversation. You did not have equal access.

You are blind and utilize a screen reader, but the web sites of some major airlines are inaccessible. So, since the web site won’t work for you, you call the airline and ask for flight information, and when you are put on hold, the airline recorded message says, “lower fares available on our web site.” As it turns out, the airline does quote a higher fare on the phone than the price quoted online, and the airline also may charge you a “call center fee.” You have just paid a higher fare because you are blind, compared to people who can see, for the exact same airline ticket. You have just experienced pricing discrimination.

If you want to apply for a job, nearly all companies require that you apply for that job online. So you go to apply online, but the web site won’t work for you, either because you are blind and utilize a screen reader, or you have limited use of hands (due to a motor impairment such as repetitive strain injury), and can’t utilize a pointing device such as a mouse. You can’t apply for the job online. You call the employer to ask if you can apply on paper, or apply over the phone, and they demand to know why. Do you identify that you have a disability before even applying for the job? Or do you act sheepish and say, “it’s just hard to use” and then, it is likely that the employer will write you off as unqualified? You have just experienced employment discrimination.

If you want to apply for a job, nearly all companies require that you apply for that job online. So you go to apply online, but the web site won’t work for you, either because you are blind and utilize a screen reader, or you have limited use of hands (due to a motor impairment such as repetitive strain injury), and can’t utilize a pointing device such as a mouse. You can’t apply for the job online. You call the employer to ask if you can apply on paper, or apply over the phone, and they demand to know why. Do you identify that you have a disability before even applying for the job? Or do you act sheepish and say, “it’s just hard to use” and then, it is likely that the employer will write you off as unqualified? You have just experienced employment discrimination.

These are three examples of discrimination, which have previously been well-documented. International technical standards to make web sites accessible have been in existence since 1999. There is a large body of statutory law, regulations, case law, and best practices, for making web sites accessible for people with disabilities. Inaccessible web sites exclude people with disabilities from education, commerce, employment, and other opportunities to participate equally in society.

Yes, web accessibility is a civil right. In fact, inaccessible web sites that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, are investigated by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Related to human rights law, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) specifically mentions access to information technology and the Internet, in Articles 9 and 21. It’s not just about technology. It’s a civil right and a human right.

Dr. Jonathan Lazar is a Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at Towson University. He is the director of the undergraduate program in Information Systems. And some of the work mentioned in the blog posting, is based on the year he spent as the Shutzer Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

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Moving Towards A Mandate

Sharon Shapiro-LacksBy: Sharon Shapiro-Lacks and Rabbi Michael Levy

“Check this Out!” appeared in the subject line on an email to me by Rabbi Barry Kornblau, Director of Member Services from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). My heart pounding with anticipation, I double clicked the subject line.  It was a press release entitled “Disabled Jews Strengthen Orthodox Jewish Communities.”  I thought to myself, “This is big… really big.”  The RCA, a major Orthodox Rabbinic association officially proclaims the importance of involving Jews with obvious or hidden disabilities in our communities and for the communities to provide us the access, accommodations, and attitudinal shifts we, Jews with disabilities, need in order to be involved.

Courtesy of Sandee Brawarski, NY Jewish Week

Courtesy of Sandee Brawarski, NY Jewish Week

Early in 2014, and resulting from prior conversations, Rabbi Kornblau asked us at Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center  to provide the first draft of the “whereas” and “therefore” provisions for a proclamation regarding the imperatives to expand disability access to and participation in Jewish communities and Torah life.  His request was itself a breakthrough; clear evidence that the RCA, a visionary organization, understood that the voice of the Jewish disability contingent, speaking for itself, is vital in shaping disability policy.  We were gratified that the RCA selected Yad HaChazakah, an organization led by and for Jews with obvious or hidden disabilities within Orthodox parameters, to draft the provisions.

The Torah generally doesn’t speak in terms of “rights” of a particular individual or group.  Instead it stresses one’s obligations toward G-d or one’s fellow community member. We, Jews with disabilities or ongoing conditions, don’t demand “rights” within Torah, per se.  Rather, we understand that the Torah expects us to be part of the community, learn Torah according to our capacities, and perform the many mitzvot (c0mmandments) that apply to us.  We cannot achieve these Torah-based expectations unless our communities eliminate the physical, communication, and attitudinal barriers that prevent us from doing so.

Developing the proclamation, in consultation with Yad HaChazakah’s rabbinic advisor and RCA member, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, was an awesome responsibility!  It was necessary for the document to stress the Torah’s concerns for human dignity, our responsibilities towards our fellow Jews, and the mandate to be part of community life.  It was vital that it address the broad umbrella of people who are stigmatized due to conditions that affect their appearances, mobility, communication, cognition, mental health, or social or environmental sensitivities.  It was essential to use language that reflects the disability empowerment model; not well intentioned social service, special education, caregiver, or medical-rehabilitation terminology.

Honoring the passage of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Resolution on Increasing Access for and Participation of Jews with Disabilities in the Orthodox World. Rabbi Mark Dratch, RCA Executive Vice President (upper left), Rabbi Michael Levy (Upper right), Rabbi Barry Kornblau, RCA Director of Member Services and Sharon Shapiro-Lacks (lower left).

Honoring the passage of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Resolution on Increasing Access for and Participation of Jews with Disabilities in the Orthodox World. Rabbi Mark Dratch, RCA Executive Vice President (upper left), Rabbi Michael Levy (Upper right), Rabbi Barry Kornblau, RCA Director of Member Services and Sharon Shapiro-Lacks (lower left).

We congratulate the RCA for its pioneering breakthrough. We look forward to fulfilling the RCA proclamation as we educate Orthodox leaders and community members about the how to better involve people with disabilities in our communities as well as how to push us along with everyone else to learn Torah, do mitzvot and engage in communal services and events. Lastly, we encourage and invite community leaders and members to work with people with the full range of obvious and hidden disabilities and conditions in order to increase disability access and accommodations and to dispel myths and misconceptions.

Sharon Shapiro-Lacks is the Executive Director of Yad HaChazakah-The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center and Rabbi Michael Levy is the Board President. Yad HaChazakah provides guidance, resource information, advocacy, and community for people with obvious or hidden disabilities as we promote access to Jewish community life. Serving all people regardless of background, Yad HaChazakah is led by Jews with disabilities and is operated according to Orthodox Jewish standards. Follow Yad Hachazakah on Facebook.

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When Summer Ends

Jo Ann SimonsBy: Jo Ann Simons

It’s September and that time of year when many young people are making the transition from summer life to school life. For some campers on the North Shore of Massachusetts, they are bringing back to school with them a new vision- a vision where all children are valued, welcomed and included.

These day campers, at the North Shore Jewish Community Center, experienced a new kind of camp. A camp where every child was accepted, regardless of their ability. Here is what happened:

summer camp inclusionThat young counselor in training. The one with CP in a wheelchair? He became a leader and while the chair didn’t entirely disappear, it made for some pretty cool rides.

That beautiful blond 7 year old girl. The one who attends school in a separate classroom and in a segregated building? She made her first friend. I dare you to pick out which one is the child whose school district sends her miles from her home and family each day to attend school.

summer camp inclusion

But summer ends and with it, our vision for an inclusive society sputters. Because most of these campers will return to our Jewish day schools and to some public schools where children with disabilities do not exist.

The campers with disabilities will, too often, be in separate classes, buildings, buses and playgrounds. They may be absent from synagogue life.

As we approach the High Holy Days, this is an opportunity for all of us, not just those who are family members of people with disabilities, to look around. Does your Jewish community have the human and physical supports that invite all to be among us?

Do these children of summer have an inclusive life beyond the summer?

As we come together to usher in a New Year, let us pray that all who are among us find room in our tent.

Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers.

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Say Yes

Lisa FriedmanBy: Lisa Friedman

We love blog posts that boast how you can “Change Your Life in 5 Easy Steps” or ones that offer us “10 Steps for Finding Happiness.” And as a regular blogger, I have written a handful of articles offering concrete, practical advice such as Ten Inclusion Mistakes Even Good Educators Make and Ten Steps to Make Your Congregation More Inclusive.

But I’d be lying if I said that you’d be all set if you just read and followed the advice in one of these articles. Even if I told you the exact steps that my congregation followed, you can’t just wrap our process up with a bow, plunk it down into your community and say, “Ok, now we are inclusive.”

Why not? Because becoming an inclusive community is a process. It is a deliberate and intentional transformation. It is a work in progress. Inclusion is a funny thing, really. When it is “done right”, it’s not something to talk about. It just is. When a community is inclusive, anyone who wants to participate can, to whatever extent he or she desires. Period. There’s no need for fanfare, no self-congratulatory pats on the back and no reason to advertise your accomplishments, because you are just a community doing what a community should do; welcoming everyone.

But inclusion, particularly inclusion of people with disabilities, is not always happening in the Jewish world; at least not naturally, comfortably and universally. And so, I will share one piece of solid, tried & true advice that I believe has been the single most powerful secret to the success of my congregation. Say yes.

Say yes because far too many have said no. Far too many still say no. Some “get around” to yes with a lot of pushing and prodding, but that can leave everyone involved with lingering frustrations and a sense of wariness.

Saying yes to inclusion

When you say, “Yes, I can meet your needs…please help me to understand how to do that,” you will build trust and enable your constituents to recognize that everyone is on the same team. I am not suggesting that every request and potential accommodation can and will be met with “yes”, but by opening the door you can set the stage for honest and trusting dialogues. It means that when something truly is not possible, there can be a calm and realistic conversation.

We are well into that time in the Jewish year where congregations dust off their brochures and ramp up their advertising. There is talk of “reaching the unaffiliated” alongside plans for membership drives, promotions and open houses. In my opinion, far too many congregations promote themselves as “warm, welcoming and inclusive.” Too often these are just the right words to put on brochures and websites. What separates congregations who are genuinely inclusive from those who say they are is their ability to say yes and mean it. These are the communities who recognize that inclusion isn’t a committee, that inclusion isn’t a program and that inclusion isn’t a classroom in the school.

The congregations that do it right recognize that inclusion defines them, that it is part of who they are. Someday (hopefully) inclusion will just be. Until then…

Lisa Friedman is the Education Co-Director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey where she  oversees an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. She is also the Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks for Matan Inc. Lisa consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training.  Lisa is a blogger on the issue of disabilities and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter to learn more.

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The Student Becomes The Teacher

Rabbi Charles S. ShermanBy: Rabbi Charles S. Sherman

For a lot of us, August is a month of transition — still trying to squeeze a bit more out of summer fun and warmth, but at the same time, recognizing summer is drawing to a close. Around the not-too-distant corner: school, routines, a little less leisure, cooler temperatures.

For my wife and me, this time of year always brought a little more anxiety. We are the parents of a son, Eyal, with significant disabilities- a quadriplegic, on a ventilator, totally dependent upon others. At this time of year, we would meet with Eyal’s teachers at our local public school. We would share with the teachers our expectations and try to address their concerns. While Eyal always worked on grade level, no teacher was really prepared to have a student with such challenges. He required medical equipment that made strange sounds. Communication was limited, it took enormous patience to read his lips. Eyal would bring with him an entourage- a nurse, a teacher’s aide, and frequently, my wife. I understood this whole thing could be intimidating.

For many years, our focus, and rightfully so, was on Eyal. How would he learn? Would the teacher make him feel comfortable and allow him to maximize whatever abilities and resources he has? How would the other students treat him?

Happily, Eyal was successful and graduated high school and college. Our advocacy definitely was necessary, but just as important, his teachers rose to the challenge. I thought this whole thing was about Eyal being the student. But I had something to learn, myself.

Eyal Sherman high school graduation

Eyal Sherman’s high school graduation

Eyal’s Physics tutor, a high school classmate, shared with us her college essay. It reads, in part: Eyal Sherman cannot walk or move his arms. He is unable to wash, dress, or feed himself without the assistance of others. He is a symbol of tragedy- a brain tumor and subsequent stroke at age four have left him a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. Now a teenager, he’s a young man who draws stares in the school halls, and is the object of pity. He could be the poster child for dozens of causes. No one wants to live like that. It is not a life.                           

Or so I thought. Everything that I have written in the previous paragraph is a snake-skin of bias that I used to wear, but now have discarded. I am ashamed that those words were my own, an example of my blindness and ignorance. They are a stereotypical description about those who are severely disabled.

I am Eyal’s tutor. But I have learned more from Eyal than anything I could ever teach him. I know now that our accomplishments are limited only by the boundaries of our dreams. This insight is not written down in words, not researched or lectured on. It is known in the heart, soul and mind of Eyal, and anyone who has overcome extreme obstacles on the road to success. Yes, I have helped Eyal raise his Physics grade, but the awareness that he has given me will help me pursue my own successes. I am his teacher, yet Eyal is my mentor.    

I have a favorite Rabbinic text that suggests, “Who is a wise person? One who learns from all persons.” As the Psalmist reminds us, “From all my teachers, have I gained understanding,” Psalm 119:99.

Rabbi Charles S. Sherman is the author of The Broken and The Whole, Discovering Joy After Heartbreak:  Lessons from a Life of Faith. (Scribern/Simon and Schuster March 2014). Learn more about Eyal by watching this Dateline NBC story about Eyal. Follow Rabbi Sherman on Facebook.

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Setting The Tone

Shelly ChristensenBy: Shelly Christensen

I’m gonna add some bottom
So that the dancers just won’t hide
“Dance to the Music” by Sylvester Stewart

In 1968 Sly and the Family Stone released the single “Dance to the Music.” This relatively unknown band brought rock guitar riffs, gospel-style organ playing, horns, scat style vocalization, improvisation and a steady bassline together to form an infectious tune urging people to “get on up…and dance to the music!”

The song is an iconic example of late sixties music that endures into the 21st century as a call to action anthem. The lyrics and the steady beat of the bassline provide the foundation; many different voices come together to create something that wasn’t there before.

In Jewish communal life, Torah provides our baseline (not our bassline). It is the constant steady reference point from which we launch our actions.

The Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion (JLIDI) is adding some bottom to the baseline of Jewish communal services that support people with disabilities. This baseline ensures that no one with a disability has to hide or feel invisible anymore.

In addition to providing a four-day intensive immersion experience designed to guide participants to discover their own leadership strengths and qualities, we mentor our graduates after they return home. We continue to provide support and guidance so they can establish the foundational changes required to establish a culture that ensures that people with disabilities maintain positive control over their own lives.

The JLIDI baseline acknowledges the practices of the past as stepping stones toward living a life of greater self-determination. Our graduates step back into their work with the knowledge, skills and understanding that the practice of segregating people with disabilities into “special” programs and groups under the auspices of a Jewish institution is not inclusion. 2013 graduate Adynna Swarz of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles returned from the JLIDI understanding that “our goal is not to segregate people with disabilities. We want people with disabilities to be part of the regular synagogue service!”

2013 Jewish Leadership Institute participants

2013 Jewish Leadership Institute participants

Adynna Swarz changed the RFP process to include a specific question on how the culture of the applicant supports people with disabilities to achieve meaningful participation. One precise change now puts inclusion of people with disabilities on the agenda of every applicant.

Another graduate, Jodi Newmark, directs the Jewish Child and Family Services Supported Community Living Initiative. Agencies tended to support adults with disabilities, Jodi realized, in silos rather than coordinating opportunities and services. Jodi initiated changes that ensure that adults with disabilities have the same range of options as anyone else in the community.

The Young Leadership Division (YLD) of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago provides myriad opportunities for people to engage in Jewish life. Jodi spoke with them about including the adults she supports. The Federation’s response was: Why don’t they just come? Jodi was thrilled with this response as it allows adults with disabilities to self-select how they wish to participate. Jodi noted that in addition to opening peoples’ eyes about participation by young adults with disabilities in community organizations, relationships between peers with disabilities and those without disabilities have started to bloom.

Adynna and Jodi represent a few of the 24 voices who joined together at the 2013 Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. They are laying down the baseline so that all the voices can be heard and appreciated for their uniqueness.

The mission of the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion (JLIDI) is to provide leadership training and support to prepare participants to promote and support inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of community and Jewish life. The JLIDI is accepting applications for the 2014 Institute, November 16-20, 2014. Applicants should have a strong interest in ensuring that people with disabilities and their families are included in the life of the Jewish community. Applicants should be able to exercise influence to shepherd the full and meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities in the services offered and the opportunities for participation in their organizations. Participation in the Jewish Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion is particularly appropriate for leaders and staff of Jewish Family Service agencies, Jewish Federations, Jewish Employment and Vocational Services, synagogues, Jewish movements, and Jewish Residential and Day Camps.

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Havdala- The Best Time Of The Week

By: Michael Raileanu

Ask anyone who has attended Camp Ramah, or almost any other Jewish summer camp for that matter, what their favorite time of the week is and one answer is bound to bubble up to the top: Havdala. With this ceremony we bring an end to a peaceful, thoughtful, and fun Shabbat (Sabbath) and begin a new week; a week of fun, excitement, educational experiences, and stories to be told later on. The music of Havdala is sweet and simple. This moment can pass very quickly, yet it remains with the campers for years to come.

Such was my experience for the first 30+ years of my Jewish camping life. Indeed, I was quite satisfied with that status quo. However, upon arriving at Camp Ramah in California five years ago I found a new and very different experience. I was invited to join the camp’s Tikvah community—the Amitzim campers and the Ezra staff (vocational education participants)—of children, teens, and young adults with disabilities. What I found there has developed into my very favorite hour of the week, not to be missed.

Following Saturday night dinner, a treat in itself, as it is the only meal that ends with ice cream, the Amitzim-ers, the Ezra staff and their counselors gather in the ga-ga court. Everyone sits on the floor and the magic begins. With the call of “Can I get a drumroll, please?” the Yasher Koach (Congratulations!) Awards begin. Each and every youngster is recognized every week for one thing or another that they have done or accomplished in the previous week. Sometimes they are recognized for significant milestones, overcoming fear of heights on the ropes course, or something small but important, using good manners at the dinner table or participating in Israeli dance. Each of the campers is called up one by one, cheered on by the entire Tikvah community and hugged with great gusto and affection by whomever announced their name. The awardees are thrilled. They cheer for their comrades, share in their victories and bask with great glee in their own accomplishments. The simple joy in the ga-ga pit is palpable and infectious. The youngsters are thrilled, thrilled for themselves and for those around them.

California Tikvah Havdalah

When visitors come to camp I strongly suggest that they join us in our celebration and invariably they thank me for the invitation. They are immediately swept up in the noise, the cheering, the sense of accomplishment, and in the pride of achievement glowing on the faces of everyone, camper and staff, around the circle.

Every week I promise myself that I am going to take that joy, that pride in oneself, with me into the new week. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. Often, I find myself focusing on the failures or the disappointments without more than a moment’s notice to the accomplishments, no matter what either of them may be. But I think that the Tikvah kids would say that it is okay, I am trying, I am learning. That is the ultimate lesson learned from these young people: the perspective. These young people most assuredly have disappointments in their weeks, maybe more than most, but they take the time, every week, at least every week at camp, to recognize their own and one another’s accomplishments and to move beyond their mistakes, in doing so they genuinely prepare themselves (and the people around them) to have a true shavua tov, a good week.

Michael Raileanu is a lifelong Jewish educator, having received his first classroom assignment at the age of 15. He is currently a third-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion. Learn more about Ramah California’s Tikvah programs and connect with the Ezra vocational education programs on Facebook.


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