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Teaching Accessibility One Newsletter at a Time

“Lessons on accessibility – or any kind of advocacy or awareness – can and should never be relegated to just one ‘special’ month. But it’s never too late to start.”

Lily Coltoff smiling headshot

Lily Coltoff

Overseeing an organization’s employee newsletter means having almost complete editorial control, which in turn means that you can more or less add in anything you want, so long as you can argue that it’s both applicable and appropriate. I mostly use this privilege to hype up my team members on their birthdays or to share resources created by some of my favorite coworkers, but sometimes, I use it for education and advocacy – particularly for causes that I care a lot about.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This is a line that I put in an email not so long ago – linking to, of course, RespectAbility and their resources for this recognition month. In general, I always try to link to a Jewish or Jewish-connected organization – whether they are a partner organization or not – that focuses on the community I am hoping to elevate. For Pride Month, we turn to Keshet. Hispanic Heritage Month, Jewtina y Co. Black History Month, the Jews of Color Initiative. And of course, for NDEAM and Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), which takes place in February, I turn to RespectAbility.

I want to make sure that our professionals get the resources they need to learn, educate, and celebrate these observances and support their students, and get them from organizations that serve those communities – especially when they do so through a Jewish lens.

Up until about five years ago, I had never even heard of RespectAbility – or known that the Jewish disability community existed. It’s a story I’ve told time and time again: That at work, I’m the designated “Jewish-disability person,” but feel hesitant to take on the mantle of “expert” given my relative newness to the field and community. Still, I make it my mission to educate and advocate whenever and wherever I can, especially as my work has taken me slightly away from the world of disability-focused work – although not out of the Jewish community.

But before I can get into what I do now, a little backstory: In January of 2020, just after I graduated from American University in Washington D.C. and just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I started in the National Leadership Program at RespectAbility as a Communications Apprentice (at that time, referred to as a Fellow). My work involved several responsibilities, including developing social media copy, writing website and newsletter content, and helping to put together state voter guides for the 2020 election.

Over my time in the Fellowship program, I grew my skills in communications and deepened my understanding of disability, accessibility, accommodations, universal design, and advocacy – and so much more.

Some of the lessons I find myself sharing, both in my newsletter and in the other communications work and tasks I do, are a little more concrete: using self-describing links (“fill out the taskforce interest form” rather than “click here), advising people away from using colored text in flyers or on web pages, captioning videos, etc. But other practices are more subtle. When I train colleagues on how to post to our employee intranet, I always ask, “do you want me to do it and explain as I go, or do you want to ‘drive’ and I walk you through it?” When I start working with a new collaborator, I always ask how they learn and receive instructions best, and as an example, let them know what works best for me. Whenever I give a presentation, I make sure to send out notes and slides beforehand and give an auditory description of what I look like to the audience when I first start talking.

Each of these approaches come from a desire to make sure that my colleagues can fully work with me to the best of their ability. But they also come from the knowledge and experience I gained working in the disability community. Learning about disability, accessibility, and best practices helped attune me to what many don’t often consider when thinking about increasing access. It also helped me to understand universal design – how access benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Everyone learns and understands differently, so by asking the questions I do before meetings or projects, I make sure that everyone can perform at their highest level.

Of course, not all of these lessons or ideas can be easily condensed into a 50-to-75-word newsletter blurb, or even a resource sheet shared in an email. And lessons on accessibility – or any kind of advocacy or awareness – can and should never be relegated to just one “special” month. But it’s never too late to start. Plus, it never hurts to have a news hook, connecting a topic to why it’s relevant right now.

Happy NDEAM and Shabbat shalom!

Meet the Author

Lily Coltoff

Lily Coltoff is a Communications Fellow in RespectAbility’s National Leadership Program for Spring 2020. Born with Neurofibromatosis (NF) type 1, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow anywhere on or in the body – in addition to a wide range of other issues – Coltoff has spent a great deal of her life advocating for access for herself as well as for the awareness and understanding of rare conditions.

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