“When one creates accommodations and access for all, sometimes people think doing so benefits the person or people with disabilities who now have access to services. While that may be true, it is only a partial truth. In realty creating accommodations and access benefits the community as a whole. If people with disabilities aren’t present in your spiritual community, then you don’t really have a spiritual community, you have a private club with homogenous membership. In order to have a true spiritual community the membership of the community needs to reflect the breadth and depth of G-d’s creation of human beings, which, of course, includes people with disabilities. Personally, I have always been so uncomfortable with a common patronizing attitude that providing communication access is done out of the “kindness” of the organization for “my” benefit. Communication is a “two-way street” and I always feel like an organization may be missing out on something potentially valuable if they aren’t able to communicate with me. So, providing communication access is actually in their own best interests.”
Rabbi Darby J. Leigh
Creating and Sending Invitations
During this pandemic, most event invitations are being sent via email and/or posted to social media. While email invitations may have multiple graphical elements, you should ensure that images and logos have alt text – image descriptions – for people who are blind and use screen readers. In addition, it is best practice to have an option for the recipient to click through to access a plain text version of the invite, which can improve access for individuals with a variety of disabilities. Please note that some systems, like Eventbrite, are not accessible to people who are blind or have low vision and use screen readers. Learn more about ensuring website accessibility by watching our webinar on the topic.
The invitation also should list how long the event will last, as well as what the format of the event will be. Will participants be participating on video or audio, especially if praying, or will they be more like spectators watching a presentation? If there is any interactive portion, describe it to people ahead of time.
You also should list your plans for accommodation in your invitations and marketing, especially captioning services or ASL interpreters, which we will discuss further below. Thankfully, the Jewish world is now working to make these services available to Jews who are D/deaf and hard of hearing. Many such individuals may not even attempt to access your event, because they are so used to the idea that their needs will not be met. By advertising upfront that these needs will be met, you not only maximize your value proposition, you also provide a welcome to Jews who too often have been excluded.
Accessibility in the Sign-Up Process
On your organization’s sign-up form, ask registrants if they need any accommodations to effectively participate in the event. Additionally, provide a name, email and phone number for someone who can assist people with accommodation requests. By offering people the option to request accommodations, it does not require you to provide every accommodation requested if your organization is too small to provide these accommodations. However, having open communication with individuals requesting accommodations is important, as they may have ideas for workarounds that are doable for your event. Luckily, ensuring accessibility for online meetings can be free or inexpensive.
Inclusion Is About More Than Disability – Ensure That All in Your Community Can Connect
It is important to have an accommodation for individuals who do not have access to video conferencing. By offering the option for attendees to dial in by phone, people with and without disabilities who do not have internet access still can participate. The pandemic is further highlighting the social and economic issues around technological privilege and access.
Further, if your congregation has the capacity, you may wish to think about pooling congregational resources to help connect those not previously connected. This could include mobile hotspots for those without internet access, tablets or secondhand or inexpensive laptops for those without screens, training for those who are not tech savvy, or all of the above. This may be an opportune place for a donor drive, as many of us have older technology that we do not even use, which could be an amazing lifeline for someone else. An initiative like this would pay dividends far beyond the midst of connecting people to services, as it also would allow them to connect to the entire digital world that has grown up to address isolation and community during this pandemic. Training the recipient to use the technology might be a wonderful mitzvah project for your tweens and teens. Let us not forget that this is a celebratory time of year. Consider including a honey cake, some apples and honey, or something equally festive (after inquiring about food allergies) along with any gift of technology.
Provide Key Materials, Including Prayer Materials, Beforehand and Make Sure They Are Accessible
If you are using any documents or a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation for your online event, distribute it to your attendees in advance. This includes online Siddurim or Machzorim, or source sheets for sermons or discussions. If you are creating a document, consider making a copy available in Braille. The National Braille Press has a service for that and will provide you a price quote based on the document at their website. Please note that they request a 20-business day processing time.
Whether in Braille or not, advance documents can enable attendees who are blind or have low vision to use screen reader software to familiarize themselves with the materials being presented. Some of the major publishers are making online versions of Machzorim available during the pandemic. Link to them in your invitation, but also offer to email copies upon request. Please note that while PDF and Word document formats can be made quite accessible to people who use screen readers, proprietary formats are not. See what you can do to convert any such files into these formats. Also, unless you follow your digital Machzor packet exactly, be sure to provide the order of page numbers, which portions of the page you will be reading from, etc. This will make it easier even for sighted people, and especially for those trying to follow along by other means. If you are still determining what materials to use, the website Sefaria has an accessible, traditional, digital Machzor available.
As you work to determine whether your downloaded or created materials are accessible, you can get some basics from the webinar in the previous section. If you want a deep dive in how to ensure the materials you distribute are actually accessible, you may want to watch Making Documents and Presentations Accessible for All. Note, this webinar is six years old, so your version of Microsoft Office may have the buttons moved around a little bit, but the contents and functions are all the same.
As a good place to start, PowerPoint has a built-in tool to check accessibility issues in your slide deck and gives you instructions on how to fix them. For help on how to use it, visit the Microsoft PowerPoint support site. Microsoft Word has a similar feature, information on which can be found at the Word support site. We also recommend having a text-only version of all documents for people who request one.
A screen reader is not nearly as conducive to prayer as an actual book. Sadly, at the time of this writing, the authors have not been able to identify any way for a congregation to purchase Braille Machzorim, in the Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist traditions, which means that your congregants will need to obtain them on an individual basis.
The law allows certain nonprofits to create copies on an individual basis, to be made directly available to blind users at no charge. The Brooklyn-based Orthodox organization, Computer Sciences for the Blind, provides traditional Hebrew texts to eligible blind individuals upon request, including traditional Orthodox machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish Braille Institute (JBI) also works to provide Hebrew texts upon request by eligible blind individuals, although one must register with the site. The most up-to-date offerings in Braille and large print format from JBI are not listed on their website, but they are listed as Appendix C, along with the code necessary to request them. You may have a challenge finding the Machzor that you use; while the Reform Movement’s Mishkan HaNefesh is listed along with Gates of Repentance, the only available Conservative Machzor is the Silverman, last updated in 1951, and the Orthodox Machzor is the Birnbaum from the same era.
Obviously, it is deeply frustrating and challenging that our blind members have to go through this extra step to obtain what is readily available to the rest of our congregants. This is exacerbated by the fact that the authors of this guide, a team of Jewish professionals, were unsuccessful obtaining up-to-date information on what was available. This would be even more troubling for the “Jew in the pew.”
Although you cannot make the request on behalf of your blind members, be present with them. Acknowledge the systemic ableism, and be with them in whatever way you can. This could range from emotional or spiritual support to assistance with the process. Let us take a moment to envision a day when the onus is not on blind people to obtain their own worship materials.
As part of this advice and support, you should take special note if the Machzor used by your congregation is not available. Look at the list of what is available and try to determine which one is closest to yours. Then, engage in a dialogue with your congregant or community member about whether they feel sufficiently comfortable in their Judaic and liturgical knowledge to be following in a different book than the one your community is using. It may be that you collectively determine that the book will prove more of a challenge than a help, distracting from the spiritual experience in an effort to follow along.
Immediately Prior to the Event
To run a successful virtual event, a little bit of preparation goes a very long way. You should ensure your clergy, speakers or presenters log in sufficiently before the start time of the event to test their audio, as well as their visibility, and the appropriateness of their background. This could include whether there is too much distraction, or whether they are trying to run a virtual background that is causing blurring or fade out. While, for the purposes of this guide, it is worth noting this preparation will be of value to people who are hard of hearing or have low vision, the fact is that this little bit of preparation will increase the quality of the event for everyone.
Remember Your Most Isolated Members
This guide is about ensuring the greatest access for the greatest number of people we can, and yet we know there are community members for whom the solutions in these pages may not work. Whether it is a congregant completely without access to technology, or one whose combination of disabilities and skills, for instance, both blind or low vision and D/deaf or hard of hearing, these solutions may not work. For these community members, start by reaching out. Ask them what, if anything, they think might help them connect to your worship. If you can, try and meet their needs and requests.
Even if you cannot think of a solution together, the conversation is a good first step to make sure they know that the community is thinking of them at this time. Do not let that conversation be the last reach out. Ask if they would welcome other community members making socially distant visits, maybe with a celebratory meal, or ritual. Ensuring access to worship is important, but if that is not entirely possible, you can at least ensure access to community, joy and spirit at this time.