Sefaria for the Visually Impaired
Sefaria is all about making the texts of the Jewish tradition accessible to everybody. So far we’ve been accomplishing this by making texts and translations available on our website, in our mobile apps, and as data that people can download in a variety of formats. But could a blind or visually impaired person access these resources? Unfortunately, until recently, most of us on the Sefaria team hadn’t spent enough time thinking about this question.
Programs called “screen readers” can help the blind or visually impaired to access websites and apps by converting text to audio or a braille display. Screen readers often need help to be able to work on every website, however. Like wheelchairs, which offer mobility to people with physical disabilities, they can’t navigate every type of terrain or architecture. Wheelchairs depend on public buildings to design ramps, for example, to make the space accessible.
Websites and apps face a similar challenge. It’s up to the designers of the sites to build in the “ramps” that make a site accessible to screen readers. Sometimes this can be relatively easy, for example by including a hidden textual caption on every image used as a button. In other cases this can involve serious work in designing and building the navigation of a site. For example, Sefaria uses infinite scroll to move from one chapter of text to the next. Without any clear link at all to get to a next section, screen readers need something additional built into the site to make this basic navigation possible.
So far at Sefaria we’ve been marginally aware of these issues, but we’ve never learned enough about them or made them a priority above other projects we’ve been working on. Recently a group of advocates made a concerted effort to reach out to us with the message that we need to take these issues of accessibility seriously. Advocacy works, and we’re listening.
We’re beginning to get educated about the changes we need to make to the Sefaria website and we’re realizing that we have a lot to learn and a lot to do. We want to make a commitment publicly to complete serious improvements to our accessibility within the next 6 months.
We regret that we didn’t learn more about these issues or act on them sooner. It would have been much easier for us to build an accessible site if we had had these concerns properly in mind from the start. We hope that by writing this post we’re raising awareness for other technologists and organizations that sponsor technology projects — the more you know about web accessibility and the sooner you start designing and building with these principles in mind, the easier it will be to make your work accessible to people with visual disabilities. If you want to learn more, we’ve found WebAIM to be a great resource.
Accessibility is essential to Sefaria's work. We want to make the textual heritage of the Jewish people available to all users, not just sighted ones. If you or someone you know has experience using a screen reader and is willing to sit with one of our engineers to help us develop a website optimized for your use, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.