Blog: Inclusion

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Disappointed in Netflix

Me: Opens help chat with Netflix (there is no email option).
Chatbot: Title?
Me: Accessibility options for choosing shows

Chatbot: Sends links to irrelevant articles I already had to click past to get to the contact link.
Me: Clicks "chat with an agent".

(Opening handshake.)

Agent: Can you elaborate the issue that you are facing?

Me: When browsing shows, either on my TV or on your web site, you only show graphics for the shows. I don't see very well and the art is often hard to see, particularly if the show uses small or fancy fonts. Is there a way to see a text list? You used to have that for the web site (but not the TV) but that's been gone for a while. I do not want to have to hover over or navigate into each thing when browsing -- too many to do that. I'm looking for a way to scan a list of titles I can actually see.

Agent: The list is not available anymore

Me: Is there some accessibility setting I can change? It's really frustrating to not be able to navigate your offerings.

Agent: I understand, but there is no setting

Me: Thank you. I understand. How can I escalate my concern? I know that you cannot fix it but somebody at Netflix should be concerned about ADA/accessibility. How do I reach that person?

Agent: There is no one that can resolve it. I can pass on the suggestion and the feedback to our team. And they will look into it.

I suspect I know how that will go. I have the impression that all the streaming services are anti-accessible like this, though I've only done cursory browsing. They probably all think it's ok because everybody else does it. Netflix has had this problem for a while; I don't often use the service because of that, and every time I go to watch something I am reminded of how hostile it is. (In case you're wondering, my Netflix subscription comes bundled with something else; otherwise I probably would have dropped it by now because of this.)

"Click here" is usually weak, but not always

It's generally held among professional writers (and presumably some others) that constructs of the form "for more information click here", with "here" being a hyperlink, is not good style. It's far better, in general, to incorporate some clue about the content into the link -- "See the formatting help for more information", with "formatting help" being a link to documentation, provides more information at a glance and just reads less clunkily.

When answering questions on sites like Stack Exchange and Codidact, one sometimes wants to refer to another answer (for example to elaborate on it or disagree with a point made in it). I posted such an answer recently and used link text of "another answer" instead of "Joe's answer". If I had said "Joe's answer", somebody who's just read that answer would have context without having to go look. Someone who knows my general writing style asked me why I used the vaguer formation.

This is my general style on sites like these now, and I do actually have a reason. Two, actually, the more significant of which is caring about people's feelings.

On Stack Exchange, Codidact, TopAnswers, and presumably others with which I'm less familiar, users can change their display names. Using a name as text rather than an '@'-reference in a link can thus decay. I've seen too many posts that mention "Joe's answer" but there's no Joe evident on the page now, years after that text was written. So that's confusing and I try to be careful; some people change names frequently, leaving trails of dead references in their wakes.

But it's not just about avoiding confusion. For me this name-avoidant practice crystalized some years ago when a prominent SE user transitioned gender. I realized that old posts of mine (from before I was careful about this) now dead-named this person. Ouch! Also maybe dead-pronouned, though if you write posts in a gender-neutral way like I try to in such contexts, you can minimize that damage.

We don't know who's going to be someone different later. My desire to attribute properly is at odds with my desire to account for future changes that affect writing I might not actively maintain. For in-page references the post is right there; omitting the name in favor of a generic reference is not harmful and is more future-proof. For regular citations, I attribute by name because giving credit is important, and just do my best.

I know that people who transition -- even just names, let alone gender -- just have to deal with the fact that they had lives before and those references don't vanish. My friend Owen understands that sometimes we need to talk about Zoe. But sometimes we can do a small thing to alleviate a little bit of unnecessary frustration and not make people's lives more difficult. It seems worth doing in these cases where the cost of being mindful of these possibilities is small.

I don't do this everywhere. My blog, being more personal in nature, is more likely to refer to people by name, use gendered pronouns, and otherwise bake in current context. My blog isn't a public knowledge repository like Codidact is. We write differently for Wikipedia, Codidact, blogs, and email, and that's ok.

Windows: accessibility obstacles

I got a new laptop at work last week, so naturally it came with Windows 10. Some of the software my group uses requires Windows; I'm currently still on Win 7 on my old machine. (And haven't gotten updates since last November. Eventually IT would have noticed. But even aside from that, the machine is five years old and starting to become unreliable.) The migration has been...challenging, with some accessibility regressions I don't know how to fix.

On Win 7 I defined a custom theme which had the following important properties:

  • Window background is not bright white but a light tan: bright white backgrounds hurt my eyes a lot, especially over a sustained period. This is set at the OS level, so all applications get it by default.

  • Font size for menus, window titles, and assorted other UI elements is increased so I can actually read them.

  • Colors for the title bars of active and inactive windows are very different so I can easily spot which window is currently active.

Read more…

Words that exclude

At work, one of my teams uses a web page, a "dashboard", to coordinate activities for each release. When we start to work on a new release, a (specific) member of the group creates a new dashboard for that release. This dashboard is mostly populated by tables of features, bugs, and other tasks. Each table has several relevant columns, like title, priority, who it's assigned to, and status.

We've been doing this for a while and the dashboards keep growing, so before doing the current one we had a conversation about what we do and don't want. We identified some sections we could get rid of, and I also brought up that the two-column format we were using does not play well with font zoom (which is also obvious in meetings) and could we make it one column? No one objected to that, and the dashboard person published the new one.

A week later he quietly switched it to two columns. Not only that, but the tables were wider and in both columns now so it even more did not fit for me. I said words to the effect of "hey, what happened to the single column we had?", and he said he didn't agree to that and he prefers two columns. When I reminded him that this is an accessibility issue and not a mere preference for me, he said something that's far too common: "oh, you can just..." -- in this case, "oh, you can just make your own copy with one column". He dismissed my need with a "solution" that let him keep his preference without having to make any changes himself.

Yeah. That is not a solution. Read more…

Disabilities in RPGs and other fiction

Someone on Dreamwidth recently pointed me to this article about writing characters with disabilities by Kari Maaren. It's a thoughtful piece, well worth reading. Here's a taste:

So when I see fictional disability, I recognise the tropes. I’ve heard Matt Murdock described as “a blind man whose power is that he can see,” and yeah, that’s a common one. The “blind seer” is a particularly frustrating trope because its purpose is so dazzlingly clear: you want a blind person in your story because that’s so tragic, but you also don’t want the inconvenience of, well, having a blind person in your story. So he’s blind, but it’s okay! He can really see through his magical powers! He’s been compensated for his disability! Yay!

I tweeted a link, and somebody replied there asking for tips on including disabilities in role-playing-game systems without being disrespectful or creating broken player incentives. I said a few things there, but I think my readers are likely to have useful thoughts on this and why should we do it in 140 280-character chunks? So please comment, share useful links, etc. I'm going to share a link to this post.

Game (or other fictional) characters have a variety of traits. We gamers sometimes over-focus on a few stats, but a real, rich character is much more than ratings for strength, intelligence, endurance, dexterity, and so on. That's true whether the extra richness comes from the character's family background, formative experiences in wizard school, handicaps, affinity for fire, compassion for small furry animals, or whatever. So to me, three-dimensional characters depend on the players wanting to play that kind of game. I think these tend to be the same players who are interested in story-based games.

That's not all players. That's ok. You can't, and shouldn't, force richer characters where they're not wanted.

Regardless of game mechanics, players who want to play characters who are disabled in some way -- really play them, I mean, not use them as jokes or sources of offsets for abilities -- will do so. I had a player once who played, well, a vision-challenged character -- a challenge that the player proposed as a logical consequence of the character backstory he'd invented. He wasn't looking for any offsetting benefits.

Now, the game system can help or hinder this, and the person I'm talking with is interested in developing game systems that support disabled characters in a meaningful way. Game systems, like players, come on a spectrum. At one end it's all about optimization; at the other end it's all about good story. At the optimization end, you get players saying things like "I'll take the blindness penalty in order to get extra points for spellcraft". Champions was like this. I never actually played; I went through character creation once and decided it wasn't my style of game. But people did (and I assume do) play, and not all of them are only focused on points optimization, so I'm interested in hearing how they roleplay rich, sometimes-disabled characters in that kind of game system.

At the other, story, end of the spectrum you get games like Dogs in the Vineyard, where characters are nothing but collections of interesting backstory, traits, and growth. I only played a few times and not recently so I might have this wrong, but I don't think there even are stats for things like strength. What you have is things like "I had this formative childhood experience that made me really afraid of guns" (minuses to shooting, panicking under fire, etc), and during the campaign as you have to interact with guns that characteristic might gradually change. You know, just like people often do. Meanwhile, during the game you have other experiences, which might be character-affecting too... There's not a lot of bean-counting, of tit-for-tat -- I took fear of guns, so I'm allowed to be extra-good at riding. It works if the group wants it to work. Dogs has a system (and I'm told there's a broader "Fate" system that uses the same mechanic, if you're not into the setting built into Dogs), but it's not a very pushy system. When we played Dogs, we were mostly telling a collaborative story with occasional dice-rolling.

A story-oriented game system can support character disabilities well. Willing players can support disabilities in any system. What I don't know is how game systems not already at the story-oriented end of the spectrum can facilitate good treatment of character disabilities. Or is this something that is best left out of rules systems and placed in the hands of players?

Thoughts? (If my Twitter correspondent is reading, you can log in using any OpenID credential, create a Dreamwidth account (easy, no spam), or comment anonymously.)

There's lots of interesting feedback in the comments.

So much meaning in one capital letter

My synagogue has been focusing (to varying degrees) on disability inclusion for the last couple years. They have recently taken to writing the word as "disAbility". I find it patronizing, trite, and a huge step backwards. It reeks of "special!", of having no expectations -- which to me is not validating but repelling. It replaces dealing with individual people, with all their complexities with feel-good promotional slogans.

Do not claim that my disability is some kind of special "ability". It's not. It's just part of how God made me, a thing I deal with and mostly manage pretty well, sometimes by asking for specific help, sometimes by acknowledging my limitations and not taking certain paths, same as everybody else. I don't obsess over my disability; why should you? I expect you to not place stumbling-blocks before me. I expect you to listen and do your best to accommodate when I make reasonable requests. I neither expect nor want you to make a fuss over me, to somehow claim that I have "different abilities", or to give me a free pass on things that are otherwise required of everybody. That's stuff some people do with children. I am not a child; do not treat me like one.

And even if my disability does somehow come with a special ability? (Technically I suppose it might.) If so, it's just an "ability". Not an "Ability", and certainly not a "disAbility". That just feels like spin, and ineffective spin at that. And that brings us back to "patronizing".

Don't. Just don't.

Surely in Jewish Disability Awareness Month, we can do better.

Followup: Stack Exchange user-interface changes

A few weeks ago I wrote about a Stack Exchange design change that made the site much harder for me to use. I wrote a post about it that got a lot of attention -- which led to a meeting invitation from the relevant product manager. We had a very productive conversation, after which they fixed the main problems I reported (and one that came up during our meeting). Woot! Calm-but-firm user feedback works sometimes.

The meeting was supposed to include one of the designers, but time zones are hard. The product manager and I spent the better part of an hour talking about the design, use cases, the need for responsive design, vision problems, and so on. Through screen-sharing, I showed him what things were problems for me, what I was using user scripts or CSS overrides to get around (but I can't do that on my tablet), what I was just having to put up with, and what site functions I was just ignoring because they're too hard now. While it's not about the top bar (the specific UI change that led to this meeting), I pointed out a problem that basically means I can't do some key moderation tasks on any mobile device. (No word yet on whether they're going to fix that.) Along the way we bumped into a couple things where, apparently, normal people see some color differentiation that I couldn't see, and he said they'd work on that. He shared some of their then-future plans for the top bar and asked for feedback. He said they are trying to move to responsive design, which will make a lot of things better, but we both know that's a big change for a site that wasn't designed that way from the start.

This UI change has been quite contentious among the larger user community. Some users are, sadly, being quite rude about it. I'm glad that, against that backdrop, someone was willing to take the time to try to understand and address the problems I was facing with the new design. I'm one of about 15 million users and about 500 moderators, and nonetheless I was worth a few hours of somebody's time. Courtesy of course matters, but even with courtesy I'm usually brushed off, not engaged, when part of a large user base somewhere.

This is actually my fourth* significant meeting (not email, not site chat, but synchronous meeting) with SE employees -- two community managers, one VP (escalating a problem), and now this product manager. All have left me feeling that the employees in question really cared about me as a user and moderator, and most of them resulted in my problems being fixed.** I'm pretty impressed.

* I was also interviewed by a member of the design team for the now-ended Documentation product, I think because of this post I wrote about some planned changes there. That was them doing user research (for which they paid me), not me bringing something to them. And I once interviewed for a job there, but that's different.

** Then 2018-2019 happened. This did not age well.

Usability struggles

I spend a lot of time on, and am a volunteer moderator for, several Stack Exchange sites. (Mi Yodeya is one of them.) SE has a banner ("top bar") that is the same across all sites. It contains notifications, information about the logged-in user, and some key navigation links. For moderators it contains a few more things relevant to that job.

Until recently it looked like this (non-moderator view):

counters/controls all clearly visible

The red counter is the inbox (waiting messages) and the green one is reputation changes. If there aren't any, you just get the gray icons that those alerts are positioned over. If I were a moderator on that site, there'd be a diamond to the left of my user picture and a blue square with the flag count to the left of that.

They've just changed this design. (Well, the change is rolling out.) Here's what it looks like now (for a moderator):

counters/controls jumbled on right

The most important links for moderation are the last two things, the diamond and the blue box with the number (flags). They're on the far right, where they're less likely to be seen for various reasons. (Non-moderators don't get those indicators.)

In the old design, those moderator indicators -- which are important -- were toward the center where they're easier to see. Also, all the numbers were a little bigger and easier to see.

When this was announced there was a lot of immediate discussion in the moderators-only chat room, during which I got a little upset about the reduced usability, especially those moderator controls -- which had a good chance of being scrolled away in a not-huge browser window, because SE doesn't use responsive design. After I calmed down I wrote a post on Meta about how this was going to make it harder for me to do my volunteer job, particularly with vision challenges. I expected to get a few sympathy votes, some "get a bigger monitor" snark (which wouldn't help, by the way), and no results.

That post is now one of my highest-scoring posts on the network. And I have a meeting with the product manager and a designer at SE next week to demonstrate my difficulties in using this in more detail.

Meanwhile, I've gotten some help with userscripts from some other moderators. It's hacky and a little buggy and it slows down page loads and I have no idea how to adjust some things, but at least I can see my notifications and the moderator stuff is in a better place. It'll do for now.

counters/controls moved into center

I sure hope I can get them to bake some of this in, though. The page-load delay is a little disconcerting as stuff jumps around on the screen. (Also, userscripts do not work on my Android tablet.)

Beyond the immediate problem, though, what I really hope for is to find some way to raise a little awareness that usability is hard, designers are not the users, there are all kinds of people with all kinds of usage patterns and constraints, and you need to somehow, systematically, figure out how to design for the larger audience. That's going to be the hard part.

Ki Tisa: Moshe's lesson in inclusion

And it was that when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the law in his hand, when he descended, Moshe did not know that the skin of his face sent forth rays of light when he talked with Him. When Aharon and all Israel saw that his face sent forth rays of light, they were afraid to come near. Moshe called to them, and Aharon and the chiefs of the people returned to him and he spoke to them, and after that, all Israel came and Moshe commanded to them all that God had spoken on Mount Sinai. And when Moshe was done speaking with them he put a veil over his face. (Exodus 34:29-33)

Moshe had a problem. Ok, he had several problems -- the people who had encountered God built themselves the golden calf only forty days later, lots of them died, God wanted to destroy the rest and start over, and Moshe persuaded Him to relent. But Moshe also had another problem, covered in just a few sentences at the end of the parsha.

Moshe was different, different in a way that bothered other people. He had come down from the mountain the second time literally aglow with God's splendor. The bright light shining from his face was painful to look at. His abnormal condition frightened the people and prevented them from working with him.

This condition -- this disability -- was not under his control and it wasn't his fault. It's just the way God made him.

So what did Moshe do? He could have said to the community "this is from God; suck it up" and expect them to deal with it. It wasn't his fault, after all; there was nothing wrong with him. He could have placed the burden and the guilt on them. If they were sensitive, caring, and inclusive people they would just ignore his disability no matter what effect it had on them, right?

But that's not what he did. Instead, Moshe put on a veil. He took on some extra work and inconvenience to mitigate what he could mitigate. This allowed him to meet the community part-way -- he adjusted what he could adjust and they adjusted what they could adjust.

Moshe and Yisrael are a model for how communities can function and be inclusive. Everybody does what he can and we all meet in the middle. Nobody places the burden entirely on the other.

I have some vision problems. To mitigate this, I have to sit in the front row if a presenter is using slides -- even though I would otherwise sit farther back, even though it can be ostracizing to sit alone up front. (C'mon, we all know nobody likes the front row.) I carry a magnifying glass to read smaller print. The community, in turn, provides large-print copies of the siddur and paper copies of the Visual T'filah slides, and is understanding if my torah reading is a little bumpy sometimes. And I, in turn, understand that if things get too bad, if my torah-reading moves from "occasional problem" to "near-certain failure", it's not fair for me to insist, to impose. Not all people can do all things, and that's ok. So we work together. It's not my burden alone and it's not the community's burden alone.

A friend tried for years to have a child and finally succeeded -- but her daughter has cerebral palsy. She has good days and bad days and sometimes has uncontrollable outbursts. My friend and her daughter go to Shabbat services -- and are ready to step out of the room if need be. This is a burden for my friend, but it's what decent people do. The community, in turn, understands that there will be some noise sometimes.

My friend doesn't demand that the community smile and nod and say nothing if her child has a prolonged crying burst; she takes her daughter out into the hall. I don't demand that presenters avoid using visual materials if I can get my own copy and follow along. Moshe didn't demand that the people just shut up and avert their eyes until sunglasses could be invented; he put on a veil. All of us also make some demands on the community, expecting the community to make accommodations, but we have to do our part first.

Inclusive communities do not place the whole burden of dealing with disabilities on the disabled. But well-functioning inclusive communities also don't place the whole burden on their other members. The whole point of being in a community is that we work together, each contributing what we can and striving to be flexible.

A veil is inconvenient and probably uncomfortable, but because Moshe wore it the people were able to stay together and ultimately enter the promised land. It is my hope and prayer that, when we're the ones who are unintentionally and unavoidably placing some challenge before others, we too can take the steps we're able to take instead of expecting others to take on the whole task.

Inclusion: doing it wrong

People in the Reform movement have been talking a lot lately about ninclusion, with a particular focus right now on disabilities. It's not enough to accommodate disabilities (not that we even get that right some of the time1) and to remember that everybody is a person deserving of human decency and behave accordingly. No, what I'm hearing (most recently at a synagogue board meeting this past week) is that we have to embrace all differences, no matter what -- that it's Wrong to ask somebody throwing a fit to step out of the sanctuary for a few minutes to compose himself, for example. We're all supposed to celebrate the person's difference and sing Kumbaya or something, because anything less is an invalidation of the person.

I call bullshit.

It is not only ok but, sometimes, obligatory to contain a behavior. This must not be a judgement on the person, but we must not be afraid to act. A child in the midst of a loud and prolonged outburst should not be able to disrupt a Shabbat service whether the reason is Tourette's, ADD, or negligent parents -- the community has a right to expect the behavior to be dealt with (ideally a quick trip out to the hall to calm down and then return). To play the disability card and say that we must grin and bear it and must never ever even think of shushing the kid or glancing parent-ward sacrifices the community on the altar of individual entitlement fantasies.

I say this as somebody with a mild disability, and realizing that some will say that if I don't have a severe disability then I can't understand. But: I know there are situations in which I'm more challenged than others. I have every right to expect accommodations, but I also need to do my part. For example, my congregation has recently started something called "visual t'filah" for some services, where instead of using the prayerbook they project slides so they can vary the content and make it artistic and stuff. There is no seat in the sanctuary from which I can see those slides and I know I'm not the only one; after some pushing from me, they are making paper copies available at those services.

I have a right to demand the paper copies. I do not have a right to demand that they never use slides because some of us can't see them. If it were possible to see them from the front row I might have an obligation to sit there instead. And let me tell you, sitting front and center at every class, conference presentation, or other setting where visual materials are being used, when most people are sitting a few rows back, is awkward and ostracizing and I'd really rather not. But I do my part to mitigate the problem.

Similarly, the person with a disability that potentially disrupts others, whatever it is, has a right to demand a seat on the aisle so he can step out easily if he needs to. If there are known, avoidable triggers for a problem, whether disability or allergy, it's reasonable to expect the community to work to avoid tripping them. These are reasonable accommodations, and I hope that members of religious communities can accept this upon ourselves without needing the big stick of the law. We should all try to offer a helping hand when we can do something to make things easier for another person, and strive to be perceptive enough to not need to be asked for help. And we should be understanding of each other's behavior; we all do things that bother others, some more so and some less so, some from disabilities and some from inattentiveness. This is what communities of decent, civilized people do. But that's very different from what I'm hearing in my congregation lately.

A disability is not a "get out of bad behavior free" card. And anybody who tries to play one is doing a disservice to all people with disabilities. People, you're making us all look bad. Stop the entitled nonsense; we all need to work together in our communities.

And no, I don't want people to "embrace" my differences. How patronizing! That's not sensitivity; that's insulting. It is enough -- and in some cases still a tall order, so let's not over-reach just yet -- if people try to not screw me from the start with important materials I can't see, and if needed, to ask about my needs so we can work together to address them.

I've been trying to figure out how to respond to this in my congregation. It's a small thing, but I realized while preparing next week's torah portion that it gives me an excellent opportunity to talk about some of this, about the need to mitigate. I'm reading the passage at the end of Ki Tisa, when Moshe comes down from the mountain with the tablets (try #2) and his face is glowing. The people can't bear to look at him because of the bright light, so he wears a veil. This is his idea, not theirs. That glow is a direct act from God, something that happened up on the mountain, and yet Moshe mitigates its undesirable effects instead of telling the people "suck it up; this is from God". If he can take steps to contain the negative effects of something clearly not his fault, clearly of divine intention, then surely we can too. So I'm going to try to write a d'var torah around that, and then I'm going to try to get it published on our blog, and then I hope I can get some time to talk at the next board meeting. We'll see.

1 The disabilities task force has now failed, three times, to present material that is visually accessible. They do not seem to recognize the irony. And yet they preach at the rest of us. The emperor should kindly go put on some pants.