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.

A WTF moment

The original post had restricted access, but I don't work there any more so I'm not as concerned with sharing this, and I think it's an important consideration.

[Filtered, since I'm talking about my employer.]

Let me preface this by saying two things: (1) I am open about my vision problems; if somebody has questions I'll do my best to answer, and (2) I'm comfortable asking managers above me for what I need to do my job.

I've been having vision-related issues with my computer setup at work, mainly with software that doesn't play well with accessibility settings. As soon as you change font sizes or text/background colors, there are things that just don't work right. It's annoying, as I spend a lot of time finding work-arounds or just sucking it up.

As I wrote about back at the time, Office 2007 (specifically, Outlook 2007) is just plain not functional in a reverse-video environment. I use a reverse-video environment at work because the bright white pixels were hurting my eyes even before I started getting floaters that made it harder for me to read black text in that scheme -- especially for extended periods, like at work all day. (The Mac is actually worse for OS-level accessibility than Windows, but I don't spend 8-10 hours a day working at my Mac. Plus, the applications I spend the most time with -- Firefox, command line, emacs -- can be configured in the ways I need.)

Then the Windows 7 rollout came. Accessibility in Win7 is no better than in XP, and some things are worse -- maybe there are solutions I haven't found, but neither Google nor our IT department was able to help me. So, long story short, my computer is still running XP and Office 2003, and I get frequent automated nags to schedule my "upgrade". My manager is working with HR and IT on several fronts (one of which involves me exploring the Mac as a solution), and the word that filters down to me suggests that IT is not being very helpful (no surprise, given my past experience with them). Since I'm doing this experimentation in odd pockets of free time because I still have, you know, work to do, I haven't gotten very far -- but I was assured that I have until April (when XP is really and truly end-of-lifed) to have something in place.

Last week I learned that an impending Exchange upgrade is going to break email for me. So my manager is arguing with IT about that now, and who knows what will happen. While some people would take "can't get email" as a blessing, I really can't do my job without it. So... today I got email from our HR person instructing me to file a formal request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This includes collecting a medical assessment from my doctor and a description of my job requirements at the level of "fine motor control", "sight", "lift up to 10/25/50/100 pounds", "climb ladders", and all sorts of stuff covering a range of mostly-physical disabilities. And they gave me a tiny little space to describe the problem and what I need.

You have got to be freaking kidding me, I thought.

This makes me feel embarrassed, awkward, and more than a little "on display". And it made me think about how someone who isn't comfortable speaking up for his needs, or who fears reprisal, or who just doesn't want to be a "problem", would react. And that's for disabilities that are socially acceptable -- now what if it was something you were trying to keep from sharing, like a mental-health issue? How many people who need reasonable workplace accommodations, ones that would not be an imposition on employers, don't get them because asking is too demeaning, or worse? (And yes, I know that there are many other types of needs that feel even more demeaning than workplace accommodations for disabilities.)

I don't know what the solution is, but there's got to be a better way.

Parlor game: let's talk about... (7 things)

This parlor game comes to me via TalvinAmarich: "Comment to this post and I will pick seven things I would like you to talk about. They might make sense or be totally random. Then post that list, with your commentary, to your journal. Other people can get lists from you, and the meme merrily perpetuates itself."

He gave me: Lisp, On the Mark, Accessibility, Books, Role-Playing Games, Filk, Faroe Islands (one of these things is not like the others).

LISP turned out to be a longer story. On the Mark, ditto. Read more…

Keeping the enslaved down

Recently some local congregations have been banding together for yom tov services. Friday's service for the last day of Pesach was pretty unsatisfactory in a lot of ways, but in this post I'm going to write about just one practice, something I have seen in other congregations too and that needs to end.

Most blessings begin with a six-word formula, followed by the text that varies. The morning service contains a bunch of these, thanking God for making us free, lifting up the fallen, giving strength to the weary, and more. (There are 15 of these in a row.) The congregation says these together. In Friday's service, the leader decreed that the congregation would chant these in "Hebrish" -- first six words in Hebrew, then chanting the varying part in English.

I previously wrote about the horror that is chanted English prayer. This isn't that. This "Hebrish" practice, I've been told when I've asked, is motivated by a desire for inclusion: people don't know the Hebrew, the reasoning goes, so this makes prayer more accessible. Sounds admirable, right? But it's misguided and, dare I say, harmful. First off, the transliteration is right there in the siddur next to the Hebrew, precisely to make the Hebrew more accessible. But, more fundamentally, this practice serves to keep people down. How are they ever to learn the Hebrew if we never do it? Are we supposed to settle for the current state and never move past it? How would I have become proficient in the Hebrew prayers if, when I was trying to grow, my congregation had kept me on the English?

The Rambam (Maimonides) famously taught that the highest level of tzedakah (charity, loosely) is to help a poor person to get a job, rather than to give him money. Giving him money sustains him for a time; getting him a job helps him break out of the clutches of poverty (we hope). The Reform movement holds this up as a key value, even placing it in the section of the siddur where we study torah in the morning. Why, then, do we refuse to apply that same principle to those who are poor in knowledge? Why is it better to give them the handout of English prayer instead of helping them to pray in Hebrew?

In the past I have remained silent to avoid the appearance of challenging our leaders. I have tried and failed to persuade leaders who do this to reconsider. Friday, when they announced this and started into those prayers, I said to myself quietly "no more" and proceeded to chant the prayers in Hebrew. The long-time member of my congregation sitting next to me said "good for you!" and joined me. We were not disruptive, but I have high hopes that maybe, next time, he'll be sitting next to someone else and he too will say "no more" and forge ahead, and maybe someone sitting next to him will follow. And maybe, eventually, we'll be able to help people break out of the bonds of illiteracy, instead of continuing to keep them down by catering to their current weaknesses. We've just celebrated z'man cheruteinu, the season of our freedom, and it is time to apply that to our people now and not just looking back at Mitzrayim.

If reading the Hebrew text directly is too challenging for some, the transliteration is readily available. Or they could quietly read the English the way I quietly read the Hebrew. (I do that when I'm at services that are above my level, like last week at Village Shul.) But let's stop telling our congregants that they're too uneducated to handle the Hebrew; that only serves to reinforce the idea until they no longer want to try.

Somebody asked, in a comment, why the choice of language matters. This is how I answered:

Thanks for commenting, and never worry about asking questions. We're all about questions. :-)

There are a few factors. First, by putting those first six words in Hebrew, the people leading the service in this way are already saying that Hebrew is important -- but not important enough to learn. I think I would be less bothered by English-only prayer than I am by this. It seems contradictory. (Mind, I wouldn't continue to pray in an English-only synagogue, for reasons I give below, but I'd be less bothered, I think.)

Second, short and/or common Hebrew prayers are the "gateway Hebrew" to other texts. If you learn the prayers you'll start to recognize some of those words and phrases when torah is read, which may lead you to learn more words, which can eventually lead to an understanding of scripture that is just not possible in translation. I'm not there yet by any means, but because I learned some Hebrew I notice nuances in the torah text that either add meaning or lead me to ask more questions -- and questions are good; they lead to deeper understanding. So by cutting people off from that "entry-level" Hebrew text we're also cutting off all but the most curious from a lot more.

Those are reasons that apply to everybody. Speaking just for myself now, there is quality to the text that just doesn't come through in translation -- a combination of the word-roots feature another commenter mentioned, and a meter that lends itself a little more to contemplation (hard to explain, but it's "calmer"), and probably some other factors I haven't yet figured out. Additionally, there is something "connecting" about saying the same prayers (in the same words) that Jews have said for thousands of years. I realize that the Reform movement breaks that in places, but it's still largely intact.

God hears prayer in any language; you don't need to pray in Hebrew to stay in right relationship with God. But working a little harder to pray in our language feels rewarding to me. I imagine that this is similar for Roman Catholics who pray(ed) in Latin, and for Greek Orthodox who pray in Greek, and Muslims who pray in Arabic, and others.

Office 2007: accessibility problems

The word came down from on high at work: Office 2007 is being pushed to our machines, no opt-out. (Yes, we're slow adopters. Big companies are often like that.) We've known this for months, so since I have to customize my environment for vision reasons, I asked a coworker who already had it to give my Windows theme a spin. The result was pretty terrible, so I sought help from the IT folks. Uncharacteristically for large-company IT departments, I got routed to someone who both cares and has a clue, so he's been experimenting for a while on my behalf. He had to consult Microsoft, but he finally sent me a screen shot asking if this was acceptable. It was, so I accepted the push at a time that he'd be available to talk me through the re-configuration.

Before I describe the horror that resulted, I need to explain my situation. Read more…

Bad software design

Yet another reason that I would leave (or decline) a job that requires substantial Word usage: accessibility.

In my experience, MS Office utterly fails when it comes to accessibility issues. (Or if it doesn't and there are work-arounds, I sure can't find them in the documentation -- which is a different type of failure.) Today's problem: highlighting. When you use the highlighter in Word, it hard-wires whatever color you chose into the document (bright yellow, by default). That's illegible to someone using reverse-video, and there's no way to globally change it in a document. The correct way to do this sort of thing is to have semantic concepts like "highligher color" (1, 2, 3...), and embed that into the Word doc. Then, on the client end, you define your color map. Voila -- everything works. It'd be like system colors, except they'd work. You get your yellow; I get dark blue. For extra points, use the system settings directly for as much as possible; "selection color" probably works fine for highlighting, for instance.

It's not just highlighting in Word; Outlook pays attention to your system colors for some things but not others, so there are things in the UI I just can't see. (I'm told there's supposed to be a status line that tells me about my server connection; could've fooled me.) I frequently get Office documents where some accident changed "automatic color" to black, and I have to select everything and change it back.

This problem is not unique to Office; Microsoft's IM client does the same thing with text color. Your outgoing messages have a hard-wired text color, which might or might not work for the recipient. I have to highlight most coworkers' messaages to read them (they come in as black on my dark background), and they have to do the same for mine (which are white so I can see them as I type). Text color should be set for a user, not for outgoing messages. I want to see everything in white; you want to see everything in black. Half of our conversation shouldn't be wrong for each of us.

These products, like many web sites, tend to specify half of the foreground/background-color pair. If you're going to hard-wire yellow highlighting, you'd better also hard-wire black text. If you're going to hard-wire black IM text, you'd better also hard-wire a light background. But you shouldn't hard-wire either most of the time; you should ask the OS.

MS offers accessibility options in Windows, but it's a sham -- try to use them and you'll bump into stuff like this all the time. Theirs aren't the only products with these problems, but they are the ones who have no excuse for getting this wrong.

A memory

(I'm not sure what caused this to come back to me.)

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I spent my first two weeks or so of kindergarten in the "dumb" section. Then someone got the clue that a vision problem is not the same as a learning disability, and they moved me. Maybe they noticed that I already knew how to read, but that I was holding the books really close. (This was before the cataract surgery.)

For the first couple years of school, the books had giant-sized print. Then in, I think, second grade, the print got smaller and I told a teacher "I can't see this". Time passed, and then one day I was presented with large-print versions of my textbooks.

One day shortly after that, I was called out of class to meet Miss H. She was from the organization that sent the books, and from now on she would be spending one class period a week with me. There seemed to be no agenda at first; only later did I realize I was being assessed.

These visits were like manna from heaven. We solved puzzles. (Well, she presented and I solved. At that age I wouldn't have known an IQ test if it walked up and introduced itself.) We worked through the entire body of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. We did the basics of algebra in, I think, fourth grade. In fifth grade she taught me to type (which was fortuitous in several ways). She taught me shorthand (you win some, you lose some :-) ). We played games. I think we diagrammed sentences (yay grammar). We did other stuff (some now forgotten). I had a blast.

Sometime in middle school I caught on: she was a tutor, and her job was to provide remedial education -- because obviously handicapped students would have trouble keeping up in classes. It was an institutional assumption, not hers, and institutional assumptions can be hard to challenge. But why challenge this one? After a visit or two she must have realized that I wasn't suffering from learning problems, but both of us thought this was the best hour of our respective school weeks. I don't know what she told her employers; I simply (and truthfully) told anyone who asked that I enjoyed the visits and was learning a lot.

There were no accommodations for above-average students when I was in school, but through a quirk of nature I got my own private gifted program until high school. By then my eyes had adapted enough that I could read normal-sized books -- not the tiny print that sometimes shows up, but for that I had started carrying a pocket magnifying glass (which I still do). The large-print books and the special visits ended with the move to high school. I was glad not to need the books, but sad not to get the visits.

I wonder whatever happened to Miss H. (I know she became Mrs. something-other-than-H, but aside from that.) I hope her memories of those years are half as fond as mine are.

Sh'lach l'cha: the wood-gatherer

Last week during the Sh'liach K'hilah program I gave a d'var torah. I spoke from notes rather than fully writing it out in advance. Now I'm writing down very approximately what I said from those notes.


The portion of Sh'lach L'cha records the incident with the wood-gatherer. To review, on Shabbat two men find a third outside the camp gathering wood, a clear violation of the laws of Shabbat they have been given. The men bring the wood-gatherer to Moshe and ask what to do. Moshe, in turn, asks God, who pronounces a death sentence. Pretty harsh!

The talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin, elaborates the laws of capital offenses. These laws are designed to prevent capital punishment; Rabbi Akiva said that a court that executes one person in 70 years is a bloodthirsty court. In order for a death sentence to even be possible, the following conditions have to be met: there must be two witnesses; they must warn the person that he is about to commit a capital offense; he must acknowledge that warning and say he intends to do it anyway; and they must then directly see him do it.

If I understand rabbinic tradition correctly, that the wood-gatherer was executed means that all of that happened in this case. So why didn't the two men prevent this? Where did things go wrong?

When the men bring the wood-gatherer to Moshe, the word in the text is karov. This means "bring" or "draw near". We know this root from other contexts: a korban, usually translated as "sacrifice", is the means by which b'nei Yisrael draws closer to God. And the word kiruv is generally understood to mean "outreach". You know how, when you're walking down the street, a Lubavicher might stop and ask you if you light Shabbat candles, and then give you candles and teach you the blessing? That's kiruv. When an observant family invites you to Shabbat dinner so that you'll experience the joy of the day, that's kiruv. Kiruv is about bringing Jews closer to Judaism -- by drawing them in, not admonishing them. While many of our congregations have outreach programs of various sorts, true kiruv is one on one, one Jew to another. It's not really about adult-ed classes and congregational dinners, nice as those things are too.

I had always understood the witnesses against the wood-gatherer as trouble-makers -- "look what he's doing! stop him!". But I think what we're seeing here is a failed kiruv attempt -- they weren't prosecuting a case; they were saying to Moshe "do something to help this person". Why did this fail? Perhaps because the men failed in their own responsibility, making it Moshe's problem instead of taking a more active role themselves. Our leaders can't be everywhere nor can they solve all of our problems personally; we have to do some things ourselves. We are taught kol Yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh, all Israel is responsible one for another. The men made a good start by recognizing a need, but they didn't follow through.

Next week after Shabbat services, look around at the oneg. Do you see the guy standing in the corner, the one no one talks to because he's socially awkward? What about the 30-something single woman who doesn't have kids and maybe feels a little out of place in a family-focused congregation? What about the 90-year-old who has no local family, but he's been a member of this congregation all his life? And these are the ones who came -- how many others in the congregation aren't even here?

What can we as individuals do for these people? We could invite them over for Shabbat or for a meal in the sukkah. We could invite them to a Chanukah party or a Yom Kippur break-fast. Or it could be something secular, going out to a group dinner or to a movie or the like. Or, more simply, we could talk with them. Do you know their names? Do they have families? What do they enjoy doing in their free time? Do you know why someone who's usually there every week hasn't been around for a month? Is he on vacation, or is he sick?

Kiruv doesn't have to be big and official; in fact, it shouldn't be. It's the small, individual acts that will draw the people on the fringes of our community toward the center. And these small, individual acts are things we can all do without relying on our leaders. Sure, it's not always easy -- but we don't have to do it all at once. Any step we take is better than taking no step at all.

May we develop the ability to treat the outliers in our communities better than the men in this portion treated the wood-gatherer. Kein y'hi r'tzono, may this be God's will.