Who was Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland? A Tale of Academic Sleuthing and Recovering the Name of a Braille Pioneer

For the past two days, I’ve been on the hunt for a name. I’ve been looking for it for months, actually, but this week I got serious. I’m writing an encyclopedia article on the history and development of Hebrew Braille and I want to make sure to credit the women who made important contributions, as well as the men.

So I have been frustrated that the woman who transcribed all twenty volumes of the first Braille Tanakh (=Hebrew Bible) is identified ever and only as “a Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland.” I wanted to credit her by her own name, but this is how she was referenced in every written source I could find. I read the preface to the Braille Tanakh, newspaper articles about its publication, even bulletins from her congregation at the Euclid Avenue Temple in Cleveland. But everywhere she was simply “Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland.” I even called the temple, and while they could confirm that she had been a member and was now deceased, they had no record of her first name.

This morning, I called the headquarters of JBI International (formerly the Jewish Braille Institute), the organization that had commissioned the development of the International Hebrew Braille Code and the publication of the first Braille Tanakh. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get. They might have nothing, or I might have to wait for Beth, the Director of Development, to search through piles of dusty correspondence in JBI’s archives, but I didn’t even get halfway through my question before she had an answer:

“I’m curious about the woman who transcribed the Braille Tanakh—“

“Oh, Belle Cole?”

And there it was. Belle Cole.

The name sprang so easily to her mind—how had I not found it?

Quite reasonably, as it turned out. Belle Cole’s given name was never used in print materials, but it appears in a hand-written note that sits on display at JBI headquarters. In 1950, Leopold Dubov, JBI founder and chair of the committee that designed the International Hebrew Braille Code, gifted a first edition of the Braille Tanakh to Mrs. Cole, with the following inscription on the flyleaf:

“Presented gratefully and inscribed to Belle Cole, the First Lady of Hebrew Braille Land, to whom, thousands of years after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, was given the priceless privilege of translating the full Hebrew text of our ancient Holy Bible into the miracle script known as Braille. Surely, a unique and heaven-blessed ‘mitzvah,’ an achievement of matchless worth and enduring significance.”

Several years ago, her family returned the Tanakh to JBI for preservation, and this page sits displayed under glass in their collection, in the same building where Beth works. She offered to walk over and take a picture for me:

A photo of the inscription by Leopold Dubov to Belle Cole. Photo by Beth Rudich of JBI

I have since found further verification in a congratulatory notice in a bulletin from the Euclid Avenue Temple. The main text of the notice still refers to her as Mrs. Harry A. Cole, but it quotes the text of Dubov’s inscription, in which her given first name appears. This bulletin hadn’t turned up in searches because the process of scanning had mangled the text. It had elided the s and Google had indexed it as “Mr Harry A. Cole.” Quite a step in the wrong direction, but when I searched by her first name, it turned right up.

It is important to remember all of those who worked to bring Braille to Hebrew speakers, and sacred texts to the blind, especially those whose names are in danger of being lost to history. My sleuthing was a testament to the power of high-tech tools and to the necessity of good old-fashioned low-tech methods. I am glad I found the name of Belle Cole, and I will be happy to recognize her in print, by her own name, for the first time since her “unique and heaven-blessed ‘mitzvah’” was completed.

My Year in Books: 2018!

Picture: A collage composed of the covers of many books i read in 2018

Continuing the tradition I began last year, I’ve decided to celebrate the increasing availability of books to the blind by sharing my full 2018 reading list, with some of the best and most meaningful given special comment.

In 2017 I read 59 books, and thought I might have to slow down. So of course in 2018 I read 67 books! Many of them were meaningful and formative, and I struggle to narrow down the list to recommend just a few. Below are some notable works in no particular order, followed by the rest of my reading list.

Top Picks

Fiction

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy by Cixin Lio (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s En)

This imaginative, thinky trilogy is quintessential speculative fiction for super nerds. If you like your novels pumped chock full of wonky physics and written in a non-Western cultural idiom, these books are for you. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky)

I thought I had lost the taste for straight fantasy, but then I read this series by N. K. Jemisin. The world she builds here is spectacularly creative, and she delves deep into some very real and very rough parts of human nature. There’s a reason she’s just become the first author to win the Hugo award three years in a row (once for each of these books)—you won’t regret reading them. 

Non-Fiction: Race, Society, and Inequality

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

A detailed and masterfully-argued examination of the changing face of racial discrimination in America. Writing at the height of the Obama era, when many Americans were heralding the onset of a post-racial society, Alexander revealed their optimism to be largely unwarranted. Discrimination is still rampant, though it now adopts subtler and less explicit means than slavery or Jim Crow segregation. Alexander shows how the construction of an unnecessarily punitive and differentially-applied justice system has effectively created a new iteration of the same old racial caste system—exploiting Black Americans for free labor, diminishing their economic prospects, and reducing their access to voting and other rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. All of this goes on within a culture of nominal colorblindness, a thin veneer of propriety and unbiased objectivity that peels away under Alexander’s relentless scrutiny.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

This book is dizzying in its scope and utterly surprising for many who learned a sanitized version of American history in school. Kendi defines three strains of thinking on race and traces them across four centuries through the life, work, and context of five paradigmatic American thinkers: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. Each of these individuals exhibits one or (more often) more than one of Kendi’s three strains of thought: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. Kendi does an excellent job of showing how racist ideas were created and perpetuated to justify exploitative economic practices, as well as how the particular expressions of those ideas changed and adapted to new cultural, legal, and economic context. Racist thinking has changed, but never disappeared from American life.

I have a few residual questions about the nature and scope of Kendi’s assimilationist category, but they do not diminish the overall value of the book. This book would pair well with Paul Ortiz’s An African-American and LatinX History of the United States  or Karen Fields’ Racecraft, mentioned below.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

The world of big-money philanthropy operates under the assumptions that market solutions provide the best hope to rectify societal ills and that it is possible to become extremely wealthy in a way that also benefits society as a whole. Long an insider to this world, Anand Giridheradas has become disillusioned with these beliefs and argues effectively against both in this incisive book. He questions the basic premise that one can “do well by doing good,” that every problem has a win-win solution that allows for both the reduction of inequality and the accumulation of fabulous personal wealth. Instead, he urges the creation of more democratic and more egalitarian institutions and social structures to combat growing inequaltiy and the worsening prospects faced by many Americans. 

Non-Fiction: Bible

Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney

Gafney combines rigorous scholarship and imaginative storytelling in this quest to rediscover important female characters of the Hebrew Bible. She provides fresh and well-argued interpretations of the text and explores the evocative importance of its gaps and holes. This welcome and challenging contribution honestly probes the concerns and perspectives of biblical women, addressing in the process a host of neglected questions that will benefit all readers and interpreters.

The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek

The Bible was not always the Bible. Before the diverse texts we now call biblical were gathered into one binding, each of them had a life of its own (and some more than one). They existed alongside and together with a vast library of other writings—some were lost to history and others survived in non-biblical contexts. How did people think about these texts before there was a Bible, before there were even books? Mroczek approaches that question with clarity and creativity, suggesting a number of productive metaphors that can guide our thinking about the Bible before there was a Bible.  

Nonfiction: Blind Lit

Crooked Paths Made Straight: A Blind Teacher’s Adventure Traveling Around the World by Isabelle D. Grant

Dr. Isabelle Grant was a Scottish-born Los Angeles schoolteacher who was forced out of her job after she went blind as an adult. So of course she embarked on a trip around the world with her cane and Braille typewriter. Alone. In the 1950s. She visited five continents and many countries to observe and assess the quality of education for blind children, encouraging teachers and authorities to invest in blind youth and improve their self-sufficiency and self-determination.. Her intelligence, good humor, and openness to new ideas and relationships make for a delightful and surprising read. Foreword by Debbie Kent Stein, who found this manuscript decades after it was written and saw it through to publication. 

Non-Fiction: Personal Growth & Effectiveness

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris

A master class in humility. Tavris digs deep into wrongness—why it’s inevitable, why we have trouble recognizing it, and why we avoid doing anything about it. The process is so universal and so relatable that you can’t help but begin to recognize unwarranted certainty and misplaced confidence in your own life and thinking. Everyone should take the lessons of this book to heart.

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke

This book can help address some of those pernicious human problems described in the last entry. Duke applies her experience as an international poker champion and Ph.D. in psychology to the problem of making good decisions in an uncertain world. Excellent theoretical frameworks as well as practical tips. Let’s all work on thinking better!

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered Ten Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon

A much more nuanced book than the title implies. I found it extremely helpful—not for definitive answers, but for opening up new avenues of thinking about food and food education within the family. French parents consider good eating a crucial skill to be acquired, and teach it as intentionally as reading, writing, or math. They do not consider children’s tastes to be immutable, but condition them by repeated exposure to and discussion of healthy and diverse foods. A great read for parents of young children trying to escape power struggles over food.

The Rest of the List

  • The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time)
  • You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman
  • How to Write Short: Wordcraft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  • How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation by N. J. Enfield
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • R. J. Rommel: An Assessment of His Many Contributions, edited by Nils Petter Gleditsch
  • Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey
  • An African-American and LatinX History of the United States by Paul Ortiz
  • Can We Talk About Race? and Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong
  • Rethinking Expertise by Harry M. Collins
  • God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says by Michael D. Coogan
  • Reality is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli
  • Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein
  • Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein
  • Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy J Keller
  • The Formation of the Jewish Canon by Timothy H. Lim
  • Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary F. Marcus
  • What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
  • The Talmud: A Biography by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
  • Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life by Tasha Eurich
  • People of Vision: A History of the American Council of the Blind by James Megivern
  • Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success by Shane Snow
  • The Anne Shirley Series by L. M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside)
  • 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson
  • Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love by Rob Schenck
  • What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
  • Manhood: How to be a Better Man or Just Live with One by Terry Crews
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
  • How the Bible Became Holy by Michael L. Satlow
  • The Akata Witch Series by Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch and Akata Warrior)
  • The Blind Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story by Rosalind Perman
  • Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
  • Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance by Tom Digby
  • On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields
  • How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley
  • Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind by Osagie Obasogie

What is the best book you read in 2018? Leave a comment and help me build my 2019 reading list (as if it isn’t 20 books deep already)!

Summer Doings and Things to Come

It has been a long and busy year so far, and the blog has mostly lain dormant. Or fallow—let’s say fallow. That sounds like there are things going on below the surface, which there are. I have some pieces coming in the next month that I have been working on for a while.

But until I’ve put the last bit of polish on them, here’s a quick update about some important happenings this summer.

This year, I was honored to receive scholarships From the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB), two of the premier support, advocacy, and education organizations for blind people, led exclusively by blind people.

 As part of each scholarship, I was invited to attend the annual national convention for each organization. So in late June I traveled to St. Louis to attend ACB.

Photo of the Grand Hall at Union Station at Union Station Hotel, the site of the ACB national convention.

Union Station Hotel, site of the 2018 ACB Convention

And went straight from there to Orlando for the NFB.

A photo of the entire 2018 NFB Scholarship Class.

The 2018 NFB scholarship class(Credit: National Federation of the Blind)

Being in a conference hotel with 2000 other blind people is an experience that is hard to describe. On the one hand, it can be overwhelming. It’s loud. It’s chaotic. On the other hand, there is something comfortable about it. This space is governed by a completely different set of social norms. Sure, there’s a lot of bumping into people. There’s a lot of dueling canes. But it’s expected. No one got bent out of shape about it. No one felt like they had to look after me when I was trying to find my way. No one expected me to know who they are when they sat down next to me. It was a world where blind people were respected and blindness was not isolating.

And I met such fantastic people. I met people working in higher education, K-12, research, policy, law, computer science, robotics, writing and publishing—you name it, there are blind people doing it, and doing it well. 

I spent one delightful afternoon with a group of blind educators, sharing ideas on managing classrooms, developing curricula, and working productively with colleagues who don’t understand or sometimes even respect the blind people working beside them. We talked about everything from cell phone policies and managing the wriggly bodies of special needs children to using online learning management systems and dealing with institutional administrations and policies. It was a treasure trove of collective wisdom and the reassurance that others have already trod the roads that I am bound to travel. 

On another day I met with a small group of academic professionals and graduate students, and we talked about navigating higher education at all levels, from graduate study to tenure, and how to improve research done by and about disabled people in psychology, sociology, and the humanities. I am grateful for the insight, support, and vulnerability of these colleagues, who view success as a collective as well as a personal priority.

There were also groups for blind parents—especially important for me with the impending arrival of our second daughter in October! Blind parents have to do some things differently, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel when other blind people have already developed excellent techniques and successfully raised so many children, both blind and sighted.

The scholarship money I received this summer is great, and it will help me finish my Ph.D. strong (and hopefully in the next year, fingers crossed), but the true value of these scholarships comes from the people I was able to meet and the connections that will last for years.

If you are blind or going blind, I can’t recommend highly enough getting involved in a group of the organized blind. Blindness can be isolating, and inventing non-visual ways to do every little thing on your own in a visual world can be taxing and demoralizing. But many have come before, and built a foundation of knowledge and mastery that we all can learn from.

Here’s to many more years of collaboration and lives well lived!

2017: My Year in Books

An image collage of book covers for all the books I read this year.I set a goal to read 40 books this year, and according to my Goodreads Reading Challenge, I read 59!

I am profoundly grateful to be able to read this much and this widely, considering the historical “book famine” that has plagued blind readers. Only about 10% of English books ever make it into an accessible Braille or audio format, and in most world languages that number is closer to 1%, Advances in technology (like Bookshare and the NLS) and policy (the Chaffey Amendment to U.S. copyright law an the Treaty of Marrakesh internationally) are allowing for more books to be made accessible in Braille and audio more quickly than ever before.

And so, to celebrate, I have taken a cue from my friend Emily K. Michael and decided to share my full 2017 reading list. I’ve pulled out a few that I highly recommend to everyone and added a few comments (choosing which was hard—almost everything I read this year was good!).

Top Picks

(grouped by subject, not quality):

Fiction

 The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears

This intricate and well-crafted historical novel traces the lives of three men who live in southern France at different times in history: a fifth-century Roman philosopher-turned-Christian-bishop, a poet in the court of the fourteenth-century Avignon papacy, and a scholar of medieval French poetry in the years leading up to World War II. The three men’s lives parallel one another as each reads and interprets the work of the one who came before.

The King Must Die, by Mary Renault

Mary Renault is a master. This historicized novelization of the myth of Theseus is infused at every turn with her deep knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world. It perfectly balances the foreignness of the past with the universality of human experience. Historical fiction at its finest.

Non-Fiction

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

I have thought of this book often since I read it. It is the third and last of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical works, revised in 1892, three years before his death. Douglass’ life and accomplishments are, of course, astounding, and his prose is masterful. He is a model of the courage to risk everything for freedom, the passion to fight for justice and equity, and the strength to forgive even those who have harmed us most.

The only fault is Douglass’ meticulous effort to thank and acknowledge every abolitionist and freedom fighter he ever met, which results in long lists of names otherwise forgotten to history. Those aside, the writing is excellent, and this book is well worth the read.

Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, by Dr. Willie Parker

This is a must-read for all American Christians, and probably for most other Americans as well. Dr. Willie Parker is a Southern, African-American, Pentecostal Christian abortion provider—a unique perspective in a political landscape known for entrenched positions and hostility to productive discussion.

Dr. Parker argues from his life history and his Christian faith that access to safe abortions is a moral imperative in a loving and just society. It is precisely the Christian foundation for his beliefs and practice (often in the face of abuse and threats of violence) that makes this book so unusual and valuable. It defies the notion that Christianity can permit only one stance on reproductive rights, and I hope by the end readers will see that there is more to being truly pro-life than simply voting against abortion.

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, by Roy F. Baumeister

Probably the best book I’ve read on the dark side of human nature. Baumeister’s broad synthesis of the research debunks the common simplistic notion that only unusual, intrinsically bad people (i.e., “bad apples”) can commit acts of horrific violence. He also avoids the emerging popular view that these terrible deeds are primarily the product of external, situational factors (i.e., “bad barrels,” an approach typified by Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect, below).

Instead, Baumeister presents a complex interaction between individuals and their contexts. The seeds of evil are present in every person to a greater or lesser extent, but how they manifest depends greatly on the social and cultural context. 

The theoretical backbone is strong, but it is still a 20-year-old book. I would love to see an updated second edition informed by more recent research and world events.

Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, by Michael Tomasello

This is a pretty dry, technical linguistics book, but I loved it so much. Tomasello blew my mind on nearly every page as he completely reconfigured the way I think about language and human interaction. If you are interested in fundamental aspects of what language is, how it works, and how we use it, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones

Important reading for pretty much everyone in the U.S. Whether the title inspires glee, fury, or anything in-between, it is difficult to deny that in the coming century the “default American” will no longer be both white and Christian. This book gives a good overview of the rise and decline of White Christian America over the course of the last century, with an insightful epilogue written after the 2016 presidential election.

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It, by Richard V. Reeves

Phenomenal book. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute shows that rising income inequality cannot be blamed on the wealthiest 1% alone. The entire top 20% of the American income distribution have done their best to elevate their position and then “pull up the ladder” behind them. Laws governing taxes, housing, education, and inheritance have all been shaped to protect the upper middle class and their children from downward mobility, and have stifled upward mobility in the process. As the top 20% pulls further and further ahead of the rest, the meritocratic American ideal becomes less and less a reality. I was convinced, convicted, and inspired to reanalyze my policy views and voting choices.

Personal Development

Designing Your Life: Build a Lifethat Works for You, by Bill Burnett andDave Evans

This superb book applies design thinking to life choices, demystifying some of the most perplexing aspects of wayfinding in life and career in the process. I plan to reread this and work through the exercises in detail, probably multiple times throughout my life.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

A strong argument for ruthless focus. If you, like me, have the tendency to make “a millimeter of progress in a million directions,” this book might help you reframe and refocus on the few essential things.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport

A practical guidebook for developing practices, habits, and schedules that foster deep focus and productivity. Great framework for getting things done!

The Rest of the List

(in the order I read them): 

  • Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, by Jill Lepore
  •  Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom
  • Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives, by Tim Harford
  • Empirical Models Challenging Biblical Criticism, edited by Raymond F. Person and Robert Rezetko
  • America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallace
  • Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr
  • Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
  • Why Wall Street Matters, by William D. Cohan
  • Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man who Dared to See, by Robert Kurson
  • The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge
  • Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than it Thinks, by Guy Claxton
  • On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt
  • The Shadow Series by Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant)
  • Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • Dreamblood Series by N. K. Jemisin (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun)
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  • Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet can tell us about Who we Really Are, by Seth Stephens Davidowitz
  • The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
  • The Babylonian World, edited by Gwendolyn Leick
  • The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
  • The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  • What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly
  • When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
  • Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
  • The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, by John McWhorter
  • The Song of Achilles, by Madeleine Miller
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  • The Giver Series by Lois Lowry (The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son)
  • Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law, by David Cole
  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield
  • The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo
  • The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics, by Jean Aitchison
  • The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
  • The Book of Mormon: A Biography, by Paul C. Gutjahr
  • Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran
  • The Reign of Nabonidus, by Paul Alain Beaulieu
  • The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom
  • Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, by John Steinbeck

What is the best book you read in 2017? Leave a comment and help me build my 2018 list!

Notes on Traveling Blind from SBL 2017

A photo of the City of Boston from a very high vantage point.

That special time of year has once again come and past, when 10,000 scholars of Bible and religion gather for a long weekend of research presentations, nerdy conversations, and drinks with friends and colleagues who are scattered across the globe.

This year, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature met in Boston. Since it was just a stone’s throw from my former home in Waltham and Brandeis University, where I’m getting my Ph.D., I came in a few days early. It gave me a chance to stay with excellent friends, mete with my dissertation advisors, practice yoga with my first teacher, and eat pancakes at the best breakfast spot in town. Then I found my way into downtown Boston for four very enjoyable days of conference.

Between Waltham and Boston, it was a great opportunity to test and assess my orientation and mobility skills.

You see, in addition to its value as a professional conference, SBL gives me a regular chance to reflect on how my declining sight affects my ability to navigate unfamiliar locations and situations (see last year’s entry here). Most of the year, my life is pretty routine. I take familiar streets and familiar trains to familiar places—not a great challenge. And on most other big trips, I’m accompanied by my family. SBL turns that all on its head, as I find my way solo through busy airports, navigate public transit systems, and search for rooms in cavernous and labyrinthine conference centers.

Last year, the big transition was using my cane throughout the conference, even though I only felt I needed it for safety at night. This year, I can’t imagine having gone without it. Boston is a city of confusing streets, more confusing subway stations, and entirely oblivious speed-walkers—the only downside to my cane was how often sighted people tripped over it.

Overall, though, I’d say this year was a navigational success. I got everywhere I needed to go—perhaps with an extra wrong turn or two, or three, or…

But my point is, I got where I needed to go.

The biggest new challenge this year was balancing my desire for independence with getting help when necessary. Most of the time, I like to figure things out on my own. And most of the time, this is a good thing. I find that bumbling through a confusing route helps me internalize it better than if I’m guided through, and that makes navigating it the next time much easier. Sometimes, however, the time I’d spend finding my own way is just not worth it, and it makes more sense to ask the nearest person where I am and which way to go.

But asking for help is like that proverbial box of chocolates. Or maybe more like a box that’s part chocolates and part over-bearing strangers who just grab right on to you and start dragging you off in god-knows-what direction. And part older European gentlemen who are very concerned that you are going to be all right.

The point being, you never really know what you’re going to get. Sometimes asking for directions brings you into contact with truly delightful people you never would have met otherwise. Other times, it turns into a very unpleasant experience that tests your patience and civility.

One time, as I stood looking confused at a fork in the road, a man came up and asked if I was headed to the conference center (how did he know? I was wearing the scholar uniform of khakis and a corduroy jacket, of course). I said yes, and he asked if I’d like to walk along with him. We spent the next few minutes discussing his upcoming commentary on the Book of Leviticus and my dissertation on psalms, until we reached the center and split off to our respective events. Perfectly pleasant.

Another time, I was trying to find a group of friends in a crowded Italian market/restaurant. I asked an employee where “Il Pesce” was, and without a word he grabbed me by the shoulder, pulled me across the market, and let me loose with just as little ceremony—in front of “La Pasta.” Luckily one of my friends came to fetch me, or I may never have found them.

Another time, an elderly man asked if I needed some direction. When I asked him to point me in the direction of the exhibition hall, he grabbed my arm (much more gently than the last guy, but still) and guided me all the way to the hall, even though I kept telling him I was ok on my own from here (and here, and here). I just couldn’t shake the guy!

I know this might make a lot of you nervous. A lot of people feel uncertain about how best to help visually impaired people and people with other disabilities. “Will they think I’m overbearing, rude, or awkward? Will they hate me for trying to help?” This is understandable—it’s a complicated issue that I hope to dissect more in future posts. But based on my experience so far, I have thought up a few tips that I think will serve you well in deciding how and when to help:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask a blind person if they know where they’re going. I know a lot of good-hearted people who don’t offer help because of the fears mentioned above. I’ll just give you permission: it’s ok to ask a simple question like “Are you all good?” or “Do you need some directions?”
  • BUT, believe the person if they say no, and believe them if they tell you they only need one piece of information, and don’t feel bad walking away once you’ve told them what they asked for.
  • In general—and this is good advice in all of life—don’t just grab people. Exceptions are allowed for imminent danger: falling pianos, quicksand, etc. Otherwise, ask before touching.
  • Better yet, ask if the blind person would like to take your arm. This is best practice for what is called sighted guide, but understand that not all blind people like to take an arm, or at least not all the time. Many of us prefer to walk beside you or a half-step behind, and walk independently with our canes.

Basically, let people tell you how to help them. Listen and trust that they know how to live and function in their own bodies.

On my end, I’m realizing I need to develop my ability to clearly and effectively communicate my needs to those who wish to help. This can be frustrating and difficult in the moment, but the more I think through my experiences and talk with people, the better I get.

Any other questions about how to interact with blind folks? Any other tips from blind travelers? Let me know in the comments!

What Would the “America First” Budget Mean for Me?

Ever since the White House released the blueprint for its “America First” budget, my email inboxes have been inundated with urgent pleas from organizations who would have their funding cut or eliminated under the new plan. After a few days, it became clear that these budget priorities would affect the work that I do and the ways that I do it on a daily basis.

Many things in this budget make me deeply uneasy, but this isn’t the place for a full analysis, and I am not a policy analyst. What I am is a person who works at the corner of blindness and academia, and I recognize things in this budget blueprint that would create very real difficulties for me on both of those counts. I will focus here on two specific cuts and the harm they would cause without creating any real benefit.

Research Funding

The “America First” budget blueprint calls for elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA; p. 5). These two organizations provide funding and support for projects and programs, large and small, in the arts and humanities. 

I have personally worked on research projects that were funded by grants from the NEH, and I have benefitted from many more. In a recent email to members, the president of the Society of Biblical Literature reported that SBL members have received over $7.2 million in research grants from the NEH. Further, the SBL’s Bible Odyssey website, a source for reliable, scholarly information on the Bible and Bible-adjacent topics, is made possible in part by a $300,000 NEH grant.

This is just one scholarly society. Scholars working in Egyptian, Syrian, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian studies also receive funding from the NEH. 

Their research links us to our shared cultural heritage. It connects us to the roots of Western society and the worlds from which our major religions sprang. If you cringe when ISIS bulldozes ancient gates in Palmyra, churches in Aleppo, or palaces in Nineveh, you should cringe when the humanities are dismantled at home. 

I might be more sympathetic to this budget reduction if the amount of money saved were not so extraordinarily small. The NEA and NEH each received about $148 million last year, meaning together they made up only 0.006% of the federal budget. Their elimination is an ideological and symbolic gesture that would do a great deal of harm while doing taxpayers very little good.

Educational Resources

According to the blueprint document, “[t]he 2017 Budget…continues support for the nation’s most vulnerable populations, such as students with disabilities” (p. 17). If only that were true. It seems that, in reality, these budget priorities would place a heavy burden on students with disabilities. For younger students, the emphasis on charter schools would probably end up reducing school choice and educational quality (see point 3 in this article). 

For me in particular, and other blind students, scholars, and citizens of all ages, it would mean increased difficulty in accessing books and other academic materials. The budget jeopardizes funding for the Educational Technology, Media, and Materials for Individuals with Disabilities Program, which benefits me through services like Bookshare.

Bookshare is an online library that provides accessible digital versions of print books to people who are blind, have a learning disability, or are otherwise unable to read print. Their catalog contains more than half a million books, and is growing quickly.

I use Bookshare literally every day—it is not my only source for accessible books, but it is a major one, and it has saved me dozens, if not hudnreds of hours of work in the past few years.

And this is why Bookshare is so important, for me and for everyone else: because it saves so much work. Bookshare is an incredibly efficient and economical program, and defunding it would make life more burdensome for students of every age and level, and would end up increasing costs for everyone. Here’s how:

Books enter the Bookshare library in two ways: either publishers send digital files directly, or volunteers scan printed books and submit their own files. When a volunteer digitizes a book, it takes a few hours to scan the book, OCR and edit the text, and prepare the file. After that, it can be downloaded and read in large print, Braille, or audio by students nationwide using any number of disability-specific apps and devices. There is some additional labor in maintaining the database and website, but it is minuscule in comparison with what would be required if Bookshare’s federal funding were cut.

If that happened, the burden of providing accessible materials to disabled students would shift to local school districts. Not all districts would be able to advocate with publishers as effectively as Bookshare, which would increase the burden on volunteers and paid school staff. That same 4-10 hours of work digitizing books would have to be done anew in every district in every area of the country.

This could only play out in two ways: either local taxes would increase to accommodate the increased need, or educational outcomes for disabled students would suffer due to lack of resources. More likely, both of these would happen to a greater or lesser extent in every school district, depending on the resources at their disposal.

I am a firm believer that U.S. schools should provide excellent educations to students with disabilities, so that they can become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. But I also believe that accommodations for students with disabilities should be made in the most efficient and effective way.

In the digital age, centralization is the best way to provide many kinds of accessible materials in the most economical wa  without compromising its quality or availability. A federal dollar simply goes much further than a state or local dollar. Cutting federal funding for accessible materials may appear to save money, but any savings will be offset by a manifold increase in costs at the state and local level. It helps no one, and hurts everyone.

Other Cuts

These are only two issues raised by the budget blueprint, but there are many other, darker parts of the White House budget priorities. The cuts to Legal Services could prevent citizens with disabilities from seeking and receiving justice from discrimination and mistreatment. Cuts to the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and various programs like Meals on Wheels could remove much-needed aid from the disabled, poor, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable populations in the U.S.

In short, these specific cuts and the “America First” budget priorities as a whole are hostile to academic learning and disabled citizens. Furthermore, any savings at the federal level would increase costs locally, creating a net harm to taxpayers. Pleas contact your legislative representatives and suggest budget priorities that do more than pay lip service to education and the idea of supporting vulnerable populations.

***

If you would like to help support Bookshare, I would appreciate it! They have provided this very easy to use tool to write your representatives about it: Support Bookshare

Braille and Cognition

A couple of weeks ago, I went into the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco to hear a presentation by my friend Robert Englebretson. Robert is a professor of linguistics at Rice University. He is blind, and I met him through an email group of blind academics. In addition to his primary linguistic research on Indonesian languages, Robert has begun to research Braille reading using the tools of cognitive linguistics. It’s exciting research that points the way toward better Braille for everyone.

This particular presentation was about a study he had done on Braille contractions with his Rice colleague Simon Fischer-Baum. I haven’t said much about contracted Braille since my very first post, so I’ll recap: in order to save space and increase reading speed, there are a bunch of contractions that reduce the length of common letter combinations and words. Some of these contractions have to appear by themselves, but others can be used as parts of larger words. These include small groups of letters like [er], [ch], [ing], and [the], as well as words like [time], [ever}, and [less]. 

In English Braille, these contractions were determined largely by statistical frequency. The most common letter combinations and words got contracted, meaning the most possible space got saved on the page. In the days when huge tomes had to be hand-Brailled, this made a lot of sense, but it’s a practice that benefits the producers of Braille, and its effect on readers had never been studied. 

For decades, the prevailing assumption in Braille education has held that blind Braille readers expand all of the contracted words into their full print form before interpreting them. If this is true, then all contractions should be equally readable. But are they?

Granted, there are some contracted spellings that everybody agrees are a bad idea. My favorite is this gem:

⠡⠑⠐⠍⠁⠏⠽

In English characters, that’s 

[ch] [e] [mother] [a] [p] [y]

Chemotherapy. Sure, it’s space-efficient—it shortens a twelve-letter word to seven cells. But the two-cell (dot 5, m) contraction for [mother] is so ingrained to mean “mother” that everyone inevitably reads it something like “Key-mother-a-pee.” Is saving the space of five cells on the page worth losing a few seconds every time you have to make sense of this word? Not to me.

Robert set out to show that the same process happens in less egregious situations as well. You don’t often run into contractions as bad as “chemotherapy,” but there are many, many examples of contractions that cause momentary confusion and delays in comprehension. Take ”redo” for example, which can be written in Braille as [r] [ed] [o]. Most people can’t help but read it as “red-o.”

Basically, Robert theorized that reading problems occur when contractions conflict with our understanding of a word’s sublexical structure. We all intuitively understand that some words are made up of smaller units that have been smooshed together. “Redo” is the verb “do,” plus the prefix “re-.” We understand it as a two-part word, and when the [ed] contraction effectively erases the boundary between the two parts, we stumble over the reading.

And this is exactly what he found in a large number of similar cases. I won’t go into the methodology or technical details here, but Robert was able to show that fluent Braille readers took longer to comprehend words when contractions crossed sublexical boundaries than they did when the contractions did not cross boundaries. This implies that Braille readers are reading those contractions as single units, covering up any dividing lines that may exist within them. In other words, the theory that Braille readers uncontract words before they process them does not hold up.

To me, sitting in the audience, Robert’s results seemed right on. To be fair, I remember a time when I did have to uncontract every word I read. When I was first learning contracted Braille, I had to picture every word in my head, building each one letter by letter as I read each cell. But this was just a symptom of my inexperience, and I moved past it quickly. After a month or so, I no longer had to picture the words I was reading. Instead, the cells brought sounds into my mind—whether letters, syllables, or entire words. 

Then, maybe a month ago, something different happened. I brushed my finger over some Braille text and all of a sudden the meaning of the words came into my head. Not the sounds, the meanings. It felt surreal, how automatic it was. I took that for granted with print reading—for most print readers it becomes so automatic that it isn’t even a choice. Text is read as soon as it is seen, whether you like it or not. It was very strange to have that sensation in Braille. 

Right now that only happens with very simple language. Less common words take a little longer, and rare words or weird contracted spellings can trip me up pretty bad. As I gain experience, more will become automatic and everything will come faster, but Robert’s research suggests that some contracted spellings will never stop slowing me down.

The study shows that cognitive linguistics can provide valuable insights into Braille reading, and points the way toward further research. In time, we may be able to more precisely distinguish between contractions that help and contractions that hinder, We may also come to see which other features of the current Braille system improve speed and comprehension, and which do not. Eventually, research like this could influence best practices that optimize Braille for the human beings who read it rather than pages it is embossed on.

SBL!

A photograph of the San Antonio Riverwalk. Just like me, the people in this photo have not fallen in the river.

I just got home from San Antonio, where I attended the Annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. SBL, as we call it, is the largest conference of biblical scholars in the world, and it’s held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion. This means that for one weekend a year, thousands upon thousands of scholars in biblical and religious studies descend upon one unsuspecting American city.

The scope of the thing is truly mind-boggling. There are hundreds of papers and presentations each day, covering every conceivable topic within and around biblical studies and religion. It’s a great place for scholars to hear about new discoveries, new ideas, and new approaches, and to share their own ideas and get feedback before committing them to print. But the best part is reconnecting with friends and colleagues and meeting new ones. The conversations over dinners and drinks are consistently stimulating and gloriously nerdy.

For me, SBL also offers a chance to reflect on how I am changing and still need to change as my sight wanes. It’s a different experience every year.

The most noticeable change this year: I used my white cane. Last year I brought it with me, and I carried it in my bag throughout the weekend, but I never actually took it out to use it. This time I had it out almost the entire time. Inside and in daylight I don’t really need it for the large-scale tasks of orientation and navigation, but it warns me of curbs, planters, and benches, and warns people around me that I will definitely run into them if they don’t move. At night on the narrow and winding Riverwalk, on the other hand, I needed the cane (and a few timely nudges from my friends) to keep from taking a swim.

The social and networking aspect of the conference keeps changing, too. I’ve never been great at picking faces out of a crowd, but now it’s near impossible. I’m sure I walked right by dozens of people I should have said hello to, and failed to notice friends and colleagues attending sessions with me. Name tags are useless, so I’m sure I also miss out on meeting scholars whose work I know but have never met in person.

Even meeting close friends can be disorienting. Suddenly someone appears right in front of me, or beside me walking in lockstep, and it takes a few seconds to piece together who they are from their voice and whatever visual clues I can get. Sometimes I start a hug or a handshake without knowing who’s on the other side, and recognize them halfway through. Luckily, my assumption that people who want to hug me or shake my hand generally have a good reason to do so hasn’t backfired yet! 

I am curious to see how my experience of the conference changes over time. It will continue to provide a benchmark for my vision and adaptation, as well as for my scholarly career. Next year I plan to present a paper—a dual novelty since it will be my first paper at an academic conference and my first presentation from Braille notes!

Connection and Collaboration

For the past several years, being a blind person in the academy has seemed like a very lonely, and often discouraging road. I was able to find a few stories about blind professors online, but I had difficulty finding any in real life. Faculty and students at my university were supportive and willing to help, but no one (including myself!) was well acquainted with the particular problems of blindness or how to address them. 

A couple weeks ago, however, in a crazy series of events, I suddenly began to find the blind academic camaraderie I’ve wanted. My wife Kristin, who is an interaction and usability designer, decided on a whim to attend an accessibility even in San Francisco, hosted by Cordelia McGee-Tubb. The event was great, and while she was there, she fell into conversation with Jennifer Sutton, an accessibility consultant who also happens to be something of an expert on Braille, and also happens to be blind (go see what she does on Twitter or on LinkedIn). Kristin took her card, and told me I should get in touch with her.

So I gave her a call, and I couldn’t be more happy that I did. Jennifer was generous with her time and resources. In a phone call and a number of subsequent emails, she connected me to blind scholars and academics in a variety of fields—a professor of linguistics at Rice, an English professor at Berkeley. Through these connections, I found an email group of blind academics. There are smart blind people doing great academic work in practically every field imaginable—English, history, art, psychology, human computer interaction, you get the idea.. They share knowledge and advice freely, and I have already learned a great deal from this group.

Perhaps most important of all, she connected me with a small group of people who are working to increase access to biblical language study for people who are blind. They have transcribed the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and some other original language documents into Braille. Now they are working on scholarly research tools, grammars, and other ancient language materials. 

Check out night-light.org for more information, and this blog post in particular to see the current state of the project. My skills at Braille pale in comparison to theirs, but I hope to contribute to this work as I improve.

It’s been exciting and slightly overwhelming to realize how many other talented blind people there are out in the world and in the academy. Those I have met are kind, generous, and resourceful. They are determined to succeed and eager to help others do the same. They have thought through and worked around many of the difficulties associated with academic work, and they are happy to give advice and encouragement. Of course, there will still be many challenges in my future, many problems left to solve, but the task feels a little lighter.