Q&A with Jonathan Paul Katz, Civil Servant and Writer

Jonathan Paul Katz is a civil servant and writer in New York City. For his job, he writes content and makes accessible communications for a City agency. He is interested in access in urban spaces and housing. His focus is on disabled immigrants and people with cognitive disabilities. He is also interested in accessible signs, communications and food. Besides access, Katz has experience with immigration studies and translation. Outside of work, he writes a Jewish food blog, Flavors of Diaspora. He likes languages, books, cooking and cold weather.

When did you first get started in accessibility?

To an extent, I have always been in accessibility. I am on the autism spectrum, so I have always been in social settings that were not completely accessible for me. Sometimes educational settings too. I was incredibly lucky to have parents that did not see my autism as a bad thing – which I realize was an incredibly brave stance for them to take in the 1990s, at the height of nonsense about the “autism epidemic.” I have had to get used to doing things in different ways, and noticing how things could get better. In college, I “acquired” PTSD, so then I had another grab bag of access needs. Most of my own things are sensory – I have a lot of light and heat sensitivity, and I have an auditory processing issue that affects how I process sounds in my brain. The interest starts there. I also have always had friends and family with disabilities.

In college I ran a cute little Jewish prayer group that had many members with disabilities. So I ended up doing lots of access things there. Some people say that this is really novel, but I have always considered accessibility as a form of what we call minhag avoteinu – the customs of our ancestors. My grandparents and great-grandparents made spaces usable for everyone. So should I. Many of my close friends have hearing disabilities. So we also were doing this thing where we built up an entire social life based on textual communication, against the hand-wringing about the importance of vocal communication. It’s incredibly easy and beautiful to build up an accessible social life and world. That has impacted me more than anything else.

I originally wanted to work on immigration affairs – I have a master’s degree in Migration Studies. That too, is a form of access – how do you make sure that people from various backgrounds can get basic things and partake in society? While in my master’s, I ended up down a rabbit hole of communications, memory, and the intersection of aging and immigration. So when I got hired, the stage was set. I had been working with some friends on making sure things were accessible in Jewish spaces, and I ended up bringing that to work and building the accessibility parts of my job.

You’ve worked in the NYC Department of Small Business Services for several years, as both a content writer and an operations manager. Have you noticed any changes in how government agencies (or at least this particular government agency) are approaching accessibility?

I have seen changes both good and bad in the past two years. One of the biggest things is that people really take accessibility more seriously now. Even two years ago, my harping on about access often fell flat. Now, a lot of people want to learn – and are really eager to do so! I am also really happy that people are now thinking about using simple language, and accessible formats, and multiple modes of communication from the start. We had a Digital Inclusion and Accessibility conference for City employees in May, and the enthusiasm of the attendees was really amazing. I am already seeing a difference in the writing and material I see coming out from City agencies. I have friends who work in local government in other states and countries, and they say the same thing.

On the other hand, the trend towards very fancy web design with lots of pictures and frolicking text is not a good trend for access. Government agencies are moving towards that to appear “hip,” and it ends up making a lot of sites that people cannot use. There is a fear of being “boring” in government, but we are government! We need to provide for everyone! And boring but workable is better than fun for some but not accessible for everyone. Also, I find the fancy sites ugly, but that is just me.

People with cognitive disabilities may have difficulty reading and understanding written materials. How have you attempted to address this issue as a content writer?

I always start with language. (I still write in my operations manager role.) Simple, clear language is good for everyone, and is the most accessible. I ask: what do I need to say? What is the simplest way I can say it? And how do I format it and write it so that people understand?

I write, rewrite, and rewrite again. I check the reading level of everything I send obsessively. I pay a lot of attention to fonts and formatting – are things in a readable order? Is the font something that many people can process? I also guide people through everything. I repeat words a lot, so that folks can trace their way through. I love lists, because it breaks information down into pieces that are easier to process.

I spend a lot of time editing. As an editor, I try to cut out “fluff,” and make sure things get stated as simply as possible. Many government workers love “walls of text.” This is inaccessible behavior! I remind people that “legalese” is almost never mandated by the law. Colors matter too. Busy documents are very hard for people to use, especially if it is a pool of colors.

What is an accessibility barrier that you would like to see solved?

This question is really hard to answer, because I want to solve them all! I have been thinking about four particular barriers over the past two years. I am planning to go back to school for a second master’s in urban planning next year. I hope to focus on these issues.

First: Abled people using discomfort as a reason to keep barriers. This thing is my pet peeve, and something I have dealt with a lot recently. In my experience, people with disabilities or fellow travelers will bring up an access barrier – say, the frequency of last-minute meetings, or the lack of a microphone in a space. A simple fix is proposed – say, a rule to schedule meetings in advance, or a microphone. The abled people will respond that the solution is impossible. Why? Because a cultural change would be necessary! People would need to get used to planning, or have to deal with the visibility of a microphone – and disabled people – in a space. Sound changes. The mood changes. The way people work changes.

I get it to a certain extent. Change can be scary, and it can be especially scary when you are held to account for your behavior. But I also do not get it. The entire world is built around abled people. Abled people’s discomfort should not come in front of disabled people’s needs. This is fundamentally a human, and not technical problem.

I used to think of this behavior as ancillary, but I have actually started thinking of this abled fragility as a barrier all by itself. I hate to be this blunt, but a lot of abled people need to get to work on learning to be comfortable with not having everything revolve around them.

Second: Signage. I am often shocked by how inaccessible so much signage is – especially for signs that help people find their way in digital or physical spaces! There are some basic access errors – sometimes there are no Braille options, the colors do not contrast, or the text is too thin to read. For multilingual signage, minority languages so often are made more inaccessible. (If your English is accessible, your Spanish should be too.) The language is also often hard to read – why are directions written in such lofty English?

A lot of people have bandied around technical solutions, but I have seen the same problems on physical signage “copy-pasted” into digital realms. The problem here is human. I want to see companies, government agencies, hospitals and schools make a serious effort to make usable signs before “pretty” signs. Ultimately, signage needs to be able to tell the user something.

Third: Accessible housing – and especially accessible kitchens. A lot of basic things are inaccessible to people – especially housing. Even accessible housing is walled off from other housing. And certain parts of the house might still be inaccessible – especially kitchens! So many kitchens are inaccessible for people who use wheelchairs, people with mobility disabilities, and others. Surfaces are not marked for blind people. I read somewhere that 85% of American kitchens are inaccessible. A similar portion of the housing stock is too. That is really scary and unacceptable – especially in an aging society where many more people will have age-related disabilities.

Beyond basic access, I am also thinking about how housing can be completely reimagined from an access perspective. For example, my Deaf Twitter connections talk about how kitchen islands would make it so much easier for them to cook. They can chat across the table in a way that normal kitchens do not allow. My friends who use wheelchairs have pointed out that suburban houses are so much harder to retrofit than apartment buildings. What does that mean for everyone?

Fourth: Accessible food. So beyond working in accessibility, I run a food blog called Flavors of Diaspora. I write about the history of “Jewish food,” I make Jewish food and I rant about food. I have been doing a lot of research recently, as I have said, into how people with disabilities cook. Some of this has to do with the kitchen and kitchen equipment. Some of it has to do with the fact that cooking is hard work, often done in constrained, hot environments. (My own sensory stuff means that I often engineer my cooking around “breaks” from the kitchen when it gets too hot!) And some of that has to do with food. We often slight industrial food, but it is hugely important for the independence and freedom of people with disabilities. “Natural” food is sometimes dangerous, often difficult to prepare, and painful to do so if you have a disability. Even something as simple as chopping an onion can be impossible for some people. We might make fun of pre-chopped onions, but they are really great for so many folks.

We now have some of the technologies and capacities we need to provide safe, accessible food to lots of people that is fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate. We can do so in an environmentally friendly way – although we need to improve on that. And we can do so in an affordable way – though we need to improve on that too. What annoys me is how much of the “food world” has this obsession with the “authentic” and the “good old days.” Industrial food is “not good enough,” “lazy,” or scary. The good old days were inaccessible and not so good! We can do better! So let us do better! The question should not be “how do we get people to cook vegetables in a certain way, based on a few people’s ideals.” It should be, “how do the maximum number of people have the maximum amount of choice with maximum access to basic foods that they can choose from?” I have been keyed into Agriculture Twitter recently. It is wild, and there are a lot of good ideas there.

The question of how to get accessible food to people would take a lifetime to answer. I would love to see everyone engage in this question. We all need to be nourished, so we should all have a part in this.

To an extent, I have always been in accessibility. I am on the autism spectrum, so I have always been in social settings that were not completely accessible for me.