It’s been an interesting year to say the least. Covid-19 has impacted on us all at so many levels. We have all had to modify our behaviour. Social distancing and hygiene have been paramount. Many of us have been forced to work and study from home. This has brought with it many changes and challenges.
People in general have struggled. They have found the relentless succession of online meetings, training and other learning difficult. They have found connectivity an issue. They have found it hard to gauge emotions and vibes of communication because of the 2D nature and unfamiliarity of constant online communication. Distractions from children, family members and pets, at first an amusement, have become irritating and frustrating. It didn’t take long for the cracks to show.
But what if you have a disability. What if you are deaf and need captioning or interpreting? What if you are blind and cannot see what’s on screen? What if you are autistic and your carefully crafted routine and sensory management is disrupted? If the non-disabled found it hard – Spare a thought for people with a disability, the challenges have been immense.
I am deaf, I can only speak from my own experience. I am some kind of glutton for punishment. I have actually enjoyed the challenge. I have particularly enjoyed the challenge of using Live Transcribe for nearly all my meetings. Live Transcribe, for those that do not know, is an android based app that provides automatic voice recognition captioning. I basically just place my Samsung tablet on a stand beside my computer and it picks up what people are talking about.
This has been my choice. It has saved heaps of money in captioning and interpreting. However, it is not for everyone. The captioning is surprisingly accurate but gets tripped up by phonetics. Hence, my friend Theresa becomes “the razor” – Razor is her name of choice now. Survey Monkey somehow came out as “Simply Mickey” – It is often hilarious, and I share the errors with my colleagues to their ongoing amusement.
But there is a thing with these online gatherings. I call them gatherings because this encompasses many things – Education, work meetings, Webinairs etc. The thing is, even when access is provided, inclusion is extremely hard. What this means is that the deaf person, and probably others with a disability too, always have the last word.
Having the last word is often seen as a sign of a narcist. For a narcist winning an argument is everything. They are not known to listen, rather they want only to be heard. I often wonder in this new online normal, if this is how non-disabled colleagues view us Deaf or disabled people when we pipe up at the last moment.
As a deaf person who must engage in online discussions several times a day, I have found that the only way to be heard sometimes is to wait for everyone to finish talking. You sometimes see the hint of frustration on colleagues faces at me repeating things that they thought had been resolved. On days when my energy is low, I just cannot be bothered and stay silent.
My responses in meetings can go something along these lines …
- “ … I am sorry to come in late. I haven’t been able to get a word in because everyone is speaking so fast … ? “ (This is usually followed by lots of sorry Gary, Sorry Gary, Sorry Gary).”
- (Waving frantically at screen.). “ …. Stop, stop, stop – I need to challenge Bob’s assumption that interpreters slow down discussions … “ – No one has ever actually said this, but the reader should get the gist of my frustrations.
- ( Taking a note on my pad) …. “ …. I’m really sorry, Sue said something about 25 minutes ago that was really not correct, I need to take you back and discuss that again … “
- Press raise the hand in Teams – Wait fifteen minutes before someone sees it – Forget what I wanted to say.
- Chair asks if I have anything to add at the end of the meet because I have been very quiet .. “ … Several things actually, do we have an extra half an hour.” (Yes, the sarcasm is dripping -but the frustration is real.)
Couple this with the fact that we sometimes have connectivity issues, audio drop outs and the variable quality of both live and automatic captioning, it’s not always plain sailing. If you thought Zoom fatigue was a thing, be thankful you are not dealing with all of these other variables. I can tell you that at the end of a long day of Zoom meetings I am shot!
Of course, there are strategies that can help:
- Everyone must speak one at a time.
- Use the hand raising tool in the platform and police it strictly.
- Use things like polls so that all can have a say.
- Be aware that interpreters are pinned. When you share documents, the interpreters sometimes get unpinned. Provide deaf participant with some time to readjust (Just use chat feature and make sure everything is ok before proceeding.)
- If captions drop out, connectivity interferes with access to interpreters or captioners etc – Stop the meeting. This may sound harsh but to continue is to undervalue the input of the deaf person.
- Be a strict chair. Consider turn taking. For example, ask a question and provide people with a chance to respond equally, one at a time. Close gates on people that talk over others, stop the meeting when people are all talking at once. Open the gate for people that may struggle to get involved. All these things can help make a meeting more inclusive
I and other deaf people really don’t want to have the last word. We really want to contribute to the whole process. Often, I and other participants like me, have valuable ideas to contribute that can make processes and projects better and more efficient. For this to happen we all need to be fully involved so we and everyone can benefit. Inclusion should be the buzz word and it is very different from access!
Gotta go, Zoom is calling!