Accommodating a Pandemic

-Michele

We’ve all been adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. Working from home now means interacting with colleagues and students via our computers. Shopping means wearing masks and washing hands. In-person social interactions are laced with anxiety over potential Covid-19 exposure. Like me, you might have adjusted to changing conditions back in March and April with a hopeful eye towards summer—the anticipated ebb of flu season—and with it a hope for the ebb of Covid-19. But this virus has proved that it is not the flu. Covid-19 is going to be with us for a while in the United States.

So, we adjust to and accommodate this pandemic by adopting new ways to work and live. We academics are figuring out how to teach on-line, how to multitask through seminars, how to conduct meetings on-line, and how to connect with our colleagues through innovative on-line conferences. This is the new normal. We miss times past when we could stop in a colleague’s office to ask a question, interact with students after class, and walk with a friend across campus for coffee. All of those interactions are vital to building the strong connections that comprise our social network. I grieve for those lost, or temporarily misplaced, connections and feel their loss brutally. But I will tell you a secret. Something that seems preposterous in the face of our isolation and struggle to connect and support one another. My secret is that I am ambivalent about returning to in-person work on campus.

Accommodating a Pandemic over photo by Gabriel benois of a laptop with zoom meeting in progress. On the desk next to laptop are a tablet, a digital watch and a phone.

Working from home, I have far greater control over my communication environment than I do with in-person meetings/lectures/conferences. With this new normal, I don’t have to snap my head from one person to another during meetings to try and catch the fast interchange of conversation. The awkwardness of turn-taking within on-line meetings means folks don’t talk over one another. Now, I don’t have to strategize the placement of my FM system in order to best capture voices throughout the room (post about FM systems at conferences). As long as folks are using good external microphones, I can use the amplifier on my computer to boost voices. While it is still difficult to arrange for captionists or ASL interpreters for meetings during this pandemic (finding captionists has actually become much more difficult because of high demand!), I am able to use artificial intelligence-based transcription software (I like using otter.ai but there are several out there) to fill in gaps and provide some relief from listening fatigue. I don’t have to arrive to meetings early in order to grab a seat with my back to the windows so that speakers won’t be back lit. 

Which seat will allow me to speech read the most people? Or should I sit where I can speech read the people likely to talk the most?  

Now, as long as folks have their videos on and are well lit, I can usually speech read them OK within small to moderate sized meetings. Ryan noted in his post on sudden remote teaching that when meetings become large, you can’t see everyone well. Furthermore, Sarah Nović nicely points out the drawbacks of Zoom group meetings of both signed language users and hearing people in this BBC worklife article.

By the way, invest in a headset or external microphone and please don’t sit with your window behind you because it makes you backlit. Besides, won’t it be more pleasant for you to gaze past your computer to look out of your window during our boring Zoom meetings? If you can’t avoid being back-lit, adjust for low-light conditions (e.g., Zoom has a video settings for this).

The need to accommodate the schedules of colleagues around the globe means more recorded talks in my discipline, many of which offer some form of captions so that I can catch most of what the speakers say. With this new normal, I don’t have to sit through conference talks wondering if speaker said anything that wasn’t depicted on the slides text, graphs and figures.

Vigorous internal debate: 
Me: I don’t get it. Dare I ask a question?
Also me: No, the speaker probably addressed this issue and I/you just missed it. 
Me: What if other people missed it?
Also me: No silly, they are all hearing. It is just me/you.

The return to in-person work, whether it happens in January 2021 or January 2022, will undoubtedly require wearing masks. As Ana explained in her post on wearing masks, this appropriate safety precaution interferes with communication for deaf and hard of hearing folks. Recently, I went into the office to water my plants and ran into some students. We all sported masks to talk with one another. While it was lovely to see them in 3D and to have a less stilted conversation than possible on Zoom, the interaction was extremely tiring for me since I couldn’t speech read their faces. Could I do this all day? No. Absolutely not. While folks rightfully complain about Zoom fatigue, the weariness that accumulates with hours of Zoom meetings, I prefer Zoom fatigue than fatigue that comes from conversing in masks. 

In our accommodation of the pandemic, we are all changing the way that we work. These changes were not designed to be more inclusive and accessible to deaf/HoH academics but many of these changes have inadvertently made our participation easier and more equitable.  Consequently, I am reluctant to go back to less accessible work modes – especially those involving masks. Can we apply innovations in accommodating this pandemic to help us build a more inclusive long-term post pandemic academic workplace? I hope so. 

Let’s start with inclusive strategies, such as having captions for all meetings, lectures and conferences. While we are at it, let’s raise our hands in meetings and practice turn taking.

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