Harnessing social media to advocate for accommodations

-Paige Glotzer and Michele Cooke

While just the mention of ‘social media’ can elicit eye rolls from our senior colleagues, many of us deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) academics have found social media, such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, to be very helpful for connecting with others who share similar lived experiences. However, sharing our experiences with lack of access on social media can be a mixed bag. Occasionally, they receive no response or engagement. Sometimes, our stories evoke ‘that is terrible’ responses. Many folks feel powerless to offer effective solutions and they might either not respond or provide a ‘this is terrible’ response. This is understandable. Lack of communication access is a very challenging problem that often cannot be fixed easily because many of our conferences, lectures, meetings, etc. were designed by and for hearing people. Providing a ‘this is terrible’ response validates our frustration even if it doesn’t actually help to change the situation.

One amazing aspect of social media is that sometimes our message can reach folks who actually do have the power to change communication access. But will they make changes or not? 

Harnessing social media to advocate for accommodations text is on top of a keyboard that has images of different social media on various keys.

A few months back Michele was impressed with how effectively Paige was able to use social media to self-advocate for change. We decided to co-write this post to provide an example of how one hard of hearing academic inspired a conference (we will call it the ABC conference) to swiftly change their inaccessible approach after it was already underway. Like other deaf and HoH academics, we are both used advocating for our needs in professional settings. Paige has been outspoken about turning self-advocacy into policy in their home department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They had long admired Michele and Ana’s work on creating The Mind Hears platform and community for deaf and HoH academics. We hope that this example can serve as a model for how we all can be more effective with our self-advocacy. 

Paige took to social media after a frustrating morning when they joined a virtual panel as an audience member and realized that not only was there no captioning, but neither was there the usual Zoom feature to request it of the host.

Post #1An entire zoom conference I’m required to attend as part of a prize committee without even the option to request captioning in sessions?   LOL

The post got quite a few ‘this is terrible’ responses. Paige used those responses to explain the issue and educate commenters.

Post#1 follow up comment: They don't let you directly message a host in the chat so I'd have to publicly request captioning, revealing my disability to everyone in the session. Still awful but preferable to what seems like total ignorance and zero effort on considering accessibility.

The story could have ended there but Paige opted to advocate for change in two ways. First, they privately contacted the meeting organizers and then they shared a summary of the meeting on social media in a follow up post.

Post #2: This is the exchange I had with the moderator of the ABC in its virtual conference lobby. This is a major organization and a large international conference, being held entirely on Zoom. I'll be sending an email to the leadership later. I'm tired.
Paige: “Good morning. I am currently in a session where there is not even an option to request captioning. I am surprised by this. Is there something that can be done to ensure this basic accessibility feature in all sessions? The only time I've encountered this problem in the past is when the host of a Zoom session does not have an institutional Zoom account that supports live transcription.”
ABC representative: “Sorry to hear this. The meeting will be recorded. And we can add captions afterward if you need to re-watch your presentation. The ABC does not have an institutional account. Again, apologies for this.”
Paige: “This is very disappointing. It means I can't participate equally if I want to ask questions. I'm also on a time-sensitive prize committee so waiting for the captions to be added probably won't let me meet the requirements of my job today. This is a basic accessibility measure long standard at virtual conferences. I have long loved being a part of the ABC but today it has sent a message that disabled members such as me are not considered or valued, even as we do service for the organization.”
ABC representative: “Hello, I am currently looking into our options. And we will surely take this to the Trustees.”
Paige: “Thank you.”

A member of the ABC conference committee also saw the post on social media. 

ABC chairperson comment to post #2Hi all writing into this as ABC person centrally involved in planning this conference and also active in it for many years. We assumed that our zoom account would support captions. We have never done a conference like this before so we are learning. This was unexpected. My apologies this has happened but as our web coordinator said we'll look into this to try to figure this out.

A little later in the same thread

ABC chairperson follow up: You've been sent an email from the ABC president apologizing and explaining how this happened- and also that we think the problem has been fixed.
Paige: That sounds really fantastic. Thank you to you and everyone at the ABC who worked to resolve the issue. I'm looking forward to trying out the captions tomorrow.

The next day Paige logged in to find Zoom’s live transcription enabled for all conference panels. Paige posted a follow up to conclude the story and give credit to the organizers they knew were reading:

Post #3: After my exchange with the ABC and my post here, leadership reached out to me and worked with Zoom to enable captioning in sessions. The president of the ABC personally apologized and folks checked in with me today to make sure live transcription worked. I am happy that the organization responded rapidly and collectively to increase accessibility in the middle of the conference. Today's going much more smoothly. 
My hope is that people remember this when planning the next conference. Whether in person or virtual, access needs to be considered (and tested beforehand) just like any other standard feature of an event.

This story ends with the conference apologizing for the oversight and providing improved access. But not all of our self-advocacy stories end this way. Both of us have participated in inaccessible conferences. A group of AV staff once told Michele that no FM telecoil neck loops were available anywhere in the major US city of their conference. Paige has repeatedly been told that access features such as captioning recordings or providing access papers are too expensive and cumbersome to consider. We all have stories where we request better access and get nowhere.

What made advocating for change effective in this instance? What can we learn from Paige’s experience in order to make our own advocacy efforts more effective.

  1. They didn’t stop after the initial sharing on social media. Talking to the conference representatives takes valuable energy and time. Energy and time that you could be investing in the conference.  Paige recognized that they needed to prioritize investing time in contacting the conference representative and taking notes on that conversation. 
  2. In advocating for themselves, the Paige was very clear that their lack of access wasn’t just going to affect them but also the integrity of the prize committee.  Unfortunately, when organizations perceive that only a few deaf or hard of hearing people are impacted, they will not see the issue as important. Being able to frame your lack of access as impacting others provides more traction. While not all of us are part of prize committees we can say “A colleague has asked me for feedback directly after their presentation and I won’t be able without better access”. This kind of statement, which can always be true, points out how much everyone misses out when deaf/HoH are excluded. If applicable, one can also make the point that more accessible communication, such as captions, benefits more than just deaf and hard of hearing participants. Ideally, this numbers game should not be necessary. Unfortunately, we know we are self-advocating within ableist settings.
  3. When Paige shared the exchange with the conference representatives on social media, the conference was now being held accountable publicly for their response. This is a very savvy use of social media. Now it isn’t just the deaf/HoH academic who is waiting the conference representative to respond, but many hearing colleagues are also now invested in the outcome and will want to see the conference do the right thing.

The conference chairperson who read the social media posts was wonderful at accepting that they needed to make a change. Sometimes folks just get defensive and aren’t willing to change. We like to think that points 1-3 helped the conference chairperson be more receptive to change but sometimes this is out of our control.   

Paige Glotzer is Assistant Professor and John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, Institutions, and Political Economy in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History. Their award-winning first book, How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890-1960 was published in 2020. Their work has been featured in both peer reviewed journals and popular outlets, including the Journal of Urban History, CityLab, and Time. They joined the University of Wisconsin after a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard University Joint Center for History and Economics.

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