The year 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the era of remote working and distance learning brought upon by the Covid-19 pandemic, the virtual environment has brought upon new challenges in relation to accessibility. Laws like the ADA pre-dated the digital revolution.
When we think about accessibility, we often envision physical environments. Via a ramp, when entering a medical office, there is an accessibility button that can be pressed to automatically open the front door. Proceeding to the lobby, you push an elevator button that is labeled in braille. You look up onto the wall and the news is being aired on the television with captions. Upon entering the restroom, there is an accessible stall. But how does this translate to a virtual space for individuals with disabilities?
While technology has potential to create a more inclusive space, it has also created further barriers. The anniversary of the ADA is an opportunity to celebrate accessibility; however, it is also a chance to reflect upon the barriers still in place.
As a professional in the now global-wide remote working world, technology has offered a means to stay connected during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I have both witnessed and experienced firsthand the barriers one who is Hard of Hearing can face in the land of Zoom and Google Meet.
It was a week prior to returning work. I was excited to learn about how leaders could utilize technology in beneficial ways through our yearly leadership launch meetings. A welcome message and a video on how to prepare for the leadership event was emailed. Upon opening the video, I quickly realized that the video itself was not captioned, nor was there a way to turn on closed captioning. In order to divert inaccessibility, I opened an automated web captioning system in another tab to fully understand the message.
ASL Interpreters were booked for the week of virtual leadership meetings. Hoping for a strong start to the year with clear expectations, I joined the Zoom meeting only to find out that the meeting was in webinar format and the ASL interpreters were unable to join. The interpreter suggested logging into a separate Zoom room on my phone where they could interpret and I could simultaneously watch the webinar. However, with low bandwidth, this wasn’t an option. Thinking quickly on their feet, my colleague reached out to the facilitator and asked for Google Slide captions to be turned on. Despite a few inaccuracies in the captions, I was able to access the meeting.
When the webinar was complete, we moved into another Zoom meeting room to further discuss the points from the webinar and delve into virtual planning. Due to Zoom bombing, the interpreters were blocked from entering the meeting as they were using personal email addresses rather than company emails. Spending 2/3rds of the meeting troubleshooting with the interpreters for access to the room, I was frustrated and unable to focus on the content and information. The agenda of the meeting had to be changed in order to accommodate my accessibility needs. I felt shameful that I was wasting others time and prohibiting them from receiving vital and useful information necessary to launch the year.
Moving into a Google Meet room, I was unable to pin the interpreter and see the presentation simultaneously. It boiled down to having access or following the presentation visually. Google Meet does however offer the option to turn on automated captioning.
At the end of the retreat, feelings of shame and embarrassment swirled inside of me. How could an organization that prides itself on being equitable, exclude me?
In an able-bodied world, people with disabilities are often not included in the planning of virtual events. Because a hearing person is able to log onto a virtual meeting and have accessibility via sound, thoughts about Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals are not accounted for. In order to create a more inclusive virtual space, note the tips below.
In the recent documentary Crip Camp, Judy Heumann who is a galvanizing force for disability rights, poignantly stated, “I'm very tired of being thankful for accessible toilets. If I have to be thankful for an accessible bathroom, when am I ever gonna be equal in the community?” The disability community is expected to be thankful for accessible bathrooms, equal education, and employment. This thought process is why individuals with disabilities carry shame and embarrassment and harbor the feeling of exclusion. In a diverse community, we must remember that equity includes people with disabilities. Having rights to accessible spaces, both virtually and physically, it is vital that we shift our thinking to inclusive practices in this age of a remote world.