Meeting in an Online Environment with Hearing Loss

Meeting in an Online Environment with Hearing Loss

Due to the pandemic, many people have been working from home and the use of
virtual meeting spaces has increased. Video-conferencing platforms have enabled
us to stay connected with colleagues and friends through times of lockdown and
social distancing, when it is not possible to meet in person and, for many of us,
virtual meetings have become a part of everyday life.

I have participated in online meetings through various platforms and have found that
there are both benefits and challenges to meeting in an online environment. As
someone with hearing loss, my observations focus on the communication aspects of
video calls and ways to help promote accessibility.

Benefits

One at a Time

Most online meeting platforms have a ‘raise hand’ feature to alert the meeting leader
or group facilitator that a participant wants to speak. Although this isn’t conducive to
achieving a natural flowing discussion, it can be beneficial for people with hearing
loss. Establishing a ‘hands up to speak’ protocol, means there are no overlapping
voices, and participants can focus on just one person speaking at a time.
Muting participants’ microphones by default is particularly necessary for large
meetings. Having the ability to enable the microphone for one person at a time can
help control the discussion and limit the background noise from the other attendees,
helping to enhance the clarity of the speaker’s voice.

Small-Group Discussions

Most video-conference platforms have a feature where participants can leave the
main meeting space and be divided into small groups, enabling a more focussed
discussion. This is particularly beneficial for meetings that involve large groups of
people, where it is not possible to address everyone’s opinions.

Shared Screen

The option to share the meeting leader’s screen gives the participants visual cues to
refer to which can be effective prompts for discussions. Having visual elements to
the meeting means that the communication isn’t solely reliant on the comprehension
of speech.

Lipreading

Pinning or spotlighting the person who is talking means the other participants can
focus on the person speaking. This is particularly helpful for lipreading purposes as
attendees can follow the speaker’s lips and also facial expressions to help aid
understanding.

Of course, the success of this depends on the quality of internet speed; a good
internet connection can be helpful for lipreading. Also, attendees will need to be
notified beforehand to ensure they are in a well-lit room so that their face can be
seen clearly.

Chat Function

Chat functions allow for written communication amongst participants. This is
particularly helpful if someone has a question or requires clarification on something
but doesn’t want to disturb the rest of the attendees. Either a meeting facilitator can
discreetly answer the query, or the group leader can address the questions posed in
the chat box at an appropriate time in the discussion.

Live Closed-Captioning and Sign language

Some video meeting platforms have a live captioning service that can be activated.
These are of varying quality and it’s a good idea to check whether this is an available
service to you when planning the meeting logistics.
It is also possible to invite a professional captioner to provide captions on the video
platform with everyone. This is called Communication Access Realtime Translation
(CART) captioning service. This works particularly well when the captioner is familiar
with the subject you are discussing in your meeting.
If a sign language interpreter is required, they can also join the meeting and provide
interpretation.

Accessibility

Conducting meetings online, enable a degree of accessibility. The number of people
able to join the meeting does not depend on the size of the venue. There are no
costs or complications of participants travelling to a venue, and people can join the
meeting from various locations.

Challenges

Technical Issues

When holding a meeting in an online environment, there may be some technical
interference such as echoes and issues with the internet cutting off. Frozen screens
can lead to issues for people who rely on lipreading or sign language.

Mental Effort

Although it can be beneficial to see the face of each speaker, without access to the
rest of their body language, it can be mentally tiring to follow conversation and gauge
connotations in speech. Reading captions can also be tiring.

The mental effort needed to follow an online meeting can affect anyone, not just
those with hearing loss. For this reason, it is important to schedule regular comfort
breaks to allow people to have some time away from the screen.

Screen Barrier

Meeting in an online environment removes some of the human interaction that may
naturally occur when people are physically sharing a space. An organised online
meeting isn’t conducive to small talk and participants may be less likely to make
meaningful connections than if they had met in person.

Summary
The key to a successful online meeting is good planning.
As a participant, when joining an online meeting, always make sure you tell the
meeting organizer if you require any accommodations to be able to participate.
Ensure you make contact as soon as possible to allow plenty of time for the
necessary arrangements to be made.

As a meeting organizer, have a clear agenda that is sent out to participants
beforehand, along with any supporting information or documents. Make sure you are aware of any necessary accessibility accommodations and have these in place before the start of the meeting. Following the meeting, provide a written summary when necessary, to ensure
everyone has access to the key takeaway points. It can also be beneficial to ask for feedback from the attendees following the meeting, to help you continue to improve accessibility.

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