It’s been awhile since I’ve done an ode to my (dis)ability, so I figured it was time to bring out my ole soapbox and do a bit of barbaric yawping a-top of it.
The other day, my college-aged son confessed to me (in a weirdly excited way), “Mom, I think I have your thing. I couldn’t hear the dialogue in a movie tonight, and everybody else said it was too loud. I think I need –” At this point, he paused to take a breath (and as a theatre performance major, likely did so for dramatic effect), then finally announced: “I think I need subtitles.”
“My thing”, in case you missed it, is progressive hearing loss. I wear hearing aids pretty much full-time these days. As of my last exam, I can still honestly say that I have moderate impairment, but only just — every year I slip closer and closer to the “severe” line. So while I technically can get away with not being supported by my devices in certain circumstances (fewer every day, mind you), I have to put significantly more energy into hearing what is being communicated. This is easily ameliorated by use of my tech, ergo, why the heck would I NOT use the tech? So, I do.
I feel similarly about punching in a quick Google search on my phone when I’m chatting with a friend and can’t remember who was in that one film or how that particular line of poetry goes — if you’ve got the tools to save your brain some busywork, why not use them?
But I digress. Back to the tale at hand.
I’m not sure my son has my thing — but I found the empathy endearing, and thanked him for hearing the world through my ears, so to speak.
While the sudden inability to track movie dialogue is an early warning sign of having serious hearing issues, symptoms are sneaky and actually can develop from a variety of crazy causes, the same way having a cough can mean allergies, the cold, the flu, or coronavirus. His struggle to hear could be stemming from any number of things, ranging from wax build-up (easy fix) to inner ear infection (slightly more work to fix, but we have the science!) to progressive nerve degeneration (what I have, which you simply have to accommodate with techniques and technology). And all sorts of other possible scenarios in between.
The reality is, lots of people struggle with hearing loss at some point in their lives. Something like 5% of humans deal with permanent issues, many more struggle with a temporary condition, and an unknown but I suspect incredibly sizable group suffer in silence because they don’t realize it’s happening — pun completely intended. (Insert groan here.)
Meanwhile, for all those people and all those possible situations, allow me this post to shout out a huge secular Hallelujah and Amen (yes, that’s a thing, stop looking at me like that) to one of THE BEST things about the pandemic working world many of us are living in, and that is this:
Closed-captioning. On, like, everything.
My job requires me to work with people. A lot. As in, all the time. I negotiate stuff, problem solve stuff, and run an internal education and support program for people who also negotiate and problem solve. Communication is key to what I do. And as a student of communication, I know all too well that the best way to communicate is in-person, because communication is more than the words you use: it’s actually primarily how you say those words, and what your body is doing while you say them. Communication is a full-body exercise.
First, let’s step back to the pre-COVID days. Back in the office, drive-bys and in-person meetings were the best way to get things done, hands-down. Yet that didn’t always work out. Sometimes you had to reach someone who wasn’t actually in-reach. Primary solution: pick up the phone and call them.
Yup, I simply had to (gulp) pick up the phone, for a conversation that completely consisted of (oh crap) voice communication.
Imagine having cotton balls in your ears, a couple pillows around your face, and a stereo blasting directly over your head. Now, make a phone call.
That was more or less my experience with trying to work a communication-heavy job with hearing loss. Each time I reached out to pick up the phone, I would visualize one of those Smiley-to-Frownie-face pain charts that they keep on the wall in children’s hospital rooms, and place bets against myself on how crappy it was gonna go. Would this one be a soft-talker? Or maybe, a mumbler? Or one of the many times a day that a coworker would be talking right next to me, muddling the sounds that I am trying desperately to pick up? Maybe I’d hit the jackpot and get all three? Oh, torture has such variety!
Then COVID-19 was reported in my county, and everything changed.
My employer didn’t waste any time: we all were told to stay away (please and thank you) and place orders for all the snazzy webcams, monitors, audio support, even office furniture we needed for a quality home set-up. (They even offered people “selfie lights” if they weren’t showing up well on video — my teenagers were suitably impressed.)
That was fantastic in and of itself, but then came the communication policy: as much as possible, don’t just “call in” to meetings. We want to see you. You want to see everyone else. For all that’s good and holy, let’s video call the crap out of this place.
I swear, a choir started singing in the background when I got the memo.
No more trauma of the phone call. No more missing out on body language. And I didn’t even have to play my deaf card. It was a 2020 miracle!
That would have been beautiful on its own — but it wasn’t long before I discovered the most amazing feature of this new world. Not only are phone calls replaced by Zoom and Microsoft Teams video, but Zoom and Microsoft Teams videos are now fully upgraded with — you guessed it — closed captioning!
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but ever since I discovered that feature, I actually now prefer talking to colleagues remotely to talking in person.
I’m sure someday the smart people in Silicon Valley will upgrade eyeglasses so I can get subtitles going real-time for all y’all, and maybe Google Translate will get really good at it so I can follow along on my phone when we hang out face to face after this is all over, but for now, This. Is. Awesome!!!
There. I said it. Complete social faux-pas. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll raise my glass with the rest of the world on how awful the past eleven months have been, tickety-tonk and down with 2020 and all that, but I can’t deny how much I love the new audio special features in my working life. Frankly, I don’t ever want to give it up.
But maybe I don’t have to.
Yes, the vaccines are coming, and that’s a great thing, and public health is WAY more important than my listening skills, and it will be so great to see one another back at the office. I support all that. Make it so.
But how about this humble little addendum to that plan: how about, even after we’re all inoculated and back to working from the office, we keep the video in the phone call?
Why not leverage as many communication tools as we can, even when we don’t technically “need” to? If it fosters better understanding, more efficient exchange of information, and puts even just a little more humanity into our work day, why wouldn’t we? Especially if it helps people who have this silent obstacle, in particular those who aren’t confident enough to share it, or are afraid to be judged for it — or worse, discriminated against when it comes time for promotions — or worst, even fired?
Up with the multimodal communication! Up with consideration for our fellow humans! Up with the freaking subtitles!!!
Hoo boy. I think I got a little carried away there with my yawping. Sorry ’bout that.
Also, a moment of perspective: I totally get, respect, acknowledge, and defer to people who are uncomfortable sharing their environment (pro tip: backgrounds) or if you’re having a bad self-esteem, no-time-to-shower day (been there). But all other things being equal, I really hope we can keep this video thing going.
Meanwhile, Google needs to get on that live-conversation-translation thing. Vaccines are coming, and I have lots of friends to go visit. Tick-tock, Google, tick tock …