What better way to celebrate National Deaf Awareness month than by speaking about hearing loss in the workplace. Holly Cohen and I were pleased to share our workshop Hearing Loss in the Workplace: Strategies for Success at a large financial institution. While many elements of managing hearing loss in the workplace have remained the same since we presented last year at Goldman Sachs — the importance of disclosing your hearing loss, workplace communication best practices and the need for self-advocacy — several things have changed due to the pandemic. This year’s workshop highlighted the adjustments all of us need to make to keep our workplaces inclusive for people with hearing loss in this new virtual world.
Managing Hearing Loss during Virtual Meetings
Work has moved online, creating both new opportunities and new challenges for people with hearing loss in the workplace. In some ways video conference calls are easier than regular audio-only conference calls because you can see the person’s face. This provides speechreading cues like lip movements and facial expression to help augment the dialogue, but they bring their own challenges as well, especially when compared to face to face interactions. Mixed sound quality can make dialogue hard to follow, especially in large meetings where it is hard to tell who is speaking. Internet buffering can cause delays that create asynchronous lip movements, while background noise in the home can be distracting. As in all difficult listening situations, self-advocacy and technology solutions are key.
Captioning Makes Video Conference Calls Easier
For virtual meetings, captioning is a big help, but in most cases, it requires some forward planning. For the do-it-yourself options, check with your manager to make sure they are allowed under your company’s confidentiality and privacy policies.
On video calls, captions can be provided in several ways:
1. Communication Access Real-Time Translation or CART
The gold standard is CART or Communication access real-time translation, where a person types a real-time transcript of the call. The captions typically appear at the bottom of the screen, like on a television displaying closed captioning. People with hearing loss have the right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to request needed accommodations at work, including CART.
2. Automatic Speech Recognition Captions or ASR Captions on the Conferencing Platform
Even so, many of us may not feel comfortable demanding this expensive accommodation for every meeting. Instead, Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) or computer generated captions could be enough. Accuracy is improving rapidly and often, the synchronicity with live speech is better. Many video conferencing platforms now provide free auto-captions on their platforms, including Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. Zoom offers auto-captions as well, but only for its Business and Enterprise plans, and using them can be tricky. Help encourage Zoom to provide free captions for people with hearing loss, by signing and sharing our petition.
3. Outside Captioning Apps
If captioning is not available through your employer, you can generate your own captions through a variety of speech-to-text apps on your smartphone. My favorites are Google’s Live Transcribe for Android phones and Otter.ai for iPhones. Or try Innocaption‘s Deskview streaming portal that works with video calls. Innocaption is a captioned phone service for your smartphone that is free for people with hearing loss. Before using outside services, check with your manager so you do not violate company policy.
Use Speaker Mode
The main advantage of video conference calls is that you can see the speaker’s face, so be sure to set up the platform for maximum benefit. This means using Speaker mode when available, rather than Gallery mode. In speaker mode, the speaker’s image will be larger to aid with speechreading, and when another person speaks, their box will automatically enlarge. This can make it easier to understand who is saying what. In gallery mode, each person’s image appears in a small box of equal size. Depending on the number of participants, these images can be quite small.
Use Headphones to Enhance Sound Quality
Computer speakers are notoriously poor. Using noise-cancelling headphones rather than the computer speakers can enhance the quality of the sound and bring it closer to your ears, making it easier to understand speech. If your hearing aids or CIs have bluetooth, you may be able to connect them directly to the sound.
Low-Tech Solutions Also Work
Like for an in-person meeting, see if you can get the agenda ahead of time and the primary speaker’s notes if they will share them. This will provide context for the discussion and make it easier to process difficult or unfamiliar words. After the meeting, ask to borrow a colleague’s notes to fill in any blanks you might have missed.
Set Communication Ground Rules
While best practice communication standards should be a part of every work meeting, they are easy to overlook when everyone is in the same room. Virtually, more structure is required. Request that participants use communication best practices, like speaking one at a time, or using the chat box to clarify points and ask questions. Perhaps these rules of thumb will carry over into live meetings when they return.
The silver lining for people with hearing loss on video work calls is that everyone is struggling to follow the conversation. This may make organizers more willing to mandate communication best practices like one person speaking at a time and limiting side conversations. It may also make captioning a more standard part of meeting protocol for years to come.
Readers, what are your tips for handling a virtual meeting with hearing loss?