by Dai O’Brien
With the current climate of everyone working from home, remote meetings and dashing to move all teaching and course materials online, there seem to be two schools of thought opening up in discussions on social media. One is a response of almost resentment and caution, a feeling of being rushed into something that most academics are not trained for and have no experience of. The other is a feeling of almost relief, a ‘finally!’ moment from those who are more willing or able to embrace the online teaching classroom and virtual meetings.
However, what neither of these two camps seems to engage with are the problems of access for deaf and disabled people. There seems to be an assumption from many that placing resources online magically makes them accessible to all, and that technology will solve all ills. I’m sure that many of us are quickly finding out that this isn’t necessarily the case. In this blog post I will focus on deaf access to this move online for academics working in HE, not only for teaching, but also for professional, collegiate matters.
Many of the insights of this blog post are from research I conducted as part of my SRHE Newer Researchers Prize funded project, The Spaces and Places of Deaf Academia (2017-2019). This project focused on the experiences of deaf academics working in HEIs in the UK, exploring their experiences of the workplace on both a physical and social level. While this research obviously was conducted before the current pandemic, there are useful lessons that can be taken from the findings which are worth bearing in mind during the current migration to online and remote working and teaching.
If anything, this move to online working exacerbates rather than resolves many of the problems deaf academics face. While it was often difficult before to find BSL/English interpreters or other communication support workers at short notice to attend meetings and to interpret or provide access for everyone to those meetings, it can be even more difficult now to find interpreters and other communication support workers who have the technological ability and resources to provide the access that deaf academics need. Even when they do have the right technology and skills, meetings held over apps such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom require pre-meeting meetings between the interpreter, the meeting chair and the deaf academic to ensure that all parties know how to use the technology, the chair understands how to run a remote meeting, and new ground rules are established and upheld to ensure access for all. This is all extra labour required from the deaf academic to ensure that they can participate on a level playing field. Sometimes these pre-meeting meetings last longer than the meeting itself! If one is to consider a similar situation arising where a deaf student needs access to a seminar or lecture live-streamed online, power imbalances in the student-lecturer relationship may lead them to feeling unable to insist on such a pre-lecture meeting to iron out any potential problems, resulting in them missing out on vital contact hours.
In the first couple of weeks of remote working, I have found myself sometimes inundated with meeting requests from colleagues, managers and students. During a normal working week I would have felt confident and comfortable in re-scheduling these meetings for a time when I had interpreters booked. But the immediacy of the need to navigate the sudden change in working conditions, and the relaxing of usual work boundaries and time frames that working from home seems to impose, have meant that this has not always been possible. Remote working comes with an implicit expectation that you are always available to meet, anywhere, so long as you have an internet connection. This isn’t true for those of us who need communication access provided by BSL/English interpreters. We are still restricted by the availability of the interpreters, and our ability to pay them. Luckily, I work with colleagues who understand this. However, similar restrictions apply to students. They may have limited funds to pay for communication access, access which is required not just for face-to-face or streamed teaching, but also any podcasts, uncaptioned videos or other resources that we feel able or compelled to share in this new virtual teaching space.
Some of this technology offers automatic captions or other automatic access options. But very often the output of these automatic functions is extremely poor, if they work at all. For deaf students (and academics) these disjointed, context free, incorrect captions are often more of an additional barrier than an access solution. It is not enough to rely on technology, or to expect it to act as a saviour. We all need to be considerate and critical of our new online remote approaches and consider whether or not they are truly accessible.
Dr Dai O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in BSL and Deaf Studies in the School of Languages and Linguistics, York St John University. Read his 22 November 2019 blog ‘What are the experiences of deaf academics working in UK HEIs’ here, with BSL interpretation.
O’Brien, D (2020) ‘Mapping deaf academic spaces’ Higher Education DOI: 10.1007/s10734-020-00512-7
O’Brien, D (2020) ‘Negotiating academic environments: using Lefebvre to conceptualise deaf spaces and disabling/enabling environments’ Journal of Cultural Geography 37(1): 26-45 DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2019.1677293
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