Making the Most of Zoom

4 webcam screens showing smiling people, Bec is in one of the screens laughing

How to include people with hearing loss in online video chats

As meetings, churches and communities move online it is easy for those of us with a communication disability to get left behind. Communication disabilities include hearing loss (diagnosed or un-diagnosed), auditory processing disorders, expressive and receptive language disorders and speech impairments; many of these are invisible and you may not realise you have someone struggling in your group. A lot of groups are turning to ‘Zoom’ for groups that would normally be face to face, find out how to use it here.

On Sunday night I was invited to a group zoom hangout, I knew I would only be able to hear 50% of everything said but I decided I should give zoom a go to see if I can still gain from the community. I learnt a lot in that hour or so about zoom, and what difference a caring, supportive group can make even if I don’t hear everything. Live captions for many will be the gold standard of access but unfortunately it won’t always fit into the budget so here are some tips I learnt on Sunday to create more inclusive spaces online.

Use a microphone

Hearing loss isn’t just about volume, its also about clarity. A person with good hearing can often push through background noise, static or echo and understand the speaker but its MUCH harder if you have a hearing loss. Just having a personal microphone close to your face can really improve the sound quality. You don’t have to go and spend hundreds though, it can be as simple as a pair of handsfree phone earphones with a microphone or any kind of lapel microphone worn on the collar.

Press mute

Its sometimes impossible to avoid background noise especially if you have kids or a loud air conditioner. In a group video chat the amount of background noise going through the speakers all at once can be reduced by everyone who isn’t speaking pressing mute, so only one mic is on at a time.

Use Active Speaker Mode

If you have a hearing loss Active Speaker mode allows you to see the face of the person currently speaking in large and the faces of everyone else as small icons at the top. This makes it easier to lipread, make sure your group knows about the different modes, you can learn more about them here.

Think about lighting

Many people with hearing loss rely on lipreading to communicate but that’s really hard if your face is in a shadow. Sit somewhere that your face is well lit and make sure your whole face is in frame.

Use the Chat

Even in the best of circumstances there is sometimes a single word that I just can’t understand. You could repeat that word 100 times and I just can’t hear those sounds. If you find yourself repeating the same sentence more than 2 or 3 times jump in the chat and type it up.

Don’t rush

Most people with a hearing loss take a little longer to process what they hear than everyone else and when we’re in a group conversation it can be really hard to keep up. Take your time in conversation, slow down how fast you speak and don’t change topics quickly.

Use the extra functions

In zoom there is a “raise hand” function where participants can click a button to “raise” their hand if they have something to contribute. Turning on “nonverbal feedback” through the settings unlocks extra buttons like “go slower” letting participants easily remind you to slow down if you forget. Using an extra function like this stops people from talking over the top of each other and makes sure that everyone has a chance to be heard.

Have a clear leader/facilitator

Have someone in the position of leading or facilitating the meeting or chat. This person can rotate, but they are the one keeping an eye out for any “raised hands”, making sure everyone has their say and that everyone is on the same page. It may seem formal and awkward but having one person responsible for leading the chat stops those who are struggling from being left behind and after a little while it stops being awkward.

Check in on any Hearing impaired group members

Don’t forget to check in on how your hearing impaired friend is feeling after these meetings or hangouts. Sometimes they can be left feeling more isolated than before if they haven’t been able to follow the conversation. Ask them if there is anything else you can do to keep them included, everyone has their own tips to making different forms of communication work.

A tip for the hearing-impaired participants

These meetings won’t be perfect, they will be hard and you’ll probably struggle at times. Be prepared for that and it makes it easier to cope with. When I approached that Sunday afternoon chat I went along with the attitude that I didn’t have to catch everything. If I missed 25% of what was said but could still follow roughly what was happening then that’s okay. You also won’t know how well you will cope until you try, so give it a go with some safe and patient friends. It won’t work for everyone and I’ve been there when I couldn’t hear in group chats face to face let alone online, but give it a try just once, see how you go and if it doesn’t work for you don’t be afraid to say so.


Checklist

  • Use a headset with a microphone or lapel microphone
  • Mute your microphone when others are talking
  • Make sure your whole face is well lit and in the screen
  • Tell the group about the different viewing modes and let them find what works best for their needs
  • Use the chat if someone is having trouble understanding a particular word or sentence
  • Remember to speak slowly and don’t change topics quickly
  • Switch on “Nonverbal Feedback” and use extra features such as “raise hand”
  • Have a clear leader or facilitator who is responsible for checking that everyone is on the same page
  • Check in on your hearing impaired friend or team member

11 thoughts on “Making the Most of Zoom

  1. This is brilliant, Bec! You have a gift and are probing the world with it skilfully. I’m guessing there is more scope for your exploration & mapping than you would ever imagine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a neat and succinct guide.
    We’ve been using Google Hangouts to connect our staff. It has real-time automatic captioning which I was impressed with – have you had a chance to try it? Even the mistakes are fun!
    cheers, James

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you feedback James. I haven’t specifically tried the Google hangouts version however I have tried some other auto captioning services. Generally I find that they struggle to correctly caption the very things I’m struggling to hear such as when someone mumbles or if someone has an accent. I understand that the mistakes are fun when you see them but when you are relying on them for your communication it isn’t so funny and just increases your difficulty to follow what is happening. These tools can be better than nothing in some circumstances but in others they are of no help at all. If you are using real-time captioning I prefer steno-captioning, I find it to be the fastest and most accurate

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  3. I am a deaf (85 – 90% deaf) teacher wearing two hearing aids for a major college. I’ve been encouraged to use Zoom for my nine classes. The problem is I have over 15 to 20 students in each, some more than 50. The more people zooming into my screen, the smaller their images get, and there’s no possibility for lip-reading, or even body language to be seen. And of course, there are no subtitles. Because I also teach Tai Chi exercises for balance and coordination for older adults, this means my entire body needs to be seen, therefore I must step back away from the computer to get all of me on the screen. Then how can I also keep track of my students to make sure they are doing the exercises properly to avoid injuries or falls when I’m standing at a distance from my computer?? A headset was suggested with a mic but that is difficult when wearing two hearing aids. Even without my hearing aids and the volume turned up on the headset it is still difficult without lip-reading to compensate for my hearing loss. So far, I have not found Zoom to be deaf-friendly as a teacher. Before this lockdown due to the pandemic, I was a successful teacher with full classes for many years since 1978. I enjoy the person-to-person interactions with all of my students. I sorely miss those interactions. Zoom is fine when there are fewer people using it on the screen, but any more than that then communication starts breaking down. I’m sorry to be so negative about this but people needs to see the whole picture from other viewpoints.

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    1. As I said I the blog it won’t work for everyone! I agree that headsets aren’t appropriate for a deaf person but a Bluetooth neckloop is what I use and it gives much better clarity of sound with a hearing aid and CI.

      I would recommend that you try speaker view with the students putting their mics on mute when they aren’t speaking, combining these two things means you can see one person at a time (whoever is speaking) much larger so that you can lipread. This won’t work for Tai Chi, and I imagine many dance/exercise teachers are struggling with this at the moment.

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