Making Community Spaces Safer
August 23, 2021

Making Community Spaces Safer: On Being “Inclusive”

This post was adapted from The PPPDiaries

“Is everyone else nodding?”

Educopia is a fully remote organization, so video calls were old hat even before the pandemic. We get to meet up occasionally, but for the most part we communicate via Slack and video calls. My work itself involves coordinating project teams, committees, and other constellations of people who are similarly distributed. In the past, a typical 40-hour work week for me might include 20 hours of video calls. I’ve been doing this kind of work long enough that I remember when large calls were always voice-only, and adding video has made them both more productive and more enjoyable.

Well, they were enjoyable before I developed a vestibular disorder. In October 2019, I was diagnosed with Persistent Postural-Perceptual Dizziness.  Video calls run a close second to reading in triggering a whole complex array of unpleasant symptoms. So I switched one-on-one video meetings to phone calls and started dialing into video calls on audio only. Rather than sitting at my desk facing my laptop (in which position it is virtually impossible for me to resist looking at video), I started calling in on my phone. In Zoom, I use the car mode where the screen is just a big ‘talk’ button that makes it easy to mute and unmute without looking closely. Logistically, I’ve pretty much got it down.

Unfortunately, it turns out that going audio-only in a video environment leaves much to be desired. When the rest of the participants have their video turned on, there is a ton of information that’s being communicated visually. People frequently default to gestures and facial expressions to communicate simple things (like agreement or concern or “hahaha, that was really funny!”), and there can be whole conversations happening in the chat function. And even if people are careful to verbalize everything that’s happening, there’s still a bunch of information you miss by not being able to see. Are people looking happy and energetic or tired and distracted? Is someone’s cat prowling in the background? Is someone in a different setting than usual, or did they get a haircut? While not necessary to get through an agenda, that kind of subtle, personal information helps to develop and maintain relationships and add a human touch to computer-mediated work.

We didn’t have any of that before video calls, and we got by OK, but I’ve learned that there is a BIG difference between no one having video and everyone but you having video. I became much more withdrawn on team calls, because I knew that I was missing a lot of what was happening, and I no longer enjoyed sharing things with the group because whatever I said was often followed by silence (in which the other participants were, presumably, nodding and smiling or scratching their heads or whatever).

After dealing with this for more than a year, I finally said something to the team. We were preparing for a virtual retreat, and I was dreading the prospect of spending multiple hours per day on team video calls for an entire week. After we had talked through the retreat agenda in a team meeting, I spoke up. I told them why video calls were difficult for me and the impact it had been having on my work and morale. I told them I was not looking forward to the retreat for this reason. I wasn’t proposing a solution – I just needed them to know. Their response made me wish I had said something sooner.

They had never stopped to consider what it was like to be the only person not on video, but as soon as I explained it, they were universally and enthusiastically supportive. They asked questions and proposed things we could try to make our meetings more accessible. We ended up with a plan for the retreat that included designating someone as the ‘retreat buddy’ each day. It would be the retreat buddy’s job to keep an eye out for non-verbal information and to speak up about it. They would verbalize group feedback (“Everyone is laughing”) and call out things happening in chat and just generally be on the lookout for things I was missing.

When it worked, it worked great! The retreat ended up being a really good experience, and one where I felt included and was able to contribute substantially to group conversations. However, the retreat buddy role ended up being much easier for some people than others. The lack of formal guidance on what to verbalize was a barrier for some people who tried it, and it required a willingness to interrupt people (including potentially their supervisor) that not everyone had. Some people understood the role in theory and would have been comfortable jumping in, but found it difficult to keep in mind as they got engaged in the meeting. Still, even when it didn’t work as planned, it was a game changer for me to know that the team was aware of what I was experiencing and saw it as their responsibility to make the meeting accessible.

I’ve worked with a  couple of my colleagues to more fully define this role (now called the “narrator”) and provide guidance for people who are interested in filling it. Obviously it’s something that I need regularly, but we are viewing it more broadly as an important facilitation tool. On group calls, it’s not unusual to have some people on video and some who are calling in on a phone line. Even people who are able to use video can have days when they need to be off of it, because they’re on the move or experiencing an internet outage or whatever. As people who are charged with facilitating conversations and helping groups work toward shared goals, it’s helpful for us to be able to say, “We have someone dialed in by phone, so I need to narrate the call or ask for a volunteer to do so.” It’s not rocket science, and when the need for it is pointed out, the response is usually something like, “Oh, yeah – of course that’s needed,” but it took someone with a disability speaking up about their experience to make it happen.

That was a subtle hint that hiring people with disabilities is not an act of altruism. Arguments for accessibility are often built on the idea that accommodations for people with disabilities end up helping people without them – curb cuts for wheelchairs are a classic example. This way of looking at things is all kinds of problematic, since it includes the unspoken assumption that accessibility is only worthwhile if it does more than allow disabled people to participate in society. If you’ve read any of this blog, you probably have a good idea how I feel about that. I can’t deny that it’s a useful rhetorical tool, however, so by all means go forth and lobby your employer to hire more people with disabilities on the grounds that it will make your organization more successful!