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By Jessie B. Ramey
Dear colleague: Today at the faculty meeting, I really wanted to tell you something: "It’s not about you." When you were offered the microphone to make your comments, you said, "No thanks, I’m good." But it’s not about how you feel using a microphone. It’s about how others can best hear.
Refusing to use a microphone is like scheduling a meeting in a room accessible only by stairs. And then when your colleague in a wheelchair shows up and asks for a ramp so she can attend, you stand at the top of the steps and say, "No thanks, I’m good."
If our colleagues and students can’t hear in meetings or in classrooms, they can’t participate. Those of us with low hearing, a hearing impairment, or a hearing-assistive device need you to speak into the microphone so we can fully understand your words. In a crowded or large space, amplification makes it possible for everyone to engage and learn.
Simply talking loudly isn’t enough. It’s not about the fact that you took a high-school theater class and learned to project from the stage. Or that you can use your "teacher voice" to be heard in the back of the room. It’s not about your belief that you are a good speaker.
The quality of sound coming from a microphone is different: It’s more distinct and easier to hear.
When you said, "No thanks, I’m good," I wanted to yell, "But I’m not!" When you say you don’t need a microphone, what you’re really saying is that you don’t care that I need you to use one. You are making the assumption that everyone is like you and can hear just fine. And that those with hearing loss will speak up for themselves — whether it’s comfortable to do so or not, and no matter how many times we have already had to do that in these same meetings.
This is what ableism looks like — the assumption, both explicit and implicit, that able bodies are the desired norm. When you refuse to use a microphone, you are saying that people like me are worth less and don’t need to be accommodated. It’s an act of exclusion. When you groan and ask, "Oh no, do we really need to use the mike?" you are saying that your discomfort with hearing your own amplified voice outweighs someone else’s right to be included in the meeting.
When you ignore the microphone and ask, "Can everyone hear me in the back?," you are saying I don’t exist. I know you don’t mean this. But you are using the culturally accepted default belief that no one in the room needs amplified sound — because if they do, they would tell you, right? And then (and only then) you will use the microphone.
What if we flip the script, and start with the assumption that people like me do exist and are in the room? Then there is no need to ask if everyone can hear, and force people to continually out themselves.
For people with disabilities, constantly being excluded, made to feel invisible, and having to self-advocate for even basic accommodations is a daily frustration. Dealing with hearing loss is also exhausting. When there is no microphone, we are spending a huge cognitive load concentrating on hearing your words. With amplification, I can turn my attention to thinking about what you are saying and being present in the meeting or the classroom. It literally frees up brain cycles to attend to the reason we are gathered together.
Because hearing loss is an invisible disability, perhaps you are unaware of how many of your colleagues and students struggle with this issue every day. About 15 percent of American adults over the age of 18 have some hearing loss. That means there are probably several students in your classroom trying to hear you clearly. Because hearing loss is extremely common as we age, about a quarter of people between 55 and 64 are not hearing well, and fully half of those over 65 are hard of hearing.
So what can academics do? Here are some best practices we should all use in our meetings, at our conferences, and in our classrooms to fully include those with hearing loss:
- If a microphone is available, use it. Make it a personal habit, and make sure your guest speakers are using it, too. Bonus points: As an ally to those with disabilities, you can model inclusion by explaining to your audiences and to students why you are using the microphone, and why they should, too.
- If you are running an event or organizing a conference, be sure there is amplification in the space you are using, or arrange to have it brought in. Build this technology into your budget.
- If you have a Q&A with an audience, pass a microphone around for listeners to ask questions. In a large room, passing around a mike might require a lot of patience. You can let people know why this is so important. If there is no way to amplify audience questions, make sure the moderator with a mike repeats the question clearly. If you are moderating a panel, be sure all the panelists are speaking into their mikes.
- Learn to use a microphone correctly. For most mikes, you must hold them very near your mouth. If it’s on a stand, make sure you keep your mouth very close (usually one to two inches away) and don’t wander away or turn your head from side to side. With hand-held microphones, be aware that it’s easy to forget and let your arm drop; remember, your belly button is not doing the talking. With clip-on lapel mikes, make sure they are secured high enough on your clothing, away from clacking jewelry, and facing your mouth.
- When you show a film, be sure to turn on the subtitles if they are available. Make this standard practice, not just when you know a person with hearing loss is in the room.
Remember, dear colleague, it’s not about you. It’s about how you can help establish new norms for academic spaces so that they are fully inclusive, and everyone can participate and learn.
Jessie B. Ramey is director of the Women’s Institute at Chatham University and an associate professor of women’s and gender studies. She is also chair of the Gender Equity Commission for the City of Pittsburgh