We have a guest blog from freelance photographer and journalist Natasha Hirst, discussing her experiences of access when working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
My #FreelanceLife meant that I was fairly well prepared for working from home when life was thrown into turmoil by the coronavirus lockdown. Unlike office-based employees who are making an often tough transition to finding new routines and coping mechanisms for working from home, it’s reasonably familiar to me.
Increasingly over the last two years my work has meant a great deal of travel. I spent a lot of time on trains, running between meetings, cities and even different countries. I adapted to working from hotdesks, cafes and hotels more than I did at home.
It was utterly exhausting but I couldn’t stop to think about it.
The onset of lockdown brought huge anxiety with it. Being self-employed with a vast chunk of my work cancelled was certainly unhelpful but the overall uncertainty and subconscious levels of stress totally wiped out my energy and concentration for a few weeks. Time has both dragged on and disappeared as the days have merged into each other.
I’ve not become a masterchef, learned a new language or musical instrument or set up a gym in the garden and that’s fine with me. I’ve still been busy but with my brain only working at half speed, if that. Everything has slowed down. The lockdown has given me some space and time to reflect and make a conscious effort to consider my mental and physical health.
One of the unanticipated consequences for me was finding out how accessible life can be online. I’m deaf. I wear a cochlear implant but still rely on lipreading. The world is not built for deaf people. Like many, I get by and have learned to live with the concentration fatigue, eye strain and headaches that result from constantly adjusting to a hearing world.
A key reason for becoming self-employed was to have more control over who I work with and the environments I work in. I am mostly surrounded by people who make a genuine effort to be inclusive. I have assistive technologies via Access to Work, I utilise communication support (Speech To Text Reporting) for large meetings and conferences. For small meetings, I arrange the seating and lighting and limit background noise to give myself the best chance of following and participating. I also take the role of chair where I can to have that additional control over how meetings are conducted.
No matter how much effort is made to be inclusive or to put the social model into practice you sometimes can’t get around the fact that I can’t hear and most people don’t use British Sign Language. I am on constant high alert to pick up changes of topics, tracking who is speaking, and doing the usual mental jigsaw puzzle of taking sound, lipreading and filling in the gaps to make sense of the discussion. Don’t expect to have a coherent chat with me over lunch between meetings. ‘Getting by’ takes a lot of planning and effort and it is exhausting beyond words.
It’s the same level of fatigue that hearing people are now discovering as they try to cope with endless Zoom and Teams meetings which require an entirely different kind of attention and concentration. Welcome to my life!
Conversely, the online world has opened up access for me. Tiring yes, but I can do a lot more than I expected. With all the usual rules thrown out of the window, lockdown has created opportunities to be creative, experiment and just have a go at doing things differently.
The irony isn’t lost on me. Disabled people have had these solutions for a long time and have repeatedly been asking the rest of the world to show a little willingness to implement them. Nobody likes change but when it is forced on everyone people are pretty damn quick to adapt. Flexible working, home-working, remote meetings, online training opportunities. All entirely reasonable and possible adjustments to make for disabled people that were too frequently denied. As we are now demonstrating, they can benefit everybody. It turns out we can be trusted after all and productivity won’t fizzle into an abyss if we work remotely in a way that works for our situation.
In this strange new world where anything goes, I’ve successfully participated in and chaired online meetings and events of various sizes. In some, I’ve allocated the zoom window to the top two thirds of my laptop screen and the remotely provided live STTR transcript to the bottom third. Sometimes paperwork needs to be juggled in there too. In smaller groups, so long as I have grid of faces in front of me and all exercise discipline to use the ‘raise hand’ button and chat box, I can lipread and stream the audio directly to my implant. It’s a lot to focus on simultaneously but thankfully everybody is in the same boat and it keeps the meetings more focused.
I’ve given presentations and taken part in discussions where BSL interpreters are present. Even a full-day zoom-based training course complete with breakout rooms didn’t faze me. In-person training requires me to simultaneously try to lipread the tutor, read slides, take notes, complete tasks and engage in discussions with other attendees in a room full of background noise. It’s not possible to understand and retain everything like that. Online, the tutor’s face is next to slides and provided broadband works, the sound quality is good and background noise is largely non-existent.
From virtual coffee with friends to networking events, training courses and yoga, I can do so much. I don’t feel like a burden or a fool who can’t keep up.
This is just my experience and will not be the same for all deaf or disabled people. People without the assistive technology I have or those with a sight impairment may have a very different experience of online access but the lesson is, so much is possible if the will is there to give it a go.
Top tips for virtual meetings:
• Use remote Speech To Text Reporters and BSL interpreters if useful.
• Utilise the chat box for highlighting specific information and links or summarising key discussion points.
• Ensure all speakers faces can be seen and speak clearly (don’t sit with a window behind you or half a room away from the laptop).
• Keep everyone on mute unless speaking.
If your access requirements have changed due to remote working, get in touch with Access to Work to find out what support or technology may work for you.
I’m already dreading the new normal we will move to post-lockdown. Facemasks in public so I can’t lipread. Meetings that combine in-person and virtual where I can’t see half the faces nor get decent quality of sound. I’m hoping that accessible online training opportunities will remain now we have figured out how to make it work and reach wider audiences in doing so. Disabled people will undoubtedly need to pick up the fight for access again as people forget how their lives temporarily overlapped with ours for this brief time.
For now, let’s try new things, show others the benefits of using our solutions for access and working in different ways and we can help shape the new world that emerges.
You might also enjoy reading Graham Findlay’s article on homeworking.
And an article on access for deaf people on Limping Chicken.