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An unexpected accessibility benefit of video calls

Posted in Accessibility

One of the most frequent reports I hear about the remote working COVID-19 forced is that it levelled the playing field for team members that already worked remotely from the main team.

I’ve experienced these ‘remote-ish’ environments before. First when working for EvaluAgent, where we were a distributed team, but we had an office in Newcastle where some preferred to work, so we’d have a situation where some people dialled into meetings while the rest stood in a room together. Fast forward to my current position at Sage and, pre-COVID, the majority of the team were co-located in Newcastle and some were based in Barcelona.

Now that everyone is working from home, my Spanish team mates have described how much more included they feel, and I’m sure it’s the same with my old friends at EvaluAgent.

Years ago, Trello (a remote-first company) came up with a similar solution to the one that has been forced upon us, which they’ve written up in their How to Embrace Remote Work guide:

To make collaboration work for everyone, there is one key rule: Unless every person is in the same room, all meetings are held over video conference. We’ve all been that one person dialling into a call only to hear a room full of noise, echo, and side conversations on the other end. It’s a terrible experience. So when one person is “remote” for a meeting, everyone is.

But being more inclusive of remote team members isn’t the only benefit I’ve seen.

An accessibility win

Working from home and conducting meetings over video chat has fixed been great for my slightly dodgy hearing.

For a number of years I played in bands, standing in front of noisy snare drums; guitar amplifiers turned up too loud; all in confined spaces without any thought for ear protection. As a result, my hearing isn’t as sharp as it used to be. I mean, it’s fine, and I’m certainly not complaining, but put me in a loud environment I struggle to hear the other person without a lot of extra concentration.

Every now and then, in a normal office environment, I would sometimes have to ask a colleague to repeat themselves if I hadn’t heard a word and was unable to work it out via the context of the sentence or their body language. Now that everyone is at home using video chat, I never have to ask anyone to “say that again please” unless there has been a technical glitch! This is for a couple of reasons:

  • Video chat is isn’t very good at letting more than person speak at once, so people have gotten better at taking turns to talk
  • The audio is less dynamic, meaning more quietly spoken team members are heard just as easily as the noisier ones

So working fully remotely can make things more inclusive and accessible, and I’m sure those couple of examples are just the tip of the iceberg!

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