I think we take our own experiences for granted. We assume that our friends have heard the latest soundbite. We assume they've streamed the latest album. We assume they’ll listen to a book on tape to keep them entertained on their cross-country road trip. The harsh reality is that the snippets of convenience most of us enjoy aren't always available to people with auditory disabilities.
We're not only talking about entertainment, though. Audio is part of our day-to-day functioning as working people and members of society. From how-to videos on YouTube, to educational lectures, to presidential debates on TV, we rely on soundbites to convey intent.
I wasn't able to extract much substance from the first presidential debate between the arguing and name calling, but I was surprised to learn that it was completely invisible to some people. TikTok user erin.syd called out the lack of an ASL interpreter for the event and at first I felt disbelief and then anger.
Below, I'll break down auditory disabilities into smaller, more digestible pieces. My hope is that this will shine a brighter light on how failing to host events and design experiences with accessibility in mind can affect real people.
The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that, "5.9 percent of people with a disability are deaf or have serious difficulty hearing". That's no small number. 3.6 million people could benefit if we are more thoughtful when we design experiences, produce videos, and spread information.
A person who is deaf may have a total or near total loss of hearing. Many people who are deaf know American Sign Language (ASL) as a first language and prefer it to reading printed or digital text like this article. That said, we're all unique. Someone affected by an auditory disability later in life may find ASL intimidating and prefer to consume information as text. We should be thinking about how we can be accomodating in both scenarios.
Consider the following:
A scientist has discovered a way for us to reverse our catastrophic impact on the planet. They produce a video announcing the details of their discovery to the world, but the video:
- Contains no visual aids or supporting graphics
- Lacks a translation for American Sign Language
- Is published on a platform that doesn't feature synchronized captions or other text alternatives for the audio
This is no small announcement. It has the potential to change the lives of everyone on the planet, and yet, it's inaccessible to a significant amount of people. Failing to produce the announcement in a variety of mediums is a big misstep by the scientist. It greatly limits the potential audience and excludes them from participating in the celebration.
Hard of Hearing
466 million people globally are hard of hearing (HOH). They experience mild to several hearing loss. That's more people than live in the United States as of 2019. These folks have some useful hearing and amplification that may enable them to communicate with spoken language. That said, many prefer ASL or a hybrid of the two. How can we make their experiences better from day one?
Consider the following:
You want to attend a rally for a local political candidate. You love being around people and feeling the energy of the crowd. Arriving at the venue, you don't see any sound equipment setup. The candidate plans to yell their talking points over the noise of the crowd. As someone who is hard of hearing:
- You may have a tough time making out what the candidate is saying
- The environment may be distracting and confusing
- Without an ASL interpreter, it's hard to know if you're for or against the candidate's platform.
The organizers didn't take into account that their voters might need extra accommodations. As a result, some members of the audience receive a vastly different experience and may feel alienated rather than aligned with the group.
Central Auditory Processing Disorder
A person with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) experiences cognitive difficulties with no measurable hearing loss. They may have trouble interpreting and comprehending speech.
Consider the following:
You're excited for the upcoming holidays. You're planning to cook a meal for your family while they're in town.
- You look up a recipe for green bean casserole. The playback on the video you find is very fast. You're frustrated because there is no way to slow down the video playback speed for you.
- You decide to order the food instead from a local restaurant. You try calling, but the person on the other end of the phone is trying to talk to you over a busy crowd in the background. You can only make out half of what they're saying.
Entertaining your family this holiday season shouldn't be this hard, but for over 5% of the global population it is. 390 million people can't learn how to roast potatoes or cook a turkey because our collective knowledge isn't accessible.
Next time you're listening to your favorite podcast or watching a video, check to see if the content is available in other formats. If you find that it's hard to access entertainment in another medium, imagine what it's like for people with auditory disabilities. Why shouldn't they get the same satisfaction that you do from true crime? Why shouldn't they be able to consume the daily news in a bite-size format?
As you learn more about accessibility, you'll find that we haven't made life easy for all. We've made it easy for some. As we all start asking more questions, I'm optimistic we'll change our collective thinking from accessible when asked, to accessible-first. The world demands it.