Improve meeting accessibility for the hearing impaired
May 15, 2017 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I am the meeting facilitator for a fairly new activist group. We are lucky to be an intergenerational crowd, with active members ranging from ages 24 to 89! One challenge this presents is that several of our members are hard of hearing. Help me think of ways to improve the accessibility of our meetings for those folks.

-Our meetings have between 12 and 20 participants. At least 3 of them have trouble hearing everyone’s voices.

-Meetings are very participatory and we sit around a big conference table. A microphone might help, but there would be a LOT of passing it back and forth that might be cumbersome (but maybe I’m wrong here.)

-We meet in a private conference room at a public library. The particular room is not always the same, but as far as I can tell, with my fairly good hearing, background noise is not really the problem so much as quiet voices.

-Nobody is wearing a visible hearing aid.

-I’ve thought about asking people to stand when they speak, but I hesitate because 1) Some folks already seem hesitant to talk, and I don’t want to add a barrier for them, and 2) A few people also have mobility challenges that might make sitting and standing over and over difficult.

Engineering solutions: Are there features of a room that would make this better? I had the sense at our last meeting that part of the problem may have been that the room was long and narrow, so maybe a more square room would be best. Is there specific technology I could ask the librarians about?

Behavioral solutions: Is there something I can say or do that will encourage soft-spoken people to project? How can I encourage very nice elderly Midwesterners to accept seats in the middle of the room where they will be able to hear the best without alienating anyone?

Thanks for your help! I really value the breadth of experience in our group, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from participating, so I really hope you can help me improve this issue!
posted by juliapangolin to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Does anyone have a laptop? Could you have someone who has good hearing and is a fast typist be a "recorder"? Open a blank document , set the font size to 24 pt, and provide a running commentary of the meeting? Have the people who need to sit beside and behind the recorder.
posted by at at 1:37 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

You could look into getting something like TypeWell transcription services, where a meaning-for-meaning transcript of what is being said would appear on a screen for the hard of hearing folks to refer to, while being transcribed through Skype or Google Hangouts. I provide TypeWell transcription through an agency, and while the majority of my work is for students in school settings, there are definitely folks who use the services for business meetings and the like.
posted by Malleable at 1:38 PM on May 15, 2017

Best answer: I'm guessing there's not a budget for transcription services. at's idea may work if you have a projector.

I am hard of hearing and this is a difficult situation. Things that help, but don't eliminate the problem:

- an assertive moderator to handle the below items
- an agenda, handed out at the beginning of the meeting, that is referred to ("now we're moving on to Item Two, the March for Art Education Funding") so I have some context for what the hell we're talking about now. A lot of HoH people learn to fill in the blanks
- someone repeating/restating what a soft-voiced person has said ("So Jane, I heard that you think the march should be begin at the museum in October? Does anyone have comments on that?")
- look for body language that someone is drifting off, not making eye contact, fidgeting. this is what I do when I can't follow along anymore. Don't put them on the spot with a sudden question but try to draw them back in.
-discourage cross talk
- have someone take minutes and email them/post them on a website

The most important thing for me is knowing the topic we're discussing. I'm never going to grasp everything, but if I lose the plot, then I just tune out.
posted by AFABulous at 1:57 PM on May 15, 2017 [12 favorites]

This question is not quite the same but there are some tips that are very helpful in it that have to do with things you might not think about like lighting and signaling changes of topic.
posted by jessamyn at 2:07 PM on May 15, 2017

In terms of room geometry, I would really suggest rooms which do not have high ceilings and have a physical, closed door. Carpeting, or at the very least a rug, is very helpful on cutting down background echoes.

If you have the money, I would look into CART services/transcription. Professional transcribers are on a different speed/accuracy level than well-meaning amateurs. If you do get a professional and there is some sort of specialized terms related to the meeting, please give them a word list in advance. The transcription is often phonetic, and it can be hard to figure out what word is meant from the weirdly garbled phonetic rendering.

AFABulous's comments are great, the one other thing I would add is to never say something like, "Did you hear what I said?" because the immediate response by the HoH/deaf/Deaf person is that yes, they heard your question, not the statement you made two minutes before that which they totally missed. For me, the biggest help is restating what other people have said, which has the added benefit of refocusing people & keeping the meeting moving along.
posted by angst at 2:07 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

the one other thing I would add is to never say something like, "Did you hear what I said?" because the immediate response by the HoH/deaf/Deaf person is that yes, they heard your question, not the statement you made two minutes before that which they totally missed

Yep, and I will definitely lie about this in a room full of people unless I am extremely comfortable with all of them, or the news is so crucial it will affect my job. People who are HoH become very skilled at faking their way through conversations. You'll have to accept that they are not going to get everything. That's what the written minutes are for.
posted by AFABulous at 2:15 PM on May 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

How about a sound level meter smartphone app? It could be pointed at the speaker, with the understanding that they should keep their voices above a certain decibel level?

How about a hand sign for "I can't understand the speaker"? Maybe something different from a raised hand for a question, but an agreed upon signal that the speaker needs to speak up? It would be clear to the speaker without interrupting her.

How about a hard-of hearing section, and you make anyone who has the floor speak next to that section?

Just spitballing.
posted by Cranialtorque at 2:31 PM on May 15, 2017

How about a hard-of hearing section, and you make anyone who has the floor speak next to that section?

I don't want to spam the thread but you underestimate the shame people can have about this. Lots of elderly avoid getting hearing aids due to embarrassment. I'm 42 and I've been living with hearing aids since I was 5, but I wouldn't want to be singled out like this.

Perhaps solicit suggestions from the members themselves. Send an email and tell them to contact [Specific Person] if they need accommodations.
posted by AFABulous at 2:37 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ask the people involved what they would find most useful/helpful.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 2:38 PM on May 15, 2017

I want to second everything AFABulous said, not just for the benefit of people who are hard of hearing, but for the benefit of everyone in those meetings. Those are all important to holding good meetings in general.
posted by adamrice at 2:46 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Something that I discovered in a similar situation recently, though it only works if anyone who is speaking is close enough to a computer / phone: Microsoft Translator. There is an iPhone / Android app (ironically, there doesn't appear to be one for Windows Phone?) and you can use the website directly.

I think the intended use case is for live cross-language collaboration (which it also does well) but it provides immediate transcriptions of conversation from natural language which are incredibly helpful for those who are hard of hearing. For consumer use, I think it's free.
posted by CharlieSue at 3:19 PM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This seems like an ongoing series of meetings given what you've said. So I'd guess that there are ongoing invitations and/or updates on meeting times and locations?

So this, per AFABulous: Perhaps solicit suggestions from the members themselves. Send an email and tell them to contact [Specific Person] if they need accommodations. super #1 best practice. Ongoing meeting invitations/updates, etc. should include that line. Include all members in this, via whichever means of correspondence works for the group as a whole.

The standard could look something like:

"We're committed to making our meetings and activism fully accessible to everyone. If you are a person with a disability and you require an accommodation, please let us know by contacting [Specific Person]."

It's critical that you treat these contacts as confidential and reinforce to the whole group that accessibility is for everyone.

Individual conversations you have confidentially with people will help shape the solutions you provide and will respect the dignity and right to participate of everyone in the group.

Bonus: People who have not disclosed another disability thus far may make a request (e.g., someone with low vision who has trouble with the written agenda or minutes you're providing, and who may want larger font or a digital copy).

Extra bonus: You're also doing your group a favour by making it more welcoming to people with disabilities who may want to join in the future by living up to that.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:22 PM on May 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

One person speaking at a time is crucial—for all meetings. Designating a facilitator whose only task is maintaining a speaking queue and suppressing cross-talk works well. The chair can then focus on following the agenda.

Ask that people identify themselves, every time, as they begin speaking. This self-enforces the one-at-a-time rule, and also helps those of us who have a hard time seeing faces or learning names.

If people are using hearing aids already, the presence of a powered "induction loop" in the meeting room improves reception. If the library was built in the last 20 years, they may very well have a looped room.

Mention the access features you're already providing in all your meeting notices.
posted by Jesse the K at 4:47 PM on May 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

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