New Orleans, Louisiana
February 20, 2022
February 20, 2022
July 20, 2022
Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions
The Accidental Inclusivity of Virtual Spaces
Current State Inclusion is often seen as a “thing we must do” like taxes or charity. Most people do not think of it as a motive for change and improvement; instead, they may view it as a necessity which limits otherwise achievable productivity. It can seem that employees will drag their feet or just go through the motions of handling accommodations, and candid conversations with people bothered by helping the disabled have even revealed prejudice and resentment. In part, this explains why many institutions do the bare minimum that is necessary to avoid a lawsuit.
However, with the move to virtual learning and working, an emergent property of the virtual space is massively improved accessibility. The shift to virtual events has opened up a world of educational and work opportunities for many people who did not have them before. For instance, blind people do not drive, which limits their choices in the pre-virtual world. Today, a blind person may attend a virtual meeting from home rather than negotiate the many hazards of public transport, taxi rides, or ride-sharing. For the sighted, being without a car is frustrating; for the blind, every foray out into the world carries with it real risks to life and limb. The experience of navigating on-foot in heavily trafficked areas can be much like walking through a war zone. By the time a blind person arrives where they want to go, they may be exhausted by adrenaline surges that degrade the performance in the remote location to much less than their true potential.
Personal Example Here is one example from my own experience. When I was doing my undergraduate degree in Computer Science, I could not find a quiet space to catch my breath. I adapted by finding a lockable, single-occupant bathroom to collect my thoughts and calm down after running the gauntlet through clumsy, inattentive students (who broke my cane many times). This solution was brilliant, just making use of the resources everyone had. That was until the staff began locking it because apparently students kept having sex in the bathroom… It sounds comical, but this type of situation is familiar to many of us. I had found a way to get what I needed on my own, and the staff tried to be helpful by unlocking it when I was going to arrive. In spite of their good intentions, they frequently forgot. By the time I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I was burned out on submitting official requests. I implemented solutions like these precisely because they avoided the usual bureaucracy.
The virtual world does not require me to physically move myself to a new location for every single class, meeting, or conference. At in-person events, I used to have to wait around with nothing to do while other people arrived late. If this happens at a virtual meeting, I can still be productive. I also never have to be the one who caused the delay. In the ‘bad old days’ of way-finding and public transport, I often had to schedule my transit with huge buffers of time.
Proposed Idea In the relatively short time that the pandemic has caused this shift, I can think of many ways that the virtual conference services have improved. I used to be self-conscious of the synthetic speech from my screen-reading software disrupting the meeting; if I joined without headphones, I would disable my screen reader, essentially locking myself out of my own computer for the duration of the meeting. If someone posted in the chat, I wouldn’t even know it had been done unless they mentioned it because my screen reader was turned off. Recently, the noise-filtering algorithms on some virtual platforms have gotten better at editing out my screen readers so that other participants cannot hear it.
Even with these changes, virtual meeting platforms can incorporate many more accommodations for the blind while simultaneously enhancing the experience for the sighted. In face-to-face meetings, I missed all facial expressions and subtle body language signals that people give when they want a turn to talk, or when they cede the floor to others. This often left me unable to start talking since it felt rude to interrupt someone who was already talking. Similarly, I would talk for longer than necessary because I could not know whether the audience had understood me or not via the usual non-verbal cues.
I believe that a system like ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert%27s_Rules_of_Order) could be implemented in larger meetings, with the meeting software acting as chairman. Such an application would give everyone concrete cues for when and how long to talk, and prevent cross-talk. Much of in-person communication is physical and visual intimidation, posturing and outright bullying. This has unfortunately carried over to the virtual environment. An example that resonates with most of us was the difference between the first and second 2020 presidential debates. The power to cut off a microphone, if wielded responsibly, can make collaboration much more civil and productive. Enforcing order programmatically would increase productivity while allowing people who are disabled or shy to have a voice..
In an effort to broaden participation, we want to collect specific feedback regarding inclusivity in virtual, in-person, and hybrid spaces. Our goal is to build a greater understanding of the issues and personal challenges faced by those who have access or equity concerns. By gathering the perspectives of a broad spectrum of individuals through interviews and surveys, e.g. parents with young children, disabled students, we will use a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to discover the key challenges against greater inclusivity and provide guidance for some of the changes institutions should consider to support access for everyone.
I look forward to being treated as a valuable member of the team, not as someone who is always asking for accommodations and slowing the pace of already slow progress.
Lacy, A. K., & Polsley, S., & Hammond, T. A., & White, J. (2022, February), The Accidental Inclusivity of Virtual Spaces Paper presented at 2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity) , New Orleans, Louisiana. https://peer.asee.org/39143
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