Speaking Up: A Q and A with Dr. Jessie Ramey

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This spring, Chatham Director of the Women’s Institute Jessie Ramey had a piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Entitled “A Note from Your Colleagues With Hearing Loss: Just Use a Microphone Already,” the article was a call to action concerning how we can make spaces more welcoming and even functional. We followed up with her for a Q and A:

Q: Dr. Ramey, thank you for your insightful post on the necessity of using the microphone in group settings, and the ableist implications of neglecting to do so. So often, we think of an "assistive device" as something that someone with a disability uses—not something that someone who is “able" uses to create a more inclusive world. Are there any other examples of those types of devices that you can think of?  

A: You have put your finger on a key issue here, which is to flip the script and ask what ALL of us can do to include ALL people. Rather than putting the burden (always) on the person with a disability, what can we be doing on a regular basis to create more welcoming and inclusive teaching and learning spaces? Sometimes that means using simple technologies — such as a microphone. Other tech examples include: 

•  Turn on the subtitles when showing films.

•  Provide a text description of photos and images on websites and social media posts for the blind and vision-loss community who may be using screen readers to access your content.

•  Redesign PowerPoint slides to enlarge images and minimize long blocks of small text.

We also have to make sure existing tech is working: fix broken automatic door openers, replace batteries in microphones, ensure elevators are operating. These are simple systems, yet have a profound impact on inclusion and send strong (negative) messages when they are not working.

Most importantly, we have to plan for inclusion from the very beginning. For example, if we are planning events, we need to think broadly about accessibility for people with all kinds of needs (physical, financial, transportation, childcare, etc.). If we are constructing new buildings, we could think about adding new tech, such as hearing loops (technology built into spaces that communicates directly with hearing devices and provides superior sound quality). 

Q: Do you have any guidelines for room size or number of participants for when a microphone should be used, or should it always be used? 

A: While you might be able to do without a microphone in a tiny conference room or classroom, as a rule of thumb, if there is a microphone available, use it. Large rooms with lots of people make amplification especially important. Consistent volume is also helpful for those using hearing devices: sudden spikes in volume can be painful.

Q: I especially appreciated your point about how, if a person is trying to literally hear what is being said, they’re that much less able to engage with it cognitively. Have you ever been in that position (and what did you do)? 

A: For those of us with hearing loss, this is a common scenario. We also spend time and cognitive resources on prevention: I often arrive early so I can sit in the front of a room, or situate myself at a table so I can hear with my better ear, or find a place away from noisy air handlers, outside doors, etc.  

Given the prevalence of hearing loss, if I have to advocate for myself (such as asking someone to use the microphone or turn off an air conditioner), I remind myself that others in the room will probably benefit from the request, too.

Q: Do you have any other tips for us, as students, faculty, and presenters, to be sure that our message is coming across clearly? 

A: One of the reasons people often give for not using a microphone is hating the sound of their own amplified voice. Women in particular in our culture are taught to hate their bodies, to constantly find fault with who we are. Learning to appreciate ourselves — including our unique voices — helps build confidence, which is crucial to being heard.

Think of the microphone as your friend, empowering both you and your listeners. You have important things to say, and we want to hear them!

Thank you for paying attention to inclusion and what we can all do to create teaching and learning environments that welcome everyone.