Communication Accessibility: It’s Time to Change How We Communicate

Let’s start with a little story about communication accessibility. Or rather, inaccessible communication. I was about to go out of town. My hotel emailed me to check in early. I went to the website to fill out the form.

Then I reached that dreaded field …

The phone number field.

The form required a phone number. It wouldn’t let me add a note to use it for texting only.

Form field for cell phone number that requires entering a phone number and no way to add a note

I’ve encountered this scenario many times in my life. And, unfortunately for my poor spouse, companies called me enough times that I started giving them my spouse’s cell phone.

Fortunately, that hotel made up for it. Upon my arrival, I got a wonderful surprise. The hotel gave me a choice in how I wanted to check-in.

The first option is the traditional one. Go to the front desk.

The second option is one I’d love to see at all hotels. It’s contactless and a stress-free experience for someone like me. They had self-check-in kiosks.

Darn it. I didn’t take a picture. The kiosk is about the size of an ATM. The top part contains a large screen. The middle has a slot for credit cards and IDs. Then, there’s another slot that outputs the key card.

I can’t recall if there was a kiosk low enough for those in wheelchairs or people who may not be able to reach the screen. Even if the kiosk could talk, I don’t think it’d be accessible for people who are blind or have low vision because of the flat screen. Thankfully, there’s still the check-in counter option.

This is why all communications and interactions need to have multiple options. Not everyone wants to do the default.

Creating an Inclusive Contact Field

Searching for a job is stressful. More so when a person is unemployed. Imagine adding another barrier on top of all this.

A job hunter who was deaf felt frustrated because he run into the same problem over and over. The application required adding a phone number. He did not have one.

This is unusual because many deaf and hard of hearing people have cell phones with phone numbers. We use them for texting, checking emails, and whatnot. Many captioning phones, captioning apps, and video relay services will provide the user with a free phone number.

Nonetheless, the onus should not be on the person filling the form.

I know companies need to make a contact field required to ensure they can reach the person. Here’s a better and more inclusive way to do this and make it standard. It’s so simple, y’all.

Communication accessibility means giving people at least two communication options. Make it required to choose one of the options. For example, require a phone number or an email address.

Another option is if they select the phone number, then provide these options: call only, text only, or call and text. One airline asks me if I want to be contacted by phone call, text messaging, or email. The contact field can still be required as long as you give people choices.

"How do we contact you?" form with Contact Method offering email me, text me, call me (automated) options and it's a required field

This isn’t just a problem with application forms, registration forms, shopping forms, and other forms. It’s also a problem in person.

Communication Accessibility Lessons from COVID Testing

Eighteen months into the crisis, I needed to take my first-ever COVID test as a proactive measure. A few hours later after scheduling my appointment, I needed to change it.

When I did that, I received two texts. One confirmed the new appointment followed by another canceling the appointment. I panicked.

I didn’t know if it canceled the old or new appointment. There was no time and date on the text message. It’s important to ensure the notifications have context.

Thankfully, it all worked out. On the day of the COVID test, I received a text message with a link to a video on what to expect during the process. It was captioned. Score!

Unfortunately, the video did not prepare me for what happened.

I had to do something I have never done in the 20-plus years I’ve lived by this pharmacy. Use the drive-through.

When I got to the window. I couldn’t see the person because the glass reflection made it hard to see inside. The person had a mask on and talked through a speaker. She couldn’t understand me.

It was an exasperating experience. A big communication accessibility fail.

Pharmacy drive-through window reflecting to make it hard to see inside

In sharing this, I learned that this same process was not accessible to others. A person with a mobility disability wanted to use the drive-through and they told her she had to come inside. And a blind friend couldn’t make the appointment online without help. How was it not accessible to three people with three different disabilities after 18 months?

The pharmacy only had one way to communicate and it’s the default for most communications with no backup. And that’s talking.

Don’t assume the default works for everyone. So, I advise to always provide at least two modern communication methods. I say modern because fax machines and snail mail don’t count, y’all. Not in today’s instant world.

Review the entire customer interaction process, both digital and in person.

Doctor Visits

When I go to the doctor’s office, I sit facing the door where someone would call the name of the next patient. If I can’t understand the person, then I look around the room to see if anyone stands. As soon as I confirm no one moves to the door, then I asked if they called my name.

That changed after the pandemic. The nurses wore masks. I’d let the receptionist know that I can’t hear my name being called. They never remember to let the nurse know. Once again, I relied on observing the movement in the waiting room.

The solution is simple. Use a dry-erase board and call out the name. Then, you’re communicating two ways.

Another time I received an email from my dentist. It contained the new process for checking in. Instead of entering the building, you call them from the parking lot. I emailed them about this and explained I can’t call them. They said to text the same number.

It worked! I noticed they had a sign posted in the window facing the parking lot. The sign said to call this number upon arrival. How about changing that to “Call or text”?

How Virtual Reality Locked Me Out

Thomas Logan and I manage A11yVR Meetups. Every Meetup introduces a topic related to accessibility in virtual reality and augmented reality. We often host the Meetup in a social virtual reality setting. One time, we decided to try a different virtual reality space.

We met our guest speakers in the space to test it out. It didn’t take long before I felt locked out. Handcuffed. Unlike other virtual reality worlds, this one did not have a chat box. As a deaf person with a bionic ear, I don’t have the ability to understand what’s spoken. Usually, people can communicate with me through chat boxes and direct messaging (DM).

Not in this one. Fortunately, I found a workaround. (Accessibility should not be a work-around or a hack.) The environment had sticky notes. I used them to communicate with the others. The cool thing about those sticky notes is that you have two ways of creating one. You can type on your keyboard or use your voice as it had speech-to-text functionality. This is a great example of providing two communication input methods.

Here’s the world with sticky notes splattered around the room and two of me! Dagnabbit it. I couldn’t use the second version of me to get work done.

Virtal world with two of Meryl's avatars and four sticky notes around the room and transparent captions that are hard to see

Standardizing Awkward Communication Methods

When we communicate a specific way with friends, family, and colleagues, it can be hard to change how we communicate.

When my daughter was in Laos for two years, we had a couple of Facetime calls. We had never done that before. Unfortunately, the video quality was awful and I couldn’t read her lips.

After that experience, I never tried Facetime again … until the pandemic.

My mom lives an hour from me and I couldn’t see her for months. So, I used Facetime with her. At this point, there weren’t captioned video platforms. Thankfully, my mom is the easiest to lipread and the video quality was good enough.

It was awkward at first. When we communicate with someone in a specific way, it’s hard to change.

My youngest is a terrible texter who never acknowledges text messages. I worried about him going off to college in the sense that I’d never hear from him … except when he needed laundry advice or to buy something. The only photo I got from him for months was a close-up of a washing machine.

Well, he attended the last year of high school on the second floor of our home / office / school building. During the time, he did a lot of video calls and saw me on captioned video calls.

A few months after doing off to college, he sent me the most amazing text. He asked if I’d like to do a captioned video call.

This would’ve never happened without the crisis. It normalized captioned video calls for him and many others. It no longer feels awkward. Many people who aren’t deaf or hard of hearing say they use captions all the time.

This Simple Change Makes a Big Difference

As soon as they come on the line, some customer support representatives will ask for a callback phone number in case you get disconnected.

I never thought I’d run into this when I contacted Microsoft’s online Disability Answer Desk through the chatbox. The first thing they asked for was a callback phone number.

I explained that I’m deaf and gave them my email. I made a suggestion to give people choices in how they want to be contacted.

A few weeks later, I contacted them again. And guess what? They asked if I could provide a callback phone number or email. Such a simple thing!

These small changes level up the user experience and make it better.

Ordering Coffee

When I go to the airport, I won’t wait in a long line for coffee. However, I only slept a few hours the night before flying out. This time, I was willing to wait in line as I had plenty of time before boarding my flight. It was loud. I have the coffee store app, but I didn’t trust it to work at the airport. I decided to enter my coffee order on my phone.

“I’d like a grande bold coffee. Please leave room for half-n-half,” I typed.

Remember, always have a second way to communicate in case the first way doesn’t work out. Of course, I was prepared to submit my order verbally. The cashier could be blind, have low vision, or not be able to read my note.

She could read it.

She put served up the coffee. I picked it up and walked over to the add-in station for cream and sweetener. My eyebrows went up when I did not see any milk jugs.

No matter. I removed the coffee lid. Lo and behold, it already had creamer.

This was the first time this happened in more than two years since the start of the pandemic. I could add the creamer myself at all the other coffee shops.

Creating the note prevented the stress of potentially not understanding the employee about the creamer.

Communication Accessibility Tools for Inclusive Conversations

If we all start communicating in multiple ways, it will standardize all the communication methods. Nothing will feel awkward anymore.

Last year, I took my first plane trip after the pandemic. I felt anxious because masks were everywhere. I’m not Supergirl, I don’t have X-ray vision to read lips through masks. The person sitting next to me wanted to make conversation. I told him that I’m deaf and read lips.

He grabbed the vomit bag and gestured for a pen. I gave him one. He started writing to me. In response, I pulled out my spiral notebook and wrote my answer.

We wrote back and forth. By the end of the flight, we had an entire conversation on 12 pages of paper.

Even if you don’t have a paper or pen, you always have one of the best communication tools with you.

Your phone.

After I gave a talk on multiple communications, a few people shared they’ve used translators or texting in loud rooms or when speaking to someone who didn’t speak their language.

Yes, let’s make it a habit to always have at least two ways to communicate. This could be writing, gesturing, signing, texting in person, chat boxes, etc. We need to get comfortable with a variety of communication and notification methods in person and online. No more defaulting to one method.

While captioned video calls give me the best experience between lipreading and captions, some people won’t have their camera on. And I’m OK with that. They may get anxiety from the camera or have a different medical reason. I don’t want anyone to be miserable on my account.

Know that some people depend on video for lipreading and gesturing while others need to have the camera off. Sometimes we have to compromise. I share this because not everyone has a valid reason for turning off the camera. Be aware there may be a lipreader.

Ready to make a change? Here’s where you can start today.

You don’t have to go look at all of your forms and communication processes. Start small.

Update one of your most important forms to offer choices.

Or ask your colleagues, clients, and anyone you communicate with for their preferences for communicating. When we communicate in our preferred ways, we’re happier and have better experiences.

Accessibility isn’t all or nothing. Celebrate then iterate. It’s about progress over perfection.

Level up Your DEI Program

Many companies have a diversity equity inclusion program. However, they tend to overlook people with disabilities and accessibility. And that’s OK. I can help you level up your DEI through training and speaking. Contact me or meet me.

Image by Joseph Mucira.

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