It is 6 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I’m awakened by a warm orange light on my face, but it isn’t the sun. Instead of the sun, I open my eyes to my bedside table lamp that has a Philips Hue color light bulb inside. I smile as it is a nice, calming way to wake up as opposed to the way I had to wake up for years. You see, I was born with a hearing loss. Having a profound hearing loss in one ear and a total hearing loss in the other meant that I could not use a conventional alarm clock or even a regular smartphone timer as many people do. For years I relied on a small rectangular box that was plugged into a special alarm clock. When the clock reached the time I had set the alarm to, it would turn on the powerful motor in the box and the box would vibrate violently under my pillow where I had placed it. Talk about starting your day with a jolt, no coffee necessary.
This is just one of the myriad ways my life diverges from those who have the full ability of their hearing. I was born in 1980, a decidedly analog decade that slowly, and then rapidly, gave way to the crazy digital explosion that we see around us today. Huge strides in technology in the past few years have helped myself and others like me with access to the world around us in deeper and meaningful ways than ever before. As with my analog vibrator giving way to my digital light bulb, I thought it would be useful to do a brief overview on how my life has changed regarding accessibility, which is the ability to engage in and interact with the world on the same level as the majority.
Phones and the Hard of Hearing
So, I’ve woken up, dressed, and eaten breakfast, and now I get to check my emails and text messages on my phone. I can personally communicate with people without a mediator, and that’s huge for individuals who value their independence. For many years, the phone was seen as the biggest barrier for deaf and hard-of-hearing people because, well, we couldn’t use it for obvious reasons. We had to rely on other people to make phone calls for us. Imagine having to use your mother to call your friends to see if they were free to hang out or even calling your employer to let them know that you were sick that day. Talk about adding even more awkwardness to those already-awkward high school years! As cell phone use with unlimited text messaging plans—and later, data plans—proliferated, it became easier to communicate with others directly. A major accessibility barrier had been removed. Now, anyone can interact with anyone on their own terms: text, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, email, Glide, WhatsApp, and on and on it goes. At work, I email and use Google Hangouts and text in my capacity as Technology Specialist for my school district. All the teachers and staff know how to reach me this way, and it’s been very useful for the staff and myself.
Now, I’ve worked, and I’m home. Dinner is done, and the kids are tucked in bed. It’s time to relax in front of the television, the home of what is arguably the second-biggest barrier to accessibility for deaf and hard-of-hearing people after the telephone.
The year is 1986, and my father sits six-year-old me down in front of the television and pops in a VHS tape of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. After the opening credits roll, Jiminy Cricket appears and begins talking. All of a sudden what he’s saying shows up as text on the bottom of the screen. This was big. For decades, deaf people were not able to access the television at all. Closed captioning—or digital subtitles—did not exist at all and many, many people missed out on being informed on the news or laughing at funny jokes in sitcoms. I remember as a kid that the only cartoons I was able to enjoy were Tom and Jerry and the Looney Tunes Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner segments because they were largely dialogue-free. From 1986’s limited offering of select movies and select network shows to today’s 99.9% closed-captioning coverage in most mass media—television, DVDs and Blu-rays, streaming, and even video games—today’s discerning deaf and hard of hearing individual is no longer prevented from participating in the current national conversations. Whether it is the latest season of Netflix’s Stranger Things or a controversial issue like gun control, the access gap is diminishing.For every solved accessibility problem—video baby monitors with light indicators when the baby cries, WiFi light bulbs that dim when the doorbell rings—there are still more problems to be solved.
It is tempting to think that with the removal of these two major accessibility barriers that all is well in the world of the deaf and hard of hearing individual. I will be the first person to say that we’ve come a long way, but there’s still more to be done. For every solved accessibility problem—video baby monitors with light indicators when the baby cries, WiFi light bulbs that dim when the doorbell rings—there are still more problems to be solved. For instance, although many movie theaters are getting better with equipping their theaters with handheld devices that show subtitles as a movie plays (I used to have to see a movie twice, once in the theater and once again when it came to home video so I could read the dialogue), not all theaters have deployed this solution. Here’s another one: with the explosion of smart home hubs like the Google Home and the Amazon Echo, how can a deaf person leverage them when they’re all audio driven with voice commands and voiced responses? Or how about this interesting one: how can we subtitle virtual reality/augmented reality media that regardless of where the deaf person looks, he can understand what’s going on? The list goes on from here.
I am confident that these problems will be solved in time and I am thankful for the huge gains in accessibility over the past thirty years. It definitely has helped the quality of my life (no more being rudely awoken!) and countless others. We all need to constantly be aware that although we may be able to access something one way, another person may not be able to access it that way. Accessibility is just good practice—business and otherwise—because the truth of it is this: the more accessible the world is for everyone, then everyone gets to participate more in the world. We all deserve to hear and be heard.