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How to make video calls accessible for people with hearing loss

21 June 2022

Video calls have become part of the regular rhythm of work for many of us, with lots of charities encouraging employees to work at home at least some of the time.

The move to remote working was a big adjustment at the start of the pandemic, but it presented extra challenges for deaf people and people with hearing loss. 75% of people RNID surveyed in April 2020 feared they would be less productive working at home. Colleagues talking across each other in meetings and poor internet connections make lipreading difficult, or impossible if someone doesn’t turn their camera on!

Even though we like to think we’ve progressed past the ‘you’re on mute’ stage, video calls can often remain inaccessible to the 1 in 12 UK employees with hearing loss. For example Gideon, RNID trustee and business founder, regularly uses video calls across multiple platforms, however he often finds that automatic captions are not turned on by the meeting host. This makes it difficult for him to follow the conversation and contribute.

At RNID we’ve learnt lots about video conferencing platforms over the last two years with help from our internal deaf awareness group, but it’s important to continue learning and keep talking to staff.

One of my team recently highlighted that she can’t see the chat function during our team meetings on Microsoft Teams when she’s using the transcript because it appears as a sidebar over the chat. This meant she was missing out on questions and links shared by other members of the team, and whilst not all the content was useful, this could leave her feeling left out and left behind.

There are simple changes you can make to make your video calls more accessible, from following RNID’s deaf awareness tips, to learning the basic accessibility features available on each platform. Here’s some of the main things to consider when getting started:

Automated captions

Live captions are automatically generated using artificial intelligence (AI) and appear on the screen as people talk. They are closed captions, which means you can turn them on and off.

Live captions can often be less accurate than in person transcriptions, but they can be useful for short informal meetings where formal communication support is not needed or available.

It’s important to bear in mind that these kinds of captions are not 100% accurate and reliability will vary depending on the platform, background noise, internet connection and the person’s accent. Your colleague who is deaf or has hearing loss may also need to lipread, which is tiring and takes a lot of concentration.

For important meetings, especially ones where you are discussing confidential information, formal communication support with a speech to text reporter should be used. This will ensure more accurate transcriptions and means the transcriptions will be stored securely.

It is important to know which type of communication support someone would like and whether they are happy to use automated captions or if they would prefer more formal communication support.

See RNID’s user guides for information on how to turn on automatic captions as a participant and as a host on Teams, Zoom and Google Meet.

Transcriptions and Notes

A transcription is a helpful way for someone with hearing loss to follow the meeting. The transcription will also be available after the meeting, making it easy for an employee to review the notes for any information they may have missed, and help to reinforce the context of content given during the meeting.

It’s easy to switch on a transcript although the method differs for each platform. If you’re using Zoom only the host can turn on a transcript in their account settings, whereas in Teams any participant can turn the transcript on. It is good practise to advise attendees that you are using the transcript function incase you’re sharing sensitive information. Google Meet doesn’t offer automated transcripts, however there is a browser extension you can download.

BSL interpreters

If one of your employees uses British Sign Language as their first or preferred language, they will need a BSL interpreter for meetings or training courses so they can follow what’s being said and participate. If you are organising the meeting, it is your responsibility to book an interpreter. By law, employers must pay for communication support, although the government’s Access to Work scheme can help to cover the cost. (Find out about when and how to book communication support here)

An interpreter can only be added to the video call by the meeting host, and it’s important to make sure that everyone who needs the interpreter can see them before you start the meeting.

Pinning or spotlighting the interpreter will increase their size on the screen which will make it a lot easier to follow the signing, and make sure they don’t disappear when someone else starts speaking. Find out how to add and pin an interpreter.

It’s important to address the deaf person on the call, not their interpreter, and it’s a good idea to say your name before speaking to make the interpretation easier to follow. Check out RNID’s tips to make your meeting deaf aware for more information.

Thinking about audio

Whether it’s drilling, noisy children or a loud fan, background noise on video calls can be incredibly frustrating and difficult for deaf people and people with hearing loss. One top tip is to make sure everyone in the meeting is muted when they’re not speaking. Microsoft Teams and Google Meet allow the host to turn on noise cancellation settings to limit annoying background noise, and both platforms as well as Zoom allow participants to change the audio output so that sound is received directly into their hearing aids, cochlear implant or other assistive technology.

Always record

All three platforms I’ve mentioned; Zoom, Teams and Google Meet allow you to record meetings, which can be useful for participants who are unable to make it. It also allows deaf colleagues and colleagues with hearing loss to rewatch the meeting to catch up on any sections they missed.

For more useful advice please check out RNID’s tips on how to make your meeting deaf aware, or explore how different video conferencing apps compare for accessibility. You might also want to read more about supporting deaf staff and staff with hearing loss, or talking to your employer about hearing loss.

Banner image: James McKinven on Unsplash.

Rebekah McKinstry

PR & stories manager, RNID

Rebekah has been at RNID for nearly five years, where she’s helped raise awareness of the barriers that deaf people, people with hearing loss and tinnitus face, and the support available. She has PR experience on a regional and national level, and has been privileged to work with many amazing staff members, volunteers, and case studies. She loves to use real stories to bring RNID’s message to life, create empathy and celebrate individuals.

Jesal Vishnuram

Technology Adviser , RNID

Jesal is a clinical audiologist and has been at RNID for seven years. Assistive and accessible technologies can change the lives of people who are deaf, have hearing loss and tinnitus. She is passionate about providing up to date and trusted information to help people make informed decisions on what can best support them to continue living independently and with a good quality of life.