Zoom Fatigue for People with Hearing Loss

Zoom fatigue is real, as an article in National Geographic lays out very clearly: “‘Zoom Fatigue’ may be with us for years. Here’s how we’ll cope.

But let me just say that the author of this article has no idea what Zoom fatigue is like for people with hearing loss. We don’t just endure those long sessions, we read them, one word at a time.

It reminds me of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers quip: She did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels.

The image below is a screenshot of a webinar I attended this week. There was PowerPoint (the big box), the speaker (postage stamp, right), live captions (bottom three lines), and captions in context (called “full transcript,” box at the right). This is an example of good captioning — and it’s probably still making you feel just a bit dizzy.

Last week I was on a two-hour Zoom meeting with less than adequate captions. Bad captions, actually. The captions appeared — as these do — as three short lines at a time, at the bottom of a text-heavy powerpoint, but they were much shorter, and pretty meaningless. (I wish I’d taken a screenshot.) To provide context for those free-floating three lines, I clicked on “full transcript”. Full transcript was also three lines at a time, though it gave me five or six segments of three-line text. These three lines are not three sentences. They are arbitrary selections of a certain number of words that would appear on a screen. An arbitrary 10-15 words, whether or not they are complete sentences.

At the meeting last week, I supplemented the provided captions with my own IPhone caption app, Otter. (If you have an Android phone, you can do the same with Google Live Transcribe.) It was a little better, with enough text to provide context. But even Otter was not up to a speaker who spoke too fast, used too many unfamiliar technical terms and acronyms, and was not thinking about who was listening. This was a meeting for people with disabilities, so there was also an ASL interpreter on the screen.

Recently Zoom announced that it would provide free captioning if the originator of the meeting asked for it. This is thanks in part to Shari Eberts’ petition to get Zoom to provide captioning for people with hearing loss. Thank you again Shari. A host can also add Otter captions to a presentation.

Google Meet provides free captions, in a dedicated black box at the bottom of the screen. The captions appear in more or less full sentences. It’s a good ASR system. But Google Meet hosts only smaller meetings.

If a Zoom speaker uses PowerPoint, that adds to the burden for the attendee with hearing loss. The PowerPoint occupies most of the screen, the speaker is postage-stamp size and it’s hard to speech read. Often even after the formal presentation has concluded, the speaker leaves the PowerPoint up, on the screen. So there’s no relief for the hearing-compromised attendee.

Help! We need some new protocols for on-line presentations.

Here are some suggestions for speakers and hosts: Speak slowly and clearly. If you are using PowerPoint, make it text light, not text heavy. If you must repeat the words on the slides in your oral presentation, then make sure you say the same thing – otherwise our eyes are shifting back and forth between the slide and the captions. Provide key words and names to the CART captioner in advance of the meeting. Take down the Power Point when the formal presentation is over, so it’s no longer covering the majority of the screen. CART captioners should set their output directly to Zoom and (this is technical) not use the API third party token.

Despite these troubles, I love ZOOM. Even bad captions make meetings accessible to me that would otherwise not be. Any Zoom meeting is much easier to follow than an uncaptioned in-person meeting.

I want to thank Ann H. Logan for pointing out the National Geographic article in a post on her blog AbyCats’ Thoughts.

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For more about living with hearing loss, read my books “Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better With Hearing Loss” and “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You.” Both are available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.com.