by Erica Barton
Google the term “Zoom fatigue,” and you’ll find countless articles explaining the COVID-19 pandemic and how to combat it. While the pandemic is affecting almost everyone these days, there are some who can assume the unnamed and unacknowledged perspective of able-bodied privilege. What’s not often discussed is how Zoom calls and other changes in how we communicate can actually benefit certain individuals in unique ways.
Maxfield Sparrow is an author and speaker who is on the autism spectrum. Earlier this year in an article he wrote that he agreed with others on the spectrum who felt that the rising use of Zoom actually “levels the social playing field for Autistic people.” He noted that many of the explanations for Zoom fatigue – such as having to work hard to read nonverbal communication or the pressure of being watched – are the daily lived experience of individuals on the autism spectrum. “We Autists live with these discomforts all our lives. In any situation where one group is freshly experiencing what another group lives with every day, there is an obvious emotional advantage to the group with a history of those experiences.”
I can understand where people like Sparrow were coming from. As a person with a visual disability, I appreciate the fact that video conferencing has provided me newfound access to visual content. Previously I would sit in meetings or conference sessions and listen as visual information such as slides or online documents were projected onto a screen for everyone to “see.” Now, with virtual meetings, when I sit in front of my laptop computer with assistive technology, I have access to what my colleagues have always seen.
For as many explanations of Zoom fatigue there are similar debates about whether or not people should be required to appear on video while on such calls. There are arguments and assumptions to be made on both sides. Turn your video on to show you are paying attention, so people can see your smiling face, or to reveal the relied-upon cues of nonverbal communication to interpret tone and pitch. However, for me to see my screen, my face needs to be inches from it, allowing only my shiny white forehead and perhaps my eyebrows to be visible on camera. If I back up, so colleagues can see my face, I give up my visual access. Do I compromise my newfound visual access, just to give sighted colleagues the visual cues of my nonverbal communication to interpret my intentions? Or is it time for sighted colleagues to refine the listening skills that I have always relied upon?
I experienced another epiphany while attending the ACUHO-I Virtual Summit. I realized that I took more away from this event than I had from any other ACUHO-I conference I’ve attended. The difference was that I had access to the same visual content as my sighted colleagues. I did not sit in sessions frustrated over a lack of universal design. While I was rejoicing in my access, I heard colleagues lamenting the loss of the face-to-face experience. Was it the same? Absolutely not. But as a woman with a disability, what was new was my feeling of belonging. For the first time at an ACUHO-I conference, I had equal access. For the first time, I belonged.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we do business. With incredible swiftness, we made dramatic changes to policies, procedures, and practices to ensure safe and healthy communities. One could argue that our collective agility is worthy of celebration, but before we pat ourselves on the back, we need to reckon with the reality that our swift changes have in large part been mandated by state orders and Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Robyn Powell, a disability rights advocate and attorney, noted in an interview that remote work and school has historically been denied as a reasonable accommodation for individuals with disabilities. “Now that non-disabled people have no choice but to go to work from home and go to school from home, all of a sudden, it is reasonable,” she says.
As we tentatively make steps towards re-opening campuses, how do we listen critically to the messages of the pandemic? How do we continue to demonstrate our proven ability to make swift change, as opposed to settling back into our routine assumption that change takes time? How do we de-center privileged perspectives to make room for traditionally marginalized voices? How do we develop empathy to consider that our Zoom fatigue may be what some of our students and colleagues experience every day as they navigate with a disability? The ACUHO-I Core Competencies indicate that we should all be able to assess the impact of the dominant culture in our campus communities. That assessment is on full display right now, but will we listen?
"First Person" is a column that allows ACUHO-I members a chance to put a personal spin on a news story. Erica Barton is the human resource manager for Organizational Learning and Development at the University of Washington and has worked as a housing practitioner since 2003. She has been a keynote speaker at the NWACUHO 2019 conference, exploring the connection between Universal Design and belonging. She currently is pursuing her doctoral degree from Northeastern University where she is researching the impact of white supremacy cultural norms on organizational learning.