I’ve been to a few public events in the past few days, and I’ve noticed a really interesting situation at each event. Each room has been fully rigged for a sound system- microphones, speakers, and usually a person controlling the microphone and speakers. The first person to go up and speak, usually a moderator, approaches the microphone, adjusts it awkwardly, steps back, and says, “Do I really need to use this thing? How about I just talk loud.” He or she then proceeds to talk in a slightly louder than usual voice.
Here is the thing that is unintentionally problematic about this- you really do need to use that thing. And this is why.
When we construct public environments, we come across a number of choices for how to construct them. Will there be a wheelchair ramp? Will there be an automatic door? Will we have an ASL interpreter? Will there be text handed out of the speech or displayed on a wall? Will there be a sound system? Where is the nearest bathroom, and will people of all abilities and genders be able to access it? With each of these choices, we decide which bodies will gain access to this space, and at what cost. Many of these choices do not even get taken into conscious consideration while an event is being planned, and we end up with a room full of bodies who are able to access the space, and a lack of bodies who cannot. We may not even notice the missing bodies, and we definitely miss out on their contributions to the event.
Sound systems are very simple accessibility tools that allow people with hearing impairments to participate in public events. Some systems come with FM receivers that people with hearing impairments can listen to- in this case, those people are only able to hear what is being said through the microphone. This can also be a great system for people with auditory processing disorders who may not be able to filter out the sounds of people being in the room (scraping chairs, rustling papers, whispering) from the person speaking. And when microphones and speakers are available, it means that those among us who may have more difficultly controlling the volume of their voice or speaking loudly are able to be heard. Sound systems are a simple way to address what for years has been a serious problem- as people begin to lose their hearing, whether due to age, illness, or disability, they also lose out on participation in the life of their community, whether that be religious, political, or some other community.
Asking the question, “Do I really need to use this thing?” forces people with hearing impairments and auditory processing disorders to either out themselves as being that one annoying disabled person who needs to be accommodated, or sit there in silence- literally. It also suggests that you do not understand the reason why the sound system was there in the first place. The sound system is not there so that people with normative hearing can understand people with normative voices- it is there to redefine what normative hearing and speaking are in this space.
So yes, you really do need to use this thing, and by doing so you’re ensuring that more people are able to participate in our communities; and that’s something we all know that we need.