Zoom Fatigue is Hitting the Hearing Impaired Especially Hard. Here’s What Needs to be Done

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Your meeting is finally over. 

You close zoom, flip your webcam over, and then get right to work. Or attempt to. Try as you might, you simply can’t seem to focus — the meeting left you exhausted, too drained to do much beyond stare at your screen. 

You’re not alone in that. 

This is Zoom fatigue. And with the surge in remote work brought on by COVID-19, it’s become increasingly common. Audiologists know it by another name — concentration fatigue. 

And it’s been around much longer than Zoom. 

“It’s not necessarily persistent fatigue but surely a measurable increase in listening effort,” Mario Svirsky, professor of hearing science at NYU Langone Health medical center, explained to Quartz. “A little noise in the background can bring you over a tipping point where communication becomes much more difficult, and you have to do a lot of work. You may participate in a meeting focusing on everything for the full two hours, and, in the end, you are wiped out.”

As noted by Northeastern, the main reason video conferences are so exhausting involves a lack of nonverbal cues. We cannot, as we would in a typical conversation, rely on natural eye contact or easily see a speaker’s body language. Instead, we must stare perpetually at a series of talking heads, constantly scanning for missing context. 

This is hard enough even with decent-quality audio/video — delays, choppy sound, and background noise only exacerbates the problem. 

The need for constant vigilance to fill in missing context is nothing new to the Deaf and hard of hearing. For the hearing impaired, it’s simply a fact of life. Despite this, however, Zoom fatigue is even more pronounced amongst this.

According to Reporter Magazine, a student-run publication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, this is in large part because both interpreters and the hard of hearing feel disconnected from their peers. They must focus even more energy simply on participating compared to their hearing colleagues, which can often cause them to fall behind.

Moreover, because virtual meetings don’t always use the highest-quality video, the hard of hearing cannot expect to rely on lip reading for comprehension. 

Some platforms have attempted to push automatic captioning as a solution to this problem. Unfortunately, they either require an individual to pay a high licensing fee or else simply do not work particularly well. Zoom, for instance, has directly admitted that there are considerable limitations to its subtitling service. 

So…what can be done? 

  • License a closed captioning service that helps accommodate hard of hearing employees. You might even consider investing in an audio transcription service. 
  • Record and upload meeting footage so that it can be viewed later and slowed down for the sake of all participants. 
  • Hire a permanent interpreter for hard of hearing employees. 
  • Ensure that hearing impaired employees have accessible telehealth options, both for the treatment of their hearing impairment and for other concerns. 

The pandemic has been rough for everyone, but it’s been especially difficult for the hearing impaired. Whether you’re an educator or business owner, it’s your responsibility to make accommodations. Because the alternative — that the hard of hearing are simply left behind — is not an option.