As more areas are forced to shelter in place during the pandemic, our world is becoming increasingly virtual.
This includes moving social interactions from in-person to online. What are the best group video calling apps for hearing loss?
Video conferencing platforms for hearing loss
A couple of my deaf friends and I tested out various video platforms in anticipation of a group hangout. Here are the pros and cons of each platform we tried.
We all have iPhones, so we tried FaceTime, which now has group capability. The screens tend to move around, and simultaneous texting isn’t possible. It was also hard to lipread people if blurry on a slower bandwidth.
Next, we tried Google Hangouts. The video was great, but difficult to lipread when one is on a smaller screen. Google Meet – the professional (paid) version – has captioning that a deaf friend deems “pretty good,” though we were unable to try it before this was published. According to Business Insider, the basic subscription is $6/month.
I’ve heard that Microsoft Teams is great, but it’s only for people who have a Microsoft account. Not all Microsoft licenses include Teams. A Microsoft account is necessary to see the live captions.
Our favorite was Zoom, which has exploded in popularity as meetings transition to the virtual space. Now it’s not just businesses, non-profits, or schools utilizing the software, but families using it to play games remotely or even friends having Happy Hour.
Zoom is free for 40-minute sessions, unless you have the paid version. There are two screen options: speaker view or gallery view. Gallery view looks like “The Brady Bunch” credits, whereas with screen view, the person who’s talking is automatically enlarged. There are pros and cons to each. I found myself going back and forth. There’s a delay as the screen enlarges, though. A text window is to the right of the screen, which is great for supplementing.
Zoom allows for third-party captioning, which means you have to set up and pay for separately. The captions are incorporated into the Zoom interface. Zoom has automated captioning through artificial intelligence (AI) in beta through a partnership with OtterAi.
The captioning feature is only available with a few universities at the moment but will be released to the general audience in the near future, Zoom told HearingLikeMe.
“The pricing and the license that the host needs to be on for this feature are also yet to be determined,” Zoom says. The company is currently trying to be prudent in allowing users to use this feature because of server capacity limitations.
“The captioning feature is only available with a few universities at the moment but will be released to the general audience in the near future, according to Zoom.”
However, because these are difficult times, Zoom understands that hiring professional captioners isn’t a feasible initiative for many smaller organizations. They’re huddling to see if they can expand their server capacity and enable the feature for certain customers.
Ava is also an option; they’ve extended the free trial time to 30 days.
Several friends have recommended Web Captioner, which can only be used on a computer. It’s useful in a pinch, but is AI-based.
Of course, the standard disclaimer applies: automated captioning doesn’t always do a great job understanding deaf speech. However, if you’re using it to understand what hearing people are saying, you’ll have better luck.
Video conferencing tips
In the past week, I’ve watched and participated in many live and taped video streams. Here are some tips to keep in mind when using group video calling apps so those with hearing loss aren’t left out:
Fast bandwidth and strong video quality are essential
Keep your camera steady
Lighting is important: Avoid dark or too bright backgrounds. Shadows can also make lipreading difficult
Make sure your face is close to the camera
Smaller groups are easier
Have a buddy who can help fill in gaps when needed
Pick a simple background with no distractions
Only one person should talk at a time. This means:
Raising your hand when you want to talk (if you’re using a paid Zoom subscription, there’s a virtual hand-raising feature)
Having a meeting organizer determine who talks and when
Muting your screen when you’re not talking (since any noise will make you the primary speaker even if you’re not). Some platforms allow the meeting host to have the ability to mute everyone
Utilizing the text feature for questions or other conversations while someone else is talking, but everyone must remember to keep checking it!
The more we speak up about our accessibility needs, the more we educate others. With the increasing reliance on virtual technology, we can only hope that accessibility features will improve quickly as a result.
And don’t forget the #1 tip, which applies to everyone: Make sure nothing embarrassing is in the background before you turn the camera on!
Watching other videos
To keep ourselves sane during this time of social distancing, people are getting creative online. Authors are reading their books. Musicians are performing free concerts. Wanna-be comedians are writing coronavirus parodies and producing short videos of comedic relief. But what if you’re in this virtual space with hearing loss?
People with hearing loss are either grateful that the video is captioned or frustrated when it isn’t. More often than not, it’s the latter.
On behalf of all of us, please caption your videos!
There’s even a meme going around: “Feeling guilty about your kid watching too much TV? Just mute it and turn closed captions on. Boom. Now they’re reading.”
Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.
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