Planning a Virtual Thanksgiving? 5 Ways to Boost Communication

Easing Virtual Communication This Holiday Season

Julia Métraux

Health Writer

23 November 2020

This season, many of us will be staying home instead of gathering in person with family and friends. Virtual catch-ups with loved ones are the new normal, but video calls can be tricky. They’re more challenging still when those with hearing loss are in the mix. To help make your holidays happier, Hearing Tracker gathered these smart strategies from experts and people like you. These five tips will make virtual gatherings more accessible – and enjoyable for all.

1. Choose the Right Platform

There are all kinds of video-call options. Google Meet or Zoom can be a good place to host your virtual Thanksgiving or holiday meet-up if participants with hearing loss. “Zoom is popular among signers, but one major negative is that it does not support automatic speech recognition on some plan tiers,” said Dr. Christian Vogler, the Director of Technology Access Program (TAP) at Gallaudet University. “So, some prefer Google Meet for mixed deaf/hearing meetings.”

For those who use Zoom, you can pay for a third-party service to produce live closed captions. Accessibility Lead at Phase 2 Catharine McNally, who is a cochlear-implant recipient, uses Otter.ai for captions on her calls and finds that other features on Zoom help make conversations easier to follow. “People use the hand-raising feature when they want to speak next,” McNally said. “Or I see when people take themselves off mute. It is a kind of [signal] that they're interested in saying something next.”

2. Give the Group Guidelines

To ensure that virtual Thanksgiving and other events are accessible for those who are hard of hearing or deaf, Dr. Vogler believes that it is important to establish conversation rules, which he outlined for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Technology Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center. Some of these tactics to try include only allowing one person to speak at a time and turning your camera off if you are not speaking to enhance the ease and flow of the gathering.

According to Dr. Vogler, larger groups require more conversation guidelines and accessibility accommodations, so think carefully about how many people you want at one time on a virtual meet-up. “Smaller meetings can be more impromptu and fast-paced and still give the deaf or hard-of-hearing person a chance to follow along,” Dr. Vogler said, “and in some cases, those participants may get by with automatic speech recognition.”

3. Keep an Eye on Headcount

Which brings us to this point: To make sure virtual Thanksgiving and other gatherings are not overwhelming for yourself or people who are hard of hearing, determine what your “number” is.

McNally describes her “number” as how many people she can “manage and control conversations within groups.” For example, if someone had trouble following communication in groups higher than eight, it may make sense to only invite no more than seven other people to a virtual gathering. If a family member or friend is hard of hearing, you could also ask them how big a group feels comfortable. In other words, if you have a large extended family or a bountiful circle of friends, dividing your celebrations into a couple of virtual calls is probably your best bet.

4. Acknowledge ‘Listening Fatigue’

Studies have shown that people with hearing loss experience what’s dubbed “listening fatigue.” People with hearing loss may have to put in extra effort to follow verbal communications, which can lead to feeling tired when these virtual calls stretch on…and on.

Meryl K. Evans, a digital marketer who is profoundly deaf, told Hearing Tracker that listening fatigue makes it difficult for her to pay attention to video-calls for long periods of time. “It's hard to watch speaker after speaker, even with captions,” Evans said. “Because of their delay and inaccuracies, live captions are harder to read and comprehend than recorded captions.”

Evans has found that having a chat box – which both Zoom and Google Meet have – is helpful because it allows her to participate while managing listening fatigue. To help hard-of-hearing people on your virtual Thanksgiving events, it may also help to both limit the length of the event and use the chat function. That way, participants with hearing issues can message with a couple of people and feel connected during the call, even if they don’t follow every nuance of fast-flowing conversation.

5. Reframe Your Point of View

Few of us dreamed we’d ever be planning virtual Thanksgivings and winter holidays instead of gathering together in person with our loved ones. However, at this critical time when we are all trying to get through the Covid-19 pandemic, we have a tremendous opportunity for connection and community. Granted, it’s not the same as being there in person. Yes, it can be frustrating. But remember, we now “have the infrastructure, the equipment and the knowledge to do things like video calls, so we can connect with each other, even if it is not face-to-face,” noted educational audiologist Tina Childress in a recent episode of the Hearing Tracker Podcast. That’s something to be grateful for during this season of staying safe and counting our blessings.