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Isolation and technical difficulties gave Nathan Ahearne a new appreciation of the needs of communities often facing exclusion.

Working from home has its benefits: the commute is easy, my co-workers are friendly, and the cafeteria is only a few steps away, but it also comes with some drawbacks. Besides being Zoom-bombed by my children peeking through the virtual background and the rearrangement of our lounge room to accommodate four children learning from home, I also discovered a major challenge to participating online with my colleagues. As one of the few members from the executive team who needed to work from home, I participated in their face to face meetings through Zoom.

I relished the adult company in these meetings, but the novelty soon wore off as I strained to hear my colleagues. After fiddling with my earphones and volume controls, I eventually had to interrupt and ask for assistance, which was forthcoming. Their solution was to reposition the laptop, so that the person speaking would have a greater chance of directing their voice toward the microphone. This worked for about ten minutes, until they became engrossed in discussions and stopped turning the laptop. Not wanting to disrupt the flow of conversation, I waited for an appropriate moment to ask for help. Meanwhile, I only caught half of what was being said.

The follow-up meeting was far better, because the conference room technology utilized a multidirectional microphone. However, Zoom struggles with multiple conversations and tends to scramble the words into an unrecognizable babble. In an attempt to avoid interrupting, I used the chat feature of Zoom and asked my colleagues to speak louder or move toward the microphone, but nobody noticed. We don’t normally speak over each other during formal conversations, but when someone interjected or made a joke, it was impossible to interpret over the laughter. Even though I had no idea of what had been said, I would politely smile, trying to stay connected to what was happening.

Being outside of the social loop compounded the isolation of working from home. The audio quality of one meeting was so bad that I ended up leaving the Zoom meeting altogether. Completely excluded, I began to develop somewhat of an appreciation of the experience of the Deaf community and those who are hard of hearing. However, my virtual deafness was only temporary and it didn’t require me to forcefully advocate for proper inclusion. I realised that a seemingly aggressive nature of advocacy was necessary in the fight for full inclusion, access and interpretation across education, health and media. I wondered how often people compensate or go through life unnoticed and unable to fully participate. How many have simply left the meeting?

Emergencies and disasters affects every person in Australia every year. With over 13,000 Auslan (Australian Sign Language) users and 4 million people who have varying degree of hearing loss, their experience in obtaining up to date information and access to disaster recovery centres are faced with uncertainties when information and support are difficult to access. The introduction of sign language interpreters for state televised emergency warnings is only a recent development in Australia, but it is a step in the right direction.

A mobile app called ‘StorySign’ has been developed to provide deaf and hard of hearing children access to sign language, by translating their books into sign language. According to Deaf Australia, “this gives deaf and hard of hearing children an opportunity to share learning sign language with their parents” and “is a great example of ‘social investment’ that a company can make, investing into the deaf community.” In his 2019 message for International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Pope Francis explains that we should not regard these technologies as absolute and we need to take on “situations of marginalization with strength and tenderness; making way with them and ‘anointing them’ with dignity for an active participation in the civil and ecclesial community.”

Like many immersive experiences, I was changed for the better through my Zoom challenges and learning to hear through the ears of another. Developing a greater sense of solidarity is an important theme of Catholic Social Teaching and Pope Francis reminds us that “the many situations of inequality, poverty and injustice, are signs not only of a profound lack of fraternity, but also of the absence of a culture of solidarity. New ideologies, characterized by rampant individualism, egocentrism and materialistic consumerism, weaken social bonds, fuelling that “throw away” mentality which leads to contempt for, and the abandonment of, the weakest and those considered “useless.” In this way human coexistence increasingly tends to resemble a mere do ut des which is both pragmatic and selfish.”

My experience of overcoming obstacles was tangible, but it was only virtual. I was able to ‘tap out’ when I had finished working from home. There is a permanent struggle for many people involved in advocacy (including BLM) because they can’t escape the injustice and inequality that they face. Myriam François explains, “people racialized as white must recognize our responsibility to confront unequal structures from which we benefit: the structures that mean we don’t have to worry about being stopped and searched; or which mean forgetting to pay for an item is construed as a “mishap” and not a crime; or that our children are not perceived as inherently challenging”.

We are beginning to improve our awareness of others through Zoom meetings, checking to make sure that everyone can hear and see, keeping an eye on the chat function for cries of help and remembering to scan across the video tiles. Over the past six months, we have created new ways of communicating. For instance, for those who’ve forgotten to unmute themselves, the hand cupped to the ear has become the visual sign for "we can’t hear you." Frequent videoconferencing has also given us permission to be quite direct and pragmatic about communication, “Geoff, please unmute yourself” now seems less abrasive.

The fraternity described by Pope Francis is a critical part of what it means to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Like any experience of family, solidarity challenges us to move beyond frustration, impatience, and selfishness. We must see everyone as family members who have something worthwhile to contribute and maybe then we will make sure that all of the voices can be heard.

How are you helping to foster an inclusive community in your workplace, parish, and community?

Who is left out of your conversations?

Like any experience of family, solidarity challenges us to move beyond frustration, impatience, and selfishness. #catholicmom

Copyright 2020 Nathan Ahearne
Image: Unsplash (2019)