Videoconferencing in the “Post-Pandemic” Era: Accessibility across Difference

Three diverse individuals videoconferencing through their computers.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most people were familiar with the videoconferencing platform Skype, and the ubiquitous iPhone meant equal ubiquity of popular video-chat tool FaceTime. Perhaps only fully online educators and their students used videoconferencing tools, either built into learning management systems or from third parties, as daily facilitators of communication and instruction. March 2020 slammed the door shut on a majority of in-person communications, creating feelings of panic and plunging higher education and the world at large into the unknown.

In my position as a part-time reference librarian for a community college in Upstate New York, I watched our student, faculty, and community visitors dwindle to a trickle, then stop almost entirely. I felt the frantic anxiety of the faculty as administrators informed them they would be teaching out the rest of the semester online after a brief recess for students. Like many college libraries, we used LibChat from SpringShare, and participated in the 24/7 Chat Cooperative, then QuestionPoint. With no one to interact with my displays, and no classes coming in for instruction sessions, my workload shrank to the spare few reference questions coming in through virtual channels. When I learned our classroom would be used for our college’s crash course in converting instruction to a fully online environment, I was eager to help facilitate those sessions in any way I could.

I spent many workdays helping our head of online instruction teach faculty how to adapt classes to a fully online format, often after teaching the content exclusively in-person for the entirety of multi-decade careers. Integral to the success of fully remote learning and working in higher education was the incorporation of videoconferencing tools such as WebEx, Zoom, and Google Meet.

Four years later, faculty and staff at higher educational institutions have become fluent in Zoom: instances of forgetting to mute have dwindled, more people have figured out how to blur their backgrounds, and more still now know how to enable accessibility tools, even becoming adept at troubleshooting common problems with speakers, microphones, and cameras. As we move further into what many administrators have dubbed the ”post”-pandemic period, the push for returning to in-person work and programming has ramped up. However, maintaining fully remote or hybrid options for meetings, programming, networking events, and professional development (e.g., fully online conferences and webinars) is an accessibility concern that crosses many needs and differences.

As an early career librarian, my professional development has been made possible by the robust webinar and workshop offerings I can hop into and out of between committee meetings and stints on the reference desk. On the occasion I forget something I signed up for or know something is being presented at a time when I am already booked, many institutions send registrants the session recording after the fact. The ability to record online meetings allows individuals with auditory processing difficulties to re-listen to their colleagues, perhaps at a reduced speed and with captioning. ADHDers like myself appreciate the ability to rewatch a portion of a webinar during which we were distracted or just the opportunity to watch it at a different time when our brains are better able to absorb the new information.

The Q&A or chat feature can be used to ask questions as they occur to people, as opposed to needing to hold all questions until the end of a presentation, when individuals who struggle with short-term memory issues may have forgotten what they wanted to ask. I have also seen the chat function used seamlessly by webinar or conference facilitators to answer clarifying questions, troubleshoot tech issues, or supply handy links to attendees, all without interrupting the presentation. As a librarian, I love being able to drop helpful links with definitions of potentially unfamiliar terms or concepts, provide background resources or reading lists, or even take attendance. I have often asked students to type their full names into the chat for an easy to reference attendance list. Using the chat for collecting this information also means students borrowing a parent or sibling’s Zoom account do not need to change their display name in order to receive credit for attending.

Communicating via the chat features in videoconferencing tools also reduces communication barriers between hearing and deaf individuals. Speaking from personal experience, chat even allows individuals suffering from social anxiety, either on its own or as an aspect of a larger disorder/condition, to seek clarification, ask questions, and generally contribute to conversations in a way that feels less vulnerable.

Individuals on the autism spectrum for whom masking is a tiring constant of their working lives may find this labor reduced in being able to attend work meetings or networking events from the safety of their homes. Simply having the option to have video on or off may increase the likelihood of having the energy to participate or attend at all. At the annual ACRL 2023 Conference, organizers created two options for the big networking event held on the final evening of programming. I attended that conference with two colleagues who are also neurodivergent, and we agreed that after several days straight of in-person “peopleing,” we were too exhausted to consider attending a loud, crowded, unstructured networking event. We happily registered for the Zoom trivia instead and had an absolutely amazing time from the comfort and privacy of our hotel room. Likewise, immunocompromised folks or people with other disabilities leery of the growing rarity of COVID-19 prevention measures could participate and collaborate safely with their colleagues.

As a queer librarian who came out as nonbinary only a few months ago, I believe the commonality of videoconferencing in my professional life helped ease my transition from using she/her pronouns to using they/them pronouns. Being able to have my pronouns displayed beside my face in every meeting and database searching lesson served as an excellent visual pairing linking myself and my identity to help colleagues and students alike better identify me. Having my pronouns prominently displayed greatly reduced my being misgendered in comparison to in-person interactions, and therefore also reduced the number of times I needed to correct people. At the best of times, correcting pronouns for me is a nerve-wracking experience. Doing so in person opens me up to the full brunt of the receiver’s response, be it anger, indignation, or effusive self-flagellation, all of which are distressing to me and cause additional emotional labor, on top of the distress of having been misgendered in the first place.

As administrators and educators alike consider how to mark the “post-pandemic,” I urge them to relinquish the idea of a triumphant return to our pre-2019 work lives. Instead, we should all take this opportunity to move toward greater equity and access across difference.

Profile photo of Sam Berry-Sullivan

About the author:

Sam Berry-Sullivan is a white, nonbinary, neurodivergent academic librarian who leverages their privilege and unique experience of the world to advocate for diversity and equity in librarianship, higher education, and health sciences, for which Sam is subject liaison.

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