Thursday, May 09, 2019

When Inclusion Just Makes Life Easier

I have to hand it to Twitter; it has changed my mind on a few issues in the last month or so.  And no, I’m not referring to politics, at least in the usual sense of the word. I’m referring to some ways in which making a conscious choice to be more inclusive benefits not only the newly-included, but even the ones doing the including.  It makes life easier for everybody. It’s like applying “Universal Design” to daily life.

One is the third-person singular pronoun “they.”  I rejected it for a long time, on the grounds that it was plural.  Defaulting to the impersonal “she,” as opposed to the impersonal “he,” seemed sufficiently progressive for me.  And “s/he” always felt a little forced.

But some folks pointed out that both “he” and “she” exclude people who identify as non-binary.  I hadn’t made that connection, but when I read it, I really couldn’t disagree. So now if you catch me using “they” as a singular, know that it’s a choice.  It still doesn’t sound quite right to me -- old habits die hard -- but I’d rather err on the side of inclusion than inadvertently deny the existence or humanity of a bunch of people.  

(Somewhat less dramatically, I’ve also started using “y’all” a bit more than one might expect from someone who grew up in New York.  It’s not an attempt to pass as Southern. It’s because distinguishing the second-person plural from the second-person singular can be really useful, and the all-purpose “you” doesn’t do that.  If embracing “y’all” also helps bridge the red state/blue state divide, even better.)

The second is mandatory microphone use in public meetings.  I’ve been generally pro-microphone for a long time, both because I’m relatively soft-spoken -- not a character flaw, thank you very much -- and because I associate shouting with anger.  But recently, some folks have made the point that microphone use isn’t just for the people in the back of the room. It’s also for people who are hard of hearing. Asking a roomful of people “can you hear me?” puts the burden of self-identification on people with trouble hearing.  That’s not fair to them. And from a speaker’s perspective, microphones level the playing field between the naturally blustery and the rest of us. I’ve gone from “generally in favor” to “strongly supporting.”

Microphones are also getting both better and cleverer.  Last year I gave a talk at a college in Kansas at which the audience had a microphone embedded in what looked like a plush beach ball.  When someone wanted to ask a question, the person with the ball would throw it to the one with the next question. It made the “pass the mic” ritual much more festive.  

The next frontier in microphones should be improving on the lapel mic.  Their audio can be uneven, and they’re designed on the assumption that the speaker is wearing a man’s jacket.  That can lead to some awkward moments. But I have faith that sooner or later, someone will figure out a better way.  The potential payoff is too great not to.

Most recently, someone tweeted out support for captioning of movies in theaters.  The major goal is to make viewing friendlier for people with trouble hearing, but it can also help everyone else when the dialogue is muddy, or overlapping, or whispered, or unfamiliarly accented.  At home, when we watch “Sherlock” on Netflix, we turn on the closed-captioning. It helps more than I care to admit. There’s even some occasional bonus comedy when the captioning says something like “jaunty music,” which is more entertaining than the music itself.  

Each of these is a variation on the benefits of inclusion.  Using “they” means not having to specify a gender, which is both inclusive and sometimes helpful.  (Guessing wrong is mortifying;
“they” means not having to guess.)  Microphone use makes it easier to everyone to hear, and for everyone to be heard.  And while captioning may be most useful for people who are hard of hearing, it can be helpful for everybody.  Making it universal would get around some awkward moments about deciding what needs to be subtitled and what doesn’t, and would make it easier to follow complicated plots when characters are mumbling.

As long as changes like these are presented as impositions, they’ll generate resistance.  But in each case, after the initial adjustment, they actually make life easier for everyone.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere...