Meeting Up: Together at a Distance

Computer screen showing Zoom meeting participants

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            At TechOWL, we have a monthly meetup for people who use augmentative communication. Many of our past ACES participants have become regulars. Each month, we look forward to learning new tech, troubleshooting device challenges, and talking AAC.

The current health crisis makes meeting on the Temple University campus impossible.  There have been Covid-19 cases in Philly and the surrounding suburbs. We are all thinking more about social distancing. As of March 17th, most Temple faculty, staff, & students are working remotely. 

Why is this so important? Some of our AAC users have immune dysfunction, or compromised pulmonary function. Even if we don’t feel sick, we don’t dare spread the virus to others. We are just learning about this new illness. We don’t know how many of us will remain asymptomatic, but still be contagious. Testing has been insufficient to judge exactly how widespread Covid-19 may be.

It is our social responsibility to protect all people, including our disabled family, friends, and peers. Almost 20% of Americans have a disability. They are not disposable. We all need to stay home and stay safe. 

How do we adapt to this new reality? 

Our AAC Meetup went virtual last Tuesday evening.  We used the Zoom platform and I wasn’t sure how well it would go. I had guessed that we would talk for, perhaps, 15 minutes. We would at least touch base in this time of uncertainty. Maintaining human connection feels especially important right now, and this would be better than nothing. 

Sign saying "Success Ahead" on a beach.

Two hours later, we took a deep breath and said good night! The virtual meetup surpassed our expectations. We had connected and shared in a meaningful way.  It wasn’t without minor difficulties and we had to create a few participation rules on the fly.  For one, there were lots of “Ryans” in the group. We needed folks to raise their hands to be sure of who was talking!

Five AAC users attended. At the end of the evening, I asked everyone how they felt it had gone. Two thought it was hard to chat online, two said it was no problem. The fifth pointed out that it got easier over the course of the two hours. 

Hand writing the word ACCESS.

All of us agreed that the AAC users spoke more, and took more conversational turns, in the online context. I would guess this was due to increased awareness, and really, consideration given by the speaking members of the group. Being online made us more aware of taking turns and providing wait time. We all had to watch closely to see who was talking. We all had to pause for responses. The setting placed us on a more even playing field.

Many disability rights activists point out that they have asked for remote access for quite some time. This accommodation now seems reasonable in a world where we all need it. 

Let’s give this some thought.  Our current reality should help us recognize the need to make inclusive environments more commonplace. We need to extend this to AAC users in all settings, including higher education. Our virtual AAC Meetups will continue, even once life goes ‘back to normal’. 

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Kathryn Helland

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