Declining to Use a Mic at Your Next Conference Is Ableist by Jennifer Janechek

* October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. To honor this, many of the Sound Wisdom blog articles this month are meant to educate about disability-related employment issues and celebrate the diverse contributions brought to the workplace by employees with disabilities.  

There was an article circulating on my Facebook newsfeed the other day about what you’re really saying when you say, “I don’t need a mic” at a meeting or conference. According to the author, declining to use a microphone is a form of exclusion. It tells the audience that people who are not hard of hearing are valued over and above those who are—that it does not matter if people with hearing differences can comfortably listen to your presentation. In doing so, it not only devalues and ostracizes people who are hard of hearing, but in its baseline assumption about standard hearing and normative communication practices it also reinforces prejudices against those with hearing differences. In other words, it is an ableist behavior—it is discriminatory against people with disabilities. 

As someone who prides herself on being able to project well and who thus often declines to use a microphone when speaking publicly, this piece really gave me pause. I did not realize how assumptions about normative hearing were underlying my attitude about microphone usage.  

It is so important to cultivate inclusivity in our work and conference environments. In addition to always using a microphone when speaking in front of a group, here are some other great ways of promoting inclusivity in business environments that the article mentions: 

  • Do not widely vary your pitch and volume while speaking: when a speaker gets quiet, a person’s hearing aids will amplify accordingly, so a sudden dramatic increase in volume can be painful to the listener. 

  • Be patient and willing to repeat yourself, and if someone still can’t hear or understand you after a few repetitions, try changing your wording. 

  • During Q&A, either provide question askers with a microphone or have a speaker repeat the questions using a microphone. 

  • Another suggestion (unmentioned in the article) would be to have a multimedia component to your presentation. Having slides with written text can help deaf and hard of hearing audience members follow along better with your presentation. 

  • This was also not stated in the article, but it is nice when conferences provide sign language translators for keynote lectures and large presentations. It is an extra expense to be sure, but when you consider what conference organizers are spending on the featured speakers, the catering, etc., the cost is minimal in comparison.  

According to a 2016 study by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes, only 48% of deaf people were employed in 2014, while 72% of hearing people had jobs. Imagine how much richer our companies and conferences would be if we made them more accessible to deaf and disabled people. Let’s be respectful of the physical differences of our colleagues and work to eliminate ableist attitudes and behaviors from our work environments. It’s not always easy—as Joe Gerstandt writes in his introduction to Jessica Pettitt’s Good Enough Now, “Inclusion is [not] an intellectual endeavor…. It requires effort, action, and a bit of discomfort”—but it’s definitely worthwhile. Diversity brings so much value to the workplace and to society as a whole.  

This article originally appeared in The Good Men Project.

Jennifer Janechek is the director of content strategy for Sound Wisdom. She has her PhD in English literature from the University of Iowa and her MA in English from the University of South Florida. She is also the founder of The Work-at-Home Mom Blog, which provides inspiration and community for moms who juggle work and parenting simultaneously. Her writings can be found in EntrepreneurThe Good Men Project, and many other publications.