Recently i met someone brave. A teenager who had been profoundly affected by cancer, losing first her sight, then her hearing, all over the space of around three years. Within that time, instead of despair, she seemed to have found determination. She’d learnt a form of sign language, using symbols marked out on her hand, to ‘listen’, whilst still being able to speak to answer.
The thing that struck me most was her adaptability, her desire or need to communicate, and her ability to use severely degraded channels to do so. It speaks of something innate, essential to our ‘selves’ that we communicate, to share ideas, to express desires, to build common understanding.
I’ve worked quite widely with people of different abilities and am constantly aware of how we are able to change the ways we interact and communicate to adapt to changing circumstances. Indeed, we are incredibly tolerant of the noise and degradation of incoming signals, whilst still being able to filter out salient information. Take text, like you’re reading right now (unless you’re using a screen reader). You can hide the top 50% of the characters, or, indeed, the bottom 50% of the characters, and it will barely affect our ability to read the text. We are very good at filling in the gaps. There’s a lot of ‘slack’ within most of our communication. We can understand conversations in noisy rooms because of our ability ‘make up’ the connections. We need to get a few of the most salient words, but much of the rest we can contextualise ourselves.
It’s much easier to do this when you know the person speaking, or know the subject. If you’re with friends in a noisy pub, it’s possible to maintain a conversation, but you wouldn’t go there on a first date.
With regard to learning design, it’s essential that we consider questions of environment and ability when we write or create materials. At a basic level, we need to consider where learners will be when they use materials. Will they be in a noisy environment, in a dark environment, but also have we considered different physical abilities. Is the text large enough, will it work with a screen reader, are colours contrasted enough, too high contrast or differentiated for colour blindness? In a two way conversation, we are at least able to adapt our style and delivery to meet the needs or expectations of the audience, but with something like e-learning, we can’t.
Whilst people have a great tolerance of noisy channels of communication, that doesn’t mean that we should exploit or count on their ability to work with these. Our responsibility is to at least ensure that we are broadcasting in the clearest possible manner, leaving the message more capable of dealing with degradation.
As we see a move towards greater use of social media, much of the type of communication we see in learning and development, which is typically ‘broadcast’ and typically questions and answer based, starts to be more non linear and immediate. In forums, chat rooms or webinars, the dialogue is immediate, and we may need to consider strategies to better adapt for participants with disabilities.
We run a significant risk otherwise that ‘enabling’ technologies, allowing more immediate and immersive involvement could end up being exclusive, that they could actively disenfranchise some learners. And this isn’t just people with a disability. I grew up with a fairly typical middle class education, and clearly remember by surprise when i first started working alongside someone who couldn’t read. Reading has always been such a central part of my life, that i suspect i looked incredulous when my colleague (who i had worked with for several months without realising) gave me a letter and asked if i could read it to him. Just proves really how assumptions can be so wrong; i assumed that being ‘smart’, meant you needed to be able to read, but it turns out i was very wrong.
So, from my own ignorance, through to understanding how someone who can neither hear nor see is able to forge a new channel for communication, it’s clear that the desire to share understanding, to build common concepts and ideas, to communicate, is strong, but that we need to ensure that we focus on keeping those channels as clear as possible.