It was a Thursday morning, and I was teaching a seminar to first year undergraduate students. I divided the students into three groups, then sent each group into a separate room to spend fifteen minutes discussing the material. Ten minutes later, I was still in the main room. My usual practice was to visit each room in turn, to listen to the students' discussion, answer any questions, and prompt them if everyone was a little too quiet. On this occasion, however, I couldn't find the entrance to the rooms. I'd never had this problem before. At this rate, the time would run out before I'd had a chance to check on any of the groups. I could only hope that the students would be too engrossed in their discussion to notice that I hadn't visited them. What could I do? Each seminar had three of these discussion sessions. Would I be able to find the secret entrance before the next one? Had the students locked me out because they had treasure they wanted to keep from me? Or was it a secret weapon? Were they plotting to take over the university? The world?
Just before the time was up, I found the way in. It occurred to me that the "5 participants" button might in fact be the button that had previously been labelled "join breakout room 1". Sure enough, when I activated it, I was prompted to join breakout room 1. All was well, and I, and the students, lived happily ever after. I did wonder why the Zoom developers couldn't have retained the more informative button labelling, but I suppose they didn't want to make my quest too easy.
I have learned many things navigating through these strange rooms. I learned to use Zoom, first on the iPad, and then, when the iPad app couldn't do everything I needed, I got up to speed on the Mac. I committed many of the Zoom keyboard shortcuts to memory, and tried not to mix them up with the keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft Teams.
When I began teaching online, I learned how to set up my audio on the Mac. As a seminar tutor, I was given lecture videos to play to the students. For the other tutors, This could be accomplished by the relatively simple process of screen sharing and then playing the video. For a VoiceOver user, however, it's a little more complicated. I wanted the students to hear the audio of the lecture, but I didn't want them to hear VoiceOver constantly chattering about software updates that couldn't be installed and other such things that were entirely irrelevant to the course material. My solution was to connect my Aftershokz headset to the Mac, set the sound output in system preferences to the external speakers, then set the sound output in VoiceOver Utility to the Aftershokz. That way, VoiceOver would come through the aftershokz and everything else, including the lecture video, would come through the external speakers.
This solution wasn't perfect. Zoom sends some of its announcements to the text to speech; it uses one of the VoiceOver voices, but doesn't use VoiceOver itself. With the audio setup I had, when you start or stop screen sharing, or invite people to join breakout rooms, or if someone joins or leaves the meeting or sends a chat message when any window other than Zoom has focus, it'll be announced over the speakers. To deal with this, I muted my audio when I knew I was about to hear one of those announcements and spent as little time as possible away from the Zoom window, just enough to start playing the video. I taught six seminars online over one semester. Over that time, I was learning as I went along and adapting to changes to the Zoom software. If I had been teaching for longer, I would've tried an app such as Sound Source so that I could send only the Quicktime Player audio to the speakers, and everything else to the Aftershokz.
I have also learned, and I hope we have learned collectively, how much more accessible life can be when we make the most of our devices. During lockdown, I chaired the question and answer session for a talk given by one of my fellow PhD students. Every week, one of us gives a talk to the rest of the department and then answers questions from the other postgraduate students and staff. When we give these talks in person, audience members raise their hand if they have a question, and the chair, always a separate person from the speaker, calls on each of those people in turn to ask their question. Chairing was not something I could do. The procedure for online talks was for anyone who had a question to send a chat message to the chair. Much more accessible. I've been to zoom parties with the other PhD students where I wandered from breakout room to breakout room, without having to ask for help getting around, or get familiar enough with the space to get around it independently, or wonder where the toilet is. Aside from the button labelling incident with which I began this post, those breakout rooms worked well. In my teaching, I was able to mark/grade exams, which the students completed online rather than with pen and paper.
I don't want to minimise the huge problems the virus and the lockdowns have caused for disabled people, and everyone else, or people's need to be physically together again. But I hope, in the rush to normality, we won't completely forget the new ways of working and playing we've learned, as many of them work better for visually impaired and other disabled people.
Have you had to learn to do new things with your Apple devices during lockdown? Has our greater reliance on our devices made life more, or less, accessible to you? Please let us know in the comments.