Presenting at virtual meetings has become the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic for science researchers, although it can be disconcerting to experience. Digital platforms may inadvertently obscure important physical cues like eye contact and body language, making it difficult for presenters to engage with the audience and receive real-time feedback. If you have ever struggled with this, then you may appreciate the difficulty of communicating for people who are similarly affected by unfavorable external factors, such as non-native English speakers, the visually impaired, deaf, and hard-of-hearing. In the current climate of science research, these individuals face significant communication barriers that limit work opportunities and productivity. Science is a field that benefits from diverse opinions to solve complex problems, so it is in everyone’s best interests to dismantle these barriers.
English: The lingua franca of science
A common language like English is beneficial for communicating internationally, but it puts non-native speakers at an unfair disadvantage. Manuscripts are often judged by their writing and language quality, with such errors often overshadowing the merit of the authors’ research. Furthermore, non-English publications often have invaluable local data, like environmental issues and biodiversity, but may be unsearchable using English terms. Publishing may be more feasible if journals provided translation services, or if research grants included funding for these services. With the increased globalization of science comes the responsibility that people of all languages are equally represented.
Visual and Auditory Accessibility
Scientific progress relies on sight for many tasks – from checking cell confluency to interpreting data graphs. Helping people who are visually impaired can be as simple as providing equipment that allows for work independence. For example, upgrading to a microscope-camera and monitor system that enhances images can greatly assist individuals with near-total blindness. Researchers can also contribute to visual accessibility by being mindful of presentation and publication design. Avoid small texts and consider adding captions to describe photos and graphs. Move away from red-green combinations and take advantage of color blindness simulators on ImageJ and Adobe Photoshop, or downloadable applications like Color Oracle.
Imagine how challenging it is with the prevalent use of masks to navigate the pandemic as a person who relies on lip reading for communication. Scientists who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can also face similar challenges in the workplace. If lighting is dim within an auditorium or the presenter is far away from the audience, some individuals may have difficulty reading lips. Additionally, those who prefer to communicate via sign language are limited by the availability of interpreters. One way to support the deaf and hard-of hearing is to use real-time captioning. Applications that are commonly used at meetings, like Microsoft PowerPoint and Teams Meeting, have access to this convenient technology and should be used when necessary. Everyone can benefit from the ergonomics of the aforementioned technologies, practices, and design elements. Some improvements rely on financial availability, but many can easily be incorporated into our daily routines.
A common misconception about people with communication disadvantages is that they are less intelligent. However, they are just as capable of scientific thinking but may require additional support to perform to the current research standards. We need to advocate for employers and organizations to provide appropriate funding and accommodations so that these groups are not unfairly penalized for factors out of their control. Furthermore, we need to actively promote socially inclusive practices within the workplace as many individuals may be unable or feel embarrassed to converse with colleagues. Non-native English speaking, visually impaired, deaf or hard-of-hearing scientists collectively comprise a significant portion of the scientific community. When appropriately supported, they represent a substantial force behind scientific breakthroughs for the betterment of all.
Author’s note: I highly encourage everyone to read the anecdotes (see References 2-7) of those who are directly affected by communication barriers to understand their challenges and how we can support their needs.
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