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Please use the Mic! – My Take by Dr Aqsa Shaikh

Delhi-based medical educator Dr Aqsa Shaikh is a Community Medicine Specialist teaching at Jamia Hamdard, Delhi. A Transwoman, Dr Aqsa writes extensively on the challenges faced by the Transgender Community in India. She is also passionate about raising awareness of about mental health issues among vulnerable groups. A poet, she writes in English, Hindi, and Urdu.

One frequently encounters this scene wherein a speaker is offered a microphone to speak into, but says 'I don't need this, I am loud enough'. When they do so, they do not understand how callous they are about people who may have some level of hearing impairment or are hard of hearing.

This incident is often a reflection of how we set norms according to our own level of ability. This is how ableism works. 'Since I have a good level of hearing, I am going to assume that it is the norm, that everyone else has a good level of hearing too'. This what someone endorsing ableism seems to be shouting.

We forget that some form of hearing loss is present in a significant proportion of the population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 5% of the world's population, or 466 million people, have disabling hearing loss. 34 million of them are children. Approximately, one-third of people over 65 years of age are affected as well, adds WHO.

How Ableism works

When we assume that we do not need to use the mic, we forget that hearing loss is stigmatising. People with hearing loss are often considered to be 'old, weak, having lower intelligence or even irritating', causing many to hide their hearing impairment. Many people even fake that they are able to hear normally. Hearing aids are not always considered cool like spectacles and people avoid using them in the public.

We often overlook the fact that people with hearing loss may not want to come out in the open and ask every speaker every time to speak on the mic. We fail to acknowledge that it is the responsibility of the speaker to accommodate the people in the audience, some of whom may have hearing loss. In the absence of sign language literacy and provision of sign language in most of programmes, the least we can do is to provide and use amplification.

Remember that hearing loss is an invisible disability and hence as speakers we need to assume that some of the members of the audience may have hearing impairment even when they all seem to be having a normal conversation.

So, the next time you stand up to speak, don't forget the mic.

The problem happens when the mic is not even made available in the first place. It is often considered an unnecessary expenditure while organising an event. The problem is especially acute when the audience is large and there are fans on or windows open, leading to a lot of ambient noise. When the mic is not made available it is a message sent that you, as a speaker, don't need a mic, that you should be able to speak loudly and that everyone in the audience is supposed to have good hearing.

How often are teachers who cannot project their voices looked down upon! It is as if a teacher's ability to teach is linked to her ability to speak loudly without using a mic. This in today's era of technology where a mic is the least we can provide as a teaching-learning aid. This is dual ableism. That on one side we expect speakers to be able to speak loudly without any aid, and on the other hand we expect everyone in the audience to be able to hear the speaker without the use of a mic.

Another problem which we frequently encounter is this. That the mic is available, but the speaker is not using it correctly. As a result, the audience is not able to hear the speaker clearly or the sound is too jarring. If one has taken up the role of speaking in public, then it comes with the obligation of learning how to use the mic. This has to be learnt. And if one decides not to learn, it just shows a lack of sensitivity towards accommodating others.

So, the next time you are organizing, or speaking, or listening at an event, please make sure that a mic is provided and used and used correctly. Insist on speakers using the mic even if you do not have hearing loss. The onus should not be on people with hearing impairment. Lastly, be sensitive and accommodating.

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