One of my colleagues came to me with a question:

Could I find a headset that works well with Microsoft Teams and Skype?

Not an unusual request, perhaps – but my colleague also wears hearing aids.

Their experience with normal headsets was poor, and not just for them but for others on calls with them. For example:

  • Overall sound quality. My colleague would sound distant as if their head was in a goldfish bowl, largely due to positioning of an external mic to avoid introducing feedback and other audio inclusions.
  • Ear piece size. Too small and it would sit awkwardly on the hearing aid itself; not big enough, and it would clash with the battery compartment. (Anyone who wears glasses can sympathise with the earpiece size issue as arms of glasses can clash or be caught inside the earpiece, resulting in wonky glasses or worse, the arm being painfully pressed into the side of the head and ear.)
  • Dongle hiccups. Using a streaming dongle with a pendant didn’t help either, as the combination of headset microphone but audio coming through the aid via a pendant proved too fiddly to get right.

As I was attending Microsoft Ignite, I offered to see what was available. I could see from the exhibitors list that all the major headset manufacturers would be present. I thought it would be a quick 15-minute task, running around the Expo and talking to them, getting a list of suitable products or better still, some samples.

Uncovering the (lack of) accessibility

Alas, the experience on the day left me deflated and rather angry.

15 minutes turned into an hour and more. I spent a depressing time talking to the major headset and audio device manufacturers about what solutions they had. One quite frankly was rude and dismissive—quotes like “it’s not a market we are bothered with” and “never on the roadmap” left me fuming.

Another had technology that might help but lacked any Skype / Teams certification, so could not be recommended. Regardless, to buy it would have required a “special request” as it was not a stock item. Yet another would treat “every request as a special case.” Still another would have to create a business case (!?!) for product development before they even started thinking about it. This went on and on.

There was one glimmer of hope. Credit is due to Sennheiser and their representative as he knew instantly which product to recommend, even though he had to acknowledge the caveats of its potential lack of availability and high price point. (See the resources section at the end of this post for details)

The feedback for streaming dongles, handsets and conference devices was no different. Common messages like “special cases” and “needing business cases” were the standard response.

Turning my anger into constructive feedback

I was left with the view that there is little or no desire from the major manufacturers to support users with hearing loss. I did wonder whether I was making a mountain from a molehill, so I made a note to undertake some research on my return to the UK.

Conveniently (and conversely), Microsoft’s Diversity and Inclusion team had a significant presence alongside the Expo. I took the opportunity to share my experiences with them. I was impressed with how they took my feedback on board.

One element of feedback that I gave them was that a key theme of the event was to create a modern inclusive workplace supported by technology, but none of the enabling technology was on show. No screen readers, standing desks, headsets, minimal number of sessions, etc.

As I found with Sennheiser, there were exhibitors who had products they could show or at least talk about, but you had to ask the right person. Staff could be better prepared and informed.

Whilst my experience had left me feeling that having accessible devices at Ignite was a missed opportunity for Microsoft, their partners and the vendors at least Microsoft undertook to do something about it.

Reframing the question

Following my conversation with Microsoft, I decided to have one last loop around the Expo. I returned to Jabra and asked a different question: not one about headsets but inclusive technology in general.

Reframing the question helped the Jabra representative and they started to connect the dots. Jabra are part of GN, and GN also own ReSound, who happens to be one of the leading manufacturers of hearing aids and so understand the need. For example, ReSound is working on technology to connect Android phones and hearing aids.

Perhaps next year ReSound might have a presence at Microsoft Ignite. Sadly, the conversation at the time did not yield a headset that could help (it was only on my return to the UK that I discovered the Jabra GN 2100, designed for people with hearing aids—more on this in the resources section at the end of the post) nor did the promise of a follow-up after the event materialise.

Diving into research – and support

Once back in the UK I did some research to quantify the problem.

Research by the UK charity Action on Hearing Loss *** approximates that there are 5 million people of working age in the UK who are deaf or have a degree of hearing loss. That’s roughly 12% of the total workforce.

Extrapolating that for the company I work for would yield around 1,920 members of staff with a degree of hearing loss. Based on my limited research, within that 12% a subset would benefit from hearing aids and others may benefit from enhanced amplification (though to my mind that opens up the potential for a vicious circle from injury from excessive noise), improved speaker quality and audio processing to enhance misheard or lost sounds like fricatives.

I’m not an audiologist and they might say all 12% would benefit from hearing aids. The point I’m trying to make is that supporting colleagues with hearing loss is not an edge or special case. There is business value in improving their experience*.

There is also an empathy aspect that we do not need technology to support:

“With hearing loss listening and understanding requires more work to understand particularly in noise. Hearing-impaired people report increased concentration effort, attention and focus, compared to individuals without hearing loss. Increased listening fatigue is likely to be a side effect of even a mild hearing loss. Increased listening fatigue is however like decreased audibility often not being noticed by the person with a mild hearing loss him- or herself.”

That quote was from a paper entitled “What are some common misconceptions associated with mild hearing losses?” which was produced by ReSound. It is food for thought and perhaps another reason to think twice about that 3-hour Skype call or a large open-plan office design!

The 12% value is not insignificant and so I have launched an internal survey to help me quantify the situation where I work. It’s a little too early to talk about the findings in terms of how the 12% holds true (in terms of scale) but I have been encouraged by the responses so far in that they confirm it is an area that needs more work in order to create a modern and inclusive workplace. I’m definitely on the right track.

Continuing the conversation online and off

In addition to the survey, I’ve been able to continue the conversation that I started at Ignite with Microsoft. I’ve discovered that Microsoft has a team that provides accessibility support for Enterprises. Through this team, Enterprise customers can get help with accessibility questions, issues with Assistive Technology, or product conformance questions related to Section 508, WCAG 2.0, or EN 301 549 regulations. They also have direct channels back into the Product Groups and can influence product design.

I have also been able to speak with those responsible for delivering events like Ignite for Microsoft and I am hopeful that next year’s event will be even more inclusive than in 2018. I’m pleased to report that accessibility was a core theme in this year’s Microsoft’s Future Decoded event (which ran 2 months after Ignite), both in terms of sessions and facilities.  In fact disability was the key theme in the Day 2 keynote.

Devices are a part of the equation and another key area is the software. As product feedback, I have mentioned to the Microsoft Teams team** that what would help would be a list similar to the one produced for Skype for compatible devices but with filters for devices designed to support hearing loss and other areas of inclusivity. By including inclusive devices and highlighting features in a Partner showcase we would start to break down the barriers and make the information more accessible and raise the profile of the need for inclusivity.

I very much feel that this is the start of an accessibility journey and one I will continue to pursue.


Resources

Here are links to devices I have found, as well as support material from Action on Hearing Loss.

Support material

Devices

There are devices available but the ones I have discovered to date are described as ‘call centre products’ and they are not cheap. Typically, the devices cost significantly more than a normal headset (£150+) and being call centre products they usually need USB adapters to work with computers.


Footnotes

* The Rt Hon Esther McVey MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions highlighted the business value of inclusion in her keynote at Future Decoded. Hopefully Microsoft will release the recording of this session. It is also worth checking out the UK Governments Disability Confident scheme and how your business can benefit from being disability confident.

** You might be wondering why the Microsoft Teams team. Given that Skype for Business is on its way out and that Teams has released their own device certification program, it made sense to me to go with the future.

*** Action on Hearing Loss is the trading name of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID)

Thank you @beckybenishek for helping me with the refinement of this post.

 

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