Daniel Brown: Technology shouldn’t be used to exclude deaf people

Posted on February 29, 2016

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Rain-flecked grey streets, green, red, and yellow neon blazing overhead, curls of steam rising out from some labyrinth underworld below with the hiss of some distant subway making its circular journey like the Minotaur stalking after Theseus.

You look up. You decide to watch. You look at the young. You look at the old. You look at the sophisticated devices in their ears and in their hands. What are they? What is this?

Have you suffered retrograde amnesia and found yourself on the set of a Dystopian science-fiction film? Has there been a bang so loud that it’s rendered everyone profoundly deaf?

***

Recently, for a job application through Channel 4, I had to review a TV show they’ve produced. I chose Humans, which I’d heard is a TV show, despite being co-produced with AMC, from the U.K. that will challenge the supremacy and dominance of serialised television shows over in the USA.

Since the show broadcast last year, in the summer, I had to watch through Channel 4’s on demand service.

I discovered that the subtitles only started from episode three onwards. Ignoring that this is terrible for the so-called ‘episodic’, long-form arcs that most drama series’ have, not including them in the first two episodes is an oversight that just stinks of laziness.

Of course, the thought that Channel 4 are attempting some sly, post-modern exercise in marketing did flit across the mind. Maybe they’re telling people that those who are Deaf are the closest thing to synths/androids/replicants because we carry increasingly sophisticated, costly pieces of technology in our ears, and therefore we’re a step closer to achieving the so-called ‘Singularity’.

There’s a problem, though. Drama is a genre, and television and film a format, that relies heavily on dialogue to telegraph psychological depth and plot. You delve beyond the mere surface of the words that characters spout and you fall through into the swamps of subtext, where the jilted lover saying ‘You’re right, but I hope you’ll still be in my life.’ is actually saying I’m still gonna love you until I realise you’re a lost cause.

For me, throughout my life, I’ve just coped. Over the years, I’ve probably achieved my 10,000 hours in lip-reading and that’s a good thing. It makes things easier, for me. But perhaps for others it’s a real, serious problem.  It just isn’t fair.

I’m a huge fan of Channel 4, and their commitment to diversity laid down in their 360 Degrees Diversity Charter is both inspiring and encouraging and I encourage you all to read it.

Channel 4 are also doing amazing things with the Paralympics and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with Rio 2016. Out of all the broadcasters, they’re perhaps the most committed to raising awareness with disability rights.

But this mistake isn’t fair because Channel 4 programmes, including Humans, which debuted July 2015, are usually placed online almost immediately after their broadcast. An oversight like this means excluding people like me from enjoying one of the cultural cornerstones of our society – talking about ‘that amazing thing that happened in that show last night’.

And all of this has dragged out memories of childhood for me. Back in the 90s, when yours truly was a little scrapper, there was some Japanese show called Pokemon. It was just a little show. No big deal.  Every interval in primary school, I’d step out and all you’d see was a sea of Gameboy Colours and trading cards being swapped in the playground. You’d go up to the bespectacled, shifty looking character standing away from the crowds, hands jammed into his long anorak. You’d sidle up to him and he’d ask you:

“What you after?”
“What you got?”
“I got Mudkip or Bulbasur” leans forward to spit, “Mum’s getting me a new pack tomorrow.”
“I dunno, I want some of that Mewmoo.”
“You mean Mewtwo, right?”
“I think so?”

Okay, that didn’t happen.

This was a time where the VHS still enjoyed its reign as the dominant home-entertainment medium. And while the show was usually shown on Saturday morning TV, on the terrestrial channels, satellite was the only way to get your regular fix.

My grandparents were amongst the first people in Scotland to get satellite, or so it seemed back then. They’d record every single Pokemon episode for me and what this resulted in, every weekend that I stayed over, were mammoth Pokemon marathons.

These were blissful moments. The fibre optics of my eyes were treated to a constellation of bright colours and shapes and I’d finally be able to say things like: “It was SO COOL when Brock told Onix to slam into Pikachu like that!”.

In saying such a thing, I’d find myself being pulled down, able to touch the terra firma of ‘common ground’.

But then, just as quickly, I’d find myself falling through it, like the silhouette of Don Draper in Mad Men’s opening credits.

Whenever I was asked about a specific plot point or for my opinion on an incident, I’d have to make an excuse or excuse myself from the conversation. Sure, I could’ve probably have related specific images and sequences to match what they were talking about – this wasn’t difficult – but the hardest thing of all was the feeling of being the outsider.

Victor Hugo once said: “What matters deafness of the ears when the mind hears?”, but all I would’ve said to Victor is: Have you ever tried to lip-read a cartoon character? Didn’t think so. That stuff is hard. Really hard.

And since this post is written around the topic of ‘technology’, it feels right to mention another anecdote. One that transformed my life.

One day, coming back from school, I saw, sitting on the living room couch, this black and blue television remote. I remember my Mum walking into the room, taking the remote off me, turning on the T.V., hitting a small button, and this popping up on my screen:

AUDIO DESCRIPTION: OFF
SUBTITLES: ON

Those fools in the playground had no idea who was about to enter the ring.

***

This whole Humans thing, from its title to its premise – ‘synths’ can be bought as household servants to fulfil basic jobs; a group want equal rights along with the rest of humanity – has gotten me to thinking about the power of technology and the implications it has on society.

Maybe if we can eschew the whole staring-down-at-the-phone-screen-every-single-second-thing that seems pretty rampant at the moment, we might just be able to achieve the goal of connecting with each other again, creating a society where altruism is more readily apparent and not a  slightly manipulative story shared on social media.

And this isn’t a post criticising Channel 4. It was an innocent mistake, one that is actually now fixed. If you think about our reliance on our smartphones and all of the things that you can now do, that’s enough to make your mind reel. Especially if you’re like me and you come from a time when you had to wait for your Mum to put down the phone before you could go on the Cartoon Network website.

Yet we take it for granted. We don’t stop to think about how its changed the fabric of our lives.

And yes, while it’s cliché to moan about the impact of technology, I could never, ever call myself a ‘Luddite’ – a noun with its etymology describing a group of 19th Century textile workers who destroyed the new, modern technology that was coming out of the Industrial Revolution. Because without technology, I would cease to be a ‘functioning member of society’, and more like a hermit.

So it’s not that I’m proposing we all round up our phones, ipads, and computers like an exam invigiliator hell-bent on exacting their totalitarian power over the room,

Yet, it seems like we’re all withdrawing within ourselves, curating our lives for the consumption of others, through technology. The next time you have a conversation with someone who is deaf, notice how closely they’re devoting their attention to you, and to you only. Just as much as we rely on technology to cope with day-to-day life, we also rely on you, as fellow human beings, to help us feel less alone.

And so maybe if we gather, knock our heads, harness our collective brain power, we might just create our own version of the singularity, achieving a pinnacle in human existence and achievement where we’re all truly connected, empathetic, kind, and happy. I’m aware of how idealised, pie-in-the-sky all of this is.

But this isn’t about ‘Disability’, it’s an issue of ‘Humanity’. We can’t use technology to exclude; we can’t use technology to make others feel inferior about their own lives, because take it from someone who knows – those people, if they’re willing and resilient enough, will spend the rest of their lives making sure others pay attention to them, even as we walk around with expensive pieces of technology in our ears or strapped to our heads.

We’re just like everyone else.

Daniel Brown graduated the University of Stirling with a First Class Honours in English Literature in 2014. He has recently completed a Masters in Creative Writing. He is currently writing a TV spec script based in a summer camp for those with special needs and disabilities, drawing inspiration from his own experiences as a residential summer camp counsellor in Iowa, USA.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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