Updated: Dec 9, 2021
Article by Charlotte Hyde.
The rise in the use of video conferencing platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to people feeling fatigued. The phrase “Zoom fatigue” has gained traction, but deaf and disabled people like me already have a term for this — concentration fatigue.
Consequently, researchers have been working around the clock to come up with strategies to combat “Zoom fatigue”. Multiple think pieces have been published in various news outlets. Theories have floated around on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Yet at no point has anyone thought to consult deaf or disabled people.
As a deaf person: this has been frustrating to watch.
In February 2021, researchers at Stanford University identified four causes of Zoom fatigue:
Firstly, that “excessive amounts of eye contact is highly intense.”
Stanford notes that on a video call, you are looking at everyone all the time. You do not get a break from looking, or from having people stare at you. As a deaf person, I spend all my time looking at people’s faces in work meetings. I cannot afford to look away because I may miss a crucial piece of information. Active listening is my default. It was not uncommon for me to leave a class, lecture, or seminar with an ache in my neck from having to stretch to see a speaker’s face. I could not look down to take notes because I would lose track of the conversation.
Secondly, that “seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real time is fatiguing.”
Deafness carries the false stereotype of ignorance. Every day, people equate deafness as such by phrases like “tone deaf”. Deaf people often go through school being labelled as a poor listener, told to listen harder or more carefully. To cope with this, I was an overachiever. I crafted a perfect ‘active listening’ face to reassure teachers that I was paying attention. Ignorant was the last thing I ever wanted to be labelled as. This face took time and energy to perfect. It took even more to keep it up. I was constantly in ‘self-view mode’ — maybe not literally, but enough to cause myself even more fatigue.
Thirdly, that “video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility.”
As with the first point, being a deaf person means I do not have the privilege of being able to move around during conversations. In fact, moving around while speaking to a deaf person is poor deaf awareness. Just like cameras, I have a set field of view when conversing orally. My movement is limited because I must focus. This applies to conversing in British Sign Language (BSL) too, as BSL is entirely visual.
Finally, the fourth reason they give is that “the cognitive load is much higher in video chats.”
Essentially, this part of the article is suggesting that our brains work harder to send and receive signals in video chats. The researcher in question Dr Bailenson focuses on non-verbal communication and suggests that gestures and nonverbal cues are harder to interpret over video. We must exaggerate gestures for them to be understood, and this can be fatiguing.
I have certainly found that conversations I have had in British Sign Language (BSL) have been impacted by virtual environments. I have found myself re-adjusting the orientation of my webcam several times to make sure my signing is clear. I have also found the limited signing space an issue; BSL is not meant to be confined to a small box on a Teams meeting. Consequently, I have found it hard at times to understand the other person signing. However, I find virtual signing far less exhausting than virtual listening.
In the article, Bailenson also notes that by using video, “humans have taken one of the most natural things in the world — an in-person conversation — and transformed it into something that involves a lot of thought.”
Every conversation I have — in-person or virtual — involves a lot of thought. I must plan exactly where I am going to stand or sit. I check the background noise levels, the lighting and the orientation of the seating before agreeing to meet someone. No in-person conversation is ever stress-free.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Stanford article — and frankly, the most frustrating — is that audio quality is never mentioned. Personally, I believe that this is probably one of the biggest factors to contribute towards the concentration fatigue people feel when using video-conferencing platforms.
I experience concentration fatigue because when I receive information orally, it takes a lot of effort for my brain to process it.
I believe the same thing is happening on video calls. Poor audio quality, overlapping voices and unmuted mics mean that people are needing to exert more effort to process it — just like deaf people. Of course, visuals also come into play. People are also receiving delayed visuals, grainy webcam footage and feel pressure to look a certain way on camera. The Harvard Business Review did note audio as a factor in their article, but neither this article nor the Stanford article talks about deaf or disabled communities.
As I have repeatedly said on social media platforms like Twitter: deaf and disabled people are the experts. We live with concentration fatigue every day. We have developed multiple strategies to combat it. And yet, we are never mentioned. A new name — “Zoom fatigue” — has been coined for something that has always been a central part of our experience. Various think pieces have been published without any consultation with us.
Language is a powerful thing. When deaf and disabled people have names for aspects of their experience, it legitimises them. While advocating for deaf/disabled recognition in “Zoom fatigue” research, multiple deaf and disabled people told me that I was the first person who introduced them to concentration fatigue. They had no idea that the fatigue they experienced had a name. They always chalked it up as a fault of their own, rather than something that many other deaf and disabled people experience.
I recognise that for many people reading this article, “Zoom fatigue” will always be something specific to the pandemic. But for many disabled people — and deaf people especially — this is not a transient phenomenon. I will continue to experience concentration fatigue after the pandemic. It will always impact my life — at work, at home or socially. I can only hope that in a post-COVID world, abled people remember their experience with concentration fatigue. I wonder if there still be research centres set up to help combat it? Will abled people make their meetings, events, and social gatherings more accessible for their deaf and disabled friends?
However, for now: please centre the experiences of deaf and disabled people. Call “Zoom fatigue” by its proper name: concentration fatigue.
Charlotte Hyde is an English Literature graduate, accessibility advocate and she is Deaf. You can read more of Charlotte’s work on her blog — Charlotte Hyde. And you can also follow her on twitter — @charlhyde and on instagram here — @deafreader.