How to use Clubhouse without being ableist

Like many others the PR industry has been jumping on Clubhouse to host chats but as an audio only app there are significant accessibility challenges. Here’s how PR professionals can keep using Clubhouse without excluding deaf audiences. 

Exclusive for all the wrong reasons

Discussions over the lack of accessibility features on Clubhouse have been bubbling away for a while. From deaf journalists to UX designer blogs, to a Forbes article linked here in early February, lots of people have picked up on the fact that Clubhouse is taking exclusive quite literally. 

When you search ‘accessibility’ in the Clubhouse help centre, not a single thing comes up for accessibility tools. Nothing. There are five pages returned and not a single question about accessibility is answered. 

As journalist Liam O’Dell notes in his blog linked here it’s ironic that disability is an option for interests under the set up menu yet there is a complete and utter lack of any disabled access offered. What’s most concerning about the situation is that those behind Clubhouse, Rohan Seth and Paul Davidson, seem, on the face of it, disinterested and disinclined to engage with the lack of accessibility on the platform. Aside from a tentative question in the middle of 2020, nothing has yet been added to or adapted on the platform. 

Why is Clubhouse exclusive to D/deaf people?

Hearing loss, like visual impairment, is a spectrum. For example, I have no hearing in my right ear and mild loss in my left, but I also struggle to process different pitches of sound. With audio only I can easily miss low voices. In short, even though I can hear, I can’t hear certain things. Throw in background noise or a poor connection and I can miss anything from 20-80% of a conversation. 

Without captions, without a transcript, the moment and the information is lost. Hearing loss is more common than many people realise, one in six adults in the UK have some form of hearing loss. With 24 people in a room 16% of them will have hearing loss. If you believe that the discussion you’re having is important, interesting and worthwhile enough to have in the first place, then why would you knowingly exclude almost a quarter of your audience?

Understanding the ableism of Clubhouse

Many of the discussions around the lack of accessibility on Clubhouse are ableist. From excusing the absence of captions or other options because it’s in Beta, to claiming that D/deaf people aren’t the target market for the platform. It boils down to the same tired old arguments and fact that once again making technology inclusive is rarely, if ever, an integral and considered part of the development process. It’s always a bolt-on, a fudge or a workaround. If we view this approach through a PR lens what does it communicate to an audience? What’s the takeaway? It says disabled people are not worth the effort. It’s a message repeated time and time again. The buzz around Clubhouse, and the silence around the people it leaves behind are not a new conversation or scenario. It’s clear that the platform will continue to rise in popularity for a while yet, so with no changes from the creators of the app on the horizon how can PR people ensure the involvement of everyone?

And it’s not only exclusive to D/deaf and hoh (hard of hearing) folx, a UX design blog linked here mentions issues around visual and cognitive access. The issues include lack of screen reader compatible buttons and navigation and participation risks – already there have been recorded issues with toxic conversations, bullying and content discussions that are triggering.

How PR professionals can make Clubhouse as inclusive as possible

It’s against the terms of service to record audio on Clubhouse, which would be helpful to turn the audio into a transcript using another app like Otter ai. But at the time of writing you need the permission of both Clubhouse and all the speakers involved in the session. There is some early discussion in the voice tech community about the possibilities of using voice ai to record on Clubhouse, an example of which is in this blog linked here. (There’s also an insightful interview with a Deaf individual about their experience of using Clubhouse.)

Another option is to run a zoom session alongside your chat and have BSL interpreters on screen – however depending on the number of speakers you’ll need more than one interpreter. Alternatively you could have live captions running on a Zoom session, to do this you’d need to book a palantypist to deliver the live captions. Auto captions are possible, but they are generally poor quality with a lot of room for error. Finally, write up a summary of the event as close to what happened live as possible as a blog or downloadable document. This is my least favourite option because it feels like being given the scraps at the end of a meal. 

Prior to your Clubhouse event ask participants about their accessibility needs, it’ll help you plan in options like those outlined above to help those people participate as fully as possible. 

It’s hard to sugar coat this, the options are limited and the workarounds less than simple. Right now accessibility on Clubhouse needs budget, and lack of budget for free events is a common get-out clause for bypassing accessibility. If you’re a PR professional using Clubhouse consider carefully how your choice of platform impacts participation, it’s highly likely that someone in your audience will have accessibility needs. We’re no longer in a place where it’s ok to give an excuse about how it’s not possible, too complicated, or not worth it for only one person. As communicators we should know that every voice matters, that shouldn’t change for an audio-only app. 

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