Alderman Library at the University of Virginia is starting its first major renovation since new stacks were added onto the back of the building in the 1960s. This renovation necessitates that the building be closed until 2023, which right now seems like a very long time…But already I’m noting a silver lining for the Library staff, and it all has to do with inclusivity during staff meetings.
Most of the Alderman staff moved in late 2019 to outposts on Old Ivy Road and up 29N to the University Research Park; a few others are cozied into other libraries (Clemons, Brown, Harrison Small) or embedded in Kerchof and Zehmer Hall. We had our first Library-wide staff meeting on January 14, 2020, an event that occurs monthly, in the Harrison/Small auditorium. There were maybe 75 present of our staff of 225. Many others attended remotely through Zoom, a streaming video conferencing platform. Remote attendees individually participated from their desks or collectively from conference rooms. More than passive observers, the remote participants were able to submit questions and comments via an integrated Zoom chat tool.
To facilitate a smooth inaugural remote staff meeting there were a few rules: always use a microphone, whether presenting from the podium or asking a question from the audience. No one was allowed to say “I have a loud voice and don’t need a mic.” Remote participants were asked to mute their microphones so Zoom wouldn’t pick up any distracting throat-clearing or ringing phones. Presenters were asked to repeat questions into the podium microphone (until it was confirmed that the audience microphones were, in fact, broadcasting audio to the remote posts). One person in the auditorium watched the chat screen and relayed technical issues and questions from afar. All were asked to be clear to whom they were addressing questions, since there would not always be a visual cue such as making eye contact with the person at the podium.
The meeting went pretty well for a first effort, in part because a little awareness and patience goes a long way. The people in the auditorium understood that they really needed to use the microphones so the remote people could hear everything. In order to be sure every comment was heard things were repeated, sometimes more than once, but that assured that everyone could fully participate whether they were in Harrison/Small or miles away. That was the goal: to be sure everyone was included.
The silver lining I see is this: in taking this step we actually made staff meetings a little more accessible. We just made life a little easier not only for staff who are hard of hearing, but also for anyone with an ear infection or sitting near a noisy air handling unit. These are conditions, whether permanent or temporary or situational, that might affect one’s ability to hear, and we are all susceptible.
That’s the thing about accessibility: we all need, or will need, this consideration at one time or another. There is no “normal” condition, only the human condition, which means constant growth and change. A broken arm may hinder you only until it heals, or you may need help opening a door only because you are holding a bag of groceries. No matter the reason, if you can hit that panel with your elbow to automatically open a door, the room is more accessible to all. And when we’ve improved accessibility for all, we are more inclusive.
There is a new UVA initiative called Inclusive Excellence that promotes the “active, intentional, ongoing process to build community well-being and belonging.” When we take time to assure that others can hear everything that is said at a staff meeting, we are being more inclusive. The Library is now one step closer to having an accessible and inclusive workplace for all.