/Being there

Being there

By Sue Tiffin

Audiobooks have long been criticized as not being “real” reading, or in some way a lesser version of a print book. Many people prefer to read the audio version of a book, or find them more accessible due to a visual impairment or brain-based learning difference like dyslexia. Thankfully, as more people realize the value of alternative options to accommodate our diversities, it’s becoming less common to have a narrow view of the definition of what reading is and we can all just read the way we can or want to read without worrying so much about how others are doing it.

The idea of accommodation, perhaps doing things a little differently than we have before, has been ever-present throughout the pandemic, as we – finally – made the world at least slightly more accessible. Workplace meetings, book clubs, exercise classes, even symphony performances and wine tastings have been made available virtually, so that what we think is important in life can continue.

Last week, MPs in the House of Commons voted to extend a hybrid format of Parliament until mid-2022, that motion passing 180 to 140 after extensive debate. It means MPs can participate in votes or debates virtually from home, and is intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But it has other merits, too.  

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said a virtual option allows those who need to self-isolate due to COVID-19 contact or be a caregiver at home to still attend and participate rather than missing out. NDP MP Laurel Collins spoke to the challenges of balancing breastfeeding with work that isn’t yet gender-equal or family-friendly and how a hybrid format would help multi-tasking women.

Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole disagreed with the hybrid format, saying, “To hold the government to account as Canadians expect, we must be here in Ottawa working for Canadians. A virtual Parliament will limit the voice of Canadians.”

But in many ways virtual offerings have helped people overcome the real barriers of meeting in-person and have brought more voices to the table – or screen.

Virtual sessions have enabled local reporters, for example, to attend more meetings, free of the restrictions caused by travel or scheduling conflicts. Those meetings are more accessible in many ways – now an individual camera on each council member’s face, with their names on the screen, makes it easier even for first-time council attendees to identify who is speaking, hear what they’re saying, and see their nonverbal reaction to comments that are made. It’s easier to read lips, get a closer look at visual presentations, and understand what’s happening even with the sound off in some meetings where closed captioning is used. Marathon council meetings are also more accessible – a quick text to someone waiting for one item on the agenda means they can tune in from wherever they are for that discussion without having to miss work or find childcare to attend. 

Certainly there are times when meeting face-to-face is best, for many reasons. But wanting an option – especially during a pandemic – should not be contentious. Working from home does not mean anyone is skirting work – an outdated idea – sometimes it means they’re working more because they can focus without interruption, and their office and phone is always right there.

By all means, inconsistencies in how things can or can’t happen are causing us all frustration. And of course there are challenges to meeting virtually, too. Internet access, technology literacy, and the additional work behind-the-scenes for IT support have made us realize we have a long way to go yet.

But we’re getting there, even if we’re staying home. Like Councillor Jennifer Hughey said in a discussion last week about how to safely resume in-person meetings at Minden Hills council, “As long as we are moving the business forward … that’s really all that matters. So whether we are in a room with each other, or like this, as long as we continue to do that, I think we’re doing our job.”