Why the Microphone Matters

I recently attended the ADA National Symposium in Grapevine, TX, and I came away with a lot of useful knowledge. This year I was selected to give a presentation on accessible social media. I have given this presentation several times before, but this was by far the largest group I have presented to. On top of that, I served as a moderator/microphone runner for two quite large sessions. These combined experiences gave me great insight into the importance of using a microphone.

I know this topic has been covered at length in recent months. I never doubted that using a microphone is the best practice for accessibility. While it's fresh from the Symposium, I wanted to take this opportunity reiterate the importance of using the microphone when presenting.

The ADA Symposium is one of the most accessible conferences put on in the United States, as well it should be. Given the topic and the level of accessibility, the event attracts a vast array of people with different types of disabilities and accessibility needs. At this conference, microphones are everywhere. There were 3-4 microphones available in each conference room in styles varying from lapel, hand-held and podium style.

Let’s cover the obvious reason using a microphone is important: people who are hard of hearing can follow along. Many people assume that a microphone is provided simply so that the voice of the presenter makes it to the far reaches of the room; the back and far corners. Because of this, people who perceive themselves to have loud voices or be skillful at “projecting” will refuse the microphone with a statement like, “I’m loud enough as it is,” or “If you give me a microphone, I might start singing!” What they overlook is that assuming you will talk loud enough to reach the back of the room also assumes everyone’s hearing is within the “normal” limits. Simply put, it’s ableist thinking.

People who are hard of hearing will still not be able to hear adequately, even if the presenter is shouting. It often comes down to more than just the volume of the speaker. Some people may have trouble filtering out background noise. So, the sounds of a person sitting next to them typing notes on a laptop becomes muddled with the voice of the presenter at the front of the room. Using the microphone creates a more surround-sound effect, making it easier to distinguish from background noises.

Even if a person’s hearing is “corrected” with a hearing aid, this can’t be directly compared to the way glasses correct a person’s vision. Hearing assistance devices automatically adjust their function based on the volume of the noise they pick up. Someone who is projecting may vary in volume which could cause the device to adjust incorrectly. The use of a microphone helps to stabilize a presenters volume and significantly improves the function of a hearing aid.

Additionally, at accessible events, such as the ADA National Symposium, attendees can get headsets that link directly into the A/V system in the conference room. This makes it even easier for a person to listen to only the meaningful audio presented. Of course, this is useless if the presenter refuses to use the microphone.

Beyond this major argument in the case for microphone use as the standard for accessibility in presentations, there are a couple of other reasons which might not be so obvious.

If there is a CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation) service provided, it is imperative that the CART providers can hear what is being said, both from the presenter and any audience members who are asking questions or giving comments. The CART provider is transcribing all speech, live. If the CART provider is unable to adequately hear, the CART record can be incomplete or have errors.

Microphone amplification can also be helpful for people with attention disorders, audio processing disabilities or cognitive disabilities. We often think of microphones as helping those who have trouble hearing, but they also remove barriers for people who have trouble processing and understanding.

The bottom line is that, yes, you may truly believe you’ll be loud enough without the mic, and you may be – for people like you. Or, maybe you’re uncomfortable using a microphone because you don’t like the sound of your own voice or you’re afraid you’ll break into song or worse, stand too close to the speakers and cause that painful, high-pitched feedback.

I understand the genuine discomfort you may feel about using a microphone. If your intention is to be inclusive, though, you must realize that your discomfort does not outweigh the accessibility benefits using the mic provides. Using a microphone during a presentation and providing a microphone for audience questions is probably one of the easiest ways to up your accessibility game.