Over the past few weeks I’ve been to a few events in meat space. People flocked, frolicked and pontificated on photography. A hearty gaggle of party folk gushing over gorgeous art. Even though we’re still in a pandemic, life is finding a way of presenting as “normal”, for most it seems. I am unable to return to normal because I wasn’t being normal in the before times. I was masking as normal. Having spent a few years without that mask, I have no desire to return to those days.
I tried. The other week, I excitedly attended an exhibition opening. It was packed. A multi-floor gallery filled with exhibitionists exhibiting their exhibits. I saw people I knew, said “Hello” and then nodded at them for 5 minutes. I have no idea what they said, but I’m skilled in the art of a well-placed nod. The art was fascinating, but I chose to stand outside the gallery while my wife chatted to people she knew. My theory was that if anyone I knew left, they would see me, and we could chat outside the gallery in the quiet. It actually worked too. I had nice conversations with a couple of people. Unfortunately, from a networking perspective, I absolutely failed. In the room were people who could potentially be good to know for my photography career. They’re not about to walk outside and chat to me.
Are most people able to have conversations in busy rooms? Is the expectation that if you start talking to someone, they’ll hear you and respond? One of my autism superpowers is failing completely at this. I dread bumping into someone I know because it’s a social nightmare. How do I explain the issue to them? Should I even try? I’ll look rude if I don’t properly chat to them in a “normal” way. Should I wear my Hidden Disabilities lanyard? Oh fudge, they’re waiting for me to answer… “Excuse me, I have to go. I left my pineapple on.”
Some shops and museums have quiet hours for autistic people. There are autism-friendly film screenings too. An event I attended last year had a quiet room setup for those who needed a minute or two. To a degree, the world tries to be accommodating to autistic folk, and I do appreciate it. Private views? Not so much. In week 5 of the pandemic, I wondered if I would return to this way of life and attend a private view from the comfort of my phone.
I can only assume that once the world returns to normal these more accessible ways of life will be forgotten. They’ve been around for 30 years and people are only using them now out of necessity not because they wanted to connect. I’m catasrophising as usual. I know, I know. Its just that it feels like everyone is adapting to my way of living but not by choice and while I’m enjoying being able to connect with people I couldn’t before I cannot see them staying here. Why would they? If someone took away your disability would you ask for it back?
Every so often, I catastrophise for good reason. The gallery where I struggled to talk to people in the real world due to sensory issues did set up a Discord server at the start of the pandemic. Discord is a service built upon IRC, basically a chat room. This is the technology that I referenced “being around for 30 years”. The tools are there right now. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been used in a year. Yet physical spaces are booming… in a pandemic. Obviously, I’m not singling out a specific place here for doing something different to the rest of the world. The world has decided to mostly return to whatever normal was in the before times, which sucks for disabled people.
I’m attending another exhibition opening in a few days. Friends are exhibiting some work. It’ll be good to see their work on the walls, but how can I better handle the situation? For a few weeks now, I’ve been testing the effectiveness of using Apple AirPods Pro earphones as a way of reducing the chaos of rooms filled with people and boosting the voice of the people next to me. It works. I only have AirPods Pro 1, not the new model that came out last year. I can’t afford to spend £250 on them, so when v1 was on offer for £150 I grabbed them.
My issue with voices it that they merge into one loud, overpowering sound. I cannot make out the person in front of me. I’m aware there’s a sound, but I can’t process what they said. In my tests, I’ve found them to be quite useful at clearing up voices. The noise cancellation is superb, but can be a little strong at times. I’ve tried going for walks with my wife in the hope that they could reduce the wind sound but also boost her voice. Usually, what happens is that they reduce all sounds unless I keep my head pointed at her while we walk. Occasionally, I’ve heard people walking towards us more clearly than when she’s next to me. In a face-to-face chat in a busy room, they do help, but I still struggle. From what I’ve read, AirPods Pro 2 are noticeably better. I hope that Apple, who are great with accessibility features, continue to improve this so maybe one day I can hear those around me clearly.
The real issue is that if you attend an event or even just go to a café with friends while wearing EarPods / headphones / earphones, will anyone speak to you for fear of interrupting you? As a kid, I once wore headphones in primary school and the teacher had a massive go at me in front of the class. They handled it badly, but how were they supposed to know that my walkman was off and that I could hear them? I was projecting the idea that I was listening to my walkman and not them. So if I’m at a gallery launch walking around with headphones on, will anyone “interrupt” me? How will they know that I’ve set them to accessibility mode, not music mode? One workaround is to wear a beanie hat to hide them, but the hat scratches the microphone. It’s not a solution.
Another option is Loop earplugs that can reduce the volume of ambient sound while apparently making voice clear. I have these. They help, but I dislike the way my voice sounds, as if I’ve put my fingers in my ears. The experience is not for me. They certainly look better than AirPods in your ears, as they almost look like a fashion accessory rather than an earplug.
It’s disheartening to see the world take a step back this way. I’m doing my best to find workarounds. I’d say change doesn’t happen overnight, but we just did it overnight in the pandemic, and then we hit undo. sigh