Each time I switched on the Netflix app on my phone, I activated the subtitles. They allowed me to focus on the screen and the show on hand during any periods of brain fog or anxious moments. The closed captioning was an added bonus for me. But, we know that subtitles and closed captioning are ways to make the content accessible to deaf and hard of hearing persons. It is also useful for many who suffer from brain-fog, who might not understand the accent and others who have a hard time focussing. It seems natural but it is essential for us to remember a diverse group of us access and use mobile phones in India and elsewhere in the world.
It seems natural but it is essential for us to remember a diverse group of us access and use mobile phones in India and elsewhere in the world.
When considering mobile phone usage and ownership, the gender gap in India is very high, a study showed in 2018. The study conducted by LINREasia looked at the ICT access and use in India and the global south and noted that among 18 countries India ranked the lowest in women’s access to the Internet. The gender gap in usage of internet had increased over the years in rural areas in comparison to the urban areas.
The survey also reiterated that mobile phone usage varies between urban and rural parts of the country. It also showed that urban parts of the country are most likely to use internet services and social media. In a country with 2.4% of the population considered as disabled, usage patterns among persons with disabilities is not studied beyond understanding how to make accessibility a reality. For many women with disabilities, having a mobile phone means being able to communicate with friends, loved ones, colleagues, prospective clients and partners at all times. It has changed the way we communicate with each other and has modified how quickly we respond.
For many women with disabilities, having a mobile phone means being able to communicate with friends, loved ones, colleagues, prospective clients and partners at all times.
Kriti, a vision-impaired woman, is a radio jockey and voice over artist. When I spoke to her about her relationship with her phone she said she uses her phone for everything from communicating with family, friends on WhatsApp, Facebook to even recording voice overs. “I use it for my radio recording purposes. I use both the inbuilt recording softwares as well as other recording softwares,” she added.
While describing how often she uses her mobile phone, Kriti said her phone is her closest friend and she keeps it near her at all times. “Don’t you take your phone to the bathroom, too?” she said with a laugh. Indeed I do. It is the best time to get in some good scrolling on Twitter in the morning.
Similarly, Sunita, a Deaf trainer based out of Mumbai felt that deaf women benefitted a lot from mobile phone usage. She said, “For a deaf woman, having a mobile is really a blessing. This is the safest method for them to make a call or text whenever something happens.” She added that Deaf girls use video-calling for communication since Deaf people want to use sign language with others they speak with.
For a deaf woman, having a mobile is really a blessing. This is the safest method for them to make a call or text whenever something happens.
Lata, a PhD scholar and a vision impaired woman, agreed with both Kriti and Sunita when she said her phone is important too. It connects her to the world at large, helps her work and even do things just for fun. But she admitted she liked time away from it too. “I put it on silent or switch it off when I am studying. If it is important they will leave a message for me,” she said.
Work, work, work
While improving communication with family and friends, mobile phones are also facilitating better communication at work between persons with disabilities and their peers. It helped them speak their mind, make calls from anywhere and just be in better touch with their colleagues. Karuna Jose, a data entry operator (and a behind the scenes office worker) said, “I felt like we couldn’t speak to each other at work because they didn’t understand my signing, maybe I was too fast. Then when I got a phone, we used it to talk and I feel more connected to my team. We use SMS to talk to each other. This is a good way to be included at work.”
We use SMS to talk to each other. This is a good way to be included at work.
On the other hand for both Nidhi, who is an activist and researcher, and Abha, who is President of Cross the Hurdles, their phone is another site for them to do work. Nidhi, who is blind, speaks about setting up meetings on her phone and even Skyping from it.
“I use apps on the phone especially when the websites aren’t accessible. Like Skype on the phone or ‘go to meetings’. I use Skype on the phone only so I can take notes on the laptop. This way I can split my headsets in both my ears. One headset for the computer screen reader and the other for my phone,” Nidhi added.
Abha, who is a wheelchair user, likes to use her phone to Skype as well. She found her phone to be a mini-office! “I use it to communicate with the world. Recently I launched an application on my website which is a course (450 lessons) on comprehensive sexuality education directed at people with disabilities. I did this so people with disabilities can access information right here on their phones!” she stated.
Inclusion, mobility and connection
Another study conducted in China in 2018 with 122 persons with disabilities showed that internet can improve the ‘quality of social interaction.’ Same report showed a shift in the emotional needs of people with disabilities based on the usage of mobile phones.
“Mobiles phone (and in particular texting features) are now being used extensively by people who are deaf or have hearing impairment to communicate with each other. As an example, parents of children with hearing impairment can now communicate with them throughout the day, satisfying themselves that their children are safe. Before mobile phones existed, the lack of communication resulted in a state of perpetual worry and fear. The connectivity that mobile phones bring are particularly valued by poor parents, because compared to their wealthier counterparts, they cannot afford to arrange escort services for their disabled children (Dunne 2008).”
The connectivity that mobile phones bring are particularly valued by poor parents, because compared to their wealthier counterparts, they cannot afford to arrange escort services for their disabled children
Karuna Jose agreed with the above sentiment. She signed at length about how the phone allowed her to communicate with the hearing world. Whenever she travelled, since her Hindi is weak, she entered the words into google translate and then showed the words to the person she wished to communicate with. She said candidly, “I don’t know what I will do without my phone. How will I make new friends? How will I keep in touch with them without WhatsApp and FB? I go out because of my phone, because of news that everyone shared like “this event is happening for Deaf persons. Wanna come?”
Others felt similarly but not with the same intensity. Mona, a researcher and architect, spoke about the need for greater connection via the mobile phone. She lives with multiple sclerosis and thus has issues with mobility. But she was a bit sceptical as she said, “Phones can be used for Skype which allows me to look at the person I am speaking with. Allows them to look at me. It is a deeper level of connection than a voice. It doesn’t replace physical proximity though.”
While Nidhi sees the connection and relationship with her mobile phone differently. “Technology gives everyone access to the larger world irrespective of disability. For me, I think it lets me stay connected. If there was only one platform say, like Twitter, then I would get left out. Having several platforms is very useful,” she said.
Technology gives everyone access to the larger world irrespective of disability. For me, I think it lets me stay connected.
Things are different for Abha. She felt passionately about the existence of her phone and the access it brought her, since so many places in our surroundings are inaccessible to wheelchair users. “I can now order food. I even know the prices of things in the market. Earlier I couldn’t go out and shop so I didn’t even know the price of salt. Now I can shop by myself on my phone! This is a great achievement for me,” she said.
Abha felt passionately about the existence of her phone and the access it brought her, since so many places in our surroundings are inaccessible to wheelchair users.
Privacy in their lives
As individuals who use our phones a lot, it becomes important for us to consider our privacy, be it with others around us or from the data procuring apps that we use. I remember being seated in a local train on my way home from work, earlier this year, when my phone buzzed. It was a message from a dear friend. She had sent a voice note. I dug around in my bag for a headset but couldn't find it. It was probably at home. I left her a text, ‘on the train. Forgot my headset at home.’ She understood and replied in a text as well, ‘listen when home.’
When we first began communicating I would listen to her voice notes out loud till one day it dawned on me that I might be violating her privacy by playing them in public, in front of others and those around me. I stopped doing so.
Privacy is on our minds, as most of the women said they used passwords, app locks for their privacy. However, the vision impaired women interviewed also spoke of the screen curtain (turns the screen black) which helps them maintain privacy. If they wear headsets, which was another privacy practice, only they could hear what their screen reader was saying.
Privacy is on our minds, as most of the women said they used passwords, app locks for their privacy.
Sunita spoke about her experiences and those of her community when she said, “Deaf girls can use BB app to talk dirty with their lovers. It's at least safe more than WhatsApp or Facebook. Choosing an app which gives us more privacy is wise. BB is most likely to be used for the sake of privacy. It can delete messages on both sides at the same time or use chats in ignition. Frankly, I used to be one of those people who used BB app. It can help me to stay away from people (WhatsApp) and focus on one person i.e. a lover.”
Even to Kriti, her privacy is very important. She said, “I avoid voice notes when I am around other people. I use it only when I am alone.” Otherwise to maintain her privacy she often spoke softly and spoke using codes. “I would send “be positive”. It was a way to say someone is around. The other person always understood,” she said with a laugh.
The screen curtain was a good way for no one to peep in and read the messages. Nidhi narrates an incident where her neighbour in the train told her she had misspelled a word. This incident took place when her phone didn’t have the option for a screen curtain. She would take her phone close to her ear and type. “Privacy is very important to me so I think this shows up in my digital navigation and imprint. This is why there is a discomfort if the screen curtain is not on. I feel uncomfortable navigating my phone without it,” she added. she joked about some people around her who respected her privacy told her when her screen curtain was off.
Mona, on the other hand, pondered about privacy itself with a question. “Where does privacy begin and end in the age of technology?” she asked. She felt her data was already being used and she needed to differentiate between her security (passwords, Aadhar number, banking codes) and her social media presence. She also felt everyone needed to decide for themselves what is private and keep it that way.
Where does privacy begin and end in the age of technology?
Privacy is a hard topic to ask questions about. I learnt this while talking to women. There is no one practice to keep our messages and photos safe. I remember my friend once saying, ‘you could screenshot our conversation and share it with others and I won’t know.’ And this is indeed true, irrespective of our disability.
But those intimate messages shared with loved ones are too important to just delete. We want to store them and re-read them into the night. At least I do. Kriti had an interesting work around for this. She created a group with her and her friend and then quickly deleted the friend from the group. “Once there is me on this WhatsApp group alone, I send all the messages that I want saved here. Then I revisit them and listen to them whenever I want,” she added.
For some people privacy in large groups is attained by switching languages. Both Nidhi and Lata felt speaking in a language those around them won’t understand was a huge way to maintain their privacy.
Even while thinking about privacy, women are also thinking about their security. Karuna Jose stopped using a popular video calling app in the deaf community because of crank calls. “If they have your number that is enough. They can video call you anytime. I got a crank call from someone I didn’t know once. Soon after I deleted it and started using Duo,” she said.
Secret pleasures of the mobile
Since all the women spoken to spent a lot of time on their phone, it was interesting to hear about their stories of fun and pleasure with their devices. For Kriti it was playing accessible games. For Karuna it was Netflixing with subtitles and closed captioning. For Nidhi and Lata it was reading books and listening to music. These pleasurable activities made their phones a step more than tools to connect with others; A way to entertain themselves and be present with self as well.
These pleasurable activities made their phones a step more than tools to connect with others; A way to entertain themselves and be present with self as well.
We hear all these stories and anecdotes about how mobile phones are making us more lonely and isolated. But for these women, their phones connect them to the world and like Abha said, “It makes me feel alive.”
Or like Karuna who said, “In fact, I found my previous boyfriend on Facebook. He was a mutual friend and I just added him. I liked him and we began talking. Would this have happened without mobile phones or the internet?”
For these women, their phones connect them to the world and like Abha said, “It makes me feel alive.”