August 22, 2021
Xiao’s world became filled with confusion during the pandemic as masks prevented her from lip reading others and Zoom classes prevented her from observing the body language of others. As a result, Xiao found herself needing accommodations like captions, which were not available.
“I was not provided captions for the last three months of my junior year and the first three months of my senior year,” Xiao said. “Imagine how many lectures, units or important information I missed during those six months. I could no longer turn to the person sitting next to me for notes during class if I didn’t catch something, or walk up to my teachers after school for support.”
In order to catch up on the content she missed, Xiao had to complete supplementary studying, spending hours drilling her subjects on Khan Academy. When she tried to gain access to the captions of a class from the start of the pandemic, Xiao said her voice was ignored.
“I had to fight for captioning for so long, which is really not okay,” Xiao said. “They just put it on the back burner for over six months. That’s a lot of missed content. It wasn’t something I wasn’t used to, though. It amazes me how much effort I’ve needed to put in all my life.”
From elementary school to high school, Xiao often encountered difficulties when seeking out accommodations. While different types of accommodations were available, Xiao’s requests were often not prioritized by teachers. The pandemic has been a painful reminder for Xiao of the limited accessibility the school and the hearing community has for deaf people.
Instead of staying silent, Xiao chose to speak up for herself and the deaf community. She reached out to the principal, speech therapists, Individualized Educational Plan coordinators and many others to resolve the issue. She even emailed individual companies like Zoom to ask for patented versions of captioning.
“The deaf community is a small one, but we need representation; we need social reform,” Xiao said. “We want to be included in the conversation, literally and figuratively. We live in the Silicon Valley, where progress and innovation are constantly seeing exponential growth. It astounds me how limited technology is for people with disabilities. Think about it: I could change my background on Zoom to have videos of cats, but I couldn’t even access what is being said.”
The good news is that Xiao found out that even though captioning remains a limited market, some companies such as Hamilton Relay, Ave and WebCaptioner are beginning to improve their software to allow for accessibility. In her TED Talk, Xiao urges people to support and advocate for those companies to empower the deaf community.
On top of supporting innovation, Xiao also encourages teachers to understand the importance of maintaining accommodations for deaf students in their classes and taking steps as small as turning on the live transcript every Zoom class.
“Even despite the challenges I’ve endured, I realize that I’m a person of privilege to be in a place where there were financial resources to support me.” Xiao said in her Ted Talk. “It’s my job to use my voice. Individually, I don’t have the power to bring systemic change. But by speaking out here today, we can start something.”