by Francis Matias
According to the National Institute of Health, participation in Zoom meetings increased from 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 300 million daily meeting participants. In the 2020-2021 academic year, virtual meetings were the only option for many students of all ages across the nation, and DePaul University students were no exception.
Adjusting to online meetings was and still is difficult for instructors and students, and supervisors and employees. Even three years into the pandemic, there is still a lack of research on best practices for Zoom meetings, including the expectation for having cameras on. Although being on-camera is helpful for many Zoom participants, below I have listed reasons why being on-camera may not always be an accessible expectation for all, particularly neurodivergent students and employees. This is not an exhaustive list, and is only meant to briefly introduce the concept of cameras-off as an access need for neurodivergent students and employees that instructors and supervisors should be aware of.
You may be familiar with the term “Zoom fatigue” which refers to the exhaustion caused by spending an excess amount of time in virtual meetings. While the term implies that the fatigue is caused by participating in Zoom meetings, research revealed that in particular, being on camera was the greatest contributor to this fatigue.
Neurodivergent students and employees who experience overstimulation may become fatigued quicker than their neurotypical people because of the visual and auditory stimulation within virtual meetings. This overstimulation from virtual meetings may often be compounded with overstimulation from other daily activities such as commuting on public transit which can be an overwhelming experience. Overstimulation can then lead to burnout, which can last as long as several hours to several weeks.
A neurodivergent student or employee may not always be in an “appropriate” area where they can display themselves in an up-right position and non-distracting background. They may be laying in complete darkness in order to decrease overstimulation throughout.
Movement and Stimming*
A neurodivergent student or employee may need to be frequently moving their bodies. While this might mean discreet fidgeting, it may also mean rocking, spinning, and jumping, and a student or employee may not be comfortable with their classmates or co-workers watching them do so–it may also be distracting for others.
*Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behaviors, which are repetitive motions that many neurodivergent people externalize to regulate internal processes.
The ways neurodivergent students or employees interact with others may look different than their neurotypical peers, and therefore their participation may not be what is usually expected. While a neurotypical student or employee may participate in discussions by staring directly at the speaker, nodding, and making facial expressions, a neurodivergent student or employee may not reciprocate in these ways, and attempting to do so for the sake of “appearing” to participate can be distracting for them.
About the “Hide Self-View Option
Instructors and supervisors should inform students and their employees of this option, but should recognize that this may not always be appropriate to having their cameras on. While this may be helpful for those who tend to become distracted by their own ability to reciprocate, this may not be helpful for a student who is stimming or needing a dark space to attend class.
Again, this is only a brief introduction, and this list does not apply to every neurodivergent student or employee. There are of course other reasons why a person may prefer to be off camera which aren’t necessarily related to neurodivergence. To learn more about these reasons, I suggest reading the results section of the study by Frank R. Castelli and Mark A. Sarvary.
Everyone has different access needs, and it is important that students and employees are consistently communicating their access needs with their instructors and supervisors, and even more important that instructors and supervisors are setting them up to be comfortable doing so.
Jae L, author of an article titled “What Zoom Fatigue Feels Like When You’re Autistic” writes, “We need to check in with each other and recognize that people might not always be coping. People may experience greater sensory processing challenges with Zoom for a variety of reasons, for example as a response to past trauma or ongoing stressful events. They need to know it’s okay to turn their camera off or take a break. Technology should make our lives easier, not be oppressive.”
As the quote implies, it is important that when we use technology like Zoom to communicate with each other, we are always aware that people may process information differently and may have specific needs such as keeping their cameras off.
Zoom in the Workplace
In the workplace, supervisors should demonstrate this awareness by beginning larger meetings with a brief disclaimer, saying something along the lines of, “While seeing your faces is always great, it is not a requirement, so please feel free to keep your cameras off as needed,” or “I know some of us may be experiencing Zoom fatigue, so I invite you all to take frequent breaks to be off camera, and remain off camera if you need to.” If the meeting takes place weekly or monthly with the same participants, occasionally restating this disclaimer will reinforce this awareness.
In one-on-one settings, hosts should demonstrate this awareness by not questioning why the other participant is off-camera, and not requesting them to be on camera. As long as the host and participant can communicate with each other thoroughly, being on camera should not be necessary unless communication requires sight, such as communicating in American Sign Language (ASL).
Being on camera does not have to be a requirement for participation. Because every person may participate differently, supervisors should be attentive during meetings in order to get a sense of how their employees typically participate and contribute to meetings. This could even involve directly asking employees what participation typically looks like for them. It is important to never set expectations of employees based on how other employees participate.
Being off camera is just one of many different needs that a person may have on Zoom. Whether the conversation takes place between a student and instructor or a supervisor and employee, talking about needs is a must. Having these conversations and being aware of different needs can go a long way in making Zooms more accessible.
Not sure what the future holds? Need support along the way? That’s exactly where we come in. Whether you’re a freshman or an alumnus, it’s never too early (or too late) to utilize our services.
Book an appointment with Francis, or another member of the advising community through Handshake, or by calling the front desk at (773) 325-7431.