To Mute or Not to Mute

A little over a year ago the world changed overnight and for many disabled people this meant that the barriers we experience changed too.

For some, this meant new challenges and frustrations, while for others the switch to more online activities opened up new possibilities. Last week I was one of a number of disabled people with wide-ranging perspectives to speak to a journalist from the New York Times about this issue, and the resulting piece was thoughtful and balanced.

A digital drawing by Touretteshero of a tablet showing 4 young people on a video call together on the screen. Each young person is smiling and they are dressed in their own personally designed superhero costume

But there’s one issue that’s not covered in this article, or in anything else I’ve read to date. It’s the dilemma that those of us with Tourettes are faced with by Zoom and other online meeting platforms.

Let me explain – I’ve had noticeable tics for a long time, and I’ve developed established ways of managing them, particularly in professional situations. But as I can’t stop my vocal or motor tics, I’m used to always being audible. My tics are part who I am (and they can add humour to otherwise dull meetings!) Most people say they quickly learn to edit them out.

But here’s the dilemma: now everyone’s turned to online platforms, and video meetings become a part of every-day life, should I mute, or should I not?

Zoom etiquette dictates that you mute yourself because, if you don’t, any noises you make can interrupt the person speaking. If you’re on mute and make a noise Zoom reminds you by flashing a message across the middle of the screen saying that you’re muted and asking if you want to unmute yourself.

I don’t want Zoom constantly switching to me every time I make a noise when I’m not contributing, but if I’m muted I have the disruption of the automatic prompt constantly flashing up. it’s a jarring reminder that my body and brain behave in ways that aren’t expected and it can feel weirdly judgemental.

Also, tics can be very suggestible. This means that the constant reminder from Zoom about being muted is a bit like being in a room with a big red button that you’re not meant to touch, with someone whispering in your ear, ‘Press the button’ every other second.

But it’s more than just a practical dilemma because it can also feel like editing out part of myself. It also means that there’s less shared laughter so that when I come to make a contribution people are less familiar with my tics because they haven’t had a chance to get used to them.

Leftwing Idiot and I often debate about whether I should mute myself or not – he thinks I shouldn’t. But I feel a lot of pressure to mute, both socially and practically. The mute button gives me the capacity to follow dominant social rules in a way that I can’t in real life, and this can feel confusing.

This is obviously not a massive issue and my tongue’s quite firmly in my cheek as I write. But that said, the more serious point at the heart of this is how unquestioningly technological developments reenforce normative assumptions. They can increase pressure for anyone who sits outside their narrow frames. This is indicative of a tech industry that for the most part lacks a workforce with diverse perspectives.

For now though, my tics have found a way to get round the mute dilemma – sticking my finger up at the camera!

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