Back when I was in high school, most of my friends lived across town. We met at a summer and weekend program for blind kids that gathered us from all over the Phoenix valley. Though we hung out in person as much as we could, whether at the program events or at each other’s houses, sometimes we went for weeks without seeing each other, because meeting up often meant negotiating with family members to give us a ride. So, the phone became a lifeline.
On a typical Friday night, I could spend the whole evening chatting with four or five friends (separately or together), without leaving my bedroom. I might come home from school at 3, talk until 6, emerge for dinner and an hour of homework, then get back on the phone again until 11.
All kinds of hilarious and serious conversations were mediated over those telephone wires. We laughed, cried, shouted, flirted, vented anger and sadness and fear. We made up silly languages and watched shows together. Four of us rang in the new millennium together from our own houses, connected by the phone. We read each other articles from Seventeen Magazine. We played games, meditated, listened to music, argued and debated and fought, shared deep dreams for our futures and silly inside jokes in the same call.
I realize now why those phone calls were so important for my mental health. The phone put me on an equal footing with my peers. During audio conversations, everyone is blind. On the phone, there were no silent gestures, no ambiguity about who was talking to whom, nobody running off to play games I couldn’t play. I went to school to learn, but I talked on the phone to socialize and belong in ways that I never experienced at school
For me, the phone was the ultimate equalizer. Of course, for some people, the phone is hugely inaccessible. D/deaf people, people with speech impairments, and many autistic people struggle with phone calls. For these folks, text chatting may offer a similar oasis where the playing field is leveled. Telecommunication, whether oral or written in form, can often help us bypass barriers not only with getting to in-person meetings, but also with in-person communication. And, virtual communication can be a handy way of bringing disabled people together from across the globe.
Twenty years later, I’ve lost interest in phone calls. Like many millennials, I’ve gotten annoyed with voice mail (both sending and receiving) and wish people would just text instead. Sometimes after a long workday of communicating with my various bosses, coworkers, and clients, I’m done with conversation for the day. I’d rather watch a show or read a book or comment on a Facebook post instead of picking up the phone. Twenty years ago, I had no qualms about calling friends, family, even new acquaintances, as long as it was at a reasonable hour. Now, it feels rude to just call somebody without texting first to see if it’s a good time. It’s too easy to let time slip by, and let those old friendships dry up.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, physical meetings are being abandoned in favor of telecommunication. The pandemic has many unfortunate consequences that will disproportionately hit disabled people. But, one small positive is that telecommunication and virtual meetings are becoming mainstream, making it easier for disabled people to interact. As Kathleen Downes put it: “it is that society is finally embracing more than one definition of togetherness… and making joyful, wonderful, much needed outlets for people who can’t leave their homes.” Perhaps we will start to recognize the value of “virtual” encounters and connections. I hope we can keep working toward inclusion and away from isolation even after the pandemic clears. As for me, without so many distractions, maybe I’ll pick up the phone every once in a while.