One of our goals with The Mind Hears blog is to build a community and reduce isolation for deaf and hard of hearing academics. To provide an opportunity for our community to meet and interact, we are hosting a series of “open house” drop in sessions on Zoom, where people can come along to network, chat, and share experiences. You can meet other deaf and hard of hearing academics including folks who have contributed to and been profiled by the Mind Hears. Students are welcome!
Our first session on the 7th October 2022 was a great success with ~15 participants sharing ideas and concerns. Our next open house is Friday 28th April and will run for 1.5 hours (see a list of times in different time zones below). Pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and stay for as little or long as you would like. Unfortunately, we can’t provide cake as this is a global event.
To provide a safe space for the event, we are asking people to register in advance. Registration is free, and you will receive a link to access the event upon registration. Please follow this link to register.
The session will have both CART transcription and two American Sign Language interpreters. Auto-captions will be embedded within zoom and we will provide URL to the CART transcription.
Looking forwards to seeing you, -Michele, Ana and Steph (the Mind Hears team)
This event is supported with funding from Access Advance, the National Science Foundation and The University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Live automated captioning has become a growing presence in the lives of many of us who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. From captioning live presentations, to providing transcripts of online meetings, to on-the-go captioning with mobile devices, these AI (Artificial Intelligence) tools continue to improve in accuracy and speed. In the past few years, they have rapidly become a versatile addition to our toolkit of strategies for improved accessibility in academic and other settings.
Thibault Duchemin and Skinner Cheng are the co-founders of Ava, a live automated captioning app with various transcription features, including translation and text-to-speech. The assistive technology is designed to enhance communication in different scenarios such as professional, academic and social situations. As a CODA (child of deaf adult) and a deaf individual, respectively, Thibault and Skinner have close ties to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. We caught up with both of them to learn more about the origins of Ava and their experiences in creating this professional captioning tool. Below, Thibault first shares how Ava got its start, and then Skinner answers our questions about his journey from Taiwan to working with Ava.
Thibault: Backstory & how Ava began…
I grew up the only hearing person in a Deaf family, i.e. a CODA (great movie). My sister wanted to be a lawyer, but with the cost of interpreters to help with closing statements, client meetings, etc. there would be financial issues and communication barriers. I understood the challenge, and wanted to help!
While I was at Berkeley, I started working on “smart gloves” to translate sign language, which stirred a lot of excitement and showed there was a clear need for a communication tool.
After creating a prototype, plus hundreds of hours and bike rides across the Bay Area to meet and talk/sign/write with our potential users, we got some hard-earned learnings during customer development. We kept the mission – to bridge communication gaps between hearing and Deaf worlds – but we pivoted the product.
The pivot was to move to a mobile application that transcribes group conversations using speech-recognition technologies. The goal was 24/7 autonomy that would allow Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing users to understand and participate in group situations, effortlessly. Together, we designed a product that was easy to access in social, academic and professional conversational situations.
In early days, Skinner would go to an isolated space to check his phone at events. Today, in small groups, he uses the app [Ava] to communicate with others, transcending the silence blockade. At lunch and during meetings, we all use Ava to connect with each other.
What was just my personal story now became a team story as we slowly dissolved the communication barriers between each other.
Every day, these simple moments justify the thousands of hours we work to develop and improve this tool. We have a 45-person team (and counting), currently located between San Francisco and Paris. Skinner is a brilliant developer, who is Deaf and an inspiration to us all.
1. Tell us about your background? For example, tell us about your hearing loss, your schooling, and/or your family/culture
I was born in Taiwan. I was not born Deaf, but lost my hearing when I was 2-3 years old. My mother told me it was caused by an injection of medicine that I received at a clinic, which contained material that harmed my hearing.
I never received a standard education for Deafness in Taiwan—it is more offered and accepted here in the USA. I was educated by my mother to read lips and also speak. I never learned Sign Language because my mother wanted me to learn how to communicate like hearing people. I attended Deaf school for half of 1st grade, but then my mother enrolled me in a hearing school, so there were no disability accommodations I could rely on.
During primary school, my mother taught me math and other subjects. I started working with tutors one-on-one in high school until I graduated. In college, there were no captions, so I taught myself for the most part.
I usually communicate with my family, friends and colleagues by speaking, but sometimes we communicate through writing, if it’s too complex or difficult to say something clearly. Writing on paper was later substituted with a smartphone, which we often use today.
2. What has been your professional trajectory?
In college and at the university in Taiwan, I studied Computer Science. After graduation, my work was all about coding. I never worked at a large corporate company. I spent several years with a startup, which was later acquired by a medium-sized company.
My job position was always Software Engineer. I took a Senior engineering position 2-3 years before I left Taiwan to move to San Francisco. I studied and received my second Computer Science degree at the University of San Francisco. After graduation, I began working with Ava as Co-Founder and CTO [chief technology officer], and currently spend most of the time working as an Engineer within the company.
3. How did you meet and how did you come together to create Ava?
Many people ask this question—and it’s a fun story, indeed. When I graduated from the University of San Francisco, I was looking for a job, which could sponsor me to stay in the US and in San Francisco, specifically. I saw a post on a bulletin board at the school, which was from Thibault Duchemin and Ava’s COO, Pieter Doevendans. I don’t remember the exact words, but it said they were offering some accommodations (with a machine, or an assistive tool), which would allow Deaf and hard-of-hearing people better means to communicate during job interviews. So, I contacted them. And that was the first time Thibault and I met—in some cafe in downtown San Francisco.
Thibault didn’t know at the time that I was TOTALLY DEAF and he probably overestimated my lip reading ability. So after Thibault spoke for almost 30 minutes, I had to interrupt, and tell him that method of communicating wasn’t working. Eventually, we used my laptop to type and communicate. At that point, I understood they didn’t have the tool built, but wanted to do some user testing.
The second time we met, I met with Thibault and Pieter in another cafe in Millbrae, where we still used the laptop to communicate. I remember onlookers in the cafe were curious and inquired what we were doing. Afterwards, Thibault asked me to come to the University of California, Berkeley, where he described what they wanted to do. He asked me if I could help develop the MVP (minimum viable product) for the Android smartphone—and I did. We moved to San Mateo, launched the startup named Transcense in Boost, which is a startup incubator. After we raised adequate funding, we moved to Oakland. We got an established designer to help us design the company icon, and there you go… Ava was born!
4. Tell us what Ava is; how does it work?
Ava is an assistive tool and technical solution that Deaf and hard-of-hearing people can use—on their smartphones and personal computers—which transcribes what hearing people speak, in one-on-one or group situations. In brief, it’s a communication bridge between Deaf and hard-of-hearing people and hearing people.
5. Does Ava work with multiple spoken languages? How did you choose what languages to invest in?
Yes, Ava does work with multiple spoken languages. However, Ava cannot automatically detect the exact spoken language and switch between the languages just yet. The user has to choose the spoken language, then Ava will accurately transcribe.
We also provide translation, so if people in a conversation speak different languages, they can choose the language they speak, and Ava can translate different spoken languages into the language they can read.
Since our teams are located in the US and France, we focused our primary support on the English and French languages. However, it transcribes many languages and we continue adding more based on user request, the market, or direction from our Sales team.
6. Who is using Ava? What situations are they using it in? The Mind Hears readers are primarily working in academic settings; in what manner is Ava being used in academia?
Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are Ava’s primary users. The DHH community uses Ava when they need to communicate easily with hearing people—when they want to know what someone is saying, and speak if they are unable to voice as clearly as they would like.
In academia, Ava can be used to transcribe speech from instructors or students for anyone who is Deaf or hard-of-hearing, and also for hearing students to have transcriptions of lectures. From personal experience, having captions to understand what a professor or teacher is saying makes the lesson a lot more interesting. Accessible accommodations make a huge difference with understanding and learning.
Ava also provides Scribe service, which merges AI with a human scribe to catch nuances and improve the accuracy of real-time transcription. We also offer CART services—a service I benefited from a lot when I studied at the University of San Francisco. Our mission is to make Deaf and hard-of-hearing peoples’ lives easier and happier in any situation, including academia—that’s why Ava was created.
7. Has knowledge exchange between academia and industry played a role in the development of Ava? Are there any intersections between industry and academia that have been important in your entrepreneurial journey?
Yes, absolutely. A concrete example is that we have a team in France, and they focus on AI and speech, and most of them are researchers in academia. Most of us in the US are engineers and part of industry, and we help convert the team’s ideas into real tools, which help people. The perfect intersection between academia and industry is to make the dream come true.
8. What limitations do you see for Ava? What are the greatest challenges in getting it to work as the tool you envision it being? Where do you see technology like Ava going in the future?
I feel most comfortable using an assistive tool, whether it’s an app or device that I can use autonomously—rather than asking other people in a conversation to set up the application with a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Also, accuracy of speech is always the challenge and something we are constantly improving. Everyone within Ava is aware that the limitations lie in certain situations where there may be background noise or other reasons why accuracy is not 100%. Other companies that offer captions experience the same issues. These are the challenges we want to solve, which will be the greatest of achievements, if we can succeed.
In the future, I envision more of a Utopia, where I can wear glasses, and the caption will show up like a bubble caption attached to the speaker in the screen of my glasses. With such a device, I won’t need to ask another person to set up the device and application. And I’ll know who is speaking, no matter how many speakers there are, so the conversation is clear for me and I can keep pace with a discussion.
Also, I haven’t figured out a way for others to better understand my speaking—I can speak, but it’s unclear. I know a little sign language, but I’m used to speaking, so it would be great if there was a way to make unclear speech more clear.
9. Have you faced any challenges related to hearing-loss on your entrepreneurial journey?
Yes, there have been a lot of challenges. Communication is the pain and hardship. And the side effect of not being able to communicate as one would like is isolation, which makes me feel alone and excluded. I think that’s also why I don’t prefer to work in large companies, because I am sure the situation would be worse. On the other hand, I have been lucky as colleagues I had when I lived and worked in Taiwan accommodated my situation. And here, since I am working with Ava, which aims to help Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the challenges due to my situation are turning less and less.
10. Do you have any advice for people with hearing loss who might be starting out on their own entrepreneurial journeys?
I was lucky, and my journey is a bit different. However, I think, regardless of any special circumstance or situation, in any stage of the entrepreneurial journey, you should not be alone. It is great if you have people who can empathize, accommodate and understand you. Surrounding yourself with people who are also passionate about the mission and understand why you want to start your entrepreneurial journey will be beneficial.
11. You are both from different countries, and through your work on Ava have likely interacted with deaf/hard of hearing people from many parts of the world. Do you have any insight to share on perceptions of deafness in different parts of the world?
I know disability accommodations are very different in different countries. Luckily, it’s the trend that technologies, including AI, are growing everywhere and have been applied in some modern countries. But for countries that don’t have advanced technology such as the Internet, I think we should try our best to support them by providing more resources.
I moved to the US because accessibility accommodations for Deaf people were better here than in Taiwan. It’s gotten better over the past four decades, but there is still a long way to go.
**In case you are wondering, TMH received no financial compensation from Ava for publishing this interview. We were just really interested to hear their story!
As I have not yet advanced in my career despite completing my Ph.D., I continue to seek opportunities for career development. For most people, including deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, a college degree increases their employment opportunities, economic benefits, and success in the workplace. However, disabled folks are persistently underemployed, meaning that their skills are not being used in the workplace. I have worked for the same academic institution for 32 years with most of my work in secretarial support, even though I have applied for administrative positions that would better match my education credentials. My lack of advancement in the workplace can be attributed to several factors, including a lack of disability awareness, inadequate accommodations, and non-inclusive behavior. COVID-19 provided administrators with a better understanding of the types of accommodations that can improve work performance and enable professional growth for employees with hearing loss.
Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1986, after graduating from high school, I moved from Hamilton, Ohio, to live with my sister in New Jersey. However, my life experienced a turning point. Although, I was not diagnosed with hearing loss as a newborn, only a few days after living with my big sister, she noticed something was wrong with my hearing. The big sister did what any big sister would and had my hearing checked. I learned that my entire life, I have been reading lips to understand conversations due to sensorineural hearing loss.
How was my life before the hearing loss diagnosis?
Attending college has always been my dream to enable me to climb the corporate ladder to the boardroom. I struggled academically from the 4th grade until high school, so I hesitated to take college preparatory courses. I needed help to excel despite studying and completing my homework. When I took English tests, I misspelled words and needed support. During the lecture, I needed help understanding math concepts. Hence, instead of prepping for college, I pursued vocational education to acquire office skills, such as typing and stenography, which were in demand at the time. Shorthand could have been more efficient, while typing and stenography were fast. My stenography assignments and tests were always incomplete, and I earned low grades, negatively affecting my attitude toward my teacher. I understand now that the teacher was not at fault. Because I was unaware of my hearing loss, I didn’t know I needed accommodations. Despite facing academic challenges, I remained persistent, kept believing in my dream, and received my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 2008.
Was 1990 the right time for accommodations?
The 20th century saw some laws aimed at improving accessibility to employment for Americans with disabilities. On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. As a civil rights law, the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, such as jobs, schools, transportation, etc. (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990). What does this mean for me? In the workplace, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for an employee with hearing loss to perform well on the job. But access also requires administrators to understand disability awareness. Raising awareness fosters an open communication environment and enhances the interpersonal support required to succeed in the workplace with hearing loss. Employers with solid disability awareness recognize that the first attempt at accommodation might not be the best and that you must refine and adjust to various situations. An employer can demonstrate hearing loss awareness by creating a welcoming environment, knowing an employee’s specific hearing limitations, fostering an open communication environment, and having some understanding about the situational nature of accommodations.
Several months later, I applied for a position as a law school secretary. The opportunity to enter higher education was exciting. While I was proud of my 85-wpm typing speed, I knew shorthand would be challenging. When the academic Dean interviewed me, her communication skills were excellent, and she displayed courtesy, competence, and engagement. While I didn’t know this at the time, I needed these attributes in a supervisor who could create an accessible work environment. I disclosed my hearing loss to the Dean, who assured me that it would not be an issue and that the administration would provide the necessary accommodations for me to succeed at work. It sounded great, as I believed it would work. According to the Dean, employers must provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA. What are accommodations? I assumed that if the sound were loud, I would hear it, but that’s not the case – it’s more complex than that. Although I can listen to speech sounds, I can only sometimes understand some words. (See previous TMH post by Sarah Sparks about hearing versus understanding).
I accepted the job offer. My responsibilities included working with eight faculty members, answering calls, taking messages, and handling correspondence. I sat in a noisy area, and my employer, and I, in our limited knowledge of options at the time, believed that an amplified phone was the ideal accommodation. Although the telephone amplifier made louder sounds, the speech was unclear, and the voices sounded muffled. I advocated to my supervisor about my difficulty understanding speech over the telephone, yet I continued answering the phone for fifteen years. Unfortunately, I received negative performance reviews every year. I realize now that it was not appropriate for me to answer the phone during that time. It is beneficial to have a knowledgeable accommodations office on campus to provide disability support to law school students, faculty, administrators, and staff. That office might have told my supervisor and I about alternative strategies for my work accommodation.
Knowing Your Needs
Although the employee must be able to request appropriate accommodations needed to perform well on the job, the success of disabled employees also requires administrators to understand disability awareness and to establish an open communication environment. These conditions enhance the interpersonal support required to succeed in the workplace with hearing loss. Employers with solid disability awareness recognize that the first attempt at accommodation might not be the best and that you must refine and adjust to various situations. An employer can demonstrate hearing loss awareness by 1) creating a welcoming and inclusive environment with open communication, 2) knowing the communication styles and models that work best for specific employees, and 3) having some understanding about accommodations. There are soft and hard accommodations.
Soft accommodations are:
Face the person when speaking.
Talk in a normal tone.
Talk in quiet spaces.
Send the person an email of the time you’ll stop by their desk so they will be aware.
Share an agenda before the meeting, so the employee knows what will be discussed.
Understand that the employee may experience listening fatigue and need to take breaks during the meeting.
Know that the employee can only follow one conversation at a time.
Hard Accommodations include.
CART or live captioning.
I refused to give up on my career and persisted through driven strategies of self-accommodation, self-management, and self-advocacy.
Latisha Porter-Vaughn is a doctoral graduate from The University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. published research is “Perceptions of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing College Students’ Work Readiness and Preparation.” She is a research associate with the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes to continue contributing to literature that will help improve education and employment outcomes for students who are deaf or have hearing loss. And a paralegal at Seton Hall University Center for Social Justice. She is a Gallaudet University Peer Mentor for people who have hearing loss. She is also the president of the HLAA New Jersey State Association and chair of its Scholarship Committee. She is the co-founder of the HLAA Essex Chapter and a Deaf Snapshop Mentor of SPAN New Jersey. She has self-published her book “Sounds of the Heart: The Story of a HearStrong Champion Persisting Against All Odds” and is soon to self-publish her second book “How We Hear: A Useful Guide for the Hearing to Understand Hearing Loss—Answers to 10 Questions for the Workplace & Social Situations.”
Location: Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University
Field of expertise: Linguistics
Tell us about your background
I grew up with deaf parents and a deaf sister so I was very fortunate to be able to use Irish Sign Language (ISL) at home. One of my favourite memories is my father telling his versions of classic stories such as Three Little Pigs and Red Riding Hood through ISL, which was WAY more fun than reading from the books.
I attended an all-girls deaf school in Dublin. My generation saw the shift from oralism and all hearing teachers on our first day of school, to a growing number of deaf teachers and an acceptance of using ISL in the classrooms. During my school years, most of my teachers did not teach using ISL; but toward my final year I could feel the attitude shift among the teachers from not caring about whether we could understand them if they spoke, to feeling guilty that they had not learned ISL earlier. This was major, considering that my mother, who attended the same school, was punished severely whenever she signed.
The two deaf schools in Dublin were an all-boys school and an all-girls school. My mother, my sister and I attended the girls’ school and my father attended the boys’ school. An interesting history about Irish Sign Language is the use of gendered signs. Because the schools were separate based on gender and there was very little interaction between their pupils, these schools had numerous different signs, sometimes even to a point where it impaired the ability for deaf people of different genders to understand each other (see Le Master, 1997 for more on this). This meant that my mother and my father had different versions of some ISL signs in our household based on their gender, although it must be said that my father used more of the women’s version of ISL signs as there are three women in our family. Truth be told, I had not really appreciated the uniqueness of the language situation in my family until I started my PhD in Linguistics.
How did you get to where you are?
I have a BA degree in Geography, with a focus on Human Geography. My interests during my undergraduate years were the influences of the outside environments on deaf communities and how the communities embraced and/or resisted changes from external influences. I used to want to be a teacher, but during my undergraduate years, I realised that I loved research and wanted to continue doing research, so I decided to apply for a postgraduate course. Because of my interests in the dynamics of deaf communities, I took a MA degree in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism. My research focused on the relation between the Irish deaf community and the ISL recognition campaign; e.g. the deaf community’s access to information provided by the campaigners and whether they understand what the consequences may potentially be once ISL was recognised by the state (which it is now).
I was very fortunate to have a deaf friend who was a PhD student herself. We met up for coffee and I told her I was thinking of pursuing a PhD. She told me to take a break in between my MA studies and my PhD studies to explore what was out there. Looking back on this, I appreciate this advice so much. In the five years gap, I’ve worked in different governmental agencies, advocated for deaf rights and even moved to a different country and learnt two new languages. Because of my experiences, I have a new appreciation for language studies which got me to where I am today, researching multilingualism in deaf migrants in Sweden!
What is a professional challenge you have faced related to your deafness? How have you mitigated this challenge?
During my BA and MA, I tended to work alone the majority of my time and did not really seek the advices of my supervisors. This was for several reasons. The main reason was that it was difficult to get interpreters for either short or spontaneous meetings so I either had to speak with my supervisors or write to them. The second reason, particularly during my Masters, was that I found that I was constantly explaining how the deaf community works, how sign languages work, why certain terms were either appropriate or not appropriate and why I did not choose a particular theory that my supervisor thought would suit the topic best. I felt that the constant explanations ate up supervision time, and left no time to be mentored, so I avoided meeting my supervisor the rest of my Masters. Looking back on my thesis, even though the topic was really interesting, I felt that the lack of mentorship showed in my writing. I also had severe imposter syndrome, which meant that I was afraid to ask her simple questions in case I was seen as that deaf student that did not know anything.
My principal supervisor for my PhD is a deaf signer herself and this helps me immensely not only in dealing with imposter syndrome (I can ask her simple questions without feeling ashamed), but I’ve also learnt that a supervisor is meant to act as a mentor that guides me in my writing and advises me on a wide array of areas. My PhD has been an incredibly emotional journey of reflecting on my past, especially on my school years. For this, I am forever grateful to my current supervisor!
What advice would you give your former self?
Build up a network of deaf students where you can share tips, or even just rant about barriers you’re facing.
Working in Stockholm University where there is a great number of deaf colleagues, I am grateful that I have the opportunity to just rant to others about silly things that we as deaf people often have to face in the university world and I can get advice in how to navigate certain obstacles.
Any funny stories you want to share?
Learning new languages is exciting, especially when you have opportunities to use these new languages. This was the case for me when I moved to Sweden. I have not had the opportunity to use French outside of French classes at school so it was incredibly exciting for me to be able to use Swedish outside of the classroom. However, in order to improve my Swedish, I must use it every day even when I felt that I was not “good enough” in the language. The ä, å and ö letters were difficult for me to differentiate and unfortunately for me, some words can have an entirely different meaning with an ‘ä’ in it than an ‘a’. I’ll give you a real-life example! A common way to sign off an email is “med vänlig hälsning” (“with friendly greeting” would be a direct translation). When I started my job as a civil servant at the local council, there were numerous times I wrote “med vanlig halsning” (“with normal greeting”) … I can just imagine the faces of the politicians reading my emails that signed off with a ‘normal’ greeting!
Le Master, B. (1997) Sex differences in Irish Sign Language. In J.H. Hills, P.J. Mistry & L. Campbell (Eds.) Trends in Linguistics. Mouton De Gruyter. Available at this link.
The new year brings a fresh start to our lives; it’s a natural time to reflect on the year past and make plans for the coming year. In what is becoming a The Mind Hears New Year tradition (see posts from 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022), we have updated our list of recommendations for making your workplace accessible and refined the layout of the recommendations. You can view and download the full list of recommendations for making your workplaces (in-person, hybrid and remote) accessible for your deaf and hard of hearing colleagues at this link. Below we provide an outline of the best approaches for increasing workplace accessibility and provide links to blog posts that explore particular aspects in detail.
Universally design your workplace: Our spaces become more inclusive for all when we improve access for any subgroup of our community. Consequently, by increasing the accessibility of our workplaces for our deaf and hard-of-hearing (HoH) colleagues, we create a better workplace for everyone. This includes hearing folks who have auditory processing disorder, use English as their second language, or are acquiring hearing loss during their careers. Chances are that someone in your department has hearing loss, whether they’ve disclosed this or not, and will benefit from your efforts to make your workplace more accessible (see The Mind Hears blog post about where are all the deaf and hard of hearing academics). This is why you should universally design your workplace now and not wait until someone who is struggling asks you to make modifications.
Sharing the work: With a google search you can find several resources on workplace accessibility for deaf/HoH employees, such as the Hearing Loss Association of America’s (HLAA) very usefulemployment toolkit. One drawback of these resources is that nearly all of the suggestions are framed as actions for the deaf/HoH employee. While deaf and hard of hearing academics need to be strong self-advocates and take steps to improve their accommodations, our hearing colleagues can help us tremendously by sharing the work to create accessible workplaces. Speech reading conversations, planning accommodations, and making sure that technology/accommodations work as intended is never-ending and exhausting labor that we do above and beyond our teaching, research, and service. Your understanding and your help can make a large impact. For example, if a speaker doesn’t repeat a question they were asked, ask them to repeat even if you heard the question just fine. The people who didn’t hear the question are already stressed and fatigued from working hard to listen, so why expect them to do the added work of asking speakers to repeat? (see The Mind Hears blog post on listening fatigue). Repeating the question benefits everyone. The changes you make today can also help your workplace align with equal opportunity requirements for best hiring practices (see The Mind Hears blog posts about applying for jobs when deaf/HoH here and here). The Mind Hears coordinated the listing of advice for different academic settings below to help you become better allies today.
One size doesn’t fit all: If a participant requests accommodation for a presentation or meeting, follow up with them and be prepared to iterate to a solution that works. It may be signed interpreters (there are different kinds of signing), oral interpreters, CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation), or Assistive Listening Devices(formerly called FM systems). It could be rearranging the room or modifying the way that the meeting is run. Keep in mind that what works for one deaf/HoH person may not work for another person with similar deafness. And what works for someone in one situation may not work at all for that same person in another situation, even if these seem similar to you. The best solution will probably not be the first approach that you try nor may it be the quickest or cheapest approach; it will be the one that allows your deaf and hard-of-hearing colleagues to participate fully and contribute to the discussion. Reaching the goal of achieving an academic workplace accessible to deaf/HoH academics is a journey.
Want to be a better ally and make your workplace accessible for your deaf and hard of hearing colleagues?Follow this linkto read our list of recommendations. We welcome your comments and suggestions either to this post or directly within the document at this link.
Professional Information, such as: 1) Current role/title: 2) Location: 3) Field of expertise:
Earth Science PDRA, freelance research, training and management consultant and artist. I currently live in a gorgeous seaside village in north east Scotland.
1. Tell us about your background? For example, tell us about your hearing loss, your schooling, and/or your family/culture
Unlike many of the other profilees, my hearing loss began in adulthood and I’ve only been part deaf for around half of my lifetime. I grew up in a town in northern England with a very middle-class upbringing. I don’t really remember interacting with any deaf people while growing up and my exposure to and awareness of deafness was limited to the idea that old people wore hearing aids, and sometimes someone would translate something into sign language on TV.
I probably started losing my hearing around the age of 21, but didn’t notice or get a formal diagnosis until I was in my mid-twenties. When I was 21, I had a hearing test as part of an investigation into some sinus pain I was having. With that test I discovered I had tinnitus; I came out of the test saying that I probably missed some beeps because I thought they were just normal background noise in my head that I hadn’t noticed before. In hindsight, I think that test actually showed hearing loss, but the consultants never actually showed me my audiogram or raised the issue – they just gave me a leaflet on tinnitus and that was that. I hadn’t noticed any problems with hearing, other than with one friend who is notorious for mumbling very quickly anyway, so didn’t think any more about it. Until a few years later when someone asked me if I was beeping. I thought my digital watch alarm had just stopped working about 6 months earlier. Turns out it was working fine and I just couldn’t hear it anymore.
My first proper audiogram showed I had above average hearing in the lower frequencies, but I was losing the high frequencies. I was given one hearing aid to try out initially. I remember feeling very disoriented when leaving the audiology clinic, wearing that hearing aid for the first time as sounds on my left were louder in my right ear. I also remember substantial pain and discomfort during those first few weeks of wearing ear moulds. I don’t know whether I just had badly fitting ones to start with or whether there is just an adaptation period.
My hearing loss is sensorineural, and probably down to a genetic mutation, but not any of the ones they can test for (or could test for 15-20 years ago). It is progressive and I was quickly moved onto wearing both hearing aids. And then more powerful hearing aids. A few years ago, I completely lost the highest frequencies in my right ear – that was not a fun hearing test as having a sound you can’t hear blasted into your ear at full volume feels a bit like your brain is being electrocuted.
Year by year I lose more and more of my hearing, and I’m now borderline eligible for cochlear implants, so there are big decisions for me on the horizon.
2. How did you get to where you are? For example: How did you decide on your field? How did you decide to pursue a higher degree in your field? What concerns did you have when you started out?
Some of my earliest memories are fossil hunting on a beach with my Mum. I think I inherited my love of the natural sciences from her. I’ve also always been a magpie, drawn to shiny things, and so developed an interest in rocks and minerals. I had the (rare) opportunity to take Geology at school, with one of the UK’s most enthusiastic and inspiring teachers, and got hooked. At university, I had plans to become a physical volcanologist (my inner magpie again – you can’t get much shinier than glowing basalt lava), but my maths and physics wasn’t good enough, and I drifted into geochemistry instead, where it is much easier to visualise and interpret data plotted on graphs and charts. I still wanted to work with volcanoes, and so research was really the only way to go. I managed to get onto a funded PhD program studying the temporal evolution of some Icelandic volcanoes, without having a masters, thanks to spending 5 months doing voluntary work at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
I finished my PhD in the usual (for the UK) 3-4 years, but my publication record got off to a slow start, so I was not very competitive in the research job market those first few years. In hindsight, it is possible that my hearing loss contributed to that difficulty – I was diagnosed about a year after completing my PhD, and so was probably struggling to hear and understand spoken conversations for a year or two before that, but without realising it, and instead just feeling tired all the time and low on capacity to get those papers written.
The slow start on publishing had me drifting from postdoc to postdoc. My first two postdocs, like my PhD, used a technique called Ar/Ar dating, where you work out how old a rock is by measuring isotopes of the noble gas Argon. At some point, funding for dating rocks dried up and I found myself taking a massive side step to work on a project that used noble gases as chemical tracers for carbon capture and geological storage (CCS). That was my gateway into the energy transition world, that has seen me working on a wide range of CCS issues, on hydrogen exploration, and recently teaching MSc students about energy technologies, climate change, and CO2 emissions mitigation.
I left mainstream academia about a year ago. By the time my CV (i.e. publication record) became competitive enough to stand a chance of getting an independent research fellowship or lectureship I was too “old” to be eligible for most fellowship programs (i.e. >10 years post PhD). When I started my last postdoc at Oxford University, I thought that would make-or-break my career. Thanks to Oxford’s exceptional careers centre, it broke it in the best possible way. I had the opportunity to engage with loads of entrepreneurial training and development, that helped me realise that academia is too restrictive for me – I am a generalist who thrives on getting above average expertise in a lot of things, but not the really high level of focussed expertise in a single niche, which is unfortunately still necessary to get on the permanent job ladder in the UK academic climate. The support network I developed through that training also helped me realise that my transferable skills ARE actually in demand, and it is possible to make a living off them. So I took the leap, set myself up as a portfolio career freelancer…. And landed right back in academia again with my first and third contracts, and I’ve just now started a new part-time PDRA at Strathclyde University, looking at storing heat in abandoned coal mine shafts. You gotta laugh.
This period of career transition was also important for bringing me into The Mind Hears. I first met Michele Cooke, co-founder of The Mind Hears, in San Francisco, at the AGU conference (back when we still had in-person conferences). I was giving a poster about native hydrogen. Michele was giving a talk about The Mind Hears and accessibility. We stayed in touch, and around the time I was finishing my last postdoc and looking out for freelance work, I saw that Michele was asking for someone to help with social media for The Mind Hears. So here we are!
3. What is a professional challenge you have faced related to your deafness? How have you mitigated this challenge?
As my hearing loss is progressive, the challenges are constantly evolving, and it is difficult to distinguish between professional challenges and general life challenges. Following meetings, lectures, and seminars has become increasingly difficult over the years, to the extent that I feel like I benefitted from, rather than suffered through, the pandemic lockdown with the move onto online meetings, with captions. One specific challenge that comes to mind is when I realised that I couldn’t hear the fire alarm while working in a particular lab (noble gas labs use a lot of pumps and compressors, so they are quite noisy). My supervisor at the time set up an elaborate plan, that meant I wasn’t allowed in the lab outside normal working hours (yay! – no late nights!), and I would always have a building buddy who would stop by the lab if the fire alarm went off. It was a nice idea, but within a couple of months, everyone who was supposed to be supporting the plan forgot about it, including the supervisor who then scheduled me on evening shifts in the lab. I ended up just leaving the door open when I was alone in the building. To any lab owners reading this – please have your institutions install flashing lights as part of the fire alarm – it is far more accessible!
4. What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?
It is more of an accessory than an accommodation, but I don’t know how I would survive without my Roger Pen / Roger On (or some other device that lets my hearing aids work like headphones – see post on FM systems). At the moment, most meetings I have are on video call, so my Roger Pen is attached to my computer and streams audio directly to my hearing aids. It is also great if I can get presenters to speak into or wear it during meetings, lectures etc.
5. What advice would you give your former self?*
Don’t hide your fire!
I think becoming more and more deaf has increased my ability to advocate for myself, mostly out of necessity. And that seems to have improved my capacity to speak up in general and share my opinion more often.
6. Any funny stories you want to share? For example: hearing aid batteries going dead at inopportune times, mis-hearing – hearing gaffes, dating with deafness
Remember that notorious-for-mumbling friend I mentioned in the first section? I remember a phone call with them – I think it was shortly before my hearing loss was diagnosed – they were talking about going on holiday and I was really confused because it sounded like they were going on holiday to Frog. We spent what felt like ages trying to establish what the place was. “Frog” evolved into “Frarg” which made even less sense, before I eventually managed to parse “Prague”. More than 15 years later, it is still an in-joke and we occasionally just shout “FRARG!” at each other.
Being deaf, and having two deaf parents who both held affluent positions in the federal government gave me the opportunity to self-acknowledge the potential I could have for my future. My parents both encouraged pursuing a profession I wanted, and to never settle for less. Even though growing up it felt like my only option for a career was to be a deaf teacher, I knew I never wanted to be a teacher at a deaf school because I wanted a profession allowing me to work outdoors.
However, it was not until I was a Sophomore at Gallaudet University when I realized my passion for archaeology while taking an Art History class under Dr. Marguerite Glass (an amazing professor) and “connected the dots” to my upbringing (I was always digging in the backyard, going to museums and historical sites, and loving the Indiana Jones franchise). I was able to go to an archaeology field school in Belize with the Maya Research Program funded by Gallaudet University in the summer before my Senior year. Attending field school confirmed my decision of wanting to go into the archaeology profession. I was the last student at Gallaudet University to receive the Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History, before they closed down the program.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree, I did unpaid internships as well as volunteered at several museums doing collection management to increase my experience in the museum/archaeology professions while working at various employment positions (one of which was at a group home!) to earn money somehow (and I was also on Social Security Disability Income, luckily).
One of the volunteer jobs I did was with a professor (Dr. Ana Juarez) from Texas State University, transcribing funerary ledgers. The internships and volunteer work allowed me to have a list of references in order to apply for the archaeology graduate program at Texas State University, and the professor I volunteered with had also vouched for my skills.
During my graduate program, I was a Graduate Instructional Assistant (GIA), and worked for the Center for Archaeological Studies under a wonderful Director (Dr. Todd Ahlman, who to this day continues to support and encourage my endeavors) doing site mapping and was how I came to learn about Geographic Information Systems. I also did part time work with Dr. Christina Conlee (who was also my thesis chair), doing lithic and ceramic analyses. I learned how to identify minerals within lithic and ceramic fragments, and to recognize the different types of materials.
Because of my GIA employment position, I was able to incorporate GIS in my thesis work and after graduation, volunteered for organizations needing GIS work. I also continue to learn more about lithics from professionals when doing fieldwork, and to increase my education through them.
A full-time job in Archeaology can require first having lots of different short-term positions to establish your expertise. After graduating with a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology-Archaeology, I was not able to immediately be hired for a position in the archaeology profession. I was hired as a Museum Educator for a local museum (Berthoud Historical Society; in Berthoud, Colorado), then a Weekend Visitor Services Coordinator (Denver Firefighters Museum; in Denver, Colorado). Fortunately, a year into living in Colorado, my former supervisor from Center for Archaeological Studies had an archaeology fieldwork project for a contract he needed to have done nearby Denver and hired me on the crew. This opportunity allowed me to increase my fieldwork experience in archaeology but was not enough for me to be hired as a field technician for a Cultural Resources Management (CRM) company, just yet. After the project, I was hired to work for two more museums (WOW! Children’s Museum and Denver Museum of Nature and Science) before finally obtaining an archaeological position working for Colorado Parks and Wildlife as their Cultural Resources Stewardship Technician. Most archaeology positions, like the one I had, are contracted for nine months to a year and do not pay well. So I had to move on and was able to get hired for a CRM company as a field technician. After a while, I applied for a temporary position with Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education under a contract for the US Army Fort Carson doing archaeological collection management (which is where my previous museum experience was handy to have!) and worked nearly a year there. It was, again, another time-limited contract and I had to move on. However, by this time, I had accumulated enough references so that when I reached out to an acquaintance (Chris Sims, @godigahole on instagram/patreon), he was able to get me a position with the CRM company he worked for (PaleoWest). Which led me to my current employment position for the past year, working for the Bureau of Land Management as an Archaeological Technician. I also started part time work for SEARCH as an Archaeologist & Creative Specialist (mainly doing their social media) in March, and this was an incredible opportunity offered because of my public archaeology outreach on my social media accounts.
Being an archaeologist requires a graduate degree if one wants to pursue a position with the possibility of advancing in the profession (unless one wants to stay a field technician). For example, I not only have experience in Archaeology but also in Collection Management (which is museum-related – if I ever wanted to work for the museum industry), and Geographic Information Systems.
3. What is a professional challenge you have faced related to your deafness? How have you mitigated this challenge?
My concern when first starting out was whether I’d be considered for employment positions due to my deafness; most employers, in general, are iffy about communicating with a deaf person.
However, I think the main challenge is to remind myself to not leave the profession due to loneliness as the deaf person in the workforce, and the fact that my coworkers/supervisors do not know American Sign Language. My love for archaeology and passion for this profession, is what keeps me going and motivates me to try my best in finding positions that are a great fit for me.
4. What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?
I am able to request ASL interpreters for meetings/lectures through an established system, and utilize a Garmin inreach® satellite communications device when out in the field in case of emergencies. Otherwise, archaeology is usually an individualized profession where I’m able to go out into the field on my own. This means that I can have work-life balance by doing stuff on the weekends with my deaf friends and family members.
5. What advice would you give your former self?
If I had already known what it is I wanted to do (the profession), then to hit the ground running much earlier in life rather than waiting till college to volunteer for opportunities.
6. Any funny stories you want to share?
Archaeologists can be competitive, and the work is often tedious. Being in a great field crew also means ensuring some kind of fun during fieldwork. My favorite memory was when I was out doing fieldwork with a crew, and because the project was a “lithic wonderland” (aka we’d be finding and recording lots of lithic materials) we decided to hold an informal competition in who would find the most projectile points. At the end, one of the crew members held the title with 13 projectile points total and I was in second, with 12. This also made me feel I was exceptional in doing what I do, especially being a deaf person, and that I was just as great an archaeologist as everyone else on the crew.
7. Is there anything else you would like to share?
Perseverance is key. In whatever profession one may have, within a hearing-centric workforce, perseverance is key in moving forward and in learning. Always present your work; develop a website, or mention your previous experience, or connect with people who would advocate for you. Be proud of all you’ve accomplished.
One of our goals with The Mind Hears blog is to build a community and reduce isolation for deaf and hard of hearing academics.
To provide an opportunity for our community to meet and interact, we are developing a series of “open house” drop in sessions on Zoom, where people can come along to network, chat, and share experiences. You can meet other deaf and hard of hearing academics including folks who have contributed to and been profiled by the Mind Hears. Students are welcome!
Our first session will be Friday 7th October, and will run for 1.5 hours (see a list of times in different time zones below). Pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and stay for as little or long as you would like. Unfortunately, we can’t provide cake as this is a global event.
To provide a safe space for the event, we are asking people to register in advance. Registration is free, and you will receive a link to access the event on registration. Please follow this link to register.
Captions will be enabled, and we will also have American Sign Language interpreters for the session.
Translated by ~Jenny Kung, Heather Fair, and Minru Li
With help from Xiang Li, Anran Cheng, and Xiaoxu Ma
The goal for The Mind Hears is to serve as a global resource for deaf and HoH (hard of hearing) academics. Though countries differ markedly in the degree of resources provided to deaf/HoH individuals, our hope is that this blog can be a refuge and forum for all, regardless of where you are. To date, however, most of our blog contributors and followers have been in the US and Europe. Jenny Kung, Heather Fair (see Heather’s recent profile), and Minru Li have generously reproduced The Mind Hears Mission Statement here in Simplified Chinese characters to help reach our Chinese-speaking friends, allies, and colleagues worldwide. We welcome help with translating our mission statement to other languages!
While just the mention of ‘social media’ can elicit eye rolls from our senior colleagues, many of us deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) academics have found social media, such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, to be very helpful for connecting with others who share similar lived experiences. However, sharing our experiences with lack of access on social media can be a mixed bag. Occasionally, they receive no response or engagement. Sometimes, our stories evoke ‘that is terrible’ responses. Many folks feel powerless to offer effective solutions and they might either not respond or provide a ‘this is terrible’ response. This is understandable. Lack of communication access is a very challenging problem that often cannot be fixed easily because many of our conferences, lectures, meetings, etc. were designed by and for hearing people. Providing a ‘this is terrible’ response validates our frustration even if it doesn’t actually help to change the situation.
One amazing aspect of social media is that sometimes our message can reach folks who actually do have the power to change communication access. But will they make changes or not?
A few months back Michele was impressed with how effectively Paige was able to use social media to self-advocate for change. We decided to co-write this post to provide an example of how one hard of hearing academic inspired a conference (we will call it the ABC conference) to swiftly change their inaccessible approach after it was already underway. Like other deaf and HoH academics, we are both used advocating for our needs in professional settings. Paige has been outspoken about turning self-advocacy into policy in their home department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They had long admired Michele and Ana’s work on creating The Mind Hears platform and community for deaf and HoH academics. We hope that this example can serve as a model for how we all can be more effective with our self-advocacy.
Paige took to social media after a frustrating morning when they joined a virtual panel as an audience member and realized that not only was there no captioning, but neither was there the usual Zoom feature to request it of the host.
Post #1: An entire zoom conference I’m required to attend as part of a prize committee without even the option to request captioning in sessions? LOL
The post got quite a few ‘this is terrible’ responses. Paige used those responses to explain the issue and educate commenters.
Post#1 follow up comment: They don't let you directly message a host in the chat so I'd have to publicly request captioning, revealing my disability to everyone in the session. Still awful but preferable to what seems like total ignorance and zero effort on considering accessibility.
The story could have ended there but Paige opted to advocate for change in two ways. First, they privately contacted the meeting organizers and then they shared a summary of the meeting on social media in a follow up post.
Post #2:This is the exchange I had with the moderator of the ABC in its virtual conference lobby. This is a major organization and a large international conference, being held entirely on Zoom. I'll be sending an email to the leadership later. I'm tired.
Paige: “Good morning. I am currently in a session where there is not even an option to request captioning. I am surprised by this. Is there something that can be done to ensure this basic accessibility feature in all sessions? The only time I've encountered this problem in the past is when the host of a Zoom session does not have an institutional Zoom account that supports live transcription.”
ABC representative: “Sorry to hear this. The meeting will be recorded. And we can add captions afterward if you need to re-watch your presentation. The ABC does not have an institutional account. Again, apologies for this.”
Paige: “This is very disappointing. It means I can't participate equally if I want to ask questions. I'm also on a time-sensitive prize committee so waiting for the captions to be added probably won't let me meet the requirements of my job today. This is a basic accessibility measure long standard at virtual conferences. I have long loved being a part of the ABC but today it has sent a message that disabled members such as me are not considered or valued, even as we do service for the organization.”
ABC representative: “Hello, I am currently looking into our options. And we will surely take this to the Trustees.”
Paige: “Thank you.”
A member of the ABC conference committee also saw the post on social media.
ABC chairperson comment to post #2: Hi all writing into this as ABC person centrally involved in planning this conference and also active in it for many years. We assumed that our zoom account would support captions. We have never done a conference like this before so we are learning. This was unexpected. My apologies this has happened but as our web coordinator said we'll look into this to try to figure this out.
A little later in the same thread
ABC chairperson follow up: You've been sent an email from the ABC president apologizing and explaining how this happened- and also that we think the problem has been fixed.
Paige: That sounds really fantastic. Thank you to you and everyone at the ABC who worked to resolve the issue. I'm looking forward to trying out the captions tomorrow.
The next day Paige logged in to find Zoom’s live transcription enabled for all conference panels. Paige posted a follow up to conclude the story and give credit to the organizers they knew were reading:
Post #3: After my exchange with the ABC and my post here, leadership reached out to me and worked with Zoom to enable captioning in sessions. The president of the ABC personally apologized and folks checked in with me today to make sure live transcription worked. I am happy that the organization responded rapidly and collectively to increase accessibility in the middle of the conference. Today's going much more smoothly.
My hope is that people remember this when planning the next conference. Whether in person or virtual, access needs to be considered (and tested beforehand) just like any other standard feature of an event.
This story ends with the conference apologizing for the oversight and providing improved access. But not all of our self-advocacy stories end this way. Both of us have participated in inaccessible conferences. A group of AV staff once told Michele that no FM telecoil neck loops were available anywhere in the major US city of their conference. Paige has repeatedly been told that access features such as captioning recordings or providing access papers are too expensive and cumbersome to consider. We all have stories where we request better access and get nowhere.
What made advocating for change effective in this instance? What can we learn from Paige’s experience in order to make our own advocacy efforts more effective.
They didn’t stop after the initial sharing on social media. Talking to the conference representatives takes valuable energy and time. Energy and time that you could be investing in the conference. Paige recognized that they needed to prioritize investing time in contacting the conference representative and taking notes on that conversation.
In advocating for themselves, the Paige was very clear that their lack of access wasn’t just going to affect them but also the integrity of the prize committee. Unfortunately, when organizations perceive that only a few deaf or hard of hearing people are impacted, they will not see the issue as important. Being able to frame your lack of access as impacting others provides more traction. While not all of us are part of prize committees we can say “A colleague has asked me for feedback directly after their presentation and I won’t be able without better access”. This kind of statement, which can always be true, points out how much everyone misses out when deaf/HoH are excluded. If applicable, one can also make the point that more accessible communication, such as captions, benefits more than just deaf and hard of hearing participants. Ideally, this numbers game should not be necessary. Unfortunately, we know we are self-advocating within ableist settings.
When Paige shared the exchange with the conference representatives on social media, the conference was now being held accountable publicly for their response. This is a very savvy use of social media. Now it isn’t just the deaf/HoH academic who is waiting the conference representative to respond, but many hearing colleagues are also now invested in the outcome and will want to see the conference do the right thing.
The conference chairperson who read the social media posts was wonderful at accepting that they needed to make a change. Sometimes folks just get defensive and aren’t willing to change. We like to think that points 1-3 helped the conference chairperson be more receptive to change but sometimes this is out of our control.
Paige Glotzer is Assistant Professor and John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, Institutions, and Political Economy in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History. Their award-winning first book, How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890-1960 was published in 2020. Their work has been featured in both peer reviewed journals and popular outlets, including the Journal of Urban History, CityLab, and Time. They joined the University of Wisconsin after a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard University Joint Center for History and Economics.